Tombstone Madness: A 19th Century Occupational Disease

Gothic entrance to Elmwood Cemetery 1886

Ghouls prowled the cemeteries of the 19th century, seeking corpses to unearth, sack, and sell to the anatomist. While our Victorian ancestors were terrified that they might be buried alive, they had an equally deep fear that their dead bodies would be resurrected, not on the Day of Judgment, but in the dead of night by the body snatchers.

To prevent this, graves were salted with explosives like the “coffin torpedo,” or bodies were held in vaults until they were too decayed for dissection. Sometimes heavy weights or cages (mortsafes) were placed over graves to discourage diggers. Family members took turns standing vigil over graves and many cemeteries had watchmen.

It was a thankless job. The ghouls at the head of their profession could open a grave, extract the corpse, and refill the soil in under an hour. A watchman had to be vigilant, walking the grounds of a cemetery in the dark, and in all weathers, for rain softened the ground and allowed for a quicker opening of a grave. Body snatchers might be armed and more than one watchman was murdered or exchanged gunfire among the tombstones. It was no wonder that, in the 1880s, a new occupational disease emerged.

TOMBSTONE MADNESS

A New Form of Mania that Affects People Who Guard Cemeteries.

[Philadelphia Times]

The men who patrol the cemeteries after the sun has gone down are armed with pistols and clubs, and are generally accompanied by trained and savage bloodhounds. In addition to these external and tangible means of defense they must be gifted with rare and peculiar mental organization. So many men have lost their reason through watching graves at night that person in that position have come to believe that they risk lapsing into a state of melancholia perfectly distinct form any other form of insanity. Sextons and grave-diggers call this affliction “tombstone madness.”

A startling realization of this fact was telegraphed throughout the country yesterday. It was announced that several of the soldiers who do sentry duty day and night at the tomb of Garfield, amid the dreary solitude of Lakeview Cemetery, near Cleveland, have become insane. Anything or any device is used by the men to get away from the ghostly muster of tombstones or the dark array of mounds.

An old watchman at Glenwood Cemetery explained this to a Times reporter yesterday by saying that in all probability the soldiers detailed at the grave were not picked.

Take half a dozen men from any walk of life,” he continued, “and place them at night to watch graveyards, and the chances are that in a short time five of the six will feel like retiring permanently to a lunatic asylum.

“If a man wants to enter this profession and be a success at it, he must be about as impressible as brick and mortar. If he has the least bit of imagination he had better abandon the business, for when the moon is obscured by clouds and he is walking about a cemetery, shivering from his heels upward, he will mistake tombstones for ghosts. He will think that the owls, as they whiz past his ears with their mournful hoots, are unquiet spirits come to haunt the receptacles of the bodies which they once permeated. When the noise of his footsteps makes the rats disappear with rustling sound into little thickets of evergreens he will start and grasp his weapon. The very whine of his dog will make him feel nervous, and bit by bit his reason would become impaired.”

“I could give you some sad reminiscences of people who watch graveyards,” said one of the oldest watchmen at Laurel Hill cemetery, in a strange, solemn tone. Then, half jestingly, he added: “But they’re buried in the past, and it’s my business to let what’s buried remain so.” He did not mind telling one story, however.

“I used to work in a Brooklyn cemetery before I came to this city,” he began. “It was then that the terrible scene I shall speak of occurred. We wanted an assistant night watchman very badly, but none of the persons who presented themselves could endure staying up with the graves for more than two or three nights each. At least there came an unfortunate man whose health seemed shattered by overwork and privation. It was his last venture. He had tried to get employment everywhere without result, and his wife and children were suffering. We took him on. I don’t think I shall ever forget his face the morning after his first night in the graveyard. He said he had endured unheard of agony, but was hopeful of getting over it in time. The following night was dark and windy. Rain came down in torrents, and there were flashes of lightning every few minutes. At about one o’clock the head watchman heard a loud cry; there was a sound of running feet, followed by the report of a pistol. A search was made, and the unfortunate man found lying on his back across a grave, dead. There was a small hole in his temple, and his own revolver, one barrel of which was empty, lay three feet away where he had flung it, imbedded in the ground. It was certain that some fearful creation of the imagination had so terrified him that he took his life to escape from it.”

