The Dead Heads of Annecy

Reliquary of the supposed skull of Mary Magdalene at the Basilica in Saint-Maximin

CUT OFF

Heads of Their Dead.

Strange Custom Prevailing in a French Town.

Grewsome Sights That Horrify Strangers

Heads Stored in the Churches

[New York Recorder.]

Some very quaint curiosities of medieval antiquity belong to the traditions and customs of the monastic orders in different countries of Europe. The Capuchins, a branch of the decaying Franciscan Order, came into existence as late as 1525, and derived their title from the Italian name of a large cowl attached to the frock of rough frieze at the back of the neck. They never amassed great wealth or lived in such ease and luxury as some other friars had done; and the traveler in Italy at the present day will find them not unpopular in rural districts. Visitors to Rome are often tempted—it is a matter of taste—to inspect a ghastly display at the Church of the Capuchini. The mummies of deceased priors and the skulls of a multitude of defunct brethren of that community are ranged along the walls. It may have been only the fantastic whim of a gloomy-minded superior at a particular date which established this dismal fashion of commemorating the dead by so questionable a decoration, but the same kind of exhibition is presented in Sicily, at the Capuchins’ Convent of Monreale, a few miles from Palermo. There is a city in the heart of a civilized country where every year the heads of many persons are cut off and placed in little boxes. It seems like a barbarous custom, even though the people have long been dead when they are decapitated. But the people of that city, even though they

HAVE BURIAL RITES

So different from any in the world, see nothing out of the way in it, and in doing as they do believe that they show a deeper and more lasting love for the departed than those who simply bury their dead, erect a tombstone, and then in many instances forget all about them.

The ghastly custom has been in vogue for more than a hundred years in the town of Annecy, which is in the Department of Haute Savoie, in the south of France. It is one of the most picturesque cities of Lower France and nestled at the foot of the Lake of Annecy, within a short distance of Geneva. The surrounding country is made up of scenery of the most marvelous beauty, while the lake, which is nine miles long and only two in breadth, is never ruffled by storms and presents always a mirror-like surface. Thousands of tourists every year visit the town to sail upon the celebrated lake, 1,400 feet above the level of the sea.

But of the many who visit the place and who look with great interest at the church in which the relics of St. Francis de Sales are preserved, at the old castle which was formerly the residence of the Counts of Geneva, and at the nearby iron mines, there are few who know anything of those heads which have been accumulating these many years. For the people have been held up to public scorn before now, and they do not care to talk with strangers about their custom, which is usually misunderstood.

These people bury their dead in the ordinary way, but after the lapse of a few years, when the bodies are reduced to dust, the bones are dug up with ceremonies similar to those under which they are buried. All relatives and friends

ATTEND THE DISINTERMENT

And are present when the skull is separated from the other bones. These second ceremonies at the grave over, the cortege moves on, preceded by a priest with the skull, to the church in which the skull is finally placed.

In the early days this receptacle was merely a wooden box, roughly made, punctured with many holes. But as the years have gone by and the custom has grown, many changes have been made in the original idea. Just as in the ordinary burial there are caskets for the rich and for the poor, so, also in Annecy there are the skull receptacles to suit any extravagance or to satisfy the ideas and devotion of mourning widows, of disconsolate parents or of poetic lovers.

In the structure, quite close to the church, which has been erected for the purpose, there are now piled coffins without number of every shape, size and character. Some that have been the work of years are of oak, massive and fantastically carved. Others are made of pure silver and sparkle with rare gems. Some thought of wood, are bound with precious metals, which form a scroll work of unique design and exquisite workmanship. There are others, too, that are made to represent shrines, and some are counterfeit presentments of famous churches of the world, showing tall spires, Gothic archways, windows of stained glass, pillars and passages, all with the greatest regard to perfection of detail.

As a general thing the receptacles are made but for one skull, but some that are intended for an entire family have little compartments, each bearing an engraved plate, where the skulls of the family members will be placed after death. Very often a bereaved husband will have a coffer designed for the skull for a loved wife, with the necessary space left for the reception of a second skull, so that in death as in life they may be near each other.

In each of these boxes there are curious apertures, made in the shape of a heart. Sometimes they appear in the front of a miniature cathedral window, sometimes rudely cut in the side of a wooden box; but they are always there and are supposed to give light and air, though the contents of the coffers have long ceased to require either. Through these openings the grinning skulls can be seen perfectly well, a gray and senseless mass within the shrine. Upon each box there is the inscription which tells whose head it is which lies within, and sometimes tells of the life and death of the owner, his joys and his sorrows. Sometimes, where people are too poor to buy even the plainest sort of a coffer—and it is not considered a disgrace in this respect to be poor—a skull stands in ostentatious humility upon the coffer of some dead neighbor, with nothing but a label stuck upon it to tell whose it is. There are many other skulls standing quite alone and uncovered, from which the covering has

DROPPED AWAY WITH AGE

But these unprotected skulls are looked after just as carefully, and are regarded just as reverently, as those that are inclosed in the richest casket that can be made.

It is a strange sight to see those who mourn their dead, sitting in the dark chamber and holding the skull box in their hand, or kneeling beside it to pray, now and again pressing their lips to the little holes in the side of the coffers.

Just how the curious custom of burial which is used nowhere else in the world except in this little city came to be employed even tradition tells in a confused sort of way. There are some who say that the churchyard, when the town was smaller than it is to-day, became crowded and that the people, desiring all their dead to be interred in one place, decided upon this idea. By others it is said that there was a learned man who once dwelt there who convinced people that the brain, being the seat of reason and the abode of deepest feeling, if there was any thought or consciousness left after death, it must be connected with the head, so the decision was arrived at to have the skulls always where they could be seen.

It is not often that strangers are permitted to look upon these relics of the dead even if they know of their existence, but when they are, the sight is so unusual as to horrify them. But to the good priests who accompanies the visitor it is different. For this priest explains about these silent neighbors to whom he is accustomed that there is less harm in empty skulls than in the living heads and scheming brains of those by whom we are surrounded in life.

