I never read or hear of the mountains that I do not recall a story told by a conductor of a train on the Great Northern road. We were going to Butte. The train had just crossed the river at Great Falls. From that point the road begins its eastern ascent of the range whose tops are whitened with the snow all the year round. A wide plain spreads out between the line of the road and the range. As the train was getting a “fresh hold on the rails,” as one of the party expressed it, the conductor stood on the rear platform of the coach and looked steadfastly at one spot until it was lost.
“Got a claim anywhere round there?” asked a traveler who had noticed the conductor’s longing look.
“A kinder of a claim,” he replied, “but not the kind you’re thinkin’ of.” How he came to tell us makes no difference now. Here is what he told:
“’Bout a year ago, I think it was, a young man was put on the train by the conductor who brought him to where I take it. He had been east. His folks lived down there, I believe. He had been west a good many years, was a cowboy, then a deputy marshal, then a boss of a ranch, and then he got to speculatin’ in Anaconda. He had lived the sort of a life out here that a man was expected to live in them days.
“He was a hard citizen, and then a good one. Blest if I know just where he quit off, but he did. He finally got to lovin’ a girl and just when he was havin’ it the wust way, she ups and marries a good-for- nothin’ that came out here and got to clerkin’ in a rag house. Then the young man I am talkin’ about he goes east to wear out his feelin’s I reckon. And he was gone all summer. They said he was at the seaside. I thought when I heard that, as how he would not last long. When a man quits this climate to go to the seaside there must be something mighty bad about his case. If a man can’t get cured here he needn’t go anywhere else.
“Well, when he was put in my care there were four or five of the boys with him. They had heerd he was comin’ back, and they met him away down this side of St. Paul. And they nursed him all the way, and fed him just as if he had been a sick girl. He was lookin’ out of the winder of the car all the time, day an’ night, but wasn’t sayin’ nothin’. When we got to Great Falls he looked out of the car winder and smiled. It was the first time the boys had seen him do that since they met him, an’ they thought he was getting’ well. He asked ’em to set him up in his berth so he could see. And he looked at the mountain tops out there, covered with the whiteness of God, and the foot of the mountains that is washed by the purest water this side of the divide.
“The train was just gettin’ a good hold on the rails when the poor fellow sank back and the next thing I see the boys was takin’ the piller out from under his head. Then I knowed it was all over. Then one of the boys came to me and asked me if I would take $1,000 to stop the train. I told ’em I couldn’t do anything of that sort. They said money was no object. Then I asked ’em what was up, and one of ’em told me that he (meaning the dead man) had made a last request that he be taken from the train and buried in sight of that mountain that had the snow on it–the one that caught his eyes first after we had come over the river, They said they had promised him they would. I asked ’em where they would get a box and they said a man as good as he was didn’t need no box; that the angels would take care of him as soon as he was laid away.
“I asked ’em what they would do if the train wasn’t stopped. They held a short parley and said in a most respectful way, which I understood, that they had to carry out the wishes of the deceased at all hazards; that they could stop the train if I didn’t. I understood ’em. I pulled the cord and went forward, and while the engineer was mendin’ the locomotive, which got out of sorts jest then, the funeral procession moved out, and the dead was buried out there in full sight. It so happened that we got the locomotive fixed just as the funeral was over, and we took the pallbearers into Butte that night.
“And I never pass that spot that I don’t look out where they laid him. I ain’t never seen any of the pallbearers since, and I don’t know the name of the young man that they buried. Do you know, gents, that his grave is green all the year round? I once thought of puttin’ up a gravestone at his head, but thinks I, it’s none of my business, and, besides, the boys said the angels was goin’ to take care of his body, so I thought I wouldn’t be intrudin’ on any angel’s business. It was the only time, though, that my locomotive ever got anything the matter with it.” Chicago Tribune.
I once attended a very poor old man of the name of Jordan, in his last illness. I call him poor, but yet he was not in want, and had about him the comforts of life. When he was near his end, he said to me—
‘Doctor, I want to know the truth from you. I am not in the habit of being flattered by the world. There was a time, indeed, when it ‘fooled me to the top of my bent;’ but that was long ago. Do you not flatter me, but tell me your real opinion. Shall I soon die, or shall I linger on a brief career, in a world I am quite willing to be done with?’
‘You desire me,’ replied I, ‘to be candid with you, and I will. You are on your death bed.’
‘How soon shall I be immortal?’
‘That I can not say. But your hours, so far as human experience can teach me to predict, are numbered.’
He was silent for a few moments, and a slight spasm passed across his face.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘it is the lot of all. I have lived long enough.’
‘Is there no friend or relation, Mr. Jordan,’ said I, ‘to whom you would wish to send? You are here, as you have often told me, quite alone in lodgings. Perhaps you would like to revive some old recollections before you leave the world.’
‘Not one,’ he said.
‘Are you so completely isolated?
‘Most completely. I have tried all relations, and found them wanting. But still I have remembered them, and made my will. It is now between the mattress and sacking of this bed, and Mr. Shaw, the only honest attorney I ever met with, and who resides in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, will carry my intentions into effect I was rich once in early life. How dark a day.’
‘To-day. How dark and misty it has come over, doctor.’
His sight was going fast, and I felt certain that it would require but little patience, and a small sacrifice of time to see the last of Mr. Jordan.
‘Yes,’ he continued, speaking in an odd, spasmodic fashion. ‘Yes, I was rich, and had many a crawling sycophant about me, many smiling faces at my board; but there came a reverse, and like fair flowers at a sudden frost, my kind friends hid their heads. I was nearly destitute, and thinking and believing that the ties of blood would be strong enough to bind to me, in my distress, those with whom I claimed kindred, and who had been delighted to claim kindred with me, I went to them, a visitor.’
‘And failed, as you say. They dropped from me one by one. Some remembered slight offenses; some were never at home; some really thought I must have been dreadfully improvident, and, until they were convinced I had not, could not assist me. Doors were shut in my face—window blinds pulled down as I passed. I was shunned as a pestilence — my clothes were in rags — my step feeble from long want of common necessaries. And then an old school companion died in the West Indies, and left me £20,000, which I received through the hands of Mr. Shaw.’
‘A large fortune! And your relations?’
‘Heard of it, and were frantic. I disappeared from them all. From that day to this, they have not heard of me. Do you love wild flowers?’
‘Yes. Here are heaps just from the teeming garden. Look, too, how yon cherub twines them in her hair. The stream flows deep to eternity!’
‘Mr. Jordan, sir,’ I cried. ‘Mr. Jordan, do you know me.’
‘Come hither, laughing, gentle spirit,’ he said, ‘bring with you your heap of floral gems. Yes, I know this is the sweet violet. Mary, my Mary; God knows I love you.’
It was a strange thing but, at the moment the blind of the window, which I had drawn up to the top, came suddenly rattling down, and the room was quite dark. I raised it again, and then turned to the bed,
Mr. Jordan was a corpse!
What a remarkable change had in these few moments come over the old man’s face. The sharp lines of age had all disappeared, and there was a calm, benign expression upon the still features, such as in life I never saw them wear.
‘A restless spirit is at peace,’ I said, as I felt for the will where he told me it was placed, and found it. It was merely tied up with a piece of red tape, and addressed to Mr. Shaw, 20, Lincoln’s-Inn Fields; so I resolved to trust no other messenger, but to take it in my hand myself. I told the landlady of the house that her lodger was no more; and that she would no doubt hear immediately from his solicitor, and then I left.
‘Well, Mr. Shaw,’ I said, after I had mentioned to him the manner of Mr. Jordan’s death, ‘here is the will, sir, and I presume I have nothing further to do than to thank you for your courtesy, and bid you good evening.’
