O, Death Where Is Thy Bling?

Mrs "Diamond" Johnson's extravagant tombstone.
O, Death, Where Is Thy Bling? Mrs “Diamond” Johnson’s extravagant tombstone.

In looking at the popular culture of funerals and death for The Victorian Book of the Dead, I’ve noticed a minor trend in reporting on über-extravagant burials. The Gilded Age was a golden age for the conspicuous consumption of coffins and other funerary goods. Undertakers were quizzed about (and did not hesitate to volunteer) sumptuary details, such as Mrs Van Gilding had a genuine mahogany casket, rather than rosewood veneer, the coffin fittings were real silver, rather than plate, and that the lining fabric cost $12 a yard. This inspired a sort of arms-race, except with funeral trappings as opposed to deadly weapons. Keeping up with the Boneses….

TOMB

To Hold Safe Her Gems

Mrs. “Diamond” Johnson Will Be Buried With Her Jewels.

An Impregnable Grave Built to Baffle Any Attempt at Robbery.

[Norwich (Conn.) Cor. New York Herald.]

Mrs. Mary Tuttle (“Diamond”) Johnson, formerly a resident of this city, now of Chicago, for whom a conservator was recently appointed by request of her husband and sons, has had a remarkable grave constructed in her lot in Yantic Cemetery, destined to receive her body. It is the most costly, massive, unique and elaborate one in this state.

Mrs. Johnson purchased her cemetery lot some time ago and had her grave made. She is haunted by an overmastering dread of graveyard ghouls and robbers and she had barely completed her grave when she decided that it was not strong enough to baffle a possible assault after her body had been committed to it.

With a corps of skilled professional workmen she went to work at once to reconstruct and immensely strengthen it, carrying on the work clandestinely in order to forestall opposition on the part of her conservator and her watchful husband and sons. The result of her craftiness and the dispatch and dexterity of her workmen was that she not only accomplished her project without betraying her design, but so neatly that there is not an outward token to indicate to a casual observer that the old grave had ever been disturbed.

GRAVE SEEMS IMPREGNABLE.

The grave is in many respects the most remarkable and wonderfully contrived one probably in New England. Apparently it is impregnable to assault.

Its floor is a huge smoothly chiseled slab of Rhode Island granite, weighing more than a ton, while a similar gigantic slab of stone, which weighs 2,700 pounds and can be handled only with the aid of a derrick, forms its cover.

The walls of the grave are of cemented pressed brick, solid as adamant, and as thick and enduring seemingly as those of a modern fort.

Mrs. John is greatly pleased with the remodeled tomb, and convinced that after her body is placed between this two ponderous granite slabs it will be absolutely secure.

Not long ago Mrs. Johnson had a magnificent granite monument erected on her cemetery lot at a cost of $18,000, which is said to be the most ornate, unique and expensive private mortuary memorial in New England. It is a lofty, shapely shaft, handsomely polished and carved, bearing the allegorical figures, also superbly sculptured, of Faith, Hope and Charity. The monument was erected by famous granite cutters of Westerly, R.I.

Mrs. John’s ruling passion is an immoderate fondness for diamonds, on account of which the title of Mrs. “Diamond” Johnson

WAS POPULARLY BESTOWED

On her more than a quarter of a century ago. At all times she is a-glitter with the gems from head to foot, and she rarely appears in public with less than $25,000 to $50,000 worth of them displayed on her person.

It is said to be her intention to have her fabulous store of jewels buried with her body, a fancy that may account, in part, for her determination to make her tomb absolutely impregnable to grave robbers….The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 26 December 1896: p. 8

The tomb, which is pictured at the head of this post, seems to be a different one than currently stands in Yantic Cemetery, and the vault built so secretly seems to have disappeared altogether, but the rich and eccentric (or their heirs) often changed their minds about monuments.

Mrs. Henry Hiller also changed her mind and had a second set of wildly expensive caskets made for her husband and herself. You can’t take it with you, but Mrs. Hiller really did give it her best try.

Mrs. Henry Hiller's Coffin and tomb.
Mrs. Henry Hiller’s Coffin and tomb.

A CONNOISSEUR IN COFFINS

Mrs. Hiller Spends Twenty Thousand Dollars For Her Own Burial Robe

[Boston Special to New York World.]

The eccentricities of the late Dr. Henry Hiller and wife, of Wilmington, Mass., whose fad was magnificently carved and luxuriously upholstered burial caskets, have been described in the World already. The doctor’s funeral took place a year ago to-day and the corpse was carried to its last resting place in a silk-lined, gold-plated, elaborately carved casket of solid mahogany, enclosed by another casket no less extravagantly appointed. Six richly caparisoned coal-black Percherons in gold-mounted harness, each attended by a colored groom, carried the casket to the temporary vault. There the doctor’s body has been guarded night and day by a grim old watchman. A $500 lamp standing in front has shed its bright rays in the path of possible body-snatchers or grave desecrators, and every morning the faithful widow has gone to see that everything about the place was all right.

Not satisfied with the ghostly magnificence of a year ago, the widow has been at work on the construction of new caskets, one for her husband, the other for herself, which easily surpass in magnificence and grotesqueness of ornamentation any thing of the kind the world has ever seen. Each casket is in two parts—the casket proper and the sarcophagus. The material in all four is solid mahogany, imported specially from South America. The upholstering inside is as elaborate as money could make it. Corded silk of the value of $10 a yard is the material used. The lids are made of separate panels, highly polished, richly carved and fastened by solid gold hinges with knobs of solid gold for opening them. The doctor’s new casket is fastened by a heavy brass door of Gothic design, having a knob made of six pounds of solid gold. On the panels are solid gold tablets, inscribed with the doctor’s favorite passages of Scripture, such as “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” “Blessed are they that die in the Lord.”

Standing at the head of the coffin is a figure of the doctor built out of solid mahogany and reduced to a height of eighteen inches. About him are the figures of four angels welcoming him to Paradise. Mrs. Hiller’s coffin, on the other hand, has her figure recumbent on the lid, with three angels ministering to her and the doctor kneeling beside her with his right arm supporting her head. But the most remarkable feature of this remarkable burial casket is the carving on one of the side panels. The sculptor has drawn a sketch of a landscape, showing at intervals a meadow, a river, a hill, a forest, a valley, and, last of all, a mountain, at the apex of which is a white cross. Clinging to the cross is a naked cherub, and behind another cherub, and then another, until twenty-three are counted climbing toward the cross. During the twenty-four years of her married life, Mrs. Hiller says she bore her husband twenty-three children, none of whom lived. The procession up the mountain, she says, perpetuates the memory of her little ones.

Mrs. Hiller has also had made for herself a burial robe, of which it may be truly said that it beggars description. The dress-maker completed it after four months’ labor and an outlay of $20,000. The robe is made of white ottoman silk, corded heavily. There is also a wilderness of white silk lace running in perpendicular panels and tucked and gathered and fluted until it stands out to a distance of five inches. There are other panels of white surah of the most expensive manufacture. Between the panels of silk and lace are intermediate panels constructed solely of daisies made in France of pure silk after a design bought in Boston for $40. It is estimated that 5,000 of these daisies are sewed into this gown. The robe opens in front and is fastened by upward of 200 solid silver hooks designed like a serpent’s head.

The total outlay by Mrs. Hiller will be not far short of $500,000. The mausoleum will be of hammered granite. In the four walls will be gilt windows, through which it is planned to have rays of colored light enter, a different light to each window, which, blending, will fall upon the caskets resting side by side within. The caskets will stand each on four huge brass legs and chairs of magnificent design will be in the mausoleum for the accommodation of sight-seers. Mrs. Hiller will soon hold a reception for the exhibition of the caskets, the invitation to which is a picture of a coffin with “Admit one,” written beneath.

Mrs. Hiller says Queen Victoria sent to her for all the American papers that contained notices of the doctor’s funeral. When she had read them she said that Mrs. Hiller was the only woman who had surpassed Her Majesty in doing honor to a dead consort. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 21 December 1889: p. 11

A little more detail on the coffins, which sound like an artistic nightmare with their jumble of figures and mythologies.