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 14 March, 1896: p. 11

A number of skulls were reported to have been sent by the local museum to the Exhibition of Anthropological Sciences at the Universal Exhibition of Paris, a collection of objects contributed by “anthropologists of all nations.” However, there is no way of knowing if they were actually skulls from the church.

I’m reminded of the charnel houses in Germany and Austria like this one at Hallstatt, where denuded skulls are displayed, painted with the names and dates of former owners. Some are also painted with fanciful floral wreaths or with snakes writhing from empty eye sockets.

The article above is a unique and curious report of a long-forgotten custom with what seems to be an  origin story muddled either by the locals or the journalist. But before we lose our heads over it, I must tell you that this is (to the best of my knowledge) a single source story. I can find nothing in the guidebooks or histories and if this story was copied by any other newspapers in the same format, I’ve not found them.

Initially I wondered if it was a misapprehension of a relic storehouse. Yet most relic chambers were swept away by the French Revolution and the article is clear that bodies were still being dug up and the skulls encased in the church.

Are the skulls still on display? Or [shudder] is the custom still followed? Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Here is a fascinating post about a very similar custom in Brittany.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.

A Man of Vision: The Glass-Coffin Inventor

A recent article in the Guardian about what happens when urban cemeteries are full mentioned that in Kuala Lumpur and some other Asian cities, the urns of the dead are kept in mechanical columbaria. Specific individuals may be accessed at the touch of a button from the filing system. This reminded me of a piece from The Victorian Book of the Dead, about an inventor of glass coffins, a Man of Vision, creating not just glass coffins, but a vacuum seal to preserve the body, the design of the vaults to hold them, and a filing system for corpses. He even suggests a pleasant way to spend time with the dead.

COFFINS MADE OF GLASS

“It’s almost worthwhile dying to be buried in one of them,” said the inventor of a glass coffin yesterday to a Times reporter. Henry H. Barry, the speaker, who lives on Fifth street, just below Spruce has for many years interested himself in transparent systems of burial. After conceiving the glass casket he kept it a secret for a long while, until, on October 24th of last year, it was patented. He is searching for a capitalist and the reporter became one for the time being.

“Yes,” continued the inventor, “I believe the success of this thing is going to be immense. There is one San Francisco firm that will take thousands of the coffins to sell to Chinamen.” [to ship bodies back to China for burial.]

“What is the advantage of glass for domiciles of the dead?”

“In the first place, one has perfect preservation. Before being placed in the vial the patient is embalmed. I may say that the coffin is devised on the walnut shell principle, in two halves. After my customers are once securely packed in coffins I apply an exhaust pump, take out all the air and hermetically seal up the aperture. Then the thing is accomplished. I believe, sincerely, that the whole business will last through several generations. There is the advantage that no infectious disease can come through the glass. The flesh of the subject will preserve its natural tints and relatives and friends will be able to view the deceased for years to come.

“As a sanitary reform it is unparalleled,” he went on; “tenanted coffins can be piled up like any other merchandise anywhere and stay there for years. Some people might prefer to keep relatives in their own houses, nicely put away in the coffins. There is nothing objectionable about the idea. When buried in cemeteries there will be no exhalations whatever, and in case of the removal of graveyards, the coffins can be taken up and carted away with no more offense than would be given by so many kegs of nails.” “What are [sic] the dimension and shape of the coffin?” asked the reporter.

“They can be made of all sizes. The glass is three-eighths of an inch thick, and the coffin is oval with a concave top. It would not do to have it flat as with a vacuum inside it the glass would collapse.” “Wouldn’t they get smashed in cemeteries?” queried the incipient investor.

“On the contrary. We have a system of toughening the glass that makes it like iron. A spade struck against the coffin with a good deal of force will not break it. Body-snatchers would get their fingers cut, but that’s all right. I don’t legislate for ghouls. There is no end to the variations which can be made on these coffins. The glass can be clouded so that only the face is visible. It can be colored, or butterflies and weeping willows can be placed at intervals all over the surface. There are a thousand ways of ornamenting the exterior.”

“What will they cost?” was the next question.

“From seven up.  Seven dollars, I mean, of course. They could possibly be manufactured of such choice material and so beautifully etched as to cost as much as a thousand dollars each. I have often wished that at the time of President Garfield’s death I had had a glass coffin. I am sure it would have been used. I propose to form a company, with a capital of some half a million of dollars. No, sir, I will not sell you the patent outright, so it’s no use pressing me to do so. I have too much faith in its future for that. Another reason is that I am determined it shall not get into the hands of monopolists who will run up the price of coffins to a fancy figure. This casket was invented as much with the idea of benefitting the poor as anything else. Of course there will be money in it for me, and I suppose I shall have to accept whatever comes.”

Mr. Barry then proceeded to unfold the particulars of a remarkable scheme. He said that he had often heard a proposition discussed for excavating and constructing huge catacombs in this city for the reception of the dead. In that case, he thought, his invention would be invaluable. He called the scheme a “trust and safe deposit idea.”

“We should have a vast system of vaults,” he explained, “in which coffins would be placed. Spaces could be reserved for families. Here, in a stall, would be a father; by his side his wife; on the upper shelf the grandmother and grandfather, and above that the other ancestors. Each coffin would have a number at its foot, and catalogues would be issued giving the names of the occupants, for instance, ‘Henry Jones, 241.’ Above the vaults would be a suit of elegant reception rooms into which visitors would be invited. They could sit down and call for, say, ‘No. 241.’ An attendant would go down stairs, slide the casket indicated up on to a little barrow, come back again and leave it with them as long as they liked. They could look at it, have it taken to its shelf when they were through, and return home. A certain amount of rent would, of course, have to be exacted. What do you say of going into the enterprise? It will ‘take’ assuredly. There are a lot of other millionaires thinking the matter over, so you had better decide at once. Good afternoon. Let me hear from you in a few days.” Philadelphia Times

Jersey Journal [Jersey City, NJ] 29 March 1883: p. 2

Of course glass coffins weren’t really new–Alexander the Great was said to be buried in one and there were reports of ancient Egyptian coffins made of glass, but perhaps the vitrified faience inlays were what was being described. Glass coffins were the resting places of many sacred corpses or parts thereof, of spouses kept above ground for inheritance purposes, and of fairy-tale princesses. It’s the up-to-date sales-pitch with all the add-ons that sets this maker and his inventions apart. You might say Barry was thinking outside the box.