‘Stay a moment,’ he said. ‘Let me look at the document. Humph! a strange will. He leaves the form of an advertisement here, which is to be inserted in the morning papers, calling his relations together, to here the will read.’
‘Yes, Well, I shall, as I see I am named trustee, do as he wishes. He states that he is very poor.’
‘Why, he spoke to me of £20,000.’
‘Did he really? A delusion, sir, quite a delusion. £20,000! He had that amount twenty-five years ago. But, sir, as you have attended him, and as I happen to know he had a high opinion of you, I should like you, as his friend, to be with me, as it were, in future proceedings connected with his will!”
‘In which there is a mystery, eh! Mr. Shaw!’
‘A little—perhaps a little bit of post mortem revenge, that is all, which I am not now at liberty to descant upon. But I will take care to coincide with you, and I shall hope that you will follow the old fellow to the grave.’
I promised that much, and duly attended the funeral. It was a quiet, walking affair, and from the manner of it I felt quite convinced that there were not funds to make it otherwise. A mound of earth alone marked the spot in the little church-yard at Barnes, where Mr. Jordan slept the sleep that knows no waking. A drizzling rain came down. The air was cold and eager, and I returned home from the funeral of Mr. Jordan, about as uncomfortable as I could.
o o o o o o
The next day the following advertisement appeared in a morning paper, and caught my eye as I sat at breakfast:
‘If any of the relations of Mr. John James Jordan, deceased, will call at the office of Mr. Shaw, 20, Lincoln’s-Inn Fields, they will hear of something advantageous.’
I made up my mind to call upon Mr. Shaw during the day, and about three o’clock, I reached his chambers, or rather I reached the stair-case leading to them, and there I had to stop, for it was quite besieged by men and women, who were all conversing with great eagerness.
‘What can it mean?’ said an old woman; ‘I’m his aunt, and of course I speak for my Ned!’
‘Well, but bother your Ned,’ said a man, ‘he hardly really belongs to the family. I’m his brother. Think of that, Mrs. Dean.’
‘Think of what, you two-legged goose?’
‘Pho, pho,’ said another man, ‘I knew him very well. I’m his cousin. Hilloa! what’s this? Who are you?’
A woman in tattered garments, but who still looked like a beautiful one, stood hesitatingly at the foot of the stairs.
‘Is this Mr. Shaw’s?’ she said. ‘Hush, Mary, hush! don’t my dear.’ ‘But I am hungry, mamma,’ said the little girl, who was holding her by a handful of her dress.
‘Oh, Mary—do not dear; we—we shall soon go home. Hush, dear, hush, hush! Is this Mr. Shaw’s?’
‘Yes,’ said a fat woman, ‘and who is you, pray?’
‘I—I saw an advertisement. I am his aunt Grace’s only child. My name is Mary Grantham. This is my only child. She—she is fatherless and has been so for many a day,’
‘What,’ cried a man, ‘are you the Mary he broke his heart about?’
‘Broke his fiddlestick,’ said the fat woman.
‘Good God, do I live to hear that!’ exclaimed the woman with the child.
‘You had better go up to the solicitor at once,’ whispered I. ‘Come, I will show his door,’
I made a way for her through the throng of persons, and we soon reached the chamber.
‘Here is another of Mr. Jordan’s relations, Mr. Shaw,’ said I, ‘I find you have had quite a levee.’
‘I have indeed, doctor. You must come at twelve o’clock, next Monday, madam, when the will of Mr. Jordan will be read by me to all around.’
‘I thank you, sir.’ She was about to leave the chambers, when I interposed.
‘Pardon me, madam,’ I said. ‘But as I was the only person with Mr. Jordan, at the time of his decease, I wish to ask you a question. If I mistake not, your name was the last that passed his lips. ‘Mary, my Mary,’ he said, ‘God knows that I loved you!’
She sank into a chair, and burst into tears.
‘You, then,’ I added, ‘are the Mary whom he loved. Ah, why did you not, if you can weep for him now, reciprocate the passion?’
‘I did love him,’ she cried; ‘God knows, and he, who is now with his God, knows how I loved him. But evil tongues came between us, and we were separated. He was maligned to me, and I was wearied by entreaties and tears, until I married another. She, who has turned me from him, and severed two hearts that would and should have been all the world to each other, confessed the sin upon her death-bed.’
‘Who was it?’ said Mr. Shaw.
‘His mother! From no other source could I have believed the tales I was told. But I did not then know enough of the world to think that there were mothers who could malign their own children. We were separated–my husband died, leaving me that last little one, of many. We are very, very poor—no one will help us—an acquaintance showed me the advertisement, and urged me to come—it was a false hope. But I find that there are strong arms and brawling tongues below, that I can not contend against.’
‘Never mind that,’ said the solicitor; ‘it is my duty to read the will on Monday, and as a relation it is your duty to attend at the same time. I tell you to have no expectations.’
I saw Mr. Shaw try to slip some money into her hand, and I saw a crimson flush come over her face as she said, ‘We can still work:’ and then, fearing she had been harsh to one who wished to be kind, she shook his hand in both of hers, and said. ‘God bless you, sir, I thank you from my heart.’
Bang, bang! came to the door of the chamber, a minute after Mary had left, and upon its being opened, a man of about six and thirty made his appearance.
‘Something advantageous!’ he gasped, for he was out of breath; ‘what—what is it? Give it me, give it me! How much? Good God, don’t let any body else have it. I’m his youngest brother—give it to me.’
‘If you will attend here at 12 o’clock on Monday, the will will be read.’
Bang, bang, bang!
‘I’m thoroughly besieged,’ said Mr. Shaw; ‘now, madam, who are you?’
‘Something advantageous,’ screamed a masculine looking woman;
‘I’m a relative—what is it? Come on, my dears. Here’s my five dear daughters, and my baby—come along.’
‘Be off with you,’ cried the younger brother.
‘Did you speak to me, you wretch,’ said the lady, and she planted a blow in his face that made him reel again. ‘Take that; I know you are a sneaking hound; you used to be called the chimpanzee in the family, you poor, scorched-up-looking bundle of cat’s-meat.’
Several more arrivals now took place, and poor Mr. Shaw was fairly bewildered. Sounds of contention arose on the staircase—shrieks from family combatants came upon our ears, and finally, I advised Mr. Shaw to paste a placard on the outer door of his office, on which was written,
‘The will of Mr. Jordan will be read here on Monday next, at twelve o’clock, precisely.’
The riot gradually subsided. The evening came on, and all the relations of the deceased had been and gone. Mr. Shaw and I supped together, and I promised to be with him punctually at twelve o’clock on Monday, for I was as curious as anybody could be to hear the will read, and at all events, anticipated a bustling scene upon the occasion. I was not doomed to be disappointed.
o o o o o
It is a habit of mine rather to be too soon than too late, and in the present instance I found it a most useful one, for I really almost doubt if I should have got into the chambers of Mr. Shaw at all, if I had been later than I was.
I had fairly to push Mrs. Mary Grantham in, despite a vigorous opposition; and a man stopped my own entrance, crying—
‘Who are you? What relation are you?’
‘His grandfather’s uncle,’ said I; ‘and if you don’t make way I’ll pull the nose off your face.’
It was well that Mr. Shaw occupied very spacious chambers, or otherwise he could not have accommodated one-half of the persons who came to the reading of the will; and never in all my life did I see such malignant looks pass from one to another, as shot from the eyes of the relations. It was a most pitiful picture of human nature.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ said Mr. Shaw; ‘ahem! ahem!’
There was a death-like stillness.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, I am commissioned to read to you the—the —what shall I call it?—it is hardly a will—of the late Mr. Jordan. No, it certainly ought not to be called a will, for a will, properly speaking, is a testamentary—”
‘Read, read, read!’ cried a dozen voices.