The Hillers have spent $10,000 on their new coffins, which are beauties of mechanical and artistic skill. Each casket consists of two parts, or, in other words, each body will have two coffins. The inner coffin is composed of mahogany, made air-tight by being completely enveloped in copper. It rests within the outside casket on two elegant brass supports which represent the big paws of a lion.

It is on the outside casket, however, that the most lavish expenditure has been made. This is of mahogany also, the interior being lined with copper, the mountings of the latter being noticeably fine. Every panel contains a group of figures, and it is here the beauties of the carver’s art are made apparent.

Every figure is carefully and accurately made, and stands out in bold and striking relief. Each panel and its figures must have provided weeks of labor. To enumerate the symbols and figures which the artist has imparted with a living flourish to the receptacle of the dead would be to rehearse the names of all the familiar reproductions of the animate and inanimate in decorative art. A lion rampant here, a fierce-fanged griffin, birds of every species, fishes, flowers, plants, trees, the bow and arrow, &c., while in central positions are seen Flora and Ceres, cherubs blowing trumpets, angels tuning harps, Apollo with his lyre, Jupiter with thunderbolts, Neptune with his trident, &c., The caskets have been constructed at Dr. Hiller’s house. He says he has been offered $50,000 by a prominent showman to exhibit them. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 20 November 1887: p. 12

Dr. Hiller died in 1888 and was interred with much pomp. Mrs. Frances Hiller died in May of 1900. She had married her coachman, Peter Surrette, who, at her request, changed his name to Henry Hiller. He waived all rights to her estate, which was said to be worth $500,000. The funeral was a spectacle, with over 2,000 people turning out to stare at the much-vaunted casket, which rode on what looked like a crape-draped float from a morbid parade.

The pageant quickly degenerated into a fantasist’s farce: In truth, Mrs. Hiller had borne not 23, but three children—one of whom survived. The $50,000 casket turned out to have cost $2,000 and the $500,000 mausoleum with solid-gold knockers was never actually built, leaving only the original stone receiving vault, where Dr. Hiller slept, to receive the remains. The cast couchant lion pedestals (the “brass legs” mentioned above) that were to have held the caskets, proved too tall for the small vault and were discarded in a corner. Mrs. Hiller’s casket and the new one for her husband had been stored in an outbuilding and were not in the best of condition. But eventually Dr. and Mrs. Hiller were wrestled into their new sarcophagi, and the door, which had fallen into the tomb when the workmen uncovered it, was permanently bricked up. Several years later, cemetery authorities decided that the Hiller vault spoiled the look of the  cemetery entrance. They demolished the vault and had the mahogany caskets, still in good condition, buried in the ground. Sic transit gloria mundi

Other examples of funerary excess? Detailed photos of the Hiller coffins? Send engraved on a silver (solid, not plate, mind…) coffin plaque to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Portions of the post above appear in The Victorian Book of the Dead, which can be purchased at Amazon and other online retailers. (Or ask your local bookstore or library to order it.) It is 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 Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her latest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Advertisements

Such a Very Little Coffin: 1901

beautiful detail boy in coffin

“JACKY”

[Pall Mall Gazette.]

“Yes, Miss, I’m glad the Society can send me and Baby to the ‘Ome for a bit; but won’t you walk upstairs?”

So spoke Mrs Hunt, a sad-looking young woman with a quiet voice, to the girl standing beside her, and they began to toil up the many stairs of a model lodging-house. At last Mrs Hunt stopped at one of the doors, but before turning the handle she hesitated a moment and said, “You know I lost my Jacky yesterday. You won’t mind, will you?” And then she led the way into the dingy little top back room.

The girl glanced around almost nervously, for this was one of life’s realities that she had never met before; but there was nothing alarming in the sight of the little coffin resting on two chairs. Yet, somehow it made her feel strange, perhaps because it was such a very little coffin. Mrs. Hunt, however, did not seem to notice the addition to her furniture, for she asked abruptly, “Will they want me to take slippers to the “Ome, for I ‘aven’t got none,” and her voice was quite composed, though a trifle dull and hard. So the girl pulled herself together and a serious discussion followed as to the advisability of buying cheap shoes in the Edgware Road, or of getting a second-hand pair “off a friend.”

But all the while that she was speaking, the girl could not keep her eyes from wandering every now and then towards that other corner of the room, and suddenly she began to realise with astonishment that the coffin, though small, was made of polished oak with silver-plated fittings, and it rested on small black draperies. And then the girl remembered that she had seen a baby downstairs decked out in crape and black ribbons, and she knew that this must be Jacky’s baby sister. How could this mother be so very foolish? For Mrs Hunt was a widow, who supported herself and her little ones by doing mangling. If she worked all day and the greater part of the night she could not hope to earn more than eight or nine shillings a week. And yet she could afford to indulge in high-class funerals.

And as the girl thought on these things her heart hardened, and she deemed it her duty to give the woman a few words of advice on the subject of her extravagance. But the words would not come. For somehow that inconvenient little lump in her throat would return when she thought of this woman’s desire to honour her dead even at the cost of starving. She could almost hear her say, “Has my little boy had so many luxuries that you grudge him a decent burial?” And the girl could not speak.

Now, when she had turned to go, and had even laid her hand on the door, Mrs Hunt said suddenly, almost harshly, “Perhaps you’d like to see ’im.” And before the girl could reply, the lid of the coffin was drawn back.

What! Was that still little form that white face, almost terrible in its loveliness—was that the noisy, dirty imp she had seen not many days before? I seemed incredible. She remembered in wonder that she had tried to bring herself to kiss the face that had been almost repulsive in its filth and ugliness; and had tried and had failed. And now she would fain have knelt and have pressed her lips to the little white hand, humbly, reverently, as to something sacred. She would not dare now to touch the face that she had turned from in disgust; it looked so white, so pure, he would have feared to defile it. “Defile!” Yes, that was the word that kept beating itself on the girl’s brain as she stood there looking down. “Undefiled, undefiled, a little child undefiled.”

And where were now her sapient remarks as to the desirability of cheap funerals for the poor? Gone, utterly gone. She was indeed stricken dumb and stood there silently gazing, her eyes wet with tears. And at last, as many before her have done when the feelings of their littleness is borne home to them, she unconsciously used the words of another: words, old indeed, but true for all time, for all men—

“For of such is the kingdom of Heaven.”

But some one heard her. There was a sudden sob, a sound as of the breaking of an ice of distrust and despair, and the mother turned away, her shoulders heaving, her face buried in her apron; and a cry rang out, an exceedingly bitter cry:

“Oh, I wants ‘im! ‘E weren’t much to nobody but me, but I loved ‘im an’ I wants ‘im!”

And this is how it came to pass that the inquiry officer of a certain society failed in her important duty of advocating thrift and economy among the London poor.

Star, 26 January 1901: p. 1

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: One likely possibility that the young inquiry officer did not consider is that many of London’s poor subscribed to Burial Societies. In the 1840s there were over one hundred Burial Societies in London alone. A small sum paid weekly–from a half-penny to a penny and three half-pence and twopence in 1844–ensured that the all-important decent funeral would be within reach.  The pauper funeral held as much horror for the Victorian poor as the Workhouse and was to be avoided at all cost.

It was found in 1907 that eighty-three per cent of all English decedents carried insurance. The authors of that study added severely, “It would seem that the insurance policy lure prompts to funeral extravagance, and that the pitiless extortions consequently exacted from the poor by a certain class of undertakers aggravates needlessly the anguish of the bereaved, and calls for indignant protest from the public upon whom, in some instances, the victims immediately thereafter become a charge.” Preventable Death in Cotton Manufacturing Industry, Arthur Reed Perry, 1919

For more information on the popular culture of Victorian mourning and death, Mrs Daffodil recommends The Victorian Book of the Dead, by Chris Woodyard, also available for something called a Kindle.  Mrs Daffodil understands the principle of paper-making using wood-pulp, but fails to see where kindling comes into it.