Another article gives Barry’s glass coffin patent date as 24 October 1882, but I haven’t been able to locate it. I’m also really quite perturbed that I cannot find an image of a glass coffin I thought I’d saved–it was a lovely purple-ish color and molded with dragonflies, like a piece made by Lalique. Search for “glass coffins” and pretty much all you find are the waxen cadavers of dictators and saints.

Other early filing systems for human remains? Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Thanks to Michael Robinson for sending me the Guardian article.

Most of the post above appears in The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition.

See this link for an introduction to this collection about the popular culture of Victorian mourning, featuring primary-source materials about corpses, crypts, crape, and much more.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

The Phantom Tombstone

The last instance of this insight into the future which we shall cite from Mr. Pavin Phillips’s highly suggestive and interesting communication, is the record of an incident of the character referred to which occurred to him himself, in the year 1848, upon his return home after several years’ absence. “A few days after my arrival,” he states, “I took a walk one morning in the yard of one of our parish churches through which there is a right of way for pedestrians. My object was a twofold one: firstly to enjoy the magnificent prospect visible from that elevated position ; and secondly, to see whether any of my friends or acquaintances who had died during my absence were buried in the locality. After gazing around me for a short time, I sauntered on, looking at one tombstone and then at another, when my attention was arrested by an altar-tomb enclosed within an iron railing. I walked up to it, and read an inscription which informed me that it was in memory of Colonel__. This gentleman had been the assistant Poor Law Commissioner for South Wales, and while on one of his periodical tours of inspection, he was seized with apoplexy in the workhouse of my native town, and died in a few hours. This was suggested to my mind as I read the inscription on the tomb, as the melancholy event occurred during the period of my absence, and I was only made cognisant of the fact through the medium of the local press. Not being acquainted with the late Colonel , and never having even seen him, the circumstances of his sudden demise had long passed from my memory, and were only revived by my thus viewing his tomb. I then passed on, and shortly afterwards returned home. On my arrival my father asked me in what direction I had been walking? I replied,

‘In the churchyard, looking at the tombs, and among others I have seen the tomb of Colonel __, who died in the workhouse.’ ‘That,’ replied my father, ‘is impossible, as there is no tomb erected over Colonel__’s grave. At this remark I laughed. ‘My dear father,’ said I, ‘ you want to persuade me that I cannot read. I was not aware that Colonel was buried in the churchyard, and was only informed of the fact by reading the inscription on the tomb.’ ‘Whatever you may say to the contrary,’ said my father, ‘ what I tell you is true, there is no tomb over Colonel __ ‘s grave.’  Astounded by the reiteration of this statement, as soon as I had dined I returned to the churchyard, and again inspected all the tombs having railings round them, and found that my father was right. There was not only no tomb bearing the name of Colonel , but there was no tomb at all corresponding in appearance with the one I had seen. Unwilling to credit the evidence of my own senses, I went to the cottage of an old acquaintance of my boyhood, who lived outside of the churchyard gate, and asked her to show me the place where Colonel lay buried. She took me to the spot, which was a green mound, undistinguished in appearance from the surrounding graves. Nearly two years subsequent to this occurrence, surviving relatives erected an altar-tomb, with a railing round it, over the last resting-place of Colonel , and it was, as nearly as I could remember, an exact reproduction of the memorial of my day-dream….

“Second Sight and Supernatural Warnings” Notes and Queries, 10 July 1858

John Henry Ingram, in The Haunted Homes and Family Traditions of Great Britain, tells us that Mr Pavin Phillips was a “well-known contributor to Notes and Queries.” The earlier part of Phillips’ communication to that journal recounts several other stories of visions and sounds of phantom funerals, as well as ghostly coffins that had occurred among the members of the Phillips family and their servants. Ingram speculates that the area itself, Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire, was haunted. I’ve written about phantom funerals on several occasions; they do seem to be location specific. Oddly, they are usually either seen or heard–not both.

As for other phantom tombstones, they are relatively rare in (non-fictional) paranormal history. I wrote about a young woman who dreamed of her own tombstone, complete with a specific date, in The Victorian Book of the Dead. It is a truly unsettling story. There is a classic fictional story called “August Heat,” by William Fryer Harvey on the same theme. Other examples of phantom or prophetic tombstones?  Enclose in a nice wrought-iron railing in the Gothic taste and send to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

The Haunted Vicarage: 1840s

The first some of a series of ghastly tales for the month of Hallowe’en.

The Haunted Vicarage

We had been engaged eight years, Martin and I, ever since I was seventeen and he twenty four and the ‘living’ for which we have been patiently waiting had not yet been offered to him. Martin was still a hard-working curate in the smoky town where my father resided, and those kind friends who are always ready to play the part of Job’s comforters began to ‘hope that Eleanor’s long engagement would end in marriage after all.’

Great, therefore, was our satisfaction when a country vicarage was offered to Martin. The nomination came so strangely too. The living had first been offered to one of his college friends, a much older man than Martin, but as Mr Brown wrote to say that he felt that a younger man would do better justice to the work of a scattered country parish, and that he had therefore mentioned Martin to his friend the patron ,who was ready to offer him the living, it is needless to say this offer was thankfully accepted. The income was a fair one, at least to our modest views, and both of us looked forward to a residence in the country as only dwellers in a murky town are capable of doing. We felt quite touched by Mr Brown’s self-abnegation in declining Heathhurst for himself, at least until we saw the place.

I am writing now of the days of my youth, some fifty odd years ago Travelling was then a more difficult and expensive business than it is nowadays, and our slender means did not justify our making a long journey by coach to ‘prospect’ our new abode before settling there. Martin had agreed to take the furniture of the Vicarage at a valuation from the executors of the former incumbent (who had been an old bachelor and an invalid, and had resided as little in his parish as possible without provoking episcopal censure), and the price asked for ‘plenishing’ was so very moderate that Martin was willing to risk paying it without inspection of the articles named. Our quiet wedding, followed by a few weeks’ honeymoon at the seaside, then took place, and we left for our new home.

Both of us were looking forward to a life of activity and usefulness. We reached Heathhurst with some difficulty —it appeared to be off the track of every line of coaches; but at last our post-chaise lumbered into the village at the close of a summer’s day. My first impression of the place was that of dampness. The straggling village was low-lying and even on this July evening mist gathered heavily over the sluggish stream which meandered through the valley. The church stood on slightly higher ground, and the Vicarage nestled against the churchyard wall. As its name implies, Heathhurst was surrounded by magnificent woods, now gay with the glory of their summer foliage, but this added to the prevailing dampness of the atmosphere. As we found in our subsequent excursions in the neighborhood, the soil abounded in what the country folk called ‘ground springs,’ unexpected little water courses which bubbled up after rain, and converted a portion of the woods and pastures into veritable morasses. The scenery around was pretty, but as I looked at my new home I understood why Mr Brown, who had attained an age when people consider the possibility of rheumatism, was so willing to transfer Heathhurst to his ‘dear young friend.’

However, here we were, and both young and strong, and ready to make the best of things. The Vicarage was a roomy old house, and its furniture was of a solid old-fashioned description, far better than we had expected to find it. Martin would have abundant exercise for his zeal in bringing his parish into something like decent order, to judge from the neglected condition in which poor old Mr Hamilton had allowed it to fall, and after the first shock of arrival (and disillusion) was over we set ourselves resolutely to work. Sanitary science was less studied some half-century ago than it is now, and even the discovery that the churchyard itself formed, as it were, one side of our kitchen (the house being built against the churchyard wall) did not alarm us on health grounds, though the circumstance explained the persistent damp which oozed through the kitchen wall on this side. We had brought an old servant with us from my father’s house, and this maid and a girl from the village comprised our domestic staff.

For the first few weeks we were both so busy, I unpacking and arranging within doors, Martin organising his parish arrangements, that we had no time to think of other matters, But as we became settled in the home I noted a dejection in our faithful maid’s demeanor. One day when I was remarking how Mr Hamilton had neglected the parish, Sarah ‘spoke out,’ as she phrased it.

‘Oh, ma’am, ’tis easy to talk of neglection, but as Susan says, ‘tisn’t everyone as can live at Heathhurst Vicarage.’

Susan was the rosy -cheeked village girl imported to assist our factotum.

‘The house is rather damp, certainly,’ I said; ‘but so is all the neighborhood. We keep up good fires, and we are all well enough.’

‘Ah, I wish it was nothing more than damp that’s wrong here,’ sighed Sarah.

Then came out a long story. It appeared that the proximity of the churchyard was supposed to be objectionable, not on grounds of health, but for other causes. Some occupants of the burial ground–notably a certain squire deceased many years back were said to ‘walk,’ or at least to rest uneasily in their graves. Knocks and sighs, and other unpleasant sounds were said to be heard in the Vicarage kitchen, especially during the autumn and winter months and these occurrences prevented any good cook consenting to tenant the servants’ premises, and were said to have induced Mr Hamilton to spend so much of his time at a place ten miles away, driving in on Sunday to perform the usual church services.

Summer waned early that year, and the winter came in unusually wet and windy. There was much illness in the village, and Martin was overworked visiting the sick. We, too, were busy at home, for the local doctor lived a long way off, and Sarah’s experience was often of value in carrying out his directions regarding invalids. She and I were often out all day, tramping long distances to carry nourishing food and simple medicines to our poorer parishoners.

There was literally no society at Heathhurst. The population consisted of a few farmers and their laborers, the former being little better educated than the latter. Ten miles away was a pretty country town, but we seldom went there, as we had not conveyance, unless we borrowed or hired a farmer’s gig. A great depression sometimes settled on me as I sat in the Vicarage parlour and looked over the damp, dripping landscape. It rained almost continuously for weeks, and I contracted a chill which clung about me and affected my health. Then—was it fancy?—I began to think that there really were odd noises in the house. Susan had occupied all her hours of leisure in relating various ghost stories, local and otherwise, to Sarah, who conscientiously retailed them to me with all the certainly of unquestioning faith. Then Susan herself discovered that she was ‘feared to remain at the Vicarage come the winter,’ and departed to seek another service.

Martin, who had scoffed at the story of ghostly visitation, asserted that it was the dullness, not the noises, that led Susan to weary of her place, and to enter the service of an adjoining farmer, where as he remarked, ‘the girl has all the farming men to flirt with, and no old servant like Sarah to scold her.’

But anyway Susan left, and we had great difficulty in supplying her place, finally being reduced to take an orphan from a distant workhouse, who couldn’t be expected to indulge in the luxury of ‘nerves.’ Betsy was a stolid-looking young person with an abnormal appetite; but the Vicarage kitchen was too much for her after a week or two. She came to me one morning in floods of tears beseeching to be sent back to the workhouse. ‘For them knocks and groans behind the kitchen wall, ma’am, is more than I can stand.’

‘It’s the old Squire,’ remarked Sarah, grimly; ”tis his vault that lies nearest to our kitchen, and I tell Betsy it’s a warning to her—as tells so many lies every day—to see how the wicked do not rest even in their graves,’

‘He’ll bust in some day, I know he will,’ sobbed Betsy, ignoring the personal application of Sarah’s remark. ‘Please, ma’am, you and master is very good to me, and I never had such a sight of good victuals before, but I can’t—I can’t abear them noises.’

‘What are the noises like?’ I asked, for though, sitting alone in the evening when Martin had been called out to baptise a dying child or visit a sick person, I often fancied I heard odd sounds, they were not of the distinct and terrible kind described by Betsy.

‘He rummages about in his grave,’ sobbed the girl, ‘and he sighs, and he groans, and then he raps, raps, raps agin our wall.’

‘Sarah, you cannot believe all this?’

‘I believes my ears,’ remarked Sarah, ‘and hearin’ what I have about Squire Parsons I don’t wonder he does sigh and groan. Beggin’ your pardon, ma’am, I don’t hold that reading any form of words over a grave makes the wicked rest easy in it.’

Sarah was, as I have before remarked, a sturdy Methodist, and only attended our church because there was no other place of worship within ten miles. The woman was superstitious, and yet courageous, but her superstition was more infectious than her courage, believed in the restlessness of the defunct Squire as firmly as did the New English Puritans in the certain existence of the Salem witches, and was prepared to confront the perturbed spirit as Cotton Mather did the supposed emissaries of Satan.

‘If the Squire comes, he comes,’ said Sarah, with grim resolution.

‘I’m thankful to say I’m better prepared, having been converted many years ago, to see a ghost than Betsy is. But it’s my thinking that the old Squire is obliged to keep his own side of the wall while pious folks are in the kitchen, and it’s just that makes him so mad. Now, if Betsy sat there alone, seeing that Betsy tells lies, which is one of the greatest of sins—‘

But Betsy was not inclined to put her virtue to the test, and departed back to the union, nor did we attempt to supply her place.

Sarah was willing to face the noises alone. I think Martin, fully occupied out of doors, scarcely thought about the matter as I did. He believed that the Vicarage, like all old houses, was full of odd noises probably due to rats which were exaggerated by the superstitious fears of the servant. But to myself, now out of health, and a good deal alone owing to Martin’s multifarious occupations in the parish the ‘fancy’ which I might have laughed at in days of health and spirits became a real terror. I myself had never heard the full noises; they only occurred in the kitchen itself but I thought about them, and dwelt on the subject till I became so unwell and nervous that Martin urged me to go to my father for a visit to recruit myself. But I would not leave my husband, neither was I strong enough to undertake a long journey at this time of year. The local doctor prescribed tonics, and asked if I had no friends who could come and stay with me and cheer me up. But I had led a very retired life owing to my father’s bad health I had no sisters, and my few girl friends were now married and scattered. My stepmother—I had lost my mother in infancy—was a kind woman, but too much occupied with father to be able to pay a visit.

Martin and the Doctor comforted themselves with the reflection that by-and-by more cheerful noises than the supposed knocks and groans might resound in the old Vicarage.

‘Of course Mrs Fleming is inclined to be nervous and fanciful just now,’ said the Doctor to my husband, ‘but when the baby comes we shall hear no more of the noises in the kitchen. That superstitious old servant of yours will be too busy to notice them.’

Kind and devoted as Sarah was, I could hardly have had a worse companion at this time. Strong in her religious convictions, she sat day after day in her kitchen, like a sentinel on guard, singing hymns in a cracked voice in the evening, and apparently deriving a grim enjoyment from the very idea that she was carrying on a successful struggle with the restless sinner on the other side of the wall. But I, ailing and lonely in the parlour above, would shiver and cower with nervous terror as I fancied I caught some sound, like a knock or a sigh, which might be the wind, and might be the Squire.

One evening in December—how well I remember it still!—a veritable tempest raged and shook the house. Martin had been summoned to the deathbed of a parishioner at a distance, and so bad was the weather that I had urged him to accept the proffered offer of a bed at the house, instead of returning through the winter night. He had been reluctant to leave me so long, but finally consented; indeed, he could hardly have found his way back in the storm of wind and rain. I was so solitary that, little as I liked the idea of entering the kitchen, I made up my mind to descend and speak to Sarah, whom I found tranquilly knitting by the fire. The kitchen looked so cheerful in the ruddy glow of the logs that I lingered awhile after I had given the order which I had made the pretext for my visit. Suddenly ‘rap, rap, rap’ sounded loudly on the wall behind me, followed by a long-drawn gurgling sound. I screamed with terror, but Sarah was calm.

‘Eh, ma’am, but he’s worse than ever to-night,’ she remarked ‘I’m thinking maybe ’tis the day of the month when he died, or something like that; but I never mind.’ But here the noise recommenced, so loudly and wildly that even the resolute woman grew pale. ‘Come away, come away, Miss Eleanor,’ she exclaimed, clutching my arm; but as she spoke came a rending sound; the wall of the kitchen burst open, a rush of water filled the room, and oh horror! a large black coffin sailed out of the aperture in the wall, and fell with a crash on the floor! I knew no more!

I was ill for many, many weeks, they told me afterwards, and Martin expected to lose his wife as well as his child. When I gradually awoke to consciousness I was not at the Vicarage, but at the house of a kindly neighbour, where the doctor had advised my being carried as soon as I could be moved on a mattress.

It was long before I recovered the shock of that awful night; long before I could even hear the explanation of that terrible apparition. It was a simple enough story after all. The churchyard, like the rest of the neighbourhood, had its ‘ground spring.’ One of these had sprang up in the vault of the wicked Squire, and actually floated the coffin, for years when the spring was full the water had been striving to burst through the wall, and the leaden coffin had acted as a kind of battering-ram. Hence the odd noises (always worst at the wettest times of the year), hence the terrible catastrophe.

We never returned to Heathhurst Vicarage. A friend of my father happened to have a living fall in his gift, which he offered to Martin, and some months after my illness we removed to the pretty south-country Rectory where I have passed the rest of my days, first with my husband, then with my son. Homebury Rectory has been ‘noisy’ enough during the last half century, tenanted by our merry healthy children and grandchildren; but the ‘knocks’ were of a different description from those that froze our blood at Heathhurst.

The patron of that latter living, who was a kindly and liberal man, was so horrified at the occurrence which so nearly cost me my life that he pulled down the old Vicarage and rebuilt it on higher ground, so that the present vicar’s family are not exposed to the risk of the irruption of coffins into their kitchen. But I shall never forget my residence in that haunted Vicarage home fifty years ago.

Southland Times 18 June 1892: p. 5

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: A salutary lesson, indeed, about the importance of well-drained soil. Modern builders would surely not be so careless as to abut a kitchen against a churchyard wall with all its attendant unpleasant effluvia. Mrs Daffodil does not usually attend the cinema, but she has been told that this story echoes the plot of a “horror” film called Poltergeist, which exaggerated the number of coffins and pictured mummified corpses emerging from their graves. One coffin was certainly bad enough for the unfortunate Eleanor.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead and on Twitter @hauntedohiobook. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead. 