When the old man had finished this narrative he was silent, with a vacant look, and allowed bright tears to chase each other down his cheek. Suddenly he made a brisk motion and forcibly forgot the subject of his narrative. “There are amusing things sometimes,” he said, speaking at first with an effort. “A short time ago a man was put to work at night in a cemetery not far from here. He strolled around in an affected, indifferent way, whistling tunes dear to his countrymen. In the course of his rambling he tumbled bodily into a newly-made grave and a lot of loose earth fell on him when he reached the bottom. He struggled wildly, and in about an hour and three-quarters managed to get out, screaming lustily that the devil had dug a grave and tried to bury him in it. With a single bound he cleared a four-foot fence, rolled down a forty-foot hill, and that’s the last of him, for no one about here ever set eyes on him again, dead or alive. He must have gone back to Ireland, for he wasn’t hurt at all. Some practical jokers once tried to scare a watchman, a friend of mine. It was immense fun—for the watchman. They got into the cemetery disguised as body-snatchers, and pretended to be opening graves. There were three individuals. One got seven buckshot in him, the second received five in his leg, and I forget what happened to the third. The only thing that is more dangerous than watching graves is robbing them.”

“What is it produces the dreadful melancholia?” asked the reporter.

The old man looked around him mysteriously and added, as he moved away: “I’m not a doctor nor a scholar, but I have my belief that it’s the miasma from the graves that poisons the blood and warps the brain. Just see, cool as it is this evening, the vapour is rising—rising.” And the old watchman pointed toward the setting sun, against which blazing background a filmy mist could be seen ascending from the ground like the genie from the fisherman’s box in the Arabian tale.  Texas Siftings [Austin, TX] 28 April 1883: p. 3

One could also perhaps point to exposure to the heavy metals used in embalming and coffins, insect-borne disease from that miasma, or to overindulgence in the warming flask sometimes employed to ward off the cold. The post of watchman may also have been a profession of last resort for those with few prospects.

Here is the story of a soldier who apparently had a breakdown while guarding the Cleveland grave of President Garfield. This was before the immense tomb we see today was finished. I have not found any others, although there were some strange incidents at the cemetery [another post, another day]. The journalist may have exaggerated the insanity toll.

A Soldier Becomes insane While Guarding Garfield’s Tomb.

Cleveland Dispatch to Philadelphia Press.

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

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

The font is badly blurred, but I believe the name is correct, although I have not found Private Kashinsky in the regimental roster. The papers had a difficult time with Eastern European names.  Any other insane guards?  Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Portions of this post appear in The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition.

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.

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Mourning Professions for Ladies: 1889-1910

Josephine Smith, age 84, digging a grave at Drouin Cemetery, Victoria, c. 1944 https://www.flickr.com/photos/national_library_of_australia_commons/6174073756

To-day Mrs Daffodil has invited that crepuscular person from the Haunted Ohio blog to discuss mortuary career choices for women. She frequently writes on the popular and material culture of Victorian mourning and is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead. One presumes she is au courant on these dismal trades of the past.

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While Mrs Daffodil has previously remarked on a lady undertaker, and, we know, of course, that women were often the washers and layers-out of the dead, today I present some less usual mortuary professions for the ladies. We begin with the funeral stenographer. From the late nineteenth century onward, it was considered bad form to read a funeral sermon from notes; hence the need for someone to take down the more-or-less extemporized eulogy.

A QUEER JOB

There is a quiet young woman in a quiet, unobtrusive gown who has become quite a familiar figure at funerals. She is well known to the undertakers, at least. She always sits in the background with notebook and pencil, and her nimble fingers jot down verbatim the addresses and prayers that are uttered at the coffin’s side.

This young woman, it is said, up to a year ago, was a stenographer in a big mercantile house down town. She lost her place on account of the hard times and the consequent curtailing of the office force. She haunted the employment agencies at the various typewriter concerns for a time, but there were thousands of others doing the same thing—looking for a job. Her money was running low and she grew discouraged. Like many women she had a penchant for going to funerals, but she had not been able to indulge in this morbid fancy while regularly employed. She went to a big church affair one day, and took along her notebook and pencil, thinking she would take down the addresses just for the sake of practice. As the people were filing out a man asked her what she had been doing, and she falteringly admitted that she had been taking down what was said, so as to keep from forgetting her stenography. The man in question proved to be a friend of the family of the deceased, and said that if she would write out the prayers and addresses, putting in the hymns in their proper place, that he would pay her well for the transcript. She got $15 for this. It then occurred to her that here was a way of earning a living better and more profitable than anything else in her line.