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.

 

A Casket 300 Feet Long

A casket 300 feet long Purple Cross story

A CASKET 300 FEET LONG

The Distressing Truth Revealed Why It Is Not Possible to Properly Bring Back Our Soldier Dead from the Torn Battlefields and how the Undertakers Are Pressing the Scheme for Business Reasons

By Rene Bache.

Any American mother whose soldier boy lost his life in France, or any wife whose husband died in the war “over there,” has a right to demand that the body be brought back and given to her for burial in this country. The Government promised as much, and the War Department will do its best to make the promise good.

But there are difficulties which by most people are not understood at all.

The principal agent of destruction used in the great conflict was high explosives, in shells, in bombs, and in other instruments for killing. It is estimated that 3 percent of the 77,000 American dead were literally blown to pieces. How in such cases could the fragments be collected and identified?

In numerous instances where our fighting men were killed by high explosive shells their fate was shared by French comrades-in-arms. Burying parties picked up such remains as they could find and interred them, marking part of the ground as the grave of an American soldier and another part as the grave of a French soldier. There were many cases where bodies of horses or other animals killed at the same time were buried with the bodies of men.

There are 18,000 Americans who died in hospitals, of wounds or disease, outside the war zone. Eleven thousand of these are to be brought back immediately; the rest will remain, by the expressed wish of their families, where they are.

With those who lost their lives in the war-zone the situation is entirely different. Already they have been buried twice, the first interment being usually by the regimental chaplain, without a coffin—just a covering of the body with earth, to get it out of sight and for sanitation’s sake.

This was always practicable when our troops were advancing. When they retreated, the American dead were often of necessity left unburied. The Germans interred them higgledy-piggledy in trenches dug for the purpose. Indeed, in many instances the Yaks were obliged to bury their own dead in this wretched fashion.

When the fighting lines were long stationary, bodies sometimes lay unburied for weeks before it was possible to reach them without undue risk.

Many small temporary cemeteries were established, in which thousands of uncoffined bodies were laid to rest. The sites chosen were usually on low ground, because in such places the burial parties were relatively safe from shell-fire.  But there came four months of continuous rain, and the cemeteries were flooded. One there was which for a long time was under four feet of water, which washed some of the corpses out of the shallow graves, so that they floated to the surface.

This is distressing, but it is the truth. Everything was done that could be done in the circumstances. A concrete dam was built around this particular cemetery, and attempts were made to get the water out with gasoline pumps.

But the water seeped in beneath the concrete as fast as it could be pumped out; and finally, as a last resort, men equipped with long rubber boots and gas masks were sent in to grub literally for the bodies. It was a dreadful task, but they got them.

The possibilities of mistake in returning to American families the bodies of dead soldier boys are many and dreadful to contemplate. Recently 200 were brought back from Russia, and out of that small number no fewer than twelve were sent to the wrong homes.

After the Spanish war and subsequent fighting in the Philippines, the bodies of many dead American soldiers were brought back to the United States. Several of the coffins were found to contain the corpses of Chinese coolies.

Frequently it happened in France that American soldiers and German soldiers perished together and were buried together. Nothing is more certain than that efforts to fetch our dead boys from the war zone will result In the incidental importation of German remains. One can easily see how many an American mother or widow might thus weep over German bones, or even put flowers on the grave of the very man who slew the mourned son or husband.

For it must be remembered that the bodies shipped to this country from the war zone will be impossible of identification after their arrival.

They will be saturated with disinfectants, and inclosed in metal-lined caskets, hermetically sealed. It will be clearly explained in every instance that they are on no account to be opened.

There are now in the war zone, in France, 52.200 American fighting men, interred in proper cemeteries. Much clamor has arisen for the return of their bodies to the Union States. But the French Ambassador, M. Jusserand, says that it is “an artificially stimulated movement.” Cardinal Gibbons says: “The experiment of exhuming the bodies would be a useless one, to say nothing of the distress and pain caused to relatives.”

The American Legion, at its recent convention in Minneapolis, passed a resolution to the effect that “the bodies of American dead be not returned from France, except in cases where parents or next of kin so desire.”

The “movement” to which Mr. Jusserand refers, however, is to press for the immediate return, at Government expense, of all the American dead now in Europe. It is being very strongly pushed in Congress.

If it be “artificially stimulated,” who is giving it stimulation? The answer is that the real force behind the movement is the self-styled “Purple Cross,” which is another word for the Undertakers’ Trust. They see big money in it for them.

If proof of this be demanded, it is furnished by an editorial printed in The Casket

(September 1, 1919), which is the official organ of the Funeral Directors’ Association. It reads:

“Suppose, Mr. Funeral Director, that some one were to come into your office and tell you that he had a scheme for increasing the number of funerals this year by more than fifty thousand.

“What would you do?

“Most likely you would rush out wildly into the street and shout.

“But. Mr. Funeral Director, with your neatly appointed office and your not-entirely-paid-for motor equipment, this offer is being made to you in all seriousness,

“In alien soil there lie more than 50,000 American men who died in battle or of disease during their tour of duty abroad.

“For nearly every American soldier returned some funeral director will be called  upon to perform the necessary duties of reception and burial.

“Extra business, gentlemen, legitimate, patriotic; kindly, sympathetic, remunerative extra business. No additional number of widows and orphans. Only the final laying away of America’s sons in the bosom of their dear motherland.”

With which whole-souled exordium “The Casket” urges all undertakers to get busy and bring the requisite pressure on Congress to put through the scheme so promising of big profits for them,

The undertakers are pushing propaganda designed to cause uneasiness among people whose boys died in the war and to persuade them to write to their Congressmen and bring other influence to bear.

Listen to the testimony of one bereaved mother, Mrs. Mabel Fonda Gareissen, of No. 619 West One Hundred and Fourteenth street, New York City. She writes:

“I am a Gold Star mother and vitally interested in what is to be done with the bodies of our soldiers who lie in France. Therefore I decided to discover for myself the truth of persistent rumors that the Purple Cross (American Undertakers’ Association) is back of the movement to bring to America the bodies of our heroes.

“I asked Miss Jane O’Ryan, sister of General O’Ryan, to go with me to Mr. Blank, a leading undertaker. We saw there a tall, pale-faced man, with horn-rimmed glasses, who spoke with authority as one of the proprietors or managers.

“‘Yes,’ he said, ‘the dead in France are to be returned. Every pressure is being brought to bear. We have powerful representatives at Washington–not only our own, but Congressmen. We have been after the Congressmen for a long time.’

“‘Are you sending embalmers over?’

“‘No, the dead are in no condition for embalming. We shall use strong disinfectants, place the bodies in hermetically sealed caskets, and they will not be reopened.’

“‘Shall you ship all the caskets from America?’

“‘Yes, we shall use our own caskets, made in America.’

‘”After our dead arrive, can we be certain they are our own?’

“He hesitated and cleared his throat. ‘Well,’ he said, with very evident doubt, ‘we are going to be as careful as possible.”

“As we left he gave each of us a beautiful pink rose. We dropped them on the sidewalk when out of sight.

“Is it possible that the undertakers of this country would profiteer and use to that end the bodies of our American boys, one of whom is my own son?”

An answer to Mrs. Gareissen’s question is furnished by the editorial above quoted from “The Casket.” “Extra business, gentlemen–remunerative extra business.”

Big money in the scheme from beginning to end if it goes through. Fifty thousand caskets to start with! If all the American dead were put in one casket it would require a coffin 300 feet long, about sixty feet high and would cover a block and a half of Fifth avenue and stretch from sidewalk to sidewalk.

There is no article of merchandise on which the profit is larger than on coffins.

Each coffin must be inclosed in a box. It is an ordinary wooden box, costing perhaps $2.50, but the price the undertaker usually asks for it is $50. Then the funerals on arrival at destination, with carriages, incidentals and “service.” Did you over see an undertaker’s bill, and note the way in which it was “built up” out of a variety of items? Only a plumber’s bill can compare with it in this respect.