‘Well, ladies and gentlemen, I am glad to see you are all in respectable mourning.’
‘Except one,’ said the younger brother; ‘there’s his Mary, that he was so fond of. Oh, dear me! she only comes for what she can get.’
Mrs. Grantham burst into tears. There was a little shabby piece of black crape upon her arm, and another upon the arm of her child.
‘I—I could not,’ she said; ‘ I could not do more. God help me! I had not the means!
‘Read, read, read!’ cried all the voices.
‘Ahem!’ said Mr. Shaw, reading; ‘I, John James Jordan, being very poor, and having in vain called upon every relation I have in the world, for assistance, and found none, have to state that my heart was filled with bitterness and uncharitableness toward them. But still I think that they are not dead to all feeling; and this being my last will and testament, I desire that my debts, amounting to the sum of one pound, three shillings, and eight pence, be paid forthwith of my estate; that my funeral be strictly private, in Barnes churchyard, where I last parted with one whom I loved, but who has gone abroad, I am told; and to that one of my relations who will erect a tombstone, I bequeath—
‘Hark! will you!’ cried one; ‘be quiet. Go on—yes, yes. Oh: you wretch, where’s your feelings! Go to the devil!’
‘Really, ladies and gentlemen,’ said I, ‘this is most indecorous.’
‘I bequeath,’ continued Mr. Shaw, ‘my dying blessing and forgiveness.’
Mr. Shaw then folded up the will and put it into his pocket, saying— ‘I wish you all good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I sold the few clothes and other matters he died possessed of, and paid for the funeral, and his debts; being myself minus one shilling and four pence, which I hope you will some of you pay.’
It is quite impossible by any words to fairly depict to the reader the appearance of Mr. Jordan’s relations at this moment. If the fabled Gorgon’s head had suddenly appeared, and transformed them all to stone, they could not have looked more completely paralyzed and panic-stricken.
‘A tomb-stone!’ shrieked twenty voices. ‘A tombstone!’
‘A tombstone!’ said Mr. Shaw. ‘A small one would not cost much. You could put on it a suitable inscription. Here lies—’
‘Lies here—never mind,’ said the brother. ‘Never mind. I—I—Oh, that’s all, is it.’
‘You are a humbug,’ said the masculine woman to Mr. Shaw, ‘and so was old stupid Jordan.’
‘Go to the deuce, all of you,’ shouted another; ‘a tombstone indeed.’
Mr. Shaw was wiping his spectacles.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to add,—’
‘Oh, stuff, stuff! Bother! A tombstone indeed; I shan’t stay another moment. An old thief. I wish a tombstone had been down his throat. Come on! Come on! It’s all a do.’
‘But, ladies and gentlemen.—’
They were quite deaf to the remonstrances of Mr. Shaw, and in a few moments the chambers were quite clear, with the exception of Mrs. Mary Grantham, who was sobbing bitterly. She then rose, and looked at me hesitatingly. Then she looked at Mr. Shaw, and she seemed to be struggling to say something. She placed her hand in her bosom, and drew forth a ring tied to a black ribbon, and then, with a convulsive effort she spoke.
‘This—this ring—it is my only valuable possession. It was given to me thirty years ago, by him who is now no more, my cousin John, who loved me. I have clung to it in pain and in sorrow, in difficulty and in distress; I have never parted with it. I seemed to be but only separated from him while I had it near my heart. But now, great distress forces me—to—to part with it. Will—will neither of you gentlemen buy it of me. I—I shrink from its going into the hands of utter strangers.’
‘Humph!’ said Mr. Shaw; ‘there are a couple of sovereigns for it.’
She took the money, and then, after one long, lingering look, and a fervent kiss at the ring. she laid it on the table. and tottered from the place. I was about to follow her, but Mr. Shaw held me back.
‘Hold! hold!’ he said.
‘You are a brute sir,’ said I. ‘Take your hands off me; I will buy the ring of you and give it back to her. It breaks her heart to part with it, I see,’
‘I shan’t part with it,’ he said; ‘you are a very hasty man, doctor.’
I was very angry, and bounced out of the office. I looked eagerly about for Mrs. Grantham, but could not see her. I walked hurriedly across the square, and as chance would have it. I went in the same direction she did. My first impulse was to speak to her, and my second thought was to follow her, and to see where she went. She crossed Holborn, and traversed some of the long streets that lead into the New Road, where she arrived at last, and finally paused at a stone-mason’s yard.
I could have shed tears at that moment, for now I felt why she had parted with her cherished ring. She stayed about a quarter of an hour at the stone-mason’s, and then she came out and walked slowly away. I did not follow her further, but I went into the mason’s yard, and said to him—
‘Did that lady give you an order?’
‘Why, yes, sir, such a one as it is. She has got me to do a stone for two pounds, and she’s paid me. I’m to meet her at the churchyard at Barnes to-morrow morning at nine o’clock with it. and put it up. It’s only to have on it the name of John James Jordan. and under that. ‘God bless him.’
I walked away with a sort of mist before my eyes, and it was an hour before I recovered my composure. ‘I will meet her,’ thought I, ‘at the grave of her last love, and I will be a friend to her, if she never have another in the world. She shall have her ring again, if I force it from the lawyer. She shall have it. I’ll go and get it now, at once.’
I suppose I looked in a very tolerable passion when I got back to Mr. Shaw’s chambers, for he got behind a table when he saw me, and said— ‘Come, come, no violence.’
‘Hark you, sir,’ said I; ‘you have got the ring. There’s your money. Give it me directly, sir. Mrs. Grantham, poor thing, is going tomorrow morning, at nine o’clock, to place a stone at the grave of Mr. Jordan, and I intend to be there and give her her ring.’
‘Oh! very well. Bother the ring. I don’t want it. It ain’t worth half the money I gave for it. There it is; don’t bother me.’
I took up the ring, then put down two sovereigns, and casting upon him a withering look, which, to tell the truth, he did not seem much to care about, I left the chambers.
o o o o o
A soft. damp, white mist covered up all objects, and made the air uncommonly raw and chilly, as on the following morning, just as the clock of the church at Barnes chimed the three-quarters past eight, I entered the churchyard.
The first thing I then did, was to fall over somebody’s grave, for I was looking for Mrs. Grantham, instead of minding where I was walking; and then a voice said—
‘There you go again, as violent as usual, doctor;’ and in the dim mist I saw Mr. Shaw, the solicitor, to my great surprise.
I was going to say something, but at the moment I was nearly knocked down again, by some one brushing past me. A gleam of sunshine came out, and the mist began to clear away, when a most singular scene presented itself. A few yards off was the grave of Mr. Jordan, and kneeling by it was Mary, his first love, with her child by her side. Mr. Shaw stood to my left, and at his feet there knelt a respectable looking young man—I recollected him as Mr. Shaw’s clerk.
“Good God! Richards,’ said Mr. Shaw, ‘is that you? What is the matter?’
‘Oh! sir,’ said Richards. ‘I have come to ask your forgiveness. The spirit of my poor old father stood by my bedside all night. Oh, God! oh, God! it was dreadful; and I knew what it was for. Oh! sir, forgive me. I—I peeped into the will, sir, while you went out to dinner—Mr. Jordan’s will—and—and I went round to all the relations, and sold the secret for two pounds a-piece, and—and—’
Mr. Shaw gave a jump that astonished me.
‘Doctor, doctor,’ he shouted; ‘for God’s sake run down the London road and bring the man with the gravestone. Oh! good gracious. Oh! d——n you, Richards. Ha! ha! ha! Oh! here he is. Oh! bless you for a prudent stone-mason; you shall get well paid for this job. Hip! hip! Hip!—hurrah!’