She began to watch closely the obituary columns of the daily papers and to make calls on the undertakers in the neighborhood where she lived. It was not long beer she got another job, through going after the business in this way. Now she has about all she and her assistant can do. She charges from $15 to $50 for her services.

So far as is known she has little if any competition, and sometimes her earnings run as high as $125 a week. Strangely enough, however, she has been cured of her morbid fondness for funerals, and feels like giving up her curious way of earning a living for something less profitable, but more prosaic. She fears chronic melancholia. Daily People [New York, NY] 16 January 1910: p. 7

The young lady could have assuaged her fondness for funerals by becoming a professional mourner, as these funeral fans were jocularly called:

PROFESSIONAL MOURNERS

Get No More Free Rides, Says an Akron Undertaker.

“The professional mourner will get no more free rides at funerals conducted by us,” said an Akron undertaker, the other day, to a Democrat representative, with satisfaction beaming from every line of his countenance.

“Professional mourners! Free rides!” exclaimed the reporter in astonishment. “What do you mean? Tell us about it.” “Well, it’s this way,” said the undertaker. “At every funeral of which we have charge, we find three or four women, or maybe more, (professional mourners, we call them) who are in no way related to the family of the deceased, who had never perhaps even seen the person whose obsequies they are attending, and yet they are found occupying seats in the very front row, usually shedding tears copiously, and always dressed in black. When the time comes to go to the cemetery they are again found in the front rank and in spite of us, secure seats in the carriages provided by the relatives of the deceased for intimate friends, enjoy a free ride to the cemetery and back, and get all the choice morsels of news, which later is related to friends, all decked out with furbelows and embellishings with all the details of human grief and heartbreak which they have witnessed, worked in. To these people nothing is sacred, nothing too holy for them to gossip about.

“All this has been remedied, however, and the next time a professional mourner attempts to get a ride in one of our coaches a disagreeable surprise awaits her, for we have adopted a card system by which the names of the persons whom the bereaved relatives desire to have seats in the carriage is given to us. These persons are furnished with cards, and only those presenting cards to the driver will be allowed to ride.” Akron [OH] Daily Democrat 15 March 1902: p. 1

There were, in some cities in Europe and America, true professional mourners, both male and female, who were paid to look lugubrious. They had unions, went on strike, and there are records of some being arrested for pushing their services too aggressively at the graveside.

"The Tolling Bell," Source: http://artofmourning.com/2016/01/13/mourning-fashion-in-white/

Female pallbearers were not unknown, particularly in the case of young persons, whose friends were often asked to be pallbearers. To give just two examples: “The pallbearers will be six girls dressed in white.” [1902] “The coffin was being carried into the church by four young ladies, who according to the wish of the deceased, had been selected as bearers.” [1885] We can see one pallbearer dressed entirely in white and several others with white garments in Death of Her Firstborn, by Frank Holl.

A few women found work as grave diggers, something so rare that it called for comment in the newspapers. (Mrs Daffodil has written about Elizabeth Thorn, who dug graves under dire conditions after the Battle of Gettysburg.)

WOMAN GRAVE DIGGER

London, Oct. 2 Miss Janie Beeching, grave digger of Lewes, prefers to work at night instead of by daylight. She goes to the cemetery after dinner and digs graves by candlelight. Wilkes-Barre [PA] Times-Leader 2 October 1919: p. 12

WOMAN GRAVE DIGGER

A woman as a grave digger! The idea seems almost impossible, but in the town of Lewes, England, there is a lady who fills of the office of sexton. Everybody knows her, and until recently she dug all the graves in Lewes cemetery. Now, at the age of 60, she contents herself with filling them up and attending to the mounds and flowers. Mrs. Steele, the name of the sextoness, if one can use such a term—is a very healthy old lady, and she has been heard to say that she will never leave her post until it is her turn to have a grave dug for her. May the time be far distant. It is a wonderful sight to witness the old lady use the spade. Omaha [NE] World Herald 4 September 1898: p. 21

If one didn’t have the stamina for grave digging and had an artistic bent, there were work-at-home design schemes:

A NEW INDUSTRY

“Lady wanted to draw, at home, original designs for coffin furniture.” The above rather ghastly advertisement appears in one of the London dailies, so that those who happen to have artistic wives or daughters pining for an opening for their talents will probably now find their homes littered with suggestive sketches of “caskets,” specially and severally designed for railway directors, Primrose League dames, members of Parliament, and others. Whether the said sketches will be calculated to promote the cheerfulness of the domestic home is quite another matter. Press, 2 August 1889: p. 3

Many milliners specialized in widow’s hats and veils. Women were also employed to design and manufacture burial robes, which were often lovingly described in the same seductive terms as fashionable clothing for the living. The one difficulty was finding shoes for the dead, but an innovative Joliet dressmaker built a thriving business on funerary footwear:

SHOES FOR THE DEAD

A Novel Industry in Which Chicago Supplies the Whole World.

That there is nothing small about Chicago has been so frequently demonstrated as to need no reiteration…But that Chicago supplies an article in the production of which it has no rival in the world may be news to many readers. It is an article for which there will be a ceaseless demand so long as people die and are buried in the prevailing style. To the present funeral, if it is carried out in the height of fashion, belongs a burial shoe. It is as necessary as any other part of the garments worn on the last journey by young or old of either sex.

The fact that the rigor mortis made the feet of dead persons so unwieldy as to necessitate a foot-gear several sizes too large for a long time painfully impressed a Joliet dressmaker, a Miss Loomis. She went to work and constructed a shoe which not only did away with clumsy leather encasements, but, in true feminine style, she brought her ingenuity to such a point that the corpse of a person may be buried in number 2s while the wearer in life required number 4s. Of course the invention was promptly patented, and in the course of time a company was incorporated which supplies two-thirds of all the manufacturers of and jobbers in funeral supplies throughout the United States, and sends the product of the Joliet dressmaker’s inventive genius even across the ocean.

The shoe consists of knitted pieces of wool or silk, which are inserted at the heels and at the insteps, making it possible ot cover the rigid “understanding” of dead persons not only with a snug fit but in becoming style. In a block on Dearborn street a dozen or fifteen girls are at work from morning till night of each working day to manufacture nothing but burial shoes of all sizes–from those for tiny babies to the ones for the oldest inhabitants…The firm turns out from fifty to a hundred pairs a day, and they are all taken rapidly, because burial shoes have, since the last year or two, become a necessary part of the outfit of the dead. Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 11 September 1888: p. 2

And finally, an ingenious lady in New York who found a gap in a very specialized market and set out to fill it:

Woman With a Business Head Rents Smelling Salts to Visitors at the New York Morgue.

[New York Sun:] The man in the doorway crooked his finger at the wiry little woman in black, who sat on the curbing just outside the morgue.

“See her?” he asked.

“The curiosity-seeker thus addressed said, “Yes. What about her?”

“She’s a genius, that’s what about her,” said the man. “She has hit upon a most peculiar calling, and I’ll bet she will make money out of it, too. She has laid in a supply of smelling salts and rents out the bottles at the rate of 10 cents an hour to people visiting this institution. There are five different parties in here now, and each person is provided with smelling salts rented from this enterprising old lady.

‘I am glad she hit upon the plan. I had been thinking for a good many months in a vague sort of way that some such preventive of fainting ought to be supplied to tenderfeet that come spying around down here, but I never even perfected the project in my own mind, much less put it into execution. But it was different with the old lady.

“What first suggested the scheme was her own experience, when she came down here to look for a friend who had disappeared. She got so weak and nervous that she declared she would surely die if she didn’t get a whiff of lavender salts. She didn’t get the salts, because we had none about the place, neither did she die, but when she recovered she started in business.

“The lady’s profits vary, of course, with the attendance at the morgue. Some days she earns quite a decent salary. Take Tuesdays, for instance. For some reason, which I have never been able to discover, Tuesday is the public’s favorite day for doing the morgue.” The curiosity-seeker looked doubtfully at the woman on the curbing. “I wonder, “ she said, “if I’d better rent a bottle, too?”

“Going in?” asked the man.

“Yes,” said she, “I think so.”

“Then get a bottle, by all means,” was the reply. “It will cost but a dime and will save you no end of nervous chills.” Los Angeles [CA] Times 13 July 1901: p. 15

While the article blames the necessity for smelling salts on the “weak and nervous,” the little woman in black knew what she was up against. A chapter in The Victorian Book of the Dead gives the gruesome particulars of the sights and horrific stenches of the New York Public Morgue, particularly in summer. Lavender would scarcely make a dent….

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.

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil applauds those ladies who make a living in the mortuary professions. She herself has had frequent occasion for contact with the dead, albeit normally without remuneration or public notice, working quietly behind the scenes, as it were. Despite taking pride in her work, Mrs Daffodil shuns undue notice as she feels that assisting the police with their inquiries would take entirely too much time away from her duties at the Hall.

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.