And then there are the tombstones, to wind up. The tombstone maker usually stand in with the “funeral directors,” and tombstones, like everything else, have gone up in price. The cost of them has doubled and trebled recently. When a monument is in question, you cannot buy the smallest and simplest pattern for less than $500.

H. S. Eckels, Director General of the Purple Cross (No. 1922 Arch street. Philadelphia) offers the following estimate for bringing a soldier’s body from France—a private job:

Average cost of disinterment and transportation to New York $605.00

The above total itemized as follows:

Zinc-lined oak coffin and outside box (cheapest) $115.00

Labor, legal fees, etc $120.00

Own transportation and expense of journey $112.00

Transport from French port to New York $100.00

Transport of body in France $48.00

Personal supervision and service  $50.00

It will be noted that this fetches the body only as far as New York. One may safely surmise that “extras” would double the bill. And, of course, the undertaker would not be making such an expedition for the bringing back of one body. There would be many, and for each one the charges for “personal services” and “own transportation, ” etc., would be duplicated.

Never was there such a chance for ghoulish graft.

Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt’s father and mother asked the War Department to permit his body to remain in France. They felt that the American soldiers who fell there should lie in the soil they died defending.

A great many parents and widows have been led by the Roosevelts’ example to relinquish their desire that the bodies of their soldier sons and husbands be brought back. Already letters to this effect have been received by the War Department from 19,000 families. In two recent weeks 500 such letters came from families who wished to reverse a previous request that their dead be returned.

Congressmen have made excited speeches to the effect that the French were anxious to prevent the removal of our dead, in order that money-spending Americans might come over in flocks. But, as a matter of fact, the French, in relation to all this sad business, have conducted themselves in the most sympathetic way imaginable. Their women, peasant and cultured alike, have tended with loving care the graves of the khaki-clad American dead. They are doing it to-day, esteeming it an honor and a privilege. They plant flowers on the graves, one or more being assigned to each volunteer for the purpose.

It was the voice of France that spoke when Clemenceau said “We look upon the Americans who died in France as sons of France!”

At the close of hostilities, with the ready cooperation of the French, convenient sites for burying grounds were chosen as centers into which the American dead were gathered from the temporary war cemeteries. There they now rest, awaiting the decision as to their final disposition.

Meanwhile there has been organized in this country an American Field of Honor Association, which, when sentiment on the subject has crystallized, expects to send to France a commission for the purpose of choosing a site for a great central soldiers’ cemetery. It is thought that France will give the site. There will be erected a magnificent memorial—possibly a duplicate of the Washington Monument. Also there  is in contemplation a memorial hall, to be there located, with a room for each State of the Union, on the walls of which will be placed bronze tablets bearing the names of the gallant dead.

According to present plans, the cemetery is to be made as much unlike a typical burying ground as possible. There will be no dismal rows of tombstones, but groupings of graves about rocks and under trees. And always will be maintained there a guard of honor, composed of honor men of the army, who, with fine quarters and extra pay, will service for one year, being thus rewarded for distinguished and meritorious services.

The great memorial cemetery will enjoy the special and extraordinary right of intra-territoriality. In other words, though in France, it will be a part of the United States—as much so as the Island of Manhattan. And above its sacred precincts will forever float the sheltering folds of the Stars and Stripes.

France has pledged herself to care for the American dead. In the belief of the Field of Honor Association, it is a mistaken scheme to attempt to disinter the bodies in the war zones, to haul them hundreds of miles to a seaport, to load them on ships, to bring them to this country and to forward them by railroad and truck to all parts of the United States.

It would take years to complete the job. During that time homes that have endured the first pangs of sorrow and have become in a measure reconciled would be plunged into renewed grief.

“Extra business, gentlemen! This is a matter of dollars.” So says their official organ, “The Casket.”

The Oregon Daily Journal [Portland OR] 15 February 1920: p. 61

Funeral Men In Denial.

Elmwood, Ill. –To the Editor:

The article written by Rene Bache which appeared in The Register Feb. 8, in which the statement is made that the undertakers are urging for the return of the dead American soldier boys from France, because it will help business, does a gross injustice to the legitimate members of our profession.

We desire to correct the article in two instances. First, The Casket, quoted in the article, which is edited by William Mill Butler of New York City, is not the official organ of the National Funeral Directors’ association.

Second, the National Funeral Directors’ association is not in any way connected with the American Purple Cross association, neither does it approve of the aims and objects of said Purple Cross association, as evidenced by the fact that at our last annual convention in Atlantic City, N.J. Sept. 10, 11 and 12, the National Funeral Directors’ association emphatically refused to affiliate in any way or to approve of the methods of the American Purple Cross association, whose request for such action was at that time presented to our association.

We believe the publication of this communication will in a measure explain to the people that the legitimate undertakers, of which the National Funeral Directors’ Association of the United States is composed, are not in any way connected with the American Purple Cross association.

H.M. Kilpatrick, Secretary.

The Des Moines [IA] Register 17 February 1920: p. 8

REMOVAL OF SOLDIERS DEAD FROM FRANCE

Mr. THOMAS. Mr. President, I have no doubt that every Senator has received a communication from Mabel Fonda Gareissen, of New York City, bearing date the 1st of January, relating to the desire, very naturally entertained by relatives of those sacrificed during the recent war and whose bodies are reposing in French soil, to have them transported to America for permanent interment. That is a sentiment with which every man must deeply sympathize and in his official action as well as his personal conduct accede to as far as possible. If, consistently with the policy of the French Government and its ultimate consent, the bodies of those whose relatives desire their transportation across the ocean can be brought back, it should be done. But the situation seems to have developed a commercial enterprise known to the world as The Purple Cross, said by this lady to include the American Undertakers’ Association, whose purpose, seemingly, is to commercialize the grief and affliction of parents and widows and children of those who have offered up their lives for their country across the sea.

I do not, Mr. President, indorse this recital or affirm that it is true, but it is in line with a number of circumstances that have developed since the close of the war, indicating that The Purple Cross is an organization designed to profit from this Sentiment and secure appropriate legislation to enable them to effectuate their purpose. However that may be, the public is entitled to know what the views of this lady upon the subject may be, particularly as she assumes to give an interview that occurred between a representative of The Purple Cross and a lady speaking in behalf of what is called a “gold-star mother.” If The Purple Cross is not the sort of organization that is here disclosed, then it is as much concerned in having the truth known as the country can be. If, on the other hand, it is true, then certainly it should be known and the facts considered in any legislation that we may undertake regarding this very important subject. I ask unanimous consent, therefore, for the insertion of this letter in the RECORD.

Mr. LODGE. Mr. President

Mr. THOMAS. I yield.

Mr. LODGE. If the Senator from Colorado will permit me, I merely wish to say that I have received a letter similar to that just presented by him. I believe it to be written in good faith, and I think the subject ought to be referred to some appropriate committee to inquire into it. If there is any truth in the statement, it is a scandal.

Mr. THOMAS. I think the Senator’s suggestion is a very pertinent one, and instead of merely asking that the letter be inserted in the RECORD–

 

Mr. LODGE. I think the letter had better be inserted in the RECORD.

Mr. THOMAS. I will supplement that request, and I ask that the letter be also referred to the Committee on Military Affairs, with a request that the committee investigate the subject and make report to the Senate.

Mr. LODGE. That is the committee to which it should be referred.

Mr. WARREN. Perhaps the Senator from Colorado will remember that legislation in reference to this matter has been heretofore considered, and that even at the commencement of the war, before there was any use for such a service, mothers of soldiers came before the Military Committee in regard to the matter. It seemed then, with the slight information which we had upon the subject—and we were not impressed that it was then necessary to go further—that there was a sort of trust that proposed to take over the entire situation.

Mr. THOMAS. The Purple Cross?

Mr. WARREN. Yes; The Purple Cross.

Mr. THOMAS. Yes; I think its adjective description might well be amended. There being no objection, the letter was referred to the Committee on Military Affairs and ordered to be printed in the RECORD, as follows:

JANUARY 1, 1920–8 P. M.