I thought, to be sure, that Mr. Shaw must have gone mad. There was a man looking over the railing of the church-yard, with a spade on his shoulder; to him Mr. Shaw said—
‘Five guineas for that spade.’
The man thought he was mad, and tried to run away; but he dropped the spade; and in another moment Mr. Shaw’s coat was off, and he was digging away like fury.
‘Where’s the stone!’ he cried: ‘bring the stone. That’s right. Poke it in—prop it up. That’s the thing—all’s right. Here we are. Another knock. All’s right—all’s right.’
‘Lor!’ said the stone-mason, as he lifted up his hands; ‘look there!’
I looked in the direction he indicated, and there, to my astonishment, I saw arriving, carts, coaches, cabs, and wheel-barrows, and each containing a tombstone. A regular fight ensued at the entrance of the churchyard; and engaged in the fight I recognized the relations of Mr. Jordan. Heavens, how they cuffed each other!
‘Hold!’ cried Mr. Shaw; ‘you are all too late, although you had information you ought not to have had. There is already a stone on Mr. Jordan, and placed, too, by the only one who knew not what you all know. Listen to the conclusion of the will—‘And to that one of my relations who will erect a tombstone to my memory, I bequeath my blessing and forgiveness, and eighty thousand pounds in bank stock.’ ‘Madam,’ to Mrs. Grantham, ‘I congratulate you.’
‘And there’s your ring.’ said I; ‘Mr. Shaw, let us shake hands; I understand you now.’
‘Ha! ha!’ said Mr. Shaw, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, you had better all of you keep the tombstones for yourselves. You can get the name altered, for if you don’t, I’m very much afraid you will not find them
The Cincinnatus, Vol. 1, 1857: pp. 31-40
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil does so like a happy ending…. Except, possibly for Mr Shaw’s clerk, who will, it seems likely, lose his situation. And possibly for the greedy relatives, although, to be fair, tombstones can be easily altered or even re-sold to recoup their losses. One predicts that some of the tombstones will be soon needed, as Mr Jordan’s volatile relations succumb to chagrin-induced apoplexies.
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.
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
[Originally published 1 November 2016 at HauntedOhiobooks.com]
Dia de los Muertos begins today. I hope you have your ofrendas decorated and have laid in a good supply of sugar skulls and marigolds. Although I’ve previously told ghost stories about dead nuns and sinister ravens and corpse-confessors to celebrate, this year I’d like to visit the fascinating world of Hispanic street-car hearses. They are perhaps, not strictly speaking hell-wains, the common carrier for the souls of the damned, but rather vehicles for Purgatorial passage. (Incidentally, I had thought about calling this post “A Streetcar Named ‘The Crier.’” There was a funeral street car in Baltimore christened “Dolores.”)
While trolley hearses were used in the United States, there did not seem to be as much enthusiasm about the idea as there was in Mexico and South America where they were seen as a modern innovation and a symbol of progressive government policies towards the poor, offering various levels of service and conveying the bodies of paupers to the grave without charge.
Despite the egalitarian public’s fondness for private funeral trains and carriages in the United States, the press seemed fascinated by this “class system” of Mexican funerals. The trolley funerals were often the subject of “curious customs from our neighbors to the south” articles, complete with the casual racism of the time. I’ll caution you that there will be a bit of overlap with the articles here because I’m a completist when it comes to documenting mortuary history.
Here we see how the trolley hearses did not start out as a program of government beneficence, but as a capitalist venture.
FUNERALS ON STREET CARS
When the street-car line was first opened in [the City of] Mexico an enterprising stockholder, Senor Gayosso, bought up all the hearses in the city. He then had funeral cars built for the tracks and procured the sole right to prepare passengers and haul them to their last resting-place. He is to-day one of the wealthiest men in Mexico. The first-class funeral cars for adults are built of fine black wood. A raised part is in the center of the car on which the coffin is placed. A canopy, exquisitely finished, covers the entire car, the sides being artistically draped. From four to eight beautiful black horses, with long, black plumes in their heads, haul this strange car.
The two drivers are dressed in fine black suits, gloves and high silk hats, bound with wide crepe bands. The coffin is placed on the rest prepared for it, and all around and over flowers are placed. Following this comes a train of cars with the friends. The windows are draped with white crepe and the doors with black. A funeral train will average twenty cars and more, if it is a person of wealth who has died. But in the hundreds who follow a body to the grave cannot be found one woman or child.
I have asked the reason why no women ever attend funerals in Mexico. It is against the rules of society. Mr. Gayosso says women are not allowed to go to funerals because they cry too much. However, a wife cannot go to her husband’s funeral, nor can a mother follow her babe to its grave.
There is a similarity in all the funeral cars. Those for children are white, drawn by white horses. Those for the poor are, like other things in this world for the poor, cheap and shabby. The poor Indian can have a funeral-car and two passage tickets for fifty cents by applying to the police. He can even hire a plain, unpainted coffin to carry the dead to the grave. Once there, the body is wrapped in a serape and consigned to a grave which has been rented for from two to five years. At the end of that time the grave is opened and the bleaching bones are cast into a corner kept for that purpose, where they lay bleaching in the hot Southern sun, exposed to the gaze of the public.
Funerals cost from fifty cents to $2,000. One of the prettiest customs in Mexico is the universal respect which greets a passing funeral. Every man, from the millionaire to the poor, half-clad peon, takes off his hat until the sad train is passed. Well-dressed senoras bow their head and silently cross themselves, while the Indian women kneel in prayer. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 21 May 1887: p. 15
Even today “Agencias Funerarias Gayosso” appears to be one of the most prominent funeral directors in Mexico.
Among the poor, there was a custom of carrying the coffin to the cemetery by hand or on the head.
The Mexicans have a queer way of burying the dead. The corpse is tightly wrapped in century plant matting, and placed in a coffin rented for about twenty-five cents. One or two natives, as the case may be, place the coffin on their heads and go in a trot to the grave, where the body is interred, and the coffin is then returned. The wealthy class use the street cars as hearses, and the friends follow behind the cars on foot. Evening News [San Jose, CA] 23 February 1889: p. 3
The funeral trolleys were quite the lucrative business.
The story of the splendid street car service given the city of Mexico would hardly be complete without giving a short description of the funeral service. There is a special department for this service, which is very much used, and which earns, I am told, about $400 per day. For this service the old horse cars are used to a good advantage. The company controls the funeral service of the city, whether it be by electric car, horse car or carriage, and it is prepared to furnish any kind of service upon short notice given at their office.
With few exceptions the funerals from the city to the cemeteries are conducted by the street railway company, either first-class, second-class or free, the cost varying with the amount of decoration used on the cars. It is not an uncommon sight to see five or six funerals leaving the public square, following one another on the street railway tracks, each with from one to three cars. Some have great quantities of beautiful flowers and ornamentation and others have none.
The funeral car is generally a motor car, but sometimes it is pulled by mules. It is painted and trimmed in black or white. All are single-truck cars, with four square posts supporting the roof at the corners of the car body, forming a parallelogram, say 12 feet long by the usual width of the car. Between the posts on the floor of the car is a raised portion upon which the casket and many of the flowers are placed. The friends of the dead are carried in one, two or three trailers or horse cars. I have seen as many as two trailers filled with floral decorations.
There are also two magnificently furnished and fitted cars called “Carrozas” for extraordinarily fine funerals. These cars cost upward of $10,000 each and have a place in front for the casket, with seats behind for the people. Women never attend funerals in this country. They also have 20 electric and 8 horse “Carrozas,” which are used for first and second class funerals, according as may be required and are decorated to suit for extra expense. The original cost of such a car is $3.75 silver, trailers being paid for at the same rate,
This service saves the people many thousands of dollars annually and at the same time is worthwhile to the railway company.
The free car for funerals when people are unknown or die absolutely destitute is quite another thing; instead of being entirely open it is entirely closed, with doors on one side opening from top to bottom. There are four doors, with three compartments to each (like pigeonholes), there being 12 places in each car. In each one of these places a body is placed, either in a common board coffin or sewed up in a blanket. The latter cars are furnished at the exact cost of running, twice per day. The service is paid for by the government. Electric Railway Review, Volume 19, 14 March 1908: p. 326
The trolleys were even mentioned in the papers and in guidebooks as one of the not-to-be-missed tourist attractions of Mexico City. I was interested to note that the information on trolley-hearses from an 1899 guide to Mexico was copied practically word-for-word by a 1911 travel book—a long run of popularity.
MEXICO’S TROLLEY FUNERALS
Train of Electric Hearses and Mourners’ Cars One of the Sights.
City of Mexico, June 27.
The elaborate funeral processions which, winding gay-colored through the streets, are a feature of most Spanish-American countries, are unknown here. The electric trains are used for all funerals and the procession following the dead to the place of burial is as modern and up to date as it can be. The electric trains of Mexico are well built and run, their direction being in the hands of Americans and Englishmen. One of the main lines runs to the principal cemetery of the city and along this all the funerals go.
The company has a contract with the city under the terms of which a special burial car, containing coffins for twelve bodies, calls daily at the hospitals and public institutions to take the city charges who have died to the city cemetery. Under the contract with the city the trolley company furnishes the hearse and the car crew, and the undertakers are city employes. The funeral car is a plain black car with little ornamentation.
The company has for private use several cars ranging in elaborateness from a plain style, for which a small charge is made, to a very elaborate one, the price of which puts it beyond the reach of all but the well-to-do.
All the cars are so constructed that they can be run off the tracks and over the pavements to the house from which the body is to be taken. When the coffin is secured the car is drawn by horses back to the nearest track, where it make the necessary electric connection.
Of late the government has been repaving the streets with asphalt. It has been found that dragging the heavy funeral cars over this is ruinous to the pavement and soon another arrangement will be necessary. The trolley company intends to have a central funeral station designated, into which the electric hearses can run on spurs and to which the dead will be taken in vehicles provided for that purpose. A familiar sight on the trolley line to the cemetery is a funeral train made up of an electric hearse, with a trailer for the mourners; another hearse, with another body, another trailer, with another party of mourners, and so on. The trains run at the same speed as other electric vehicles.
Many of the hearses are elaborately embellished with statuettes, carved work, plumes, torches and similar emblems of mourning. The trolley company finds the business profitable and it is growing all the time. Grand Rapids [MI] Press 27 June 1903: p. 10
This pretty picture of funereal efficiency was rather marred by darker reports of ill-maintained tramways, which caused derailments and the spilling of corpses into the street. The admirable plan to collect pauper corpses from the hospitals with Prussian precision was tempered by the reality that the trolley did not always run on time and there were both backlogs of rotting bodies at the cemeteries and complaints by the dismayed populace of naked and decomposing bodies and body parts being run through the middle of Mexico City during the day. In addition, in 1904 there were complaints that a pulqueria across the street from the Panteon Civil de Dolores was patronized by mourners and trolley drivers, who then drove recklessly through the cemetery.
The Mexican Civil War caused the destruction of many trolley lines. The article below suggests that the Mexican trolley-hearse was on the wane. Note that the headquarters of the Mexico Tramways Company was in Canada, perhaps a remnant of those “Englishmen” who were said to have built and run it in 1903.
FUNERAL TRAINS IDLE
Toronto, Ont., Jan. 24. At his desk in Toronto, an official of the Mexico Tramways Company recently noted statistics showing that the street car hearse business in Mexico City had been dropping off gradually during recent years. Hence, an order has gone forth from the Toronto headquarters of the Mexican city’s street car system that its “funeral trains” no longer are to be operated. Times-Picayune [New Orleans LA] 25 January 1931: p. 20
It seems as though trolley-hearses still ran in San Francisco through the late 1920s. Does anyone know the date of the latest use of a trolley hearse either in Mexico or the United States? Bier-heads welcome. Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
In my recent look at superstitions, gamblers are often described as the “most superstitious” of folk. The papers of the past took much pleasure in interviewing card-sharps and casino habitués about their pet hoodoos, which might involve, for example, a lucky elephant watch fob or a gambler’s horror of an onlooker’s foot on his chair. But, realistically, what are the odds that I would give you a post on such penny-ante gambling superstitions when there are charms and omens involving death or body parts to be had?
Omitting the well-known “Dead Man’s Hand” and the “death futures” insurance taken out on the lives of famous people like Queen Victoria and King Edward VII, we find that trinkets associated with execution or suicide were cherished by gamblers.
Russian variant of the superstition. Reported March 27th, 1880
The hangman is permitted to trade upon the superstition still current in Russian society, respecting the luck conferred upon gamesters by the possession of a morsel of the rope with which a human being has been strangled, either by the hand of justice or by his own. Immediately after young M’Cadetzky had been hanged, only the other day, Froloff was surrounded by members of the Russian jeunesse dorée, eager to purchase scraps of the fatal noose; and he disposed of several dozen such talismans at from three to five roubles apiece, observing with cynical complacency that “he hoped the Nihilists would yet bring him in plenty of money.” The Warner Library, Vol. 17, 1917
The ladies were quite as avid as the men to acquire gruesome charms.
Some years ago Louise, Duchess of Devonshire and the late duke were walking on the seashore at Eastbourne when there was washed in at their feet the hand of a negro which apparently had been cut off at the wrist. On one of the fingers was a ring of Oriental workmanship. The duchess had this ring removed and has kept it as a talisman ever since. She has worn it at Monte Carlo when she has had on “a little bit” at the tables and also when she played bridge.
Hangmen from time to time receive letters from women of position offering them sums of money for locks of hair or buttons from the garments of their victims. They make the stipulation that these must not be removed until after the culprit is dead. It seems that in the lore of the superstitious the ghastly object has no significance if taken in life. Even more intensely appreciated is a coin which has been rubbed on the dead body of an executed. This, it is said, will bring almost fabulous wealth to the possessor. Those who gamble are ready with any price for such a memento. In England, at any rate, there are overwhelming difficulties in getting possession of such, indeed it is only the personal friends of the governors of the prisons where executions take place or the hangmen who can secure them. Columbus [GA] Daily Enquirer 27 November 1910: p. 7
One man who had a remarkable run of luck at Monte Carlo last year ascribed it all to a franc which he wore on his watch chain. This coin had a grim history, for it was the only piece of money found on the body of a gambler who committed suicide in the grounds of the Casino after losing his entire fortune at the gaming tables. The Chickasha [OK] Daily Express 14 August 1901: p. 3
It is interesting how the gamblers in the following story are shocked, shocked! that anyone would rob a grave for a lucky charm. I imagine them uneasily fingering their unsavory talismans in their pockets as they spoke to the reporter.
DEAD WOMEN’S FINGERS.
They Are Not Particularly Sought After by Gamblers.
According to a story that comes from Cincinnati, says the Chicago News, a woman’s grave there was lately desecrated by a gambler for the purpose of getting the forefinger of the woman as a guaranty of good luck.
“I never heard such a story before,” said a well-known gambler. “Gamblers are superstitious, but not in this way that I have ever heard of. They have a mortal fear of pennies, and will often throw them away, thinking that the copper brings them bad luck. In the game of faro bank coppers are generally used and pennies are considered as omens of evil if carried in the pockets.
“It is just the same with old pocket-knives or anything that may be thought unlucky. They would sooner fling half their possessions into the river than run the chance of losing a game. It is sometimes very amusing to see how these superstitious notions prevail, but I suppose they are so well established that they are taken quite seriously.
“Then gamblers make a great deal of how they take their seats at a table and whether they are accosted by anyone while they are playing. If you put our foot upon a gambler’s chair while he is playing he would call you a hoodoo and probably black your eye for your, a such a thing is counted unlucky.”…[S]aid another gambler, on reading the dispatch, “It was a pretty tough job to undertake, even for a gambler. I wonder how any man could do it. He was a tough character, I’ll bet.”
“The man must have been crazy,” chimed in a third. “Some gamblers have their superstitions, but on the whole they are pretty much like other men. They don’t, as a rule, act in such an outrageous manner as this. I fancy the man was off the square a bit.” Salina [KS] Daily Republican 23 January 1892: p. 3
Enthusiastic amateurs aside, bereaved relatives seemed to regularly get permission to dig up graves in order to locate lottery tickets. Inspiration for the 1961 film Mr. Sardonicus…?
Corpse Exhumed to Obtain Prize Lottery Ticket
Brussel, Sept. 10. A romance has just been unfolded in connection with the recent Brussels lottery. For some time the chief prize of $40,000 was unclaimed, and the identity of the winner as just been established in a remarkable manner.
It appears that a young Belgian, aged 19, had purchased a ticket for the lottery, and shortly afterwards he was killed while at work through a stone falling on him. A few days before the result of the lottery was announced he was buried, according to custom, in his Sunday clothes. Some weeks passed and no claimant came forward for the first prize. Then the young man’s friends remember that he had a lottery ticket in the waistcoat pocket of his best suit, and an application was forwarded to the authorities for permission to have the body exhumed. After the usual official delay, the request was granted, and as was expected, the winning ticket was found in the dead man’s clothes. The relatives are now claiming the money. The Oregon Daily Journal [Portland, OR] 11 September 1910: p. 49
Did the newspapers delight in these stories merely as species of urban legend? A parallel case was reported in 2014 when a woman dug up her father’s coffin in search of his “real will.” I’m betting that at least some of these gruesome exhumations actually occurred. They accurately reflect the very real wardrobe shortages of the poor and working classes. Let us have two more.
MISSING LOTTERY TICKET.
FOUND IN A GRAVE
Madrid, January 4. A widow named Colila learned that her husband had bought a fifth share in a lottery ticket, which had won six thousand sterling. Failing to find the ticket, the widow obtained an exhumation order, and found it in the pocket of a waistcoat in which her husband was buried. Press, 6 January 1925: p. 7
Just as the undertaker’s men were about to a coffin at Paris in which lay the body of a man who, according to Continental custom, was dressed in his best clothes for burial, his widow noticed sticking out of his coat pocket a fractional lottery ticket. To her astonishment on examining the ticket she found that it had drawn the third prize in the Christmas lottery, entitling the holder to a very large sum. Auckland [NZ] Star, 10 March 1928: p. 3
Lotteries, particular those held at Christmas, were a tradition throughout Europe and many arcane methods were devised for picking the lucky numbers. In this case, the death of Emperor Napoleon III spurred wild plunges on the numbers of his life.
An English magazine not long since described some of the curious theories and superstitions which prevail among devotees of the lottery and the gaming-table, regarding “lucky numbers.” There are traditionally fortunate and unfortunate combinations, and there are also newer favorites, based very often on figures connected with the chronology of famous men. The career of Napoleon III. would seem to be considered by gamblers a specially successful one, for since his death they have been betting furiously on all numbers supposed to bear a relation to sundry pivotal events of his life. In Vienna, in Milan, in Rome, the newspapers notice this universal rage among regular patrons of the lottery for staking their fortunes on Napoleonic numbers; and, what is also curious, these numbers have in several instances turned out lucky. Thus, in a late Vienna paper we read that “the death of the Man of Sedan has brought good luck to the old women of this city who give themselves up with unquenchable passion to the lottery.” At the last drawing, as the paper goes on to say, the numbers most eagerly seized upon were 3, for Napoleon III.; 65, for his age; 20, for his birthday, it falling on the twentieth of the month; 90, as the highest number in the lottery, hence interpreted to signify “emperor;” and finally 52, the year of his accession to the throne. To the joy of all the old lottery-gossips, the luck fell on these numbers, 3, 20, and 90. At Rome the death of Napoleon III. has furnished new combinations for all the devotees of the lottery. At Milan the same infatuated class have “pointed a moral” of their own from the event—a moral quite different from the one extracted by sermonizers. They have been playing heavily on number 20 (a gold Napoleon being worth twenty francs), and on number 13, which latter, as the proverbially unlucky one, is interpreted to mean the ex-emperor’s death. On the first drawing after his death these two numbers proved to be the lucky ones of the lottery, and it was then found that there had been a great number of winners. Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Volume 11, April 1873
In Sicily, lottery numbers were chosen by dream symbolism and prayers to dead relatives, saints, and executed criminals.
The petitions of most lottery-players are addressed to the souls of executed criminals, a kind of devil-worship not easy to explain. A favourite soul is the Anima Pia (pious soul), who was executed in the seventeenth century. These souls in purgatory have need of the prayers of the living, who threaten to withhold them if no help is vouchsafed. The Anima Pia is propitiated by a lighted lamp placed on four evenings in the four different corners of a room. Lottery-numbers are then revealed in a dream, and strict secrecy imposed on the person who dreams them.
Witchcraft is also invoked by the gamblers as well as the saints. Persons believed to know of winning numbers are called subjects, and are possessed by a spirit. A certain priest and three monks, long since dead, are still famous for having made the fortunes of several individuals. The system of numbers used by the cabalists is very complicated and confusing, the figures being mixed intricately and one standing for another. A more simple way is to play the numbers attached to various events, objects, or personages. If some one plays in the lottery with the assistance of Saint Lucia, for instance, he plays twenty-four for her eyes and the date of the day on which he buys his ticket. On the Day of the Dead (November 2nd) fire is the figure of the tomb, thirteen of the wax candles, and twenty-five of the mass. There are special numbers for every saint’s day or other holiday; and there are numbers belonging to the special attributes of the saints, as for example, to Saint Anthony’s pig or Saint Joseph’s staff….Poor women pray to their dead relations before going to bed. Mommino, the writer of the articles from whom these facts are drawn, knew a woman who, only a year ago, refused to take flowers to the family tomb on All Souls’ Day, because none of her dead relations had ever revealed winning numbers to her in a dream. “They forget me,” she said, “so I will forget them.” Macmillan’s Magazine, Volume 75, 1897
Venetians had a really gruesome method for seeking lucky lottery numbers.
In Venice not long ago a lottery drawing gave rise to the opening of coffins, in order that the sign of a lucky number might be detected in the eye or on the lips of the corpse. Shrouds, dusty and covered with mould, were examined for traces of writing that might lead to the sought-for knowledge, and new-born infants were closely inspected for birthmarks that would reveal the secret, while it is said that ladies of birth and education wore their dresses with the insides turned out, in order to propitiate the god of the wheel. In Naples a begging monk was fallen on by two footpads, and, failing to tell them the lucky number, was beaten so severely that he afterwards died. Otago [NZ] Witness 14 October 1897: p. 43
There is a curious superstition in Venice that if a stranger dies in a hotel the number of his room will be lucky at the next lottery. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 16 January 1898: p. 17
This next article is meant to reassure readers as to the prudent character of the future Sovereign of Great Britain, unlike those common gamblers who carried skeletal hand mascots to the gaming tables.
[Edward] The Prince of Wales is quite a frequenter of Monte Carlo and one of its luckiest players in a moderate way, for my bold prince is none of your plungers. His winnings at Monte Carlo and other gaming tables have assisted him in no small degree toward keeping the family pot boiling. Some two or three years ago he made a coup which enabled him to satisfy the demands of some of his most important creditors. He possesses the gambler’s disposition par excellence, being neither too timid nor too bold, too trusting nor too credulous, too pessimistic nor too optimistic He has none of the common gambler’s superstition, and does not believe in any signs, omens, or mascots. The latter is something that all the regular habitués of Monte Carlo religiously pin their faith to. And it is amusing to see the character of the mascots on which they rely. Some of them suggest very strongly the uncanny things which the witches in “Macbeth” drop into their cauldron. Any portion of a corpse is highly esteemed as a mascot, such, for instance, as a little finger bone, or a small piece of a toe joint. One Portuguese player recently aroused much envy by carrying about with him the skeleton hand of one of his countrymen who had been murdered in a quarrel at the card table. If the mascot comes from one who has committed suicide its mascotism is supposed to be doubly powerful. The last time Sarah Bernhardt was here she had for her mascot the head of one of her favorite parrots, who had strangled himself by getting that same head between the bars of his cage, though whether accidentally or with suicidal intent no coroner’s jury ever determined. The Deseret [UT] Weekly, Volume 46, 1893
I’ll fold with one of the more gruesome stories of gambling luck. This comes from an eerie tale of Monte Carlo superstition and synchronicity called “That’s funny. Not a grain of lead,” over at Mrs Daffodil’s blog.
Crack! a sudden shot broke through the great room and everybody who was not watching a stake rushed into a corner, where some unknown plunger had just taken the last plunge into eternity by blowing out his brains. The attendants collected from every corner and formed a hedge round the dead man. Quickly and soundlessly they began moving him out by a side-door, while gamblers picking up their stakes ran to dip a finger in his blood for luck. In five minutes he had disappeared as though he had fallen off a liner into a boiling sea. Monte Carlo cannot afford to have scandals on the premises any more than any well-established and well-connected institution, and is generally more successful than others in concealing them. Blood is soon mopped up, especially if the passers believe that it is a charmed fluid. The roulette ball was soon spinning round again, and the only trace of the tragedy was the struggle of a dozen gamblers to sit where the suicide had been sitting all the afternoon. It was a superstition that the dead gambler’s spirit does not leave the rooms immediately with death, but remains to avenge his ill luck on the bank; and against the unknown forces of the underworld even the bank cannot win…. Scribner’s Magazine, Volume 72, Edward Livermore Burlingame, Robert Bridges, Harlan Logan, editors, 1922
It is an uncanny echo of crowds surging round the scaffold with their handkerchiefs to sop up the blood of martyrs, broken on the wheel.
After this was published, Undine of Strange Company sent me this account of a lottery superstition from the Hull [UK] Packet, 19 August, 1828. She saw my lady fingers and raised me a decomposed, severed head. We have a winnah!
Recently there has been much talk about a plan to compost the dead in urban burial towers, the Urban Death Project. You can even support it through a Kickstarter campaign. From an ecological point of view, this has many advantages: it would be cheaper for families; precious land would not be wasted on cemeteries; no embalming would be needed, reducing use of toxic chemicals; cremation’s high energy costs could be avoided. And families would come away at the end with a nice bag of compost.
On the downside, there are still some bugs to be worked out: the heat of composting does not destroy everything–disease-causing prions, for example and the end product may not be safe to mulch your vegetable garden with. From an historian’s point of view, if this plan became the regular method of burial, cemeteries would disappear and with them, much beauty and historical information. The compost is also apparently not guaranteed to be completely free of other peoples’ relatives, which might bother some families. On a personal note, I probably wouldn’t volunteer to be composted; I’m not a joiner.
While the Urban Death Project is a hip, modern, scientific, and green take on corpse disposal, the notion of communal graves where the dead might rot in peace is not new. N.P. Willis, an American author visited some gruesome burial pits in Italy in the 1830s (during a cholera epidemic, I might add.) Then, as now, there was death tourism.
The road, after leaving the campo, runs along the edge of the range of hills enclosing the city; and just below, within a high white wall, lies the public burial-place of Naples. I had read so many harrowing descriptions of this spot, that my curiosity rose as we drove along in sight of it, and, requesting my friends to set me down, I joined an American of my acquaintance, and we started to visit it together.
An old man opened the iron door, and we entered a clean, spacious, and well-paved area, with long rows of iron rings in the heavy slabs of the pavement. Without asking a question, the old man walked across to the further corner, where stood a moveable lever, and, fastening the chain into the fixture, raised the massive stone cover of a pit. He requested us to stand back for a few minutes to give the effluvia time to escape, and then, sheltering our eyes with our hats, we looked in. You have read, of course, that there are three hundred and sixty-five pits in this place, one of which is opened every day for the dead of the city. They are thrown in without shroud or coffin, and the pit is sealed up at night for a year. They are thirty or forty feet deep, and each would contain perhaps two hundred bodies. Lime is thrown upon the daily heap, and by the end of the year the bottom of the pit is covered with dry white bones.
It was some time before we could distinguish any thing in the darkness of the abyss. Fixing my eyes on one spot, however, the outlines of a body became defined gradually, and in a few minutes, sheltering my eyes completely from the sun above, I could see all the horrors of the scene but too distinctly. Eight corpses, all of grown persons, lay in a confused heap together, as they had been thrown in one after another in the course of the day. The last was a powerfully made, grey old man, who had fallen flat on his back, with his right hand lying across and half covering the face of a woman. By his full limbs and chest, and the darker colour of his legs below the knee, he was probably one of the lazzaroni [the poorest of Naples], and had met with a sudden death. His right heel lay on the forehead of a young man, emaciated to the last degree, his chest thrown up as he lay, and his ribs showing like a skeleton covered with a skin. The close black curls of the latter, as his head rested on another body, were in such strong relief that I could have counted them. Off to the right, quite distinct from the heap, lay, in a beautiful attitude, a girl, as well as I could judge, of not more than nineteen or twenty. She had fallen on the pile and rolled or slid away. Her hair was very long and covered her left shoulder and bosom; her arm was across her body; and if her mother had laid her down to sleep, she could not have disposed her limbs more decently. The head had fallen a little way to the right, and the feet, which were small, even for a lady, were pressed one against the other, as if she were about turning on her side. The sexton said that a young man had come with the body, and was very ill for some time after it was thrown in. We asked him if respectable people were brought here. “Yes,” he said, “many. None but the rich would go to the expense of a separate grave for their relations. People were often brought in handsome grave-clothes, but they were always stripped before they were left. The shroud, whenever there was one, was the perquisite of the undertakers.” And thus are flung into this noisome pit, like beasts, the greater part of the inhabitants of this vast city—the young and the old, the vicious and the virtuous together, without the decency even of a rag to keep up the distinctions of life! Can human beings thus be thrown away!—men like ourselves —women, children, like our sisters and brothers! I never was so humiliated in my life as by this horrid spectacle. I did not think a man—a felon even, or a leper—what you will, that is guilty or debased—I did not think anything that had been human could be so recklessly abandoned. Pah! it makes one sick at heart! God grant I may never die at Naples!
While we were recovering from our disgust, the old man lifted the stone from the pit destined to receive the dead of the following day. We looked in. The bottom was strewn with bones, already fleshless and dry. He wished us to see the dead of several previous days, but my stomach was already tried to its utmost. We paid our gratuity, and hurried away. A few steps from the gate, we met a man bearing a coffin on his head. Seeing that we came from the cemetery, he asked us if we wished to look into it. He set it down, and the lid opening with a hinge, we were horror-struck with the sight of seven dead infants! The youngest was at least three months old; the eldest perhaps a year; and they lay heaped together like so many puppies, one or two of them spotted with disease, and all wasted to baby-skeletons. While we were looking at them, six or seven noisy children ran out from a small house at the road-side and surrounded the coffin. One was a fine girl of twelve years of age, and, instead of being at all shocked at the sight, she lifted the whitest of the dead things, and looked at its face very earnestly, loading it with all the tenderest diminutives of the language. The others were busy in pointing to those they thought had been prettiest, and none of them betrayed fear or disgust. In answer to a question of my friend about the marks of disease, the man rudely pulled out one by the foot that lay below the rest, and, holding it up to show the marks upon it, tossed it again carelessly into the coffin. He had brought them from the hospital for infants, and they had died that morning. The coffin was worn with use. He shut down the lid, and, lifting it again upon his head, went on to the cemetery, to empty it like so much offal upon the heap we had seen.
Willis, by the way, was a friend of Poe and published his poem “The Raven.” He also defended Poe’s reputation after his death. Willis’s idea of a decent burial would have been the standard Victorian one: the body washed, dressed, and coffined. A wake or watch, where the body was not left alone. A religious ceremony, then hearse and carriages to the cemetery for burial in a grave in the family plot. Eventually a monument with a touching inscription erected above the grave. Subsequent pilgrimages and picnics at the cemetery. Distinctions, shrouds, and virtue all intact.
Didn’t the pits eventually fill up? Were the whitened bones left in the pits at Naples reused in any way? Animal bones were often burnt to make pigments or ground up for fertilizer. Perhaps these bones were moved to an ossuary. Skulls disinterred from Neapolitan churches and kept in the Fontanelle charnel house eventually became the subject of a local cult.
A slightly earlier travel writer tells much the same story:
In humble life, no box is provided,—coffin-shape being unknown in the highest. But all here is done in a plain and palpable way; and the occasions are as numerous, where the human remains, in conveyance through the streets of the Neapolitan or Roman Capital—(and, I presume, generally) —are not protected from absolute exposure by a cloth, or a raised awning, as those where they are: the exposure or non-exposure rests in the body’s being borne forth in dress or in comparative, or, it may be, absolute nakedness. In either case it is scrupulously washed clean, and laid out to seem a wax figure: this office rests not with the relatives or domestics of the family, but constitutes the employment of a body of persons, of whom it is the livelihood, and who follow the corpse in procession, each enveloped in a white robe, that disguises the person,—even the face of the wearer being covered, with glasses in the linen, opposite the eyes, to give the train power to perform their duties in detail. The performance, to poor as well as rich, is obligatory on this fraternity ; and the shew they exhibit gives almost as much consequence to the funerals of the one as the other. In Rome the bodies are consigned—coffinless let it be—to earth: and in the exterior of Naples also, is a general cemetery, of which, in sequence through the year, one of its 365 receptacles is diurnally opened, and all who are brought on the same day, are, in utter nakedness, shot into the one pit—that pit to be re-opened on the same day in the following year. But at Naples it is also the practice to reposit corpses numerously in the Church vaults—each in such a position over a hole, that, as it putrifies and moulders, the remains drop into cellarage below, and make room for another corpse to succeed. Mr.__ was present at the stripping of the corpse of a priest—to the shoes—and the placing him in this position, amid remnants of mortality, and in a stench which must beggar description: he tells me he never witnessed a scene so odious or hideous. Minutes of Remarks on Subjects Picturesque, Moral, and Miscellaneous, William Webb, 1827
Thoughts on common graves, composting the dead, or a practical use for bones? Wait for the effluvia to clear before sending to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Other grim and grewsome stories of funerary and mourning practices may be found in
Mary Moulton Becomes Mrs. Scammel in Peculiar Circumstances.
No stranger wedding ceremony was ever performed than the one which on a recent Sunday united Alfred Scammel and Mary Moulton in Blue Rapids, Kan., They stood hand in hand at the foot of a grave in the Oak Hill cemetery and were there made man and wife, at the grave of the mother of the bride, who had blessed and approved the union, but who died before she saw the pair united.
The little company gathered there in the city of the dead looked strangely solemn in the fading light of the February day and there was little to suggest the gayety of a wedding in the solemn words of the minister or the grave faces of bride and groom.
For many years Miss Moulton, the bride, had been fatherless and between her and her mother there had grown up an intimacy and affection different in many ways from that ordinarily exhibited by mother and daughter. They were more like loving sisters. They were friends and companions and the tenderness and devotion each exhibited toward the other had often been remarked by their friends. And when over a year ago Albert Scammel came a-wooing and wrought himself around the gentle heart of the daughter until she felt her life would not be complete without him, the mother joyed in the union and blessed it and said it was well. She entered into all the preparations for the crowning event in the life of her daughter with more than a mother’s zeal and devotion. She was as earnest in her work for the happiness of Mary as though it were her own nuptial day which was approaching.
The wedding was set for February 13 of last year. The guests were bidden and the feast was set and it remained only for the words of the minister to join the lives of those who had chosen one another from all the world for all time. Then came sorry and suffering and the gaunt hand of death. On the eve of the wedding the faithful mother was stricken with illness and the wedding was postponed. She grew rapidly worse and on February 13, the day set for the ceremony, she passed away. The shock of her mother’s death almost carried away the bride-to-be. She withered under it and when at last she began to recover her health and strength she went every day to the cemetery to kneel upon the sod which sheltered the mortal remains of her whom she loved so dearly and to pray for her eternal happiness.
The young man came with her, he who was ready to cleave to her in sickness and death, and, kneeling there on that green mound, it came to them that it would be fitting they should be wedded there above the mother’s grave and on the anniversary of her death. Thus it came about that this strange ceremony was performed in the acre of mourning amid the gleaming headstones and the weeds of sorrow. A few friends were bidden to the wedding, and when they were assembled at the grave the young man and the young woman came down the avenue of bare and leafless trees hand in hand. At the foot of the grave they halted and the minister, standing in front of the marble shaft erected in memory of the mother, made them man and wife.
Thus was the idea of this odd service carried out. The church was beautiful. Oak Hill cemetery; the lights were the slanting rays of the sun playing hide and seek with the shadows of the great trees; the flowers were the loving mementos placed upon the mounds of the sleeping dead; the music was the soft carol of birds and the requiem of a gentle wind, and the altar was a mother’s grave.
All around the little company were the graves of the dead; above them arched the blue sky; the tender charms of nature were everywhere displayed; the sounds of priestly prayer and orphan’s sigh, gentle breeze and twittering birds mingled in an anthem from nature to nature’s God, and the fast declining sun, in a final burst of gold glory; gilded the mother’s monument and shone radiantly upon the young bride like a benediction.
The Parsons [KS] Daily Sun 26 March 1898: p. 3
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil, who is never surprised by the morbid vagaries of the human race, has heard a number of stories about couples plighting their troths over coffins, in coroner’s offices, and in burying grounds. In Russia, a notoriously superstitious land, a cemetery marriage was supposed to stop an epidemic.
In Witepsk, Russia, in order to stop the ravages of the cholera, two couples were married in a cemetery. The ceremony attracted a crowd, and the epidemic increased. Magic circles were drawn around some of the villages, and various heathenish incantations resorted to, but still the disease gathered in its victims. Then the Israelites were forbidden to call in doctors, and the mortality became frightful. How the epidemic as arrested is not told.
The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 7 December 1871: p. 7
Any number of historic cemeteries have designated special areas where weddings may be held in romantic gazebos, under ancient trees, and by tranquil lakes. Recently, when Mrs Daffodil was visiting a local graveyard, which advertises that it hosts weddings, she saw a pretty clearing where a Chinese bridge spanned a little pond. It was a simply perfect location for the nuptial photographs–except that the picture was rather spoilt by a miniature spinney of birches just below the pond, marked by a discreet sign denoting it as a place to scatter a loved one’s ashes.
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.