Laid in a leaden coffin and placed in a gloomy vault: 1882

Mummies found in church vault, British Library

London Coffins.

Two or three years ago it was our fate to inspect officially certain vaults in an ancient church of much historical interest that was undergoing repairs. The object was to ascertain beyond a doubt who had been buried in three leaden coffins. They were doubtless great personages, but there was nothing to tell us who they were, and it was expected that we might find inscriptions of some kind to throw light on the subject. The coffins, though they had been originally as strong as lead could make them, had been entombed from a century to a century and a half. Their condition was lamentable. The lead was here and there broken into large fissures, through the forcible explosion of confined gases, and it was not difficult to distinguish the contents. All had been embalmed according to the best rules of art. But the result showed how miserable had been the effort to secure an imitation of immortality. The appearance of the bodies generally was that of ragged skeletons dipped in tar, black, horrible, and repulsive; the whole a painful satire on the so-called embalming system. One of the bodies was that of a nobleman of high rank. To think of a man in his social position, who had figured in gorgeous pageants, being condemned alter death, by the over-kind solicitude of relatives, to a fate too revolting for description. Had he been a parish pauper he would have been buried in the earth, and his body would have long since mouldered into dust, while the exuberant gases would have been harmlessly wafted away in the gentle breezes that serve to give life to the vegetable world. Being a nobleman, he had been, by way of distinction, laid in a leaden coffin and placed in a gloomy vault, liable to become a piteous spectacle to future generations. One of these leaden coffins, more rent in pieces than the others, contained a form which was recognized by a medical gentleman present to be the remains of a young female, probably a young lady of quality in her day, admired for her beauty and the splendor of her long yellow tresses. What a fate had been hers. On touching the head a part of the scalp came off, along with a stream of hair that doubtless at one time had been the pride of the wearer. Melancholy sight! And why had the body of this gentle creature with her flowing tresses been consigned to a condition that brought it under the gaze of a body of official investigators, more than a century after dissolution, instead of being decorously laid in the dust, there to sink in the undisturbed rest that had been beneficially destined by its Creator? Let those who maintain the practice of  entombing in leaden coffins and vaults answer the question.– Chamber’s Journal.

The Dayton [OH] Herald 11 July 1882: p. 2

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.

A Gettysburg Soldier Decorates His Own Grave: 1886

Headstone marker, originally thought to be for Private Stephen Kelly, but now for an unknown soldier, in Section A of the Pennsylvania Plot in the Gettysburg National Cemetery. The headstone is now marked “UNKNOWN.” Photo credit: Karl Stelly

This post was originally posted on the Mrs Daffodil Digresses blog on 3 July 2015.

Mrs Daffodil is rarely au courant with the details of military history; she often wonders why illustrations of combatants from the American Civil War do not depict armour, buff-coats or lobster-tail helmets. So Mrs Daffodil is pleased to welcome as a guest poster that thoroughly American person from the Haunted Ohio blog  Chris Woodyard, with a story from the Battle of Gettysburg, which ended on this day in 1863.

A Soldier Who Decorates His Own Grave.

“Do you see that man?” said a member of the Grand Army of the Republic on Decoration Day, pointing to a healthy looking person with a soldierly bearing entering the Grand Army headquarters at Twelfth and Chestnut streets. Several eyes turned in the direction of the man, who had on a G.A. R. uniform and looked every inch a veteran.

“Yes,” said one, “why is he specially worth notice?”

The speaker smiled. “Well,” said he, “that comrade is dead. He has no business walking around here like a real live survivor. He is buried in the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, and any day you should go up there I could show you his grave.”

Such a paradox naturally excited the curiosity of the bystanders. The dead-alive man seemed to be in very excellent health, but the fact that his grave was to be decorated on that very day was found to be a hard although strange fact.

“Yes,” said he,” with a twinkle in his eye, “my grave is in the national Cemetery at Gettysburg, and I am officially dead. At least it is so stated on the records of that burial place, and I have often had the melancholy pleasure of decorating my own grave.”

“That seems strange,” said a listener. The veteran was as solemn as his tomb itself. “I don’t look dead, I know,” said he, “and I don’t believe that I am, but when, a few years after the close of the war I visited the Gettysburg Cemetery and found a grave marked with my name I was shocked, but am used to it now. My name is Stephen Kelly; I live at No. 942 South Ninth street, and am reasonably well and happy, notwithstanding that my comrades insist occasionally that I shall visit the historical burial ground and spread flowers over my own grave. It’s a mistake, of course; I ain’t dead, but can’t get the cemetery people to acknowledge that fact. I was mustered in on Aug. 21, 1861, and was mustered out, as this certificate will show you, in 1864, honourably discharged at the end of my service.”

The papers were duly examined and found to be correct. “’Bates’ History,’ continued he, “and the records show that I was killed and buried at Gettysburg. The only trouble is that some other poor fellow killed in that bloody battle was buried for me. How the mistake occurred or who the unfortunate soldier was I could never find out; but I suppose some of my personal belongings, lost during the heat of the fight and bearing my name, were found on the dead soldier, and he was buried as Stephen Kelly. I go up every year to decorate my own grave.”

Mr. Kelly was a member of Company E, Ninety-first Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, and served out his term of three years. He is now a member of G.A.R. Post No. 8, of this city.

Philadelphia Record.

Times-Picayune [New Orleans, LA] 18 June 1886: p. 2

Talk about looking Death in the face…. It is an extraordinary story and the “Find-a-Grave” entry offers an even more extraordinary detail: That Pvt. Kelly was wounded 2 July 1863 and died in 1889 of his wounds. This is not impossible–some veterans lingered for years with war wounds–but I wonder if 1889 is the date that the monument was erected?

Another newspaper squib reported a possible reason for the misidentification of “Kelly’s” corpse.

It is said that there is a man who goes to Gettysburg every Memorial day and decorates his own grave. The story runs thus: “During the battle he was thought to be killed and another soldier took his papers from his pockets. The second soldier was buried as the first and No. 1, who recovered, goes to the place every year to keep green the grave which is marked with his own name.” Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 30 June 1891: p. 3

The dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery was the occasion of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It was also the site where Elizabeth Thorn, “The Angel of Gettysburg,” far gone in pregnancy, nearly single-handedly dug over one hundred graves to bury the battle’s dead. Her poignant story is one of Mrs Daffodil’s most-read posts.

Over at the Haunted Ohio blog you will also find a story telling of an extraordinary prophetic dream about a soldier’s death in that battle and his brother’s recovery of his corpse.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Regulars and Fainters: 1882

REGULAR MOURNERS.

A Peculiar Characteristic of Philadelphia Funerals.

Persons Who Endeavor to Gain Rides to Cemeteries, Although Unacquainted with the Family– Fainters and  Flower-Pot Carriers.

[From the Philadelphia Press.]

“Madame, yon must get out of this carriage—it is intended only for the friends and relatives of the family. I never permit ‘regulars’ to attend funerals when I am in charge.”

The speaker was a well-known up-town undertaker, who stood beside a carriage in Kensington .yesterday and spoke to some one inside the vehicle. A streamer of black crape fluttering from the door-bell of a neat three-story dwelling near by and a long line of carriages, preceded by a hearse, told that a funeral was in progress. The first, second and third carriages had been filled with the near relatives of the deceased, and as the fourth vehicle drove up a woman, dressed in shabby black and with her face closely veiled, came down the steps of the house of mourning, and opening the carriage door herself, got in and sank back into the farthest corner. The action, quick as it was, did not escape the eye of the solemn-faced man standing on the steps of the dwelling. Quietly advancing to the curbstone, and in a voice just loud enough to be heard by the person for whom it was intended, he spoke. Without a word the unwelcome occupant alighted, drew her rusty black shawl more closely about her shoulders and walked slowly up the street. “That is an annoyance peculiar to Philadelphia,” said the undertaker to a Press reporter, who happened to be a witness of the episode, “and is probably more of an institution in Kensington than any other section of the city. The American custom of exposing the dead to the gaze of the general public, which has been in vogue for more than half century, has naturally led to abuses, of which this is one bf the most marked. I refer to the attendance of persons at funerals who have no possible interest in the deceased, nor connected by the most remote tie of blood or marriage. Not only do they mingle their tears with those of the mourners, but they actually force themselves into the carriages and ride to the cemetery, there to witness the final scene with apparently as much emotion as the nearest and dearest relatives.

“REGULARS” AND “FAINTERS.”

“There are very few funerals taking place north of Girard avenue and east of Fourth street,” continued the speaker, as he closed the door of another cab, “where you will not find what we term ‘regulars.’ They are an evil tolerated simply because the solemnity of the occasion prevents such measures being taken as would prevent a repetition of the annoyance. The ‘fainter,’ to use another trade phrase, is a similar nuisance, but not seen as frequently as her more ubiquitous sister. The ‘fainter’ swoons suddenly while looking at the corpse, and is only revived by copious draughts of brandy. She usually picks out a soft chair to fall upon, and is quite expert at assuming a graceful position. The precise object of the ‘fainter’ I have never thoroughly understood. Whether to gain sympathy, or whisky, or to display an attitude, is a question. Of the two characters, however, the regular is the most familiar and the most audacious. At an ordinarily large funeral, say of twenty or more carriages, she is seen most frequently.  The body is laid out In the parlor as a general thing, sometimes a day before the funeral, and is there viewed by the relatives and friends. The neighbors usually testify their esteem for the deceased by calling at the house, although they may not be acquainted with the family. In many cases this visit is expected, and it is looked upon as slight if It is not made. English people, however, show a decided aversion to having any one gaze on their dead, except those very near to them, but custom is so arbitrary that the residents of any neighborhood, and specially in this section of the city, would feel insulted if they were not allowed to take the last look. As I said before, one of the outgrowths of this custom is the regular funeral-goer. She reads, besides her weekly story paper of sensational trash, the marriages and deaths in the Ledger. She notes carefully all the funerals that are to take place within a reasonable distance of her home, and appears to have an especial weakness for interments at the Palmer-street burying-ground. If two funerals occur in the same day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, the “regular” is delighted, and makes a strenuous effort to attend both. She dresses herself early in the morning, and, provided with a large handkerchief, she repairs to the house of death. The first thing the “regular” does is to make a mental estimate as to whether the crape on the door belongs to the undertaker or to the family; to speculate as to whether the coffin handles are solid silver or plated, to take an inventory of the furniture, the carpets and the probable cost of the coffin.

MAKING AN INVENTORY

“She examines the quality of the shroud and passes judgment on the profusion or poverty of the floral offerings. Then she makes a critical survey of the mourning worn by the grief-stricken relatives, and is usually able to tell whether it is owned or borrowed, and it the latter, it becomes almost a duty to find out who the owner is, and how often the crape has done duty on similar occasions. With an experienced ‘regular’ this is an easy matter, and these points once settled to her satisfaction, she opens! the flood-gates of her every-day grief. She looks on the face of the dead and weeps. She snivels and sobs, and says, ‘How natural! How very natural! Poor, dear man; he just looks as if he were asleep,’ and then usually turning to some one near, she offers consolation by remarking that ‘it is the prettiest corpse ever I see’d in my life. So peaceful and life-like.’ It makes not a bit of difference, whether the dead man or woman is wasted to skin and bone from a lingering disease or not, to the ‘regular,’ the corpse is always ‘so natural.’ She sways to and fro, and exhibits all the symptoms of grief, and sobs audibly as the clergyman pronounces a eulogy on the noble qualities of the deceased, who might have been in life a grinding skinflint or consummate rogue. As the coffin lid is fastened on, the ‘regular’ dries her tears and prepares to execute a flank movement on the undertaker. Her plan is usually to get into a carriage the minute it stops in front of the door, as that woman did a moment ago. Rather than have a disturbance, many undertakers permit this, and the ‘regular’ accomplishes her principal object, which is to get a ride to the cemetery. She has a melancholy mania for getting as close to the grave as possible and crying loud enough to attract general attention. Then she goes home in the street cars, and hurries off to another funeral, where the same programme is repeated. Very often we encounter another class of ‘regulars’ who strive only to get a ride to a graveyard where their own people are buried. These worthies always betray themselves by carrying a flower-pot, which they vainly try to conceal in their shawls. The pot contains flowers to be planted on the graves of their own dead.”

FLOWER-POT REGULARS.

“The flower-pot regulars make a regular picnic out of the occasion. They take their sewing and lunch. An old tombstone forms a table if the weather is fine, and seated on the grass, the cronies gossip and sew to their heart’s content. On a clear day in the springtime, I have seen no less than twenty of these scandal-mongers waiting at the Palmer Street Ground for a funeral to enter, which they follow like carrion crows in search of horse meat.”

The suggestive, but rather inelegant, simile was interrupted by a young man who called the undertaker’s attention to a woman ascending the steps, and crowding her way between the persons coming out of the house. She was prevented from going any further by the undertaker whispering something in her ear.

“That woman,” said be, resuming his position at the curbstone, “has been going to funerals for twenty years, to my certain knowledge. If she fails to get a ride, she is content to watch the house while the family is absent. She takes occasion to go all over the house and examine everything. I don’t think the woman is dishonest. She is a genuine female Paul Pry, umbrella and all. Now, then, you know all about the Kensington regulars,” concluded the voluble undertaker, as he slammed to the door of the last carriage and mounted the box with the driver, “and I only hope that I may be called upon some day to bury the whole tribe in one grave.”

St. Louis [MO] Globe-Democrat 17 February 1882: p. 11

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Tombstone Murder Stories: 1905

TOMBSTONE MURDER STORIES

[St. Louis Globe-Democrat.]

“Abroad last summer I found a number of tombstones with murder stories on them,” said a detective. “The poor folk under the stones were the victims of murderers undiscovered and unhanged.

“One inscription was in the English town of Merrington. I jotted it down in my notebook. It was on the tomb of two murdered children. Here it is:

The detective read from his notebook:

“‘An unknown hand caused all our pain,

Sleeping we were slain.

And here we sleep till we must rise again.’

“Another was in Samdridge, the tomb of a Custom House officer shot by smugglers. It said:

“‘Thou shalt do no-murder, nor shalt thou steal.

Are the commands Jehovah did reveal.

But thou, O unnamed wretch, withouten dread

Of thy tremendous Maker, shot me dead.’

“A tombstone in the cemetery of Cladoxton, Glamorganshire, said:

“‘To record murder

This stone was erected over the body of Margaret Williams, aged 26, living in service in this parish, who was found dead with marks of violence upon her in a ditch on a marsh below this churchyard on the morning of Sunday, the 14th of July 1822.

“‘Although the savage murderer escaped the detection of man, yet God hath set his mark upon him, either for time or eternity, and the cry of blood will assuredly pursue him to certain and terrible but righteous judgment.’

“Another stone made me laugh. It was in Dulverton. It said:

“‘Mrs. Jane Winsmore, born 1794; died 1851.

Poisoned by the doctor, neglected by the nurse.

The brother robbed the widow, which made the matter worse.’”

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 9 December 1905: p. 11

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead and on Twitter @hauntedohiobook. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead. 

Corpse-Quake: A Grave-Diggers’ Malady: 1889

The Death of the Grave Digger, Carlos Schwabe, 1895

“CORPSE-QUAKE”

A Strange Nervous Malady Which Sometimes Attacks Grave-Diggers.

(New York World.)

A strange sort of mental affection, known as “corpse-quake,” has often been found to exist among grave-diggers. It is no uncommon occurrence that a person employed in cemeteries for many ears is suddenly afflicted with a shaking similar to that experienced by persons suffering from ague.

A grave-digger who has been employed at the Cypress Hills Cemetery for fifteen years was seen yesterday by a reporter of the World.

“I know of a number of such cases,” said he. “Ten years ago we had three diggers here who had worked together for quite a while. One of the three who used to be a very lively chap and always willing and ready to tell a good yarn, became very quiet all at once. His companions noticed this, and thinking that Joe was not feeling well, let him alone. There was to be a funeral in the afternoon and we went over to dig the grave. As soon as Joe stuck his spade in the ground he began to shake. His companions told him to stop working if he didn’t feel well, but Joe paid no attention and continued with his work until the job had been finished. Three or four more graves were made that day, and every time Joe put down his spade he shook. The other two tried to make fun of him by imitating his shaking while at work. A few days later Joe’s companions had the corpse quake too and a week later had to stop work entirely.

“I thought that the three men had contracted malaria, but, strange to say, they never would have that peculiar shake while away from the cemetery. Joe came back to us, but every time he would pick up a spade and try to work, that old trouble would come back. We insisted upon his giving up the job, as he was falling away. He remained at home for about a week, and his wife told us that Joe was getting better again, when one  day his boy mentioned the word “spade” in his father’s presence. It was the strangest thing in the world—no sooner had the boy said ‘spade’ than Joe took the corpse-quake again. He didn’t last long after that. He would be thinking about digging graves all the time, and this made him so sick that he died shortly after. I don’t remember what became of the other two men. They had to give up the job, and, I think, moved away from here altogether.”

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 11 February 1889: p. 4

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead and on Twitter @hauntedohiobook. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Tales from the Presidential Crypts

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WASHINGTON’S HEAD SAFE

No Truth in the Tale of the Tomb Desecration

[From our Regular Correspondent]

Herald Bureau,

Corner Fifteenth and G Streets, N.W.,

Washington, Sept. 29, 1887.

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

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

THE SKELETON INTACT IN THE TOMB.

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

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

WATCHING NIGHT AND DAY.

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

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

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

VANDALS AT CANTON

Guards at McKinley’s Tomb Attacked

WANTED TO BLOW IT UP

That is What is Generally Believed. Great Excitement.

Dastardly Plot at Canton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Soldier Becomes insane While Guarding Garfield’s Tomb.

Cleveland Dispatch to Philadelphia Press.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harding’s Tomb Guards Are Annoyed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.