MY DEAR SENATOR: I am a gold-star mother and vitally interested in what is to be done with the bodies of our soldiers who lie in France. Therefore I decided to discover for myself the truth of the persistent rumors that “The Purple Cross” (American Undertakers’ Association) is back of the movement to bring to America the bodies of our heroes. After some thought, I asked Miss Jane O’Ryan, sister of Gen. O’Ryan, if she would go with me to Campbell’s, 1970 Broadway, New York City—the leading undertaker of America. She consented, and at about 5.1.5 p. m., January 1, we entered, Miss O’Ryan preceding me.

A man Came forward to meet us. The following is the gist of the conversation that ensued :

“Miss O’RYAN. My friend is a gold-star mother, and I hope you can tell us something definite concerning the return from France of our dead soldiers. “

MAN (politely, but with hesitation). I don’t know. I can’t say, but I’ll see. Won’t you be seated : ”

Very soon a tall, pale-faced, youngish man with a kindly expression entered. He wore horn-rimmed glasses and a well-made cutaway suit. He spoke with authority, as one of the proprietors or managers.

Miss O’Ryan repeated the statement she made upon entering.

After observing us closely, the man said :

“MAN. Yes; the dead in France are to be returned.  We are now working in England.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. Are all the bodies to be brought over from England? “MAN. Yes; and from Italy; from all the countries but France.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. But when will you begin in France?

“MAN. It’s a little hard to say, for the French Government has not yet given permission.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. But the papers have announced that France had given permission.

“MAN. It’s a mistake. We have definite news from Washington. France is, as you know, in a terrible condition since the war. Think of the ruined cities, and labor is hard to get. We were even willing to supply the labor, but without result. If we asked to have our dead returned now, England and the other countries would also.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. But when do you think you can get France’s permission?

“MAN. Her own people have to be thought of first, naturally, and the transportation is very difficult. You can see France’s viewpoint. Everything can’t be done at once. But I think we can begin by Spring.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. Spring is a long time. Are you doing everything in your power to hasten this?

“MAN. Every pressure is being brought to bear.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. What, for instance?

“MAN. We have powerful representatives at Washington.

“Mrs. GAREIssEN. Do you mean your own representatives?

“MAN. Yes; and not only our own but Congressmen.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. That is interesting. Have you been trying to persuade Congressmen for any length of time?

“MAN. Indeed we have. We have been after them from the very beginning. Every pressure has been brought to bear.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. Are you sending embalmers over?

“MAN. No; the dead are in no condition for embalming. We will use strong disinfectants, place the bodies in hermetically sealed caskets, and they will not be reopened.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. Where will you get these caskets?

“MAN. We will take them to France from America.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. You mean you will ship all these caskets from America : “MAN. Yes; we will use our own caskets, made in America.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. How much is it going to cost to do all this?

“MAN. It isn’t going to cost you people anything. The Government is going to pay us.”

A repetition of the question as to what the cost would be brought no response.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. After our dead arrive, can we be certain they are our own?”

The man hesitated and cleared his throat, “Well,” he said (with very evident doubt as to the result), “we are going to be as careful as possible.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. You are very honest.

“MAN. I mean to be honest.”

As we left he gave us each a beautiful pink rose and bade me stop in from time to time and he would keep me posted. We dropped the roses on the sidewalk when out of sight.

I send you this as a gold-star mother who protests against such activities as are described above.

Is it possible that the undertakers of this country would profiteer and use to that end the bodies of our American boys, one of whom is my own son?

I appeal to you for an answer.

Respect fully, MABEL FONDA GAREISSEN

Congressional Record – Senate 13 January 1920: pp. 1471-2

For Earth Day: Wicker Man: Victorian Basket-work Coffins

 Wicker Man: Victorian Basket-work Coffins Wicker coffin for green burial
Wicker Man: Victorian Basket-work Coffins A modern wicker coffin in Victorian style from a company in Australia: http://www.handwovencaskets.com.au

 Willow coffins are now the rage in England. They are more comfortable in hot weather, it is claimed. Dallas [TX] Weekly Herald 10 July 1875: p. 2

“Bury me,” said a ruddy and strong man, with whom I was discussing the subject of wicker coffins, — “when I am dead, bury me in an earth-to-earth wicker coffin, so that I may get out again into God’s pure air just as soon as possible.” England as Seen by an American Banker: Notes of a Pedestrian Tour, Claudius Buchanan Patten, 1885

In the summer of 1875 some residents of London received a novel invitation reading:

THE DUKE OF SUTHERLAND

Requests the honor of the company of

__________

At Stafford House,

On Thursday, the 17th, and Saturday, the 19th of June, to see a collection of models of basket and other perishable coffins constructed on the principles advocated by Mr. Seymour Haden.

Garden entrance. Four to six o’clock

A strange summer garden-party—with perishable coffins?–and to what end?  Why, to solve the problem of London’s graveyards bulging with bones, stenches, and partially decomposed corpses, of course. This is not an issue we think of today, but for urban Victorians, it was a real concern.

The author of the following piece paints a hideous picture of the horrors of conventional burials:

The objection against vaults and hermetically sealed coffins are great; if their purpose is to prevent dissolution of the compages of the flesh, they do not accomplish it, and the horrible scenes witnessed when old vaults are opened—where water has come through or the bodies are found in a loathsome deliquescence in which they float—are infamous if they can be prevented, as they can be by the use of the wicker coffin. Daily Graphic [New York, NY] 31 July 1875: p. 2

Wicker/perishable coffins also had the advantage of being cheaper than “the extortions of the undertakers” and “it affords of the body being restored quietly and lovingly to mother earth, and to head off the cremation fever now attacking many Britons.” Cleveland [OH] Leader 19 July 1875: p. 4.

But back to that invitation issued by the Duke of Sutherland.

THE COFFIN RECEPTION

After a description of American window displays of funerary necessities, the author writes…

 While all this may seem incongruous, and while less of ‘commercial’ obtrusiveness about the necessary work of funerals might be less offensive to good taste, even the American undertaker does draw the line somewhere. We never heard, for example, of his imitating the milliners and dressmakers by holding a mortuary “opening” or giving a coffin reception.

The last-named bit of enterprise was reserved for the ingenious Duke of Sutherland. That alert nobleman discovered a reformatory speciality to which his attention had never before been turned, and he proceeded at once to make the most of it. After cremation, as a method of getting the remains of human beings out of the way expeditiously and thoroughly, had been discussed, and after a vast majority of the British public had come to the conclusion that they did not care to burn themselves or their friends, Mr. Seymour Haden proposed a compromise with convention. The idea of destroying a body before the very eyes of the mourners was, he admitted, not altogether pleasing, but he, he argued, there could be no reasonable objection to permitting the remains to assimilate with their mother earth as rapidly as possible after they should be hidden from sight. Such a disposition, he contended, was preferable to cremation, because, while the latter process would leave nothing but a few worthless ashes, the other would give to the soil much which would enrich it and make it fruitful. To Mr. Haden, thus contemplating the bodies of himself and his kindred and the great army of the coming dead as fertilizers, nothing seemed lacking but a method of interment which would the most facilitate decomposition, or which would obstruct it the least… Like many reformers, Mr. Haden has to pull down as well as build up. He is obliged to overcome the preservative prejudices of the people before he can persuade them to inter their friends in such a way as to promote dissolution. He is convinced himself that the most important appliance of a fertilizing funeral is a basket. He is willing to be buried in one, but to induce other persons to follow his example is a difficult matter…. If he could succeed in introducing his death-basket into “high life,” he reasoned, he would be enriched, and so in time would be the soil of England. He approached the Duke of Sutherland, who just then happened to have no other extravagant undertaking on his hands, and who readily fell in with the scheme. Invitations “to see a collection of models of basket and other perishable coffins” at Stafford House were issued, and a large company was assembled accordingly.

The affair was grotesque enough. In place of what at other times would have been a program of the concert or a bill of the play, guests were furnished with a printed description of the coffins, their purpose, merits and defects. There was ghastly humor in the statement, especially in the fourth direction:

“Accompanying each of them [the coffins] should be a narrow leaden band or ribbon pierced with name and date of death, to be passed round the chest and lower limbs, and through the sides and over the top of the basket: 1. For retaining the body in its position; 2. For the subsequent identification of the bones; 3. For sealing the coffin, as a guaranty that the contents have not been disturbed.”

One model was of “a nest of coffins as they will be kept in stock, from the smallest to the largest.” There were “forms of coffins for ordinary use,” with the legend, “The best are very inexpensive.”… Considering the basket coffin seriously, if it was meant to be seriously considered, the most forcible argument for it which we have seen is that it will cheapen funerals. But we are by no means sure that it would do so; the undertakers probably would contrive to make even a willow-ware burial costly. And even if it would do so, cheapness is not the only thing to be considered in living and dying. It must occur even to Mr. Haden, meditating upon his fertilizing scheme, that if the economical disposition of bodies, quick or dead, is of prime importance, it would be cheapest to die young, and cheaper still not to be born at all. Evening Post [New York] 17 July 1875: p. 2

Another eye-witness took a gallows-humor approach. (The proposal to “make a funeral very much like a festival,” has been my complaint as a church organist witness of many “celebrations of life.”)

 A cold chill ran down my back. A garden party at Stafford House, at which the entertainment was to consist of coffins and “perishable coffins” at that! There is something ghastly, uncomfortable and incongruous in this. One may joke and try to be gay when surrounded with these memorials of death, but the jokes will be far-fetched and the gayety unnatural. Mr. Haden has elaborated a completely new programme for all the arrangements connected with deaths and burials, and proposes to make a funeral very much like a festival. Everything is to be light, cheerful, and pleasant; the undertaker’s people are not to enter the house; the ladies of the family are to wrap the corpse in a light shroud, lay it in a pretty basket of open willow work, lined with fragrant moss and lichens; and, when all is ready the men of the household are to carry the body away and bury it. This was certainly less shocking than cremation; but still there seemed to be much nonsense about it. Now, however, we were to have a garden party in order to the look at the new coffins—and, perhaps, we might be treated also to a funeral got up for the occasion. Since the Duke of Sutherland had taken the matter in hand there was no reason why he might not send up to one of his Scotch estates and order a gilly or two to be killed and sent down by express train, in order to afford Mr. Haden every facility for a demonstration of the advantages of his new method of burial….

The joke about killing a gilly almost looks like Second Sight. In 1883 the Duke accidentally killed a man, said to be his gamekeeper, during a hunting expedition.

 The day was lovely; the grounds were in all their beauty; the toilets of the ladies were brilliant; the Duke, smoking a cigar, his hands in his pockets and a white hat set jauntily over one side of his head, moved from group to group, laughing and jesting. But for all this the company were not gay. The coffins saddened them, although there was nothing in them. On the broad terrace which extends along the front the house the “basket and other portable coffins” were arranged in rows. There were dozens of them, from the tiny ones intended for infants up to the full size ones large enough for the Duke himself. Some were made of nothing but willows, open on all sides like a basket; others had the sides and bottoms filled in with green moss; others, intended for the bodies of those who had died of contagious disease were double, a layer of powdered charcoal being placed between the outer and inner baskets. …

The people crowded around the coffins, examined them with interest, not unmixed with anxiety, listened to Mr. Haden’s explanations, shuddered in spite of themselves as he insisted upon the fact that a body thus interred would be all “absorbed in a month,” tried to make remarks expressive of their pleasure at such a prospect, and then strolled off into the grounds. I saw more than one lady grow pale as she looked at the little coffins for children. For all that, the coffins lined with soft and fragrant moss were not unpleasant to gaze upon—not unpleasant, that is, for coffins. Augusta [GA] Chronicle 17 July 1875: p. 3

So who were these Wicker Men, the Duke and Mr. Haden?

Sir Francis Seymour Haden (1818-1910) was an English surgeon as well as a noted etcher. He was also an expert on the etchings of the old masters, particularly Rembrandt. He married a half-sister of the artist James Whistler and for a time he and Whistler printed their etchings together in a home workshop. He also testified in the Tichborne Claimant trial and invented a papier-mache coffin.

I have not been able to find out what triggered his life-long near-mania for earth-to-earth burial, although any doctor in London would have realized that the burial grounds were a breeding ground for pestilence.

Other than his interest in burial reform, he seemed to have led a fairly conventional, Royal College of Surgeons/Royal Academician sort of life, (although he had married into the family of the relentlessly unconventional James McNeill Whistler.) The founder of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers, he was revered world-wide for his artwork and was dubbed The Great Master of Etching; The Apostle of the Burin; The Foremost of Living Etchers. He was knighted in 1894.

Dr. Haden was back in the news briefly in the summer of 1896 with his comments on “shallow burial”—one foot under rather than the statutory 4 ½ feet—to encourage rapid decomposition. He came to this conclusion by studying dead animals he buried at various depths on his estate—a proto-Body Farm. I have been unable to discover if he received an earth-to-earth burial. [Source: “Disposing of the Dead” New York Herald-Tribune 3 July 1896: p. 6]

The Duke of Sutherland was Sir George Granville William Sutherland – Leveson-Gower, K. G., Third Duke of Sutherland, 1828-1892. [I will not weary you with his string of other titles.] As you might expect from the greatest landowner in Great Britain, he did as he pleased. He was frequently dubbed “eccentric” and “a queer old fellow” in the press. One of his pranks was to send a wildcat trapped in Sutherlandshire to the first Crystal Palace Cat Show in July 1871. He was intrigued by invention and loved driving locomotives. (It was said that he was the only man in the world who could drive his own engines, fired with coal from his own mines, over his own private railroad tracks, throughout his own extensive properties.) He also invented a fire engine and worked as an amateur firefighter in London.

His personal life was equally unconventional. In November of 1888, his wife, Duchess Anne, gravely ill, saw him off on a voyage to the United States, then died of a cold contracted from the exertion. The Duke caused a scandal by refusing to travel from Florida for her funeral.  Less than four months later, the Ducal widower married his “traveling companion” Mary Caroline Blair. Mrs. Blair’s first husband, Arthur Kindersley Blair, had been an employee of the Duke—some say gamekeeper; others estate Superintendent–whom the Duke accidentally shot and killed in 1883 (the date and the circumstances are also murky).  The married Duke became fascinated by the lady, who was described as 6-feet tall and “raw-boned,” causing a rift with Duchess Anne. “He was best known on account of his immoralities, which he took no pains to conceal.” [Elkhart [IN] Daily Review 28 September 1892: p. 4 ]

The Duke made several visits to the United States where he met Thomas Edison while viewing electric lights Edison had installed for a New York client. In the course of their conversations, the inventor mentioned the excellent tarpon fishing at Ft Meyers. Intrigued, the Duke visited Edison at Seminole Lodge and then built himself a home near St Petersburg at Tarpon Springs where he lived with Mrs. Blair.

At his death in 1892 the Duke left his vast fortune to his second wife who was found guilty of contempt of court for destroying documents related to the estate and served six weeks in Holloway Jail. The Duke’s children by Duchess Anne contested the will and paid the lady off handsomely. She later married her legal advisor.

Other than the Duke’s interest in innovation and invention, I am not sure why he decided to patronize Mr. Haden’s wicker coffins. I also do not know if the Duke was buried in a wicker coffin, but I have seen a note that his coffin was put into the ground rather than the family vault, at his request.

Despite his letters to the Times, Mr. Haden’s wicker coffins proved only a summer sensation. Although at the time of the “Coffin Reception,” his name was on everyone’s lips, after 1875 Dr. Haden’s press notices focus solely on his art, lectures, exhibitions, and art criticism. Neither man’s obituary notice mentions death-baskets or earth-to-earth burial.

Wicker coffins never really caught on over in the States except as temporary/transport coffins. They were unusual enough that they were mentioned as a curiosity in death notices. You sometimes see such coffins for sale, possibly because undertakers found that they were not popular with the public.

There is nothing new under the sun, of course. Seymour Haden and the Duke were early proponents–138 years too early—of what today we call the green-burial or eco-funeral movements.

A friend sent me a recent article about “free trade” basketwork coffins being made by cooperatives in Bangladesh.  You can see a pretty example here.

Bury me beneath the willow
Under the weeping willow tree
Where she will know where I’m sleeping
And perhaps she’ll weep for me.

“Bury Me Beneath the Willow”

-Trad. Folk song-

 

Thanks to Michael Robinson for the free-trade basketwork article, which inspired this post.

Further Reading:

Cremation: a Pamphlet, Seymour Haden (London, 1875)

The Disposal of the Dead, a Plea for Legislation, Seymour Haden (London, 1888).

Earth to earth: a plea for a change of system in our burial of the dead, Seymour Haden (London, 1875)

Cremation: an Incentive to Crime, Seymour Haden (London, 1892)

The Corpse in the Garden: Burial, Health and the Environment in Nineteenth-Century London by Peter Thorsheim is an excellent article giving much of the background about issues that inspired burial reformers like Dr. Haden: questions of sanitation, earth-to-earth burials, cremation, and the transformation of some of London’s cemeteries into public parks.

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. See also her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead. 

Little Jane’s Christmas Box: 1842

 

doll's coffin 1870-1900
Little Jane’s Christmas Box https://www.thehenryford.org/collections-and-research/digital-collections/artifact/304803

LITTLE JANE’S CHRISTMAS BOX.

Incidents filled with deepest pathos, and occurrences to stir the soul with tenderest emotion, happen around us every day; yet seldom, very seldom, have we a pen commanding leisure enough to yield them a brief record.

We remember being at the house of a friend on a certain Christmas day, when our eye, glancing through the window, fell upon an upholsterer’s preparations for a funeral going on in front of a house immediately opposite. Our gentle hostess of the occasion, marked the action, and made us sit down to hear the following simple and affecting history of poor little Jane and her first Christmas Box.

The little girl about to be buried upon the merriest holiday in the year, was just approaching the anniversary of her seventh birthday, when some subtle disorder that had afflicted her from infancy, carried her off during the night that ushered in our last gay Christmas. She was a child of very sweet and attractive manners, and the neighbors had learned to know and love her. The incurable complaint which was consuming her, gave a placidity almost ethereal, to her disposition, and her smile was a thing so mildly beautiful, that (if we may use a simile to assist this warm but imperfect description of our informant,) it must have been like the leaf of a lily shining in the embrace of a moonbeam.

The parents were poor, but dignified and retiring, and notwithstanding the profound interest little Jane awakened in the neighbourhood, the bearing of the father and the constant seclusion of the mother, clearly forbade any intrusive proffer of assistance. A few weeks since the child ceased its visits to the sidewalk, and was seen to sit no more upon the door step. Poor Jane was upon her death-bed.

At the approach of the holidays, the father and mother (with that old hankering of hope which so eagerly clings for safety to a straw,) grew joyous with a bright change in their suffering daughter. She suddenly grew to laugh and converse with pleasant freedom, and the symptoms of internal pain ceased to cross her sweet face so often as before. Then the cheered mother would sit by the bedside, and talk to her girl of the merry holidays that were soon coming, and promising the poor child what she had never known before —a handsome Christmas box.

This promise, as it would seem, took great hold upon poor little dying Jane’s fancy, for she still, from day to day, would question her mother about it, and desire to know what sort of a box it was to be? For an hour or two on the day preceding Christmas, she chatted with remarkable liveliness, telling her father and mother jocosely, that she meant to keep awake in the night, and watch Santa Claus when he came down the chimney with the box. But as evening came on, she faded into pale and sleepless stupor. The doling mother grew again uneasy, and with every innocent artifice, endeavored to keep the child’s senses in action. She lifted little Jane upon the pillow, that she might see how the stocking .was disposed in the chimney corner, telling her how she had promised to keep awake to see Santa Claus come down; but poor Jane smiled faintly, without speaking, a peculiar expression only crossing her countenance, by which the mother always understood a solicitation to be kissed.

There she slept—a sort of sleep from which her mother wished, yet feared to wake her—brightening up again at her father’s return home in the evening. Somehow then the child’s eye, or its changed voice, or some symptom not seen before, smote conviction of the coming catastrophe upon the father’s heart, and mute with wretchedness, he sank upon his knees by the bedside.

One loud, abrupt, involuntary and thrilling scream burst from the mother at this action, for it told her all that the father had no tongue to utter. She flew to her child, clutching it to her heart and lips, as though she would detain the breath heaven was taking away, and a deathly silence followed the woman’s scream, broken only by the mountain-like laboring of the father’s heart, and hysterical sobs bursting from the afflicted mother.

In the opposite dwelling Fortune and Pleasure were smiling upon each other, and a gay assemblage of the chosen votaries of each, were joyfully greeting as they passed away the merry and laughing hours of Christmas Eve! How strangely opposites will sometimes jar during our progress through this chequered scene! How, still more strangely, does that jarring oft touch up the chords of gentle sympathy, which vibrate ever with melodious sound.

The poor, bereaved mother’s scream reached, and startled the company opposite, and our good hostess commanding her guests of the evening to remain in undisturbed festivity, went to visit the scene of affliction, for her heart too truly told her what alone could be the cause of such a desolate sound.

Little Jane lingered till nearly midnight, fading slowly, like one of those thin vapors sailing in the train of Cynthia, which pass away into ether, mocking admiration as with some beautiful illusion that you think you’ve seen, yet suddenly and strangely miss. The fair child yielded its breath with a smile, while the mother’s tears were falling on its face, and the heavy throbs of the father’s heart kept mournful accompaniment with the last pulsations of life in the breast of his child.

So came the morning, and poor little Jane’s Christmas box was—a coffin!

The Ladies’ Garland Volume 6, 1842: pp. 171-172

 

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

A Grave Warning About Iron Coffins

fisk burial casket

On 14 November 1848, Almond D. Fisk patented his “air-tight coffin of cast or raised metal.” The patent contained the further suggestion that “the air may be exhaused so completely as entirely to prevent the decay of the contained body…or…the coffin may be filled with any gas or fluid having the property of preventing putrefaction.”

Retailers of Fisk Burial Cases rhapsodized over their ability to preserve the body and their aesthetic qualities:

The idea of preserving the features of the dead unchanged—of staying the execution of the sentence, “dust to dust,” is a beautiful one, and had its origin in the gentlest affections of our nature.

The hand that cherishes the flower above the low bed of the dreamless, and bedews its leaves with tears, would, if it could, preserve the form from mingling with the elements, that the share of the ploughman might not rend it—that the winds of heaven might not strew it.

We love to think that the Corinthian column sprung from the tribute of memory to the dead—that the votive basket wreathed with Acanthus, and placed upon the grave of some dear lost one, suggested to the sculptor, that most elegant of all the orders that grace the temples of the world.

But the houses that shall “last till dooms day,” aside from the associated pall, and knell and tear, and clod and silence, offend the eye from their want of all symmetry and beauty. No matter of what material composed, how richly lined or how rarely adorned, they are repulsive still. A sense of oppression comes over us, as we look at them—those windowless apartments—those cold and gloomy boxes for the dead to lie in.

Fisk’s Metallic Burial Cases are not liable to these objections. While they preserve the forms we love, in something more like a pulseless slumber than a dread decay, they have the appearance of rich and heavy folds of drapery, thrown over the form, adapted to the shape, and realizing the line of “Thanatopsis.”

“Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch

About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

Many a heart, whose kindred heart beat, but afar from home, will bless him who has thus devised and disposed a mantle beneath which that heart may be borne by ship and shore, to sleep amid the dust that once throbbed symphonious with its own.

Specimens of these Burial Cases may be seen at W.T. Woodson and Co’s, 232 Lake Street. To those who admire beauty of proportion and elegance of design, so far from there being anything chilling or repulsive, one of them might appropriately enter into the imagery of a morning dream from which we grieve to wake.

Chicago [IL] Daily Journal 29 May 1851

To my critical eye they look grotesquely like diving suits, but they obviously struck a throbbing, symphonious chord with the bereaved.  Sometimes they even did what it says on the tin:  there are reports of bodies shipped long distances arriving in excellent condition and the faces of the dead, unearthed a century after burial and seen to be incorrupt through the coffins’ plate-glass windows, testify to the Fisk’s effectiveness. Iron coffins were also advertised as a deterrent to body-snatchers:

A Ypsilanti burial case company propose to beat the resurrectionists, by means of armor plated coffins. Jackson [MI] Citizen 22 February 1876: p. 6 

Obviously a sealed iron coffin was more difficult to open and it was impossible to follow the usual protocol of the resurrectionist of digging down to the head of the wooden coffin, breaking it open, and dragging out the corpse by the neck. Their use as a kind of personal, rather than parish, mort-safe was yet another of the advantages touted for the metallic burial case, but there was a darker side to the cast-iron coffin.  Human decomposition did not always follow the predictable, desired path, particularly when a dead loved one had to be shipped a long distance. Air often needed to be pumped out of the Fisk or a corpse might need to be embalmed to ensure a better outcome. Even so, I’ve seen reports from, for example, a man called in to paint the blackened face of an iron-coffined corpse, so it would look presentable for a few hours through the little window. Ideally the cast-iron coffin would protect the body from decay and grave robbers. The reality might be rather different and horrifically inaccurate conclusions might be drawn from that reality, as we will shortly see.

By way of introduction to the article issuing a grave warning about iron coffins, here is the back-story of the burial alive in New Orleans mentioned in that article’s first paragraph. This particular, heart-rending article had a huge circulation over several years and the way it spread and changed, suggests an urban legend. True or not, it is a reflection of the horrified fascination that premature burial held for the public.

I have just heard of one of the most horrible, heart-rending, and yet, perhaps, unavoidable affairs which it has ever been my lot, as a newspaper correspondent, to record. It is nothing more nor less than the frightful reality of being buried alive. A most estimable lady, named Mrs. Crane, whose husband is a book-keeper in Flemming & Co.’s drug store, on Magazine Street, in this city [New Orleans, LA], died very suddenly last July, of what was pronounced sun-stroke. She was a school teacher in one of our most popular public schools, and resided, if I am not mistaken, on Dryades Street. It was in the afternoon, after school was out, that she went to visit a neighbor on Felicity Street and just as she entered her friend’s house, she fell insensible to the floor and expired, to all appearance, in about two minutes, a doctor pronouncing it sun-stroke. Her body was interred the next day, at ten o’clock, and her mother, an old lady about fifty years of age, and her husband and one little son, went home almost broken-hearted and have since been nearly distracted, being at times unable to sleep, and, in fact, leading a most miserable and disconsolate life; and well they might, as the sequel will show, had they known what they had done. Well, one night last week the mother, after passing a most distressing day, fell asleep late at night and dreamed that her daughter had been buried alive. She jumped up in a frantic state and rushed to her son-in-law’s chamber crying, “My daughter is buried alive! Oh, my daughter is buried alive! What shall I do!” To sleep any more that night was out of the question; she still crying that her daughter was buried alive, whenever her son-in-law would try to quiet her. At length the proposition was made to have the body disinterred just to satisfy her. So, early the next morning the grave was opened and the coffin raised. Oh, what a horrible sight met their view. Pen is powerless to portray the scene which followed. The body, which had been placed in a metallic coffin, was turned over, the glass covering the face was broken to atoms, the ends of her fingers being beaten and battered all to pieces; her hair torn out in handfuls and her shroud torn in many places—all presenting the appearance of one of the most desperate struggles to free herself from her terrible misfortune.

If any of your readers could have seen the relatives of this unfortunate lady, when the condition of what they supposed was the perpetually silent tomb had been brought to light, it would have forced  a tear from the most stolid and adamantine heart. It was one of the most distressing affairs ever recorded in this State and I sincerely hope it will be the last I am ever called upon to record.

I have not seen this affair mentioned in any of our city papers, but as far as the truth of the matter is concerned, I can vouch for it having occurred, as I have it from parties intimately connected with the unfortunate family and whose veracity I cannot doubt. The husband and mother, it is now said, are almost entirely bereft of their reason, and it is feared they will go permanently deranged; and, indeed, they have sufficient reason.

This should be another warning to all who read this of the uncertainty of death until the body begins to decay. It is generally conceded by physicians that as long as there is a possibility of returning life the body will not show any signs of decomposition. Therefore, in warm weather, when a body does not commence to decompose immediately it is a sure sign that the life has not left it, and the body should not be buried. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 3 December 1868: p. 2

The motif of the glass window being broken outward, as well as the distortion and damage to the body appear in many stories of premature burial. Given the clearance in the form-fitting Fisk, there does not seem room for a revived corpse to break out a window, which also was made of quite thick glass. But is there a logical explanation?

IRON COFFINS

Their Effect Upon Dead Bodies

Correspondence of the Cincinnati Commercial

Washington, D.C., January 11. I read in the Intelligencer—it will be in the Chronicle next week—a frightful statement of burying alive that is said to have occurred in New Orleans, and is now going the rounds of the press, to the intense horror of all sensitive people.

The mother of the unfortunate, it is claimed, was informed of the horrible event, through a dream, and insisted upon having the body disinterred, for investigation. On opening the grave the horrible fact was manifested. The glass over the face was broken, the face was mutilated, and the fingers wounded.

Now, it would be well to let this pass as a warning to the thoughtless who hurry dead bodies into their graves, before positive assurance that life is extinct. But the case is so horrible that it is better to know the truth. The corpse had been encased in an iron coffin—called casket—made iron-tight. The consequent is that the gases generated by the decaying body produce the most frightful disfiguration, and in some instances shiver the glass over the face.

I know all about this, for I had a case come under my immediate observation—the death of a friend, in the country, caused by an accident, so sudden and unexpected that few of the friends and relatives could be called to the funeral within the ordinary time incident to such occasions. An iron coffin was procured, the body placed in it, and the lid sealed and screwed down in the usual manner with a thick glass plate over the head. To those who watched the loved face through tears, there soon appeared a singular change; the veins of the forehead began to swell, and soon stood out like cords. Then the face began to swell and soon the eyes partly opened and the lips fell apart, giving to the face a wrathful, horrifying expression that was painful to look upon. These changes continued until the dead seemed to be striving to breathe and speak, and strange noises were heard inside. Women shrieked and fainted, and at last a cloth was thrown over the glass, and persons were forbid looking in. During the night of the second day (if I remember correctly), an explosion occurred, accompanied by the sound of broken glass, and it was found that the plate, over the face, was shivered, and the room filled with the most sickening stench. The dead body was horrible to look at, and it required no active stretch of the imagination to believe that life had returned and a struggle ensued.

I doubt whether one could return to life from the counterfeit condition that had been mistaken for death, while sealed up in one of these iron cases. Such return must, of course, be slow, uncertain, and feeble. How long the air of the coffin would continue pure enough to strengthen the lungs, so as to start the circulation, I am not prepared to say, but I should think not long—certainly not a sufficient length of time to enable the subject buried alive to make much of a struggle.

Memphis [TN] Daily Appeal 20 January 1869:  p. 1

One doesn’t know whether to be reassured or appalled at the idea that burial alive was unlikely if interred in a cast-iron coffin. The author makes a convincing case for the sealed case producing all the dreadful signs of premature burial. Similar stories that I’ve collected contain many of the same details as above; this was a far from isolated incident. It was said that sextons who noticed a swelling lead coffin would tap it and burn off the gases.

Do you have a personal favorite exploding coffin/corpse story? Break the glass window to relieve the pressure and notify Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

For more stories of coffins, both eccentric and exploding, see The Victorian Book of the Dead.

fisk Chicago City Directory and Business Advertiser 1877.JPG

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

The Last Word: Coffin Plate Capers

our darling coffin plate2
The Last Word: Coffin Plate Capers. