Know When to Hold ’em: Waiting Mortuaries in Connecticut?

Continuing our grewsome theme of burial alive is this proposal from Bridgeport, Connecticut, for an organization that would hold the bodies of the dead until they showed unmistakable signs of decomposition. In short, German waiting mortuaries: the Leichenhaus or Totenhaus.  For whatever reason, these never caught on in America. I’m not sure if it was some inherent squeamishness in the American character, a reluctance to commit to the expense or the real estate, or a practical realization that while there were plenty of false alarm bells rung by the gases of decay in the Leichenhauser of Germany, no one ever got out alive.

A NOVEL SOCIETY

Bridgeport People Who Will Not Be Buried Alive if They Can Help It.

Bridgeport, Conn., Oct. 15. The first of next month a meeting will be held at the rooms of the Scientific Society to organize a Humane Burial society. One of the promoters of the scheme when asked as to the objects of the organization last evening said: “You may not know it perhaps, but in Bridgeport and all of the country, there are a great number of people who have a nervous dread that they may be buried alive. Probably I could name 100 of my personal acquaintances who cherish this awful fear, and there are plenty of cases to show that such an apprehension is not without foundation. What the projected society proposes to do is to take charge of the remains of deceased persons or those supposed to be deceased, and care for them for a sufficient length of time and under conditions which will make their being buried alive an impossibility. The awakening of public interest on this subject tis another one of our objects. To most people the idea of establishing such a society will doubtless seem very strange, and did I not know how many people in Bridgeport feel about the matter the same as myself I should hesitate about taking any active part in the movement.” The speaker was reminded that the danger of being buried alive was thoroughly discussed by the Scientific Society a few years ago, and that the weight of medical evidence introduced went to show that the apprehensions alluded to had in reality very little foundation.

“That is true,” was the response, “but that proves nothing. In fact the medical fraternity now virtually confess that none of the old accepted tests used to determine whether the vital spark is really fled or not, can be taken as conclusive. The absence of warmth in the body, the apparent absence of circulation, the eye test, the test with the mirror held before the respiratory organs, and in fact all the other familiar tests, have been proven defective in well authenticated cases. Sometimes by a lucky accident, and sometimes through an apparent excess of caution, persons pronounced by high medical authority to be dead have emerged from the trance condition which gave the simulation of death. Most of the best medical men will tell you today that the only positive proof of death, one that cannot lead to a mistake under any circumstances is the setting in of decomposition. The aim of the society about to be organized is to apply to our members and such others as we may accept the charge of, this only and absolute test. Such an object is worth working for even if it falls to the lot of only one in 10,000, or even one in 100,000, to suffer the terrible doom of being put under ground while alive. We know that many have suffered this fate; how many such cases there have occurred not known of, nobody knows. As I have said, the number deeply interested in this subject is more than would naturally be believed.”

New Haven [CT] Register 15 October 1885: p. 1

The unnamed spokesperson makes a good point about the medical profession’s uncertainty about the certainty of death. Despite modern medical advances, the controversy continues even today. My question is, did this plan to hold the bodies of the dead of Bridgeport ever get off the ground? I can find no evidence that it did, but perhaps they purchased a holding vault somewhere and began on a modest scale rather than the palatial Leichenhauser of Germany.

If you have dug deeper than I and know whether the corpse-holding organization was ever active, let me know at 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.

In a Munich Dead-House

In this, our second in the occasional series, “Little Visits to the Great Morgues of Europe,” we find ourselves in Munich. I will point out that the “waiting mortuaries” of Germany represent a separate class of establishment from the average morgue. The persons in them were generally properly identified and there were separate buildings for suicides and the unknown dead, which were not open to the public.

There were some ten “Leichenhauser,” in 1907 Munich and they were the pride of the city. While they were on the list of must-sees for tourists, descriptions of the German Leichenhauser by visitors seem less fraught with drama than those of the Paris Morgue. In reports describing the Paris morgue, there is an emphasis on the sight and smell of rotting corpses and the disorderly lives of beautiful suicides, whereas the principal impression for visitors to Germany mortuaries was that they reeked of flowers and disinfectants. Our intrepid visitor clucks over children exposed to the sight of corpses, but there are no maggots in the Munich Deadhouse.

IN A MUNICH DEADHOUSE.

By Leon Mead.

The methods of burial in some portions of Germany seem very strange to the average American. In Munich, Bavaria, when a person dies, he or she is taken to the Deadhouse immediately, or at least as soon as the body has been washed and dressed. The origin of this peculiar custom dates back many decades, and in these days is followed partially as a sanitary measure.

Munich is exposed to most of the fatal epidemics which devastate Italy, though in these days the inhabitants do not suffer those fearful and unmentionable plagues that used to decimate the town in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The tenement houses, however, are densely crowded, and extreme poverty generally is apt to be attended with disease. Many large and all but destitute families live in one or two rooms, and when death overtakes a member of such a household there is no suitable accommodation for the body. Moreover, it is a Catholic superstition in Bavaria not to sleep under the same roof with a dead person.

The system is compulsory, taking in the high as well as the low, and the rich as well as the poor. Otherwise, many of the poorest people would insist upon the right to keep their dead in their own houses, however squalid, until the hour of burial, were the rich allowed the privilege.

The arrangements for the interment of the dead in Munich are performed by officials and women, the latter being called Leichen Frauen. The remains are conveyed in a hearse to the cemetery that belongs to the quarter in which the deceased has lived. It is not until one visits the Munich Dead house that the horror of it can be realized. The whole area (the old Southern Cemetery is here referred to) is inclosed with a brick wall several feet high, and the general plan of the cemetery itself, with its artistic arcades and imposing monuments, entitles it to the reputation it has acquired of being one of the finest in all Germany. Intersecting each other in the centre are a driveway running east and west, and abroad, paved walk extending north and south. Parallel to the driveway, on the northern side, stands a long, low brick building, a part of which is occupied by the corps of directors of the cemetery. This building is all but divided by a roofed passageway connecting the northern and southern walks. On the west of the passage is a large room which serves as a temporary repository for suicides, murdered people, and those who are killed by accident. The windows of this room, which is not open to the general public, are curtained with green muslin. On the east side, the first chamber is designed for the bodies of the common people. By ascending a step or two at the entrance one can see through the wide glass door or through the adjacent windows, a spectacle sufficiently ghastly to cause any foreigner to grow faint. It is a repulsive and awful sight.

On each side of the rectangular room is ranged a row of slightly inclined biers, on which rest the cheap yellow-covered coffins containing all that is mortal of from twenty to forty human beings. The faces of the emaciated old women, with their sharp, cronelike chins and sunken eyes, their open. mouths disclosing one or two discolored teeth, are enough to sicken most spectators at a glance. And yet to many there is a grim fascination about it. Indeed the Müncheners regard going to the Deadhouse on holidays as a standard recreation, and always recommend it to visitors with a weird sort of pride. They go through life perfectly unconcerned over the prospect that some day they, too, will be taken there to lie in lowly state for three days before the clods of the grave close over them.

What a grim picture for little children to become accustomed to! The Morgue in Paris is tame beside it. What could be more grewsome to see than the sallow-visaged old men lying there, with the crucifix and, perhaps, a wreath or two of evergreen on their breasts, two caudles at their heads—placed there with the conviction that these will light their spirits through the mysterious shades; and at the foot of their coffins two more burning candles and a pasteboard placard on which a number is printed in large black type? Here the mourners of their respective dead are compelled to come and give publicity to their grief. It is not unusual to see a hundred bereft friends and relatives crowd into this chamber of death and piteously weep over the remains of their lost ones. The undertakers, who bring in the bodies from the hearse and arrange them on the biers, are too well inured to their work to be impressed with the meaning and sentiment of death. If the head of the body, during its jolting journey in the hearse, has fallen into an unseemly position, the assistant raises it, twists it, pushes it a little this way or that, with an indifference that seems brutal. More than pitiful is it to see poor little dried-up old women thus treated. These feelingless men, in trying to straighten out any dismantled article of clothing, often injure the appearance of the remains more than they improve them. The writer once saw one of these busy undertakers combing an elderly woman’s hair, which had become disarranged. It was monstrously apparent that he was not acquainted with the intricacies of her coiffure, for he loosened a switch and was unable to readjust it.

A set of electric wires communicating with the director’s office is fastened along the ceiling, from which depend cords at the ends of which are attached metal rings that are placed on the finger of every corpse to report anyone who might chance to have any life. It is related, upon authority not traceable, that years ago a Munich butcher came out of a trance in the middle of the night and found himself in the Deadhouse. The shock this discovery gave him is said to have entirely shattered his nerves and though still alive, lie is a mental wreck. It is safe to presume that a more sensitive being would actually have died from fright under like circumstances.

Perhaps the most pathetic sight of all is that of the dozen or more infants lying in a position upon the biers so evidently insecure as to suggest the terrible probability that they will roll off on to the hard floor. They are decked in flimsy filigree fabrics, reminding me of nothing so much as the cut tissue paper ornaments sometimes seen in provincial drug stores in this country.

Further along to the eastward is another chamber devoted to the wealthy and aristocratic. This class lies in tastefully arranged bowers, and many of the corpses look peaceful, as though not only had their spirits departed with their mortal consent, but as though loving hands had done their best to render them presentable before intrusting them to the care of the state. Not infrequently the cold form of a general or a military man of high rank, dressed in his uniform, with his medals pinned on his coat and his trusty sword and crucifix in his clasped hands, may be seen in this apartment, which is more spacious than the other two mentioned.

I witnessed a touching incident one day while on one of my visits to the Southern Deadhouse in Munich. Two Americans, a brother and sister, came to the cemetery in a carriage to view the remains of an aunt with whom they had been “doing ” the Continent, and who had died at the Four Seasons Hotel the day before. Entering the passageway and turning to the right, after quitting their carriage, the two proceeded to the entrance of the death chamber, beside which stood a stoical official. In a few words addressed in German the young man communicated the object of his and his sister’s visit.

“Step inside,” said the official, coldly. “The body is No. 16.”

Whereupon he opened the door for them to enter.

“What did he say—No. 16?” asked the young girl, clinging desperately to her brother’s arm as they stepped into the room.

The odor of the disinfectants seemed to make her faint before she lifted her downcast eyes to see—what an instant later congealed her blood.

“Is this the Leichen-Haus?” she asked. “Oh, Henry, see those little babies’”

She turned away her face and leaned upon her brother’s arm, breathing nervously.

“Let us go back to the hotel,” urged the young man. “You are not strong enough to bear this. We will come to-morrow.”

“I am strong enough,” she answered, looking for the first time around the chamber. It seemed difficult for her to command herself; taking his hand, however, she glanced quickly on either side of the aisle, and said: “Come, the number is 16.”

They advanced together a few steps in silence, when the young woman suddenly ejaculated, throwing up her hands: “There!—there she is, Henry!”

She again averted her face, and made a movement as if to find protection and consolation in his arms, but, with a masterly effort, walked straight up to the coffin wherein her aunt was lying dead.

Here she broke down, and began to weep violently.

At length her brother succeeded in leading her back to the carriage. As they were going out I overheard her say: “Let us leave Munich as soon as possible. I cannot bear the thought of your possibly dying and being taken to this awful place.”

Making inquiries, I learned from the proprietor of the hotel where they stopped that the young man and his sister left for America immediately after the burial of her aunt.

Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, Volume 33, 1892: p. 459-462

A few points:

First, the English and the Americans were repulsed by the idea of a loved-one’s remains being exposed to the curious gaze of the general public.  The Germans viewed the spectacle either as a jolly day out or, if they were visiting the corpse of someone they knew, as a wake or a viewing at a funeral home.  I’ve posted previously on the idea of establishing similar waiting mortuaries in Connecticut, which, given the American prejudice, seemed doomed to fail.

Second, sanitary inspectors in New York and London reported the same issue with the poor keeping their dead at home long past their six-foot-under date. There is a stomach-churning passage on the evils of this practice in The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Third, it is stated in other sources that the waiting mortuaries were kept quite warm, ostensibly to aid in the resuscitation of the dead. There may have been, another, unstated reason: to hasten decomposition, considered the only reliable sign of death.

Fourth, it was the view of many medical men that of all the corpses who passed through the waiting mortuaries, not a single one was ever resuscitated. However, an author passionately interested in preventing premature burial refuted this with some vague statistics:

We are told repeatedly by the opponents of burial reform that there never has been an authenticated case of resuscitation in a mortuary in Germany. Clearly such persons must have been misinformed, for in the report of the Municipal Council of Paris for 1880, No. 174, page 84, there appears a letter from Herr Ehrhart, Mayor of Munich, dated May 2nd, 1880, in which is the following sentence: ‘The lengthy period during which these establishments (the mortuaries) have been utilised, the order which has always prevailed, the manner in which the remains are disposed and adorned, the resuscitation of some who were believed to be dead (the italics are mine) have all contributed to remove any sentimental objections to these establishments.’

In addition I find the following statement published on page 182 of Gaubert’s work, Les Chambres Mortuaires d’Attente: ‘We have collected in Germany fourteen cases of apparent death followed by return to life in mortuaries, in spite of all that has been done for the prevention of such occurrences.’

“Premature Burial and the Only True Signs of Death,” Basil Tozer, in The Twentieth Century, 1907, p. 558

One of these stories from Gaubert had a tragic ending:

A little child, five years old, was carried to the Leichenhauser, and the corpse was deposited as usual. The next morning a servant from the mortuary knocked at the mother’s house, carrying a large bundle in his arms. It was the resuscitated child, which she was mourning as lost. The transports of joy she experienced were so great that she fell down dead. The child came to life in the mortuary by itself, and when the keeper saw it, it was playing with the white roses which had been placed on its shroud. Premature Burial and how it May be Prevented, William Tebb, and Col. Edward Perry Vollum, M.D., Second Edition, Walter R. Hadwen, M.D. 1905, p. 348-9

One supposes that the mother of the child was not so fortunate as to come back to life under her shroud of roses…

Other tales from the Munich Deadhouse? Pull the bell-cord to send a signal to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com. I’ll be napping in the guard-room.

Mrs Daffodil tells a chilling story of a not-quite dead corpse at a waiting mortuary–you’ll find a picture of one of the Munich dead-houses as it looks today.

Further reading:

Premature Burial and how it May be Prevented, William Tebb, and Col. Edward Perry Vollum, M.D., Second Edition, Walter R. Hadwen, M.D. 1905, available on Google Books and Buried Alive, by Jan Bondeson.

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.

Saved by the Clock: 1901

floral clock with swags 1914
1901 funeral flowers in the form of a clock. The hands point to the time of death.

CLOCK PREVENTED A BURIAL ALIVE

Girl Was Apparently Dead, but Timepiece Aroused Doubt.

IT WOULD NOT STOP

Sister Refused to Permit Burial While the Clock Ticked.

Supposed Corpse Was in a Trance and Awoke on the Fifth Day of Her Sleep.

“I am not superstitious,” said the landlady, “but there was something happened at my house about two years ago that made my flesh creep for a while, in spit of my skepticism.

“Among my boarders at that time were a widow named Mrs. Dodson, her sister, Miss Ashby, and a young man whose name was Mr. Duby. Mr. Duby was a dealer in curios. He had in his collection a number of clocks and watches, and on Miss Ashby’s birthday he made her a present of a eight-day clock. This time piece was very fine. It was about two feet high, was made of scented woods inlaid with gold, and the face, with the exception of the slits for the pendulum and the keyholes, appeared to be hermetically sealed.

“Shortly after presenting this gift to Miss Ashby Mr. Dunby left for a trip in Mexico. About 11 o’clock on the Monday after his departure I was getting ready for bed, when Mrs. Dodson tapped on the door and called to me softly through the keyhole.

“’O, Mrs. Clark,’ she said, ‘won’t you come upstairs a moment, please? Alice has been taken ill very suddenly, and I don’t know what to do for her.’

“I threw on my clothes and hurried up to Miss Ashby’s room, but, quick as I had been, it was plain that she was breathing her last. I dispatched my husband posthaste for the doctor around the corner, but before he returned the girl was gone. Mrs. Dodson and another boarder and myself were alone with her when the end came, and the minute we were assured that all was over Mrs. Dodson looked up at the clock on the mantel and said:

“’Ten minutes past eleven. I must stop the clock.’

Could Not Stop the Clock.

“She walked over and opened the painted glass door and put her hand on the pendulum, but the minute she let go it commenced ticking as loudly and regularly as before. Mrs. Dodson looked round at us in surprise.

“’Why, how strange!’ she cried. ‘It won’t stop.’

“She caught the pendulum again. Even as she held it a faint whirring noise was heard inside the clock, as if it rebelled against this restriction of movement, and no sooner was the pendulum released than it went on with its monotonous vibrations. By the time my husband came with the doctor, Mrs. Dodson had worked herself up into a fever of grief and superstitious fear.

“’It won’t stop,’ she said over and over again.

“My husband tried to comfort her. ‘If you want a clock stopped at the hour of death,’ he said, ‘we will have to get another.

“But Mrs. Dodson would not listen to that suggestion. “I must stop this one,’ she said, ‘or none at all. It has been the custom in our family for generations to stop the clock in the death chamber the minute one of us dies, and Alice would never forgive me if I should fail to do the same thing for her.’

“Seeing that her distress was genuine, my husband took the clock downstairs, and began to tinker with it himself. He turned it sideways and upside down—did everything to it, in fact, except to break it into smithereens—but, no matter how he treated it, it kept on running.

“Mrs. Dodson wept unrestrainedly. ‘It is very strange,’ she said. ‘This is the first clock I ever saw that wouldn’t stop when you wanted it to. Most of them take spells and refuse to run, but this one won’t stop running. The phenomenon is something more than mere chance. It is meant as a warning, and I am going to heed it. I am not going to bury Alice till the clock stops.’

Averted a Premature Burial.

“In vain did we argue with her. Doctors and undertakers pronounced Miss Ashby dead, but, although her body was robed for burial, Mrs. Dodson would not consent to embalming or sepulture. For four days the girl lay in her room upstairs, watched constantly by Mrs. Dodson or a trained nurse, and for four days that clock kept up its everlasting tick-tock. On the morning of the fifth day after Miss Ashby’s death Mrs. Dodson looked out as I was passing through the second floor hall and called to me excitedly.

“’I think Alice is coming to,’ she said. ‘Send for the doctor.’

“I was ready to drop with nervousness, but I managed to gather strength enough to summon the doctor, and then we set to work on the girl. It sounds impossible, but she really did revive, and, although very weak and naturally slow of recovery, she finally regained perfect health. For a long time that clock was an object of superstitious veneration, even to the strongest-minded person about the house, and not till Mr. Duby came home from Mexico did our faith in the supernatural give way to practical common sense.

“’That clock,’ said Mr. Duby, ‘Is the product of my own inventiveness. I tinkered away on it for months and finally got the works in such condition that nothing short of absolute destruction could prevent its going for eight days after it was once wound. I used to think I was fooling way my time when I pottered around with those old springs for hours at a stretch, but it proved to be the best work of my life. If it hadn’t been for that clock—’

“And we all shuddered at the thought of what would have happened if it hadn’t been for the clock. Oh, no; there was really nothing unearthly about the affair, but since then I have been a good deal more charitable with persons who are naturally superstitious than I was before.”

The Inter Ocean [Chicago IL] 5 May 1901: p. 33

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It was a wide-spread custom to stop the clocks in a house at the time of death, perhaps symbolising that time was over for the deceased. One stopped the clock to avert bad luck or perhaps to ward off another death in the house. A 1909 compendium of “popular superstitions” recorded: “When anyone has died in a home, the clock must be stopped at once, and all the pictures turned toward the wall, or more of the family will die soon.”

There were various, and sometimes conflicting, beliefs about clocks and death. A sampling:

If a clock, long motionless, suddenly begins to tick or strike, it is a sign of approaching death or misfortune.

Van Smith died Saturday night of pneumonia and typhoid fever. He was a noble youth, just budding into manhood. In the room in which he was sick is an old family clock that has not run for a great many years. Several years ago while old uncle Johnnie Smith, the grandfather of the deceased, was lying sick in the same room, a few hours before his death the clock struck several times. A few years afterward Mr. Wm. Smith, father of the deceased, died in the room, and a short while before his death the clock again struck. On Friday night it struck again and Van died on Saturday night following. It was not running, had not been wound up, and was not touched by any one. This is indeed wonderful, but it is true, and can be verified by a score of witnesses.  The Pulaski [TN] Citizen 12 February 1880: p. 3

And

A DEATH CLOCK.

We have recently been informed of a truly wonderful clock, which is said to belong to a family in Newport. The clock is of simple construction, and belongs to the family of Mr. L—y; but all the efforts of clockmakers have not been able to make it keep time—consequently, it has been permitted to rest in silence. A few hours before the death of Mr. L—y’s sister, some short time since, the clock suddenly struck one, after a silence of many months. It thus continued to maintain its silence until another member of the family was prostrated with a fatal malady, when it again struck one, and on the following day the child was buried. A year elapsed, when a second child sickened and died. The clock was punctual in sounding one a few hours previous to its death. A third child, a little boy fifteen months old, was afflicted with scrofula, which baffled the skill of his physician, and died. The clock gave the usual warning, and struck one. It has never failed in sounding a death knell when any of the family in whose possession it now is were about to die. “There are stranger things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.”—Cincinnati paper. Ballou Dollar Monthly Magazine Vol. 16, 1862: p. 414

Clocks were also said to stop or “die” at the same moment as their owner, in the manner of the old song “My Grandfather’s Clock,”  which contains the refrain: “But it stopped short, never to go again/ When the old man died”] Perhaps this is why Miss Ashby’s clock stubbornly refused to be stopped.

They have a genuine grandfather’s clock in Maryland, at the residence of the late Thos. M. Clavert, in Cecil county. The clock had been running for twenty-one years without repairs. When Mr. Calvert died, the folks looked at the clock to note the moment of his death. The clock had stopped, and they can’t make it run again. The Atchison [KS] Daily Champion 31 January 1880:p. 2

REMARKABLE CLOCK OWNED IN OMAHA

Stopped Short at Moment of Death of Two Members of the Family.

Omaha, Apri. 2. Doctor John F. Hertzman, a physician who has lived in this city for twenty-five years and has held several minor public offices, died this morning at 5:20 o’clock after an extended illness.

Watchers beside his bedside declare that, at the moment he was declared dead by the attending physician, the clock in the bed chamber ceased to tick. The fact has become known and many curious neighbors have called to see the phenomenon. The clock has been permitted to stand at 5:20.

The curious incident is further emphasized by the fact that three years  ago the same clock also stopped at the exact moment of the daughter’s death.

Another curious fact in connection with Doctor Hertzman’s death is told. His age, according to Omaha time, was 48 years, 6 hours and five minutes.

As Doctor Hertzman was born in France, it is figured by the relatives that he died almost at the moment, if not at the exact moment, of the close of his forty-seventh year, when the difference in time between the two points is considered. Tucson [AZ] Daily Citizen 2 April 1902: p. 8

To be Relentlessly Informative, there has been a lot of loose talk about the term “saved by the bell,” as a reference to bells rigged to ring when a prematurely buried person revived. While such devices did exist, they did not inspire the idiom. The phrase had its origins in the boxing ring.

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.

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.

The False Funeral: 1860

THE FALSE FUNERAL.

I never liked my uncle’s business, though he took me when my father died, and brought me up as his own son. The good man had no children. His wife was long dead; and he had an honest old woman for a housekeeper, and a flourishing business in the undertaking line, to leave to some body; but he did not leave it to me, and I’ll tell you the reason.

When I had been about five years with him, and had grown worth my salt, as he used to say, a death occurred in our neighborhood, which caused greater lamentation than any we had heard of since my apprenticeship began. The deceased gentleman was a Mr. Elsworthy. The family had been counted gentry in their day. I should have said my uncle lived in York, and all the world knows what Yorkshire families are. Well, the Elsworthys were of good family, and very proud of it, tho’ they had lost every acre of an old estate which had belonged to them time out of mind. I am not sure whether it was their grandfather’s dice and cock-fighting. or their father’s going surety for a friend, who did something wrong in a government office that brought them to this poor pass; but there was no house in all York where candles went further, and tea leaves were better used up. There was a mother, two sisters, and a cousin who lived with them. The mother was a stately old lady, never seen out of the black brocade. The sisters were not over young or handsome, but they dressed as fine as they could. The cousin was counted one of the prettiest women in Yorkshire, but she walked with a crutch, having met with an accident in her childhood. Master Charles was the only son, and the youngest of the family; he was a tall, handsome, dashing young man, uncommonly polite, and a great favorite with the ladies. It was said there was some red eyes in the town when the story got wind that he was going to be married to the Honorable Miss Westbay. Her father was younger brother to the Earl of Harrowgate, and had seven girls beside her, without a penny for one of them; but Miss Westbay was a beauty, and the wonder was that she had not got married long ago, being nearly seven years out, dancing, singing, and playing tip-top pieces at all the parties. Half-a-dozen matches had been talked of for her, but somehow they broke down one after another. Her father was rather impatient to see her off; so were her sisters, poor things, and no wonder, for grow up as they might, not one of them would the old man suffer to come out till the eldest was disposed of, and at last there seemed something like a certainty of that business. Young Mr. Elsworthy and she struck up a courtship. He was fascinated–isn’t that the word?–at an assize ball, paid marked attentions at the bishop’s party, and was believed to have popped the question at a picnic, after Lord Harrowgate, the largest share holder in the North Eastern Bank, got him promoted from a clerkship to be manager. It’s true he was some years younger than Miss Westbay, and people said there had been some thing between him and his pretty cousin; but a Lord’s niece with beauty, accomplishments, and a serviceable connection does not come in every young man’s way; so the wedding-day was fixed for the first of January; and all the milliners were busy with the bride’s bonnets and dresses.

It was just a month to come, and everybody was talking of the match, when Mr. Elsworthy fell sick. At first they said it was a cold; then it turned to a brain fever; at last the doctor gave no hopes of his recovery, and within the same week Mr. Elsworthy died. The whole neighborhood was cast into mourning. A promising young man, in a manner the only dependence of his family, newly promoted to a station of trust and influence, and on the eve of marriage, everybody lamented his untimely death, and sympathized with his bereaved relations, and his intended bride. I think my uncle lamented most of all. None of his customers, to my knowledge, ever got so much of his sorrow. When he was sent for in the way of business, it struck me that he stayed particularly long. The good man could talk of nothing but the grief of the afflicted family–how the mother went into fits and the sisters tore their hair– how the cousin talked of wearing mourning all her days–and how it was feared that Miss Westbay, who insisted on seeing him, would never recover her senses. The country papers gave expressions to the public grief. There was a great many verses written about it. Nobody passed the house of mourning without a sigh, or a suitable remark. My uncle superintended the making of the coffin, as I had never seen him do to any other; and when the workmen were gone home, he spent hours at night finishing it by himself.

The funeral was to set out for the family vault in the Minster church, at Beverly, about three o’clock in the afternoon. It was made a strictly private affair, though hundreds of the towns men would have testified their respect for the dead by accompanying it all the way. The members of the family, in two mourning coaches, and the undertaker’s men, were alone allowed to follow poor Elsworthy to his last resting place, and the coffin was not to be brought till the latest hour. My uncle had got it finished to his mind, but evidently did not wish me to look at his work. He had a long talk with Steele and Stoneman, two of his most confidential assistants in the workshop, after hours, and they went away looking remarkably close. All was in train, and the funeral to take place the next day, when, coming down his own stairs they were rather steep and narrow, for we lived in one of the old houses of York my uncle slipped, fell, and broke his leg. 1 thought he would have gone mad when the doctor told him he must not attempt to move, or mind any business for weeks to come, and I tried to pacify him by offering to conduct the funeral with the help of Steele and Stoneman. Nothing would please the old man; I never saw him so far out of temper before. He swore at his bad luck, threw the pillows at his housekeeper, ordered me to bring him up the key of the workshop, and kept it fast clutched in his hand. I sat up with him that night. In a couple of hours he grew calm and sensible, but could not sleep, though the house was all quiet, and the housekeeper snoring in the corner. Then he began to groan, as if there was something worse than a broken leg on his mind, and

“Tom,” said he, ” haven’t I always been kind to you?”

“No doubt of it, uncle,” said I.

“Well, Tom, I want you to do me a great service–a particular service, Tom, and I’ll never forget it to you. You know Mr. Elsworthy’s funeral comes off to-morrow at three, and they are very high people.”

“Never fear, uncle; I’ll take care of it as well as if you were there yourself.”

“I knew you would, Tom,–I knew you would. I could trust you with the hearsing of an earl’s coffin ; and for managing mutes, I don’t know your equal. But there’s something more to be done. Come over besides me, Tom; that old woman don’t hear well at the best, and she’s sleeping now and no mistake. Will you promise me”–and his voice sunk to a whisper–“that, whatever you hear or see, you’ll make no remark to any living, and be as cautious as you can about the body? There’s foul play,” said he, for I began to look frightened; “but maybe this leg’s a judgment for taking on such a business. Howsomever, I’m to have three hundreds pounds for it; and you’ll get the half, Tom, the full half, if you’ll conduct it properly, and give me your solemn promise. I know you’ll never break.”

“Uncle,” said I, “I’ll promise, and keep it too; but you must tell me what it is.” “Well, Tom,” and he drew a long breath “its a living man you’re going to put in that coffin in the workshop! I’ve made it high and full of air holes; he’ll lie quite comfortable. Nobody knows about it but Steele and Stoneman and yourself; they’ll go with you. Mind you trust no one else. Don’t look so stupid, man; can’t you understand? Mr. Elsworthy didn’t die at all, and never had brain fever; but he wants to get off with marrying Miss Westbay, or something of that sort. They’re taking a queer way about it, I must say; but these genteel people have ways of their own. It was the cousin that prepared my mind for it in the back parlor; that woman’s up to anything. I stood out against having a hand in it till I heard that the sexton of Beverly Church was a poor relation of theirs. The key of the coffin is to be given to him; it will be locked, and not screwed down, you see; and when all’s over at the vault–it will be dark night by that time, for we don’t move till three, and these December days are short–he’ll come and help Mr. Elsworthy out, and smuggle him off to Hull with his son the carrier. There’s ships enough there to take him anywhere under a feigned name.”

“Could he get off from the marriage no easier?” said I, for the thought of taking a living man in a hearse, and having the service read over him, made my blood run cold. You see I was young then.

“There’s something more than the marriage in it, though they didn’t tell me. Odd things will happen in my business, and this is one of the queerest. But you’ll manage it, Tom, and get my blessing, besides your half of the three hundred pounds; and don’t be afraid of anything coming wrong with him, for I never saw any man look so much like a corpse.”

I promised my uncle to do the business and keep the secret. A hundred and fifty pounds was no joke to a young man beginning the world in an undertaking line; and the old man was so pleased with what be called my senses and understanding, that before falling asleep, close upon daybreak, he talked of taking me into partnership , and the jobs we might expect from the Harrowgate family; for the dowager-countess was near fourscore, and two of the young ladies were threatened with decline. Next day early in the afternoon, Steele, Stoneman, and I were at work, The family seemed duly mournful; I suppose on account of the servants. Mr. Elsworthy looked wonderfully well in his shroud; and if one had not looked closely into the coffin, they never would have seen the air-holes. Well, we set out, mourning-coaches, hearse and all, through a yellow fog of a December day. There was nothing but sad faces to be seen at all the windows as we passed; I heard them admiring Steele and Stoneman for the feeling hearts they showed; but when we got on the Beverly road, the cousin gave us a sigh, and away we went a rattling pace; a funeral never got over the ground at such a rate before. Yet it was getting dark when we reached the old Minister, and the curate grumbled at having to do duty so late. He got through the service nearly as quick as we got over the miles. The coffin was lowered into the family vault; it was more than half filled with Mr. Elsworthy ‘s forefathers, but there was a good wide grate in the wall, and no want of air. It was all right. The clerk and the clergyman started off to their homes; mourning-coaches went to the Crown Inn, the ladies were to wait till the sexton came let them know he was safe out—the cousin would not go home without that news–and I slipped him the key at the church-door, as he discoursed to us all about the mysterious dispensations of Providence.

My heart was light going home, so were Steele and Stoneman’s. None of us liked the job, but we were all to be paid for it; and I must say the old man came down handsomely with the needful, not to speak of Burton ale; and I was to be made his partner without delay. We got the money, and had the jollification; but it wasn’t right over, and I was just getting bed, when there was a ring at our door bell, and the housekeeper came to say that Dr. Parks wanted to see me or my uncle. What could want and how had he come back so soon? Parks was the Elsworthy’s family doctor, and the stranger at the funeral; he went in the second mourning coach, and I left him talking to sexton. My clothes were thrown on, and I down stairs in a minute, looking as sober as could; but the doctor’s look would have sobered any man. “Thomas,” said he, “this has turned out a bad business; and I cannot account it; but Mr. Elsworthy has died in earnest. When the sexton and I opened the coffin, we found him cold and stiff. I think he died from fright for such a face of terror I never saw. It wasn’t your uncle’s fault; there was no doubt he had air enough; but it can’t be helped; the less said about it, the better for all parties. I am going to Dr. Adams to take him down with me to Beverly. The sexton keeps poor Elsworthy, to see if anything can be done; and Adams is the only man we could trust; but I know its of no use.”

The doctor’s apprehensions were well founded–Mr. Elsworthy could not be recovered; and after trying everything to no purpose they laid him down again in the coffin with air holes. The ladies came back, and we kept the secret; but in less than six months after, a rumor went abroad of heavy forgeries on the North Eastern Bank. On investigation they proved to be over fifty thousand, and nobody was implicated but the deceased manager. His family knew nothing about it; being all ladies, they were entirely ignorant about banking affairs; but they left York next season, took a handsome house at Scarborough, and were known to get money regularly from London. They never employed any doctor but Parks; and his medical management did not appear to prosper, for they never were well and always nervous; not one of them would sleep alone or without a light in the room; and an attendant from a private asylum had to be got for the cousin. I don’t think the matter ever left my uncle’s mind; he never would undertake an odd job after it; and all the partnerships in England would not have made me continue the business, and run the risks of another false funeral.

Altoona [PA] Tribune 30 August 1860: p. 1

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 Coffin Full of Rum: 1904

stoneware jug
Maine stoneware jug https://www.ebay.com/itm/Antique-1800s-Stoneware-Crock-Jug-Ancient-Patina-from-Rural-Maine/362986574819?hash=item5483af93e3:g:OWQAAOSwNZNesMDn

ALIVE IN TOMB PICKLED CORPSE

Maine Man Had Coffin Filled With Rum

WAS SUPPLIED YEARLY

Heir Accidentally Locked in Tomb; But Has Jug of Rum and Forgets Troubles.

One of the old family founders in Somerset county, in northern Maine, left a heritage that just has proved a decidedly serious proposition to one of his heirs.

The family is among the wealthiest in the state. Years ago its pioneer went into Somerset county, and in time became the principal business figure of the section.

As he felt age approaching he put his men at work on the construction of a big tomb in the garden in the rear of the old mansion that stands as one of the show places in the town of Athens. On his deathbed he issued commands as to what his relatives should do with his body after dissolution. He ordered them to place him in the leaden coffin and after it had been stored in the tomb to pour the coffin full of Jamaica rum.

The will went on to explain that the testator couldn’t bear the idea of being laid away in the tomb forever knowing that he would be left to molder forgotten. He wanted his relatives ever to bear him in mind, and his method of jarring their memory annually was this: The will directed attention to the little spout sticking up at the head of the casket. The command was that annually each June, on the anniversary of the squire’s burial, the chief heir should enter the old tomb, bringing a jug of rum, and that he should replenish the supply in the coffin.

The family removed from the old mansion some years ago in order to afford the sons and daughters more advantages in one of the cities of Maine.

Recently the heir upon whom devolves the duty of carrying the jug of rum to the estimable and well-preserved old gentleman in Athens suspended his business engagements for a day and started on his annual trip. He went to Solon by train and, hiring a team at the stable, rode across country. The mansion stands a bit out of the village. When the heir turned in at the gate between the double rows of towering lilac bushes no one in the neighborhood happened to see him. The visitor hitched his horse at the rear of the house, out of sight of the road, and then proceeded toward the tomb. He let himself into it, and when the overflow from the spout indicated that the coffin was filled he started for the door. Now it chanced, says the New York Press, that through age and heaving by the frost one of the flagstones with which the tomb is paved jutted its edge above Its neighbors. In the gloom of the tomb the heir didn’t see the stumbling block and he struck, it and tripped. As he tripped he lunged forward and slammed full tilt against the inside of the half-opened door. The door banged shut and the great catch outside fell into place. The heir was a prisoner in the tomb of his ancestor.

The door fitted very snugly against the jamb. The victim broke his finger nails in the cracks trying to start the door, but it was no use. The portal was immovable. There wasn’t an article in the tomb fit for a lever. As the prisoner crouched at the door feeling around him his hand came in contact with the jug he had partly emptied. He was a temperance man and a churchman, but he realized that this was a case where heroic remedies were required. He tipped up the jug and began to numb his sensibilities.

That night a telegram was started for Athens inquiring the whereabouts of the heir. He had neglected an important business engagement. The telegram was delivered to the postmaster in Athens the next forenoon by a messenger, who drove over in a team and who had rapped on the door of the mansion without getting a reply. Of course the next thing was to open the tomb, and when the door was pushed back the heir was pushed back with it. He was lying against the portal with his jug clenched in his hand and he was fully as dead to the world as his venerable ancestor in the leaden coffin. Both were preserved in the same fluid, applied in different fashion. It took the doctor several hours to sober the heir off. A more gigantic load was never accumulated in that town. But the physician says if the man had not had that rum at hand during his wait in the tomb he would have been taken out a raving lunatic.

The York [PA] Daily 29 July 1904: p. 3

What you might call a “stiff drink….”

I’ve tried, without success, to locate the “mansion” with the tomb in the garden in Athens, Maine. (I’m assuming there is some truth to the story, although that may be an unwise assumption.) Any readers with local knowledge?

 

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 Druggist and the Dagger: 1890

The Druggist and the Dagger pearl handled dagger. http://www.sharppointythings.com/gallery.html
The Druggist and the Dagger pearl handled dagger. http://www.sharppointythings.com/gallery.html

The shocking story reported from Greece about a woman thought to have died of cancer, screaming from the grave, brought to mind the many stories of burial alive from the 19th- century press. This was something of an obsession for many people. Some even requested that their throat or veins be cut or that their heart be pierced or removed to ensure that they would not be buried alive. Today we look at one man’s fears and pitiful ante-mortem request: to have his sisters stab him to the heart.

INTO HIS HEART

The Remarkable Ante-mortem Request of a New York Druggist.

He Dreamed That He Would Be Buried Alive, and His Sisters Were Asked to Pierce His Heart With a Dagger After Death

How the Request Was Carried Out in Every Particular.

New York, Dec. 11 One of the most weird and tragic scenes ever witnessed in a chamber of death was the one which was enacted yesterday in the room where Druggist George W. Fay died. It took the form of the execution of a dying request, which called for a keen pointed poniard being thrust into his heart, so that all doubts as to his burial alive should be removed. This precaution was also taken with the full acquiescence of the deceased’s three sisters, who up to the last moment could hardly realize that their brother was dead, so life like did he appear as he lay in his casket. They were, therefore, fully determined to allay their apprehensions and resorted to the heroic method of an application of a steel blade.

Mr. Fay died thirteen days ago. He was a well-known druggist in the ton of Hammonton, N.J., and was proprietor of one of the largest pharmacies in that place. He was taken sick Nov. 12. He was a widower, his wife having died several years before, leaving him a child, a little girl, who is at present in a convent.

Two nights before his death Mr. Fay suddenly sat upright in bed. He glared wildly about him and clutched the bedclothing. Large beads of perspiration stood out on his brow, and his breathing came thick and fast. His elder sister, who had dozed off in a chair near the bedside of her sick brother, was startled at the loud and rapid gasps for life. She was terrified at his appearance for an instant, but recovered from her fright when he beckoned to her to approach. She asked him what was the matter. It was several minutes before he could speak, and then in a disjointed way the patient told her that he had just had a terrible dream. He said that the dream pictured him as having fallen into a trance. He remained in this condition he said, for days, and his friends and sisters thought he was dead.

He described how in his dream he was laid in his coffin, and he heard the preparations made for his funeral. “O, Matilda,” said the dying man to his sister. “It was a most dreadful dream. I was conscious of all that was going on about me. I could hear your sobs as you bent over my dead body, when taking a last farewell. I realized everything that was going on around me, and that was what made it more terrible. I distinctly heard every word that was said, and yet I was powerless to help myself or move a muscle to betray the fact that life still remained in my poor, wasted form. I heard the minister’s words when the services for the dead were read the day of my funeral. I seemed to experience a choking sensation when the undertaker screwed down the lid upon the coffin. At that moment I made an almost superhuman effort to cry out, but could not utter a sound. I felt the coffin raised and borne away. I fairly shuddered as I was lowered into the grave prepared for me, and again I tried to make known the fact that I as alive, but I could not do so. I was like an image of marble. I could not even give vent to a wink or a nod.

“When the grave diggers began to throw down the sods of earth upon the coffin I again tried to cry out. I felt myself growing weaker, while my mental faculties began to fail me. At that moment a sudden desperate impulse possessed me, and with an effort that I had not been able before to summon to my aid, I burst open the top of the coffin and sat bolt upright in my funeral shrouds. I heard the shouts from the above, and then I fainted away.”

After reciting his awful dream the dying man sank back in his bed. He asked his sisters to satisfy themselves that he was dead before they buried him. He was fearful lest the dream was a premonition of his approaching fate. The following night he had a similar dream, which he recounted to his sisters, and it proved to be even a more thrilling experience than his former one. Then it was that he called them to his bedside and begged them to thrust a dagger into his heart before they buried him.

“My death is to be a hard one, I believe,” said he. “Those horrible dreams are full of meaning, and I have always had a horror that I would go into a trance, and be buried alive. It is not at all improbable that these terrible dreams were superinduced by these thoughts, but I cannot throw off the feeling that I will be buried alive if some precaution is not taken to guard against it.

“Now, dear sisters, I feel I am about to die. I feel that I will go into a trance from which I shall never awaken, so as my dying and last request promise me that you will faithfully carry out what I am about to request of you. It is this: Do not bury me if you have the slightest doubts as to my death. Keep my body until signs of dissolution are apparent. Keep me for weeks if necessary. If then you have reason to believe that I am still among the living, end my terrible sufferings by thrusting this dagger through my heart and leave it there.”

The dying man held up a keen, pointed, new pearl handled dagger, which he passed to his sisters and then sank back to the bed. In a few minutes he apparently died, but not before his sisters had promised him that they would carry out his last wish.

The body was kept until yesterday in order that Druggist Fay’s dying request might be observed to the letter. Ever since his death the body has rested in a rich casket in the front room. The sisters watched it day and night. In his coffin Fay looked like a man in robust health. His cheeks were full of color and his whole appearance was that of a person calmly sleeping. His sisters refused to permit his body to be buried. At the end of a week the life-lie appearance of the body had not changed, and even the physicians who examined it had doubts as to the presence of death. Great interest was manifested in the case by the residents of Hammonton, and it came to be regarded as one of the strangest phenomena of its kind that had ever occurred in the country. As the days went by and the body was kept above ground interest increased. The body still preserved all the appearance of life and the sisters resorted to electricity with a view of bringing about some kind of action in the body. At the earnest solicitations of relatives, the sisters agree last Saturday that if more distinct signs of life did not appear by the morrow they would carry out to the letter the dying wish of their brother. For the first time faint signs of dissolution began yesterday to manifest themselves and the sisters appeared to be reconciled. They also notified their friends of their intention of carrying out their brother’s wish, and would have the dagger he had handed them plunged into his heart.

Preparations were accordingly made for the tragic event. The physician who granted the death certificates signified his willingness to officiate. Word was sent to the immediate relatives and they came as witnesses. The dead man’s little daughter arrived from the convent in the custody of an aunt—and took a last farewell of her father. The body was lying in a front room between the windows. The top of the casket had been removed and the shroud had been thrown on one side so as to make the region of the heart accessible. An aperture was made in the under garments with a pair of scissors, and the severed flaps held back by pins, exposing the surface of the skin directly above the heart. The skin was of a faint red color. After all the friends and neighbors had taken a last leave of the deceased, only the immediate relatives and the physician remained, and the others left the room.

The street outside the house was lined with hundreds of persons who had assembled out of curiosity. Their gaze alternated between the windows of the room in which the body lay and the piece of black crape which had fluttered form the handle of the doorbell for thirteen days.

In the meantime the sisters and relatives congregated around the casket and wept. The bright dagger, which was to allay their doubt lay upon the dead man’s breast. The physician came forward and unhesitatingly picked it up, and placing the point directly in the center of the exposed space of the skin, with a quick thrust the keen point was plunged downward into the dead druggists’ heart. The physician said that not a drop of blood came from the wound made by the dagger.

The little dagger was left in the body, the pearl handle protruding. The sisters breathed a long drawn sign of relief when their brother’s last wish had been executed. The undertaker then stepped forward and closed down the lid. The relatives and friends retired to the carriages, which followed the body to the cemetery. Here services were read, and all that was mortal of Druggist Fay was laid away to rest.

Kansas City [MO] Times 12 December 1890: p. 9

What a thoroughly melodramatic tale! So much so that I wondered if Mr. Fay existed at all.  Additional news items confirm that the events above are likely to have taken place very much as they are related.

 THEY THINK HE’S IN A TRANCE

A Very Lifelike Appearance Returns After Death to Mr. Fay’s Face.

May’s Landing, Nov. 23. About ten or twelve days ago George W. Fay, who is a druggist of Hammonton, about twelve miles from here, was confined to his bed with an abscess of the brain. Later dropsy appeared, and on Tuesday evening last he undoubtedly died. He was pronounced dead by the attending physicians. His limbs were then much swollen and his face much discolored. On Thursday morning members of his family were much surprised to find that the swellings had almost entirely disappeared and a lifelike look had come back into his face. His cheeks became red and under his left ear a small bright red spot appeared. The family concluded to postpone the funeral until Friday. On that day, as no other signs of life had appeared, the body was taken to the cemetery for interment. The funeral sermon was preached and the coffin was opened for the friends and relatives to view the remains. At this time the face appeared so lifelike that the family refused to allow the burial to take place, and insisted on the body being taken back to the house again. This was done, and now the family anxiously await further developments. Many are of the opinion that Mr. Fay is in a trance.

Mr. Fay kept a large rug store in Hammonton. Once he had to serve a term in the county jail for illegal liquor selling. He was so popular that on his release the Court House bell was rung and hundreds flocked to escort him to his home. The Sun [New York, NY] 24 November 1890: p. 2

Spirits Didn’t Work.

Mays Landing, N.J., Dec. 4. The body of George W. Fay, a prominent druggist of this place, was buried in Green Mount cemetery about two miles from Hammonton, this afternoon. Fay died 16 days ago, but his three sisters, who are spiritualists, would not consent to his burial, believing that he would return to life. The corpse still retained its life-like appearance, the cheeks being as red as roses. Not for one moment during the past 16 days have the sisters left the corpse They took turns in watching the lifeless form of their brother, and have not doubted or lost faith in the spirits. The other spiritualists of the place had long ago given up the idea that Fay was alive and were anxious for the burial to take place. Vancouver [BC] Daily World 4 December 1890: p. 1

According to Findagrave.com, Fay is buried in Greenmount Cemetery, Hammonton, NJ.

I wrote about the horrors of premature interment in last October’s “Things That Scare Us” series.  Mrs Daffodil had several posts on the topic: here and here. There are also stories of burial alive in The Victorian Book of the Dead. 

It is rather unusual to ask family members to do the dire deed; more often the family doctor was called in. One can only shudder at the thought of a loved one coming to life too late at the point of a knife. Other stories of coups de grâce gone wrong? Sharpen well before sending to 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.

Know When to Hold ’em: Waiting Mortuaries in Connecticut

buried alive in seattle A

Continuing our grewsome theme of burial alive is this proposal from Bridgeport, Connecticut, for an organization that would hold the bodies of the dead until they showed unmistakable signs of decomposition. In short, German waiting mortuaries: the Leichenhaus or Totenhaus.  For whatever reason, these never caught on in America. I’m not sure if it was some inherent squeamishness in the American character, a reluctance to commit to the expense or the real estate, or a practical realization that while there were plenty of false alarm bells rung by the gases of decay in the Leichenhauser of Germany, no one ever got out alive.

A NOVEL SOCIETY

Bridgeport People Who Will Not Be Buried Alive if They Can Help It.

Bridgeport, Conn., Oct. 15. The first of next month a meeting will be held at the rooms of the Scientific Society to organize a Humane Burial society. One of the promoters of the scheme when asked as to the objects of the organization last evening said: “You may not know it perhaps, but in Bridgeport and all of the country, there are a great number of people who have a nervous dread that they may be buried alive. Probably I could name 100 of my personal acquaintances who cherish this awful fear, and there are plenty of cases to show that such an apprehension is not without foundation. What the projected society proposes to do is to take charge of the remains of deceased persons or those supposed to be deceased, and care for them for a sufficient length of time and under conditions which will make their being buried alive an impossibility. The awakening of public interest on this subject is another one of our objects. To most people the idea of establishing such a society will doubtless seem very strange, and did I not know how many people in Bridgeport feel about the matter the same as myself I should hesitate about taking any active part in the movement.” The speaker was reminded that the danger of being buried alive was thoroughly discussed by the Scientific Society a few years ago, and that the weight of medical evidence introduced went to show that the apprehensions alluded to had in reality very little foundation.

“That is true,” was the response, “but that proves nothing. In fact the medical fraternity now virtually confess that none of the old accepted tests used to determine whether the vital spark is really fled or not, can be taken as conclusive. The absence of warmth in the body, the apparent absence of circulation, the eye test, the test with the mirror held before the respiratory organs, and in fact all the other familiar tests, have been proven defective in well authenticated cases. Sometimes by a lucky accident, and sometimes through an apparent excess of caution, persons pronounced by high medical authority to be dead have emerged from the trance condition which gave the simulation of death. Most of the best medical men will tell you today that the only positive proof of death, one that cannot lead to a mistake under any circumstances is the setting in of decomposition. The aim of the society about to be organized is to apply to our members and such others as we may accept the charge of, this only and absolute test. Such an object is worth working for even if it falls to the lot of only one in 10,000, or even one in 100,000, to suffer the terrible doom of being put under ground while alive. We know that many have suffered this fate; how many such cases there have occurred not known of, nobody knows. As I have said, the number deeply interested in this subject is more than would naturally be believed.”

New Haven [CT] Register 15 October 1885: p. 1

The unnamed spokesperson makes a good point about the medical profession’s uncertainty about the certainty of death. Despite modern medical advances, the controversy continues even today. My question is, did this plan to hold the bodies of the dead of Bridgeport ever get off the ground? I can find no evidence that it did, but perhaps they purchased a holding vault somewhere and began on a modest scale rather than the palatial Leichenhauser of Germany.

If you have dug deeper than I and know whether the corpse-holding organization was ever active, let me know at 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.

Cholera Jokes

Cholera searching for his big clown shoes. Illustration of Cholera being spread by Miasma, by Robert Seymour
Cholera searching for his big clown shoes. [Illustration of Cholera being spread by Miasma, by Robert Seymour]
The theory about rats being exonerated for their role in spreading the Black Death, with plague gerbils now being blamed—a premise for a Monty Python sketch if ever there was one—made me think about another type of Black Death: the cholera. And from there it all went downhill to the brief survey you see before you, not about certain fortean phenomena associated with the pandemics, nor gruesome incidents arising from the disease’s horrible mortality, but about–cholera jokes.

The disease was (and is) no laughing matter. It was dubbed “The Black Death” for the blackened faces of dehydrated victims, some of whom died within hours. Six massive pandemics were reported up through the early part of the 20th century and the disease still kills over 100,000 people a year. The fact that jokes could be made about such a hideous threat is a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit, or, realistically, the usual denial and gallows humor triggered by trauma.

There was much controversy over cholera’s source and it was this ignorance that caused so much terror. It was believed to be caused by eating watermelons, pineapples, or other fresh fruit; by over-indulgence in alcohol; and from drinking chilled water in the summer. Pork was also implicated. Miasma theory suggested that bad air or stenches were to blame for disease and that bad odors signaled the presence of cholera. Immigrants from Eastern Europe were regarded with the gravest suspicion. Even the great Pasteur had no real answers. In 1892 his advice for staying well was “Keep the abdomen warm, avoid fruit, bad water, and chances of contagion.”

Some doctors suggested boiling everything eaten or drunk: a humorous story from the 1880s told of a man who insisted that his wife boil pancakes and ice and burn her “Hamburg lace” and “Brussels carpets” for fear of invasion by foreign microbes.  In 1914 a reporter claimed that the Austrian military was white-washing their coal to avoid contagion from Russian prisoners-of-war. How, exactly, that was supposed to help, remains a mystery. Panic over cholera was as pervasive as that seen in recent Ebola outbreaks. It was said that fear of the disease alone killed many of the victims.

A man who had been sentenced to death at Vienna, was offered a full pardon, if he would consent to pass the night in the bed of a person who had died of cholera. In about four hours he was seized with vomiting, violent cramps, and all the symptoms of cholera. Ultimately, by medical assistance, his life was saved. His astonishment was unbounded when he was informed that the bed was perfectly pure. The Daily Dispatch [Richmond, VA] 13 November 1855: p. 4 

Such uncertainty and panic, naturally, led to many dubious preventatives and remedies of all descriptions.

SOME CHOLERA DISINFECTANT.

A Cincinnati local was presented, during the hot weather, with a sample of a “deodorizer and cholera disinfectant,” with a request to notice it. He says he noticed it as soon as he smelt it, and thus relates the sequel:

Didn’t wish to terrify the family by the ostentatious display of cholera precautions of an extraordinary nature, so we took our patent deodorizer home secretly, concealed under our coat.

Terrible commotion in the street-car. The windows were thrown up hastily, handkerchiefs applied furiously to noses, and a general application of camphor gum, of which each one had a supply in his pocket. Profane fellows swore at the Board of Health for not cleaning the streets. One was sure it was in the gutters: another thought it was in the air; a toper, half drunk, said he was satisfied “it was in the (hic) water.”

“I’ll tell you what it’s in,” said a gloomy man, eyeing us suspiciously.

“What?” the passengers shrieked, with one voice:

It’s in the car!”

With a wide yell, they jumped up at once and tumbled out, leaving us all alone, and monarch of all we deodorized.

Got into the house unperceived, and deposited the disinfectant in the cellar, and then hurried back to the office. There was a good deal of it about our clothes, so much so that one or two men who owed us borrowed money avoided us altogether. Felt emotions in the region of the stomach, that were disagreeably suggestive. Got a little alarmed, and concluded to deodorize the disinfectant, which we did with a glass of brandy. Felt a little better ourself, but began to feel alarmed about the effect of that disinfecting; compound upon the family. Hurried home — found the house shut up, and nobody in. Terrible smell about the house — neighbors all terrified. Asked one of them where my family was, and he said they had gone down to the bone-boiling district, to get out of the smell!

Opened the door, but had to close it again, the smell was so bad. Went around to the back yard, and saw the rats leaving in great precipitation. A neighbor suggested that a candle be lowered down the chimney, to test the foulness of the air before the house was opened. Saloons in the neighborhood doing an immense business in the sale of brandy and whisky. Flannel belts in demand. A country-woman with a load of watermelons mobbed and driven back. Arrival of a police officer, who arrested us for keeping a nuisance on our premises. Explanations made, and we are paroled until the house can be opened. Burnt some pitch on the front doorstep  and were then enabled to get to throw up the windows. Whew! neighbors said they preferred cholera.

The disinfectant is nearly abolished now, and family back again, enjoying their usual health, they say they don’t wish to be disinfected any more. Boston [MA] Journal 13 October 1866: p. 2

As an aside, the disease had ravaged Savannah, Georgia in July of the same year, so this wasn’t an “off year” for cholera.

Physicians were one source of cholera humor.

Nibs: Peculiar feature about this epidemic of cholera in Europe, Nobs.

Nobs: What’s that?

Nibs: Why, the more the disease spreads, you see, the more it is contracted. The Medical Brief, Vol. 22, 1894

“How do you  like your new French doctor?”

“Well, I told him I had cholera, because I didn’t know how to say dyspepsia in French, and I’m afraid he has not given me the right remedies.” Wit and Humor of the Physician, Henry Frederic Reddall, 1906

When cholera broke out, there was often difficulty in finding gravediggers; sometimes four or five men would be needed to be successively hired before a grave could be finished. One Ohio gravedigger seems to have kept his nerve and his sense of humor:

When the body of Hillary Neil, who was the first citizen of Xenia [OH] to die with the cholera, was taken to the cemetery, Mr. Cline, not having received notice in sufficient time, did not have the grave ready to receive it. One of the men who accompanied the corpse grew impatient at the delay, and stepping up to Mr. Cline said: “Can’t you keep a few graves dug ahead, and not wait till a man dies, and you get an order before you begin the work, and thus keep us waiting?” “Certainly,” replied Mr. Cline, “if you will take the measure of the people before they die; and if you think that a good idea, I will just take your measure right here, and when they haul you out, will put you in without delay.” This put a quietus upon his enthusiasm, and he did not leave his measure. History of Greene County: Together with Historic Notes on the Northwest, R. S. Dills, 1881

The Hartford Courant told this story in 1869:

Cholera fenced in. — You have noticed the flaming handbills setting forth the virtues of a cholera remedy, that are posted by the hundreds on the board fence enclosing the ground on Main Street, where Roberts’ opera house is being erected. Well, there was a timid countryman, the other day, who had so far recovered from the ‘cholera scare’ as to venture into the city with a horse and wagon load of vegetables; and thereby hangs a tale. He drove moderately along the street, when he suddenly spied the word ‘Cholera,’ in big letters on the new fence, and he staid to see no more. Laying the lash on to his quadruped, he went past the handbills like a streak of lightning, went—’nor stood on the order of his going’ — up past the tunnel, planting the vegetables along the entire route, — for the tail-board had loosened, — hardly taking breath, or allowing his beast to breathe, till he reached home at W___.

“Safely there, he rushed wildly into the midst of his household, exclaiming,

“‘O, wife, wife, they have got the cholera in Hartford, and have fenced it in.'”  The Funny Side of Physic, Addison Darre Crabtre, M.D., 1880

You cannot have everything, as the man said when he was down with small-pox and cholera, and the yellow fever came into the neighbourhood. (1881)

 A physician wrote Sir Henry Halford:

Dear Sir, I was the first to discover Asiatic cholera and communicate it to the public. (1906 joke book)

During the prevalence of the cholera in Ireland, a soldier, hurrying into the mess-room, told his commanding officer that his brother had been carried off two days before by a fatal malady, expressing his apprehensions that the whole regiment would be exposed to a similar danger in the course of the following week.

“Good heavens!” ejaculated the officer, “what then did he die of?”

“Why, your honor, he died of a Tuesday.” Gems of Irish Wit and Humor, 1906

 A little girl being sent to the store to purchase some dyestuff, and forgetting the name of the article, said to the clerk, “John, what do folks dye with?” “Die with? Why, cholera, sometimes,” replied John. “Well, I believe that’s the name; I want three cents’ worth.” The Revolution 29 December 1870

Cholera and Watermelon

During the camping of the First Regiment at Santa Rosa, the pickets found considerable difficulty in preventing the men absenting themselves without leave, a circumstance for which the mint juleps of the town bar-rooms and the large contingent of pretty Santa Rosa girls—small blame to them—were chiefly accountable. One particularly sultry evening, while the sentinels were pacing their beats with their tongues fairly hanging out of their mouths with heat, and wondering whether the pirates in the mess tent would drink every last drop of beer before the “relief” came, one of the guards observed a private approaching, who was staggering along under the combined load of much conviviality and an enormous watermelon under each arm.

“Who goes there?”

“Er—hic—er fren,” responded the truant.

“Advance, friend, and give the countersign.”

“Hain’t got no—hic—countersign,” amiably replied private; “but I’ll ‘er—hic—give yer er—hic—warmellin.”

Pretty soon the officer of the day came round, and said to the sentinel, who was absorbed in munching a huge piece of watermelon stuck on the end of his bayonet.

“Did Perkins pass you just now?” “Yes, sir.” “Did he give the countersign?” inquired the lieutenant, taking a bite himself, as the man presented arms.

“Well, no, sir,” said the sentinel, confidentially; “the password was ‘Cholera,’ but he said ‘Watermelon,’ so I passed him and put the other half in your tent.”

“Did, eh?” mused the officer. “Hum! Watermelon, eh? Well, I guess that was near enough!” San Francisco Post.

Salt Lake [UT] Tribune 16 October 1884: p. 3

Other tasteless cholera jokes? No lemons, please. Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

I’ve previously written on “The Plague Shawl” and the spread of disease through textiles. Also on the Disease Elemental.

Undine, from Strange Company, who knows her forteana AND her bad poetry, writes in with this absolutely brilliant cholera poem:

THE MELON

[New York Star.]

Who started the cholera?

I, said the Melon,

I am the felon.

From warmth of a torrider

Country than Florida

I carried the cholera;

We sailed to Marseilles

With favoring gales,

And from there we went on

To visit Toulon.

Where next do we go?

Just wait; time will show,

But it will not be long

Ere the Germans will find

That cholera loves

A trip on the rind.

Daily Illinois State Journal [Springfield, IL] 27 August 1884: p. 2

 

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. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

A Man Buries Himself Alive: A Story for Father’s Day

A Man Buries Himself Alive: A Story for Father's Day urn willow

In this heart-rending story, a father’s grief drove him to literally join his lost child in the tomb.

Extraordinary Suicide in New Orleans.

A MAN BURIES HIMSELF ALIVE

HE TAKES POISON IN A TOMB

The New Orleans Crescent of the 24th gives the following remarkable story of a suicide

Sylvester Rupert, 37 years of age, an Englishman by birth, and by trade a ship carpenter, lived with his wife and two children in a house on Perdido street. In October last the yellow fever, then prevailing, counted among its victims the youngest child of the Ruperts—their little girl Lizzie, about four years old, and the particular pet of the father. This was a blow from which the father never recovered. Not able to buy a tomb, he had the child buried in the ground in Greenwood Cemetery. The grief preyed heavily upon him. It was his only thought; and, being out of his regular employment, he found employment in his grief.

He bought a burial lot and some bricks and other material, and with his own hands, and all alone in the Cemetery, built him a brick tomb. He had not the means to make the tomb a stylish one; so in its mouth or entrance he fitted a wooden frame, and on this frame he fitted a piece of board and secured it with screws in its four corners. On this board, with which he enclosed the vault,  (in lieu of the usual brick and mortar or marble slab) he had carved nicely with his knife the burial inscription of his child. The tomb finished, he disinterred the child’s body and placed it there. He fastened the board with screws, in order that he might afterward have no trouble in removing it when he felt like gazing upon the decaying remains of his child.

This employment finished, it was his habit to visit the Cemetery, open the tomb, and look at the corpse of his pet. He always carried a screw-driver in his pocket with which to remove and replace the board and also to remove and replace the lid of the coffin. Neither the haggard aspect of the shrinking little corpse, nor the foul odor of its decay could repel him, and his morbid grief. His visits were frequent, and sometimes his wife went with him. He frequently complained to her that he could not get work; and this inability doubtless fostered the despondency which was drawing him to death. He frequently spoke of having no faith in the future, and of death as a desirable thing.

On Wednesday he went to the Cemetery with two shrubs which he had purchased and planted them in front of the tomb. On Thursday, when he left home, he told his wife that if he had no better luck in finding work she would never see him again. He also said something about having a place in which to rest.

That evening, or that night—for no one saw him in his gloomy proceedings—he visited the cemetery; taking with him his screw-driver, an iron trunk-handle, a small rod of iron, a piece of wire, some new screws, and a large vial of laudanum. Unscrewing the board of the tomb, he threw away the screws and filled the screw-holes in the board with clay.

With his new screws he then secured the trunk-handle to the inside of the board. This work, of course, had to be done outside the tomb. Pushing his child’s coffin aside, he got in by its side, taking with him his poison and the other articles with which he had provided himself. His hat he placed upon the coffin; his coat which he had taken off, he wrapped around a brick for a pillow. He shut himself in with the board, by means of the handle he had screwed to it; the board fitting outside the wooden frame. The iron bar, which was of the proper length, he placed across the frame inside. The thickness of the frame would not allow the bar to pass through the trunk-handle on the inside of the board; so he secured the handle and the bar by means of his wire, coiling it through the one end around the other. He did not succeed in fitting the board squarely upon the frame. One corner of it caught upon the brickwork outside the frame; this he did not discover, probably owing to the darkness of the night; and but for this little circumstance his fate would probably have never been discovered, or not at least for many years. Having thus hid himself away, as he fancied, beyond mortal discovery, he drained off the contents of his laudanum bottle, composed himself on his back, placed the brick and coat beneath his head, and went to sleep, and on into the unknown region of the suicides.

As he did not return home on Thursday night, his wife feared the worst, remembering well the tendency of his late conduct and the tenor of his parting words. On Friday morning she rose early and went out to the cemetery. She looked all around, and failed to find her husband. She went and looked at their tomb, and was about to leave, when she happened to notice that the board did not fit snugly into the frame as usual. Looking closer, she discovered the mud in the screw-holes; and putting her hand on the board, found it was standing loosely. She pulled it out a little, and the first thing she saw was the dead face of her husband. She fainted away, and laid in the grass she could not tell how long. She recovered at last, got up and went and informed the sexton, Mr. Merritt, of her discovery. The latter went and looked at things, and sent word to the coroner; and the inquest was held, as we have stated, on Saturday.

The coroner’s verdict was in accordance with the facts so plainly apparent—suicide by laudanum.

Albany [NY] Evening Journal 2 February 1859: p. 2 LOUISIANA

This story was so detailed, yet so bizarre in its unique details of self-immurement, that I thought it might have been a journalist’s invention. Grave records show that Sylvester Rupert, who died 20 January 1859, is buried in Greenwood Cemetery.

Often the 19th-century press focused on brutal, drunken, or absent fathers, yet there are a distressing number of stories of fathers pining themselves to death or committing suicide to follow a dead child or being visited by the  prophetic ghost of a lost darling. A Cincinnati man who said that his daughter came and stood by his bed at night, begging him to come to her, cried, “There’s the wraith of my child—she’s winking at me—I shall, shall go.” He eluded his terrified family, ran upstairs, and cut his throat. In another sad case, a railroad engineer whose child had died set a place for her at the dinner table and spoke to her as if she was still there. He told his wife that the little girl accompanied him on the locomotive and assured him that he would be with her soon. Shortly afterwards, he was killed in a train wreck.

This is an excerpt from The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available for Kindle. Or ask your library/bookstore to order it. You’ll find more details about the book here and indexes here.

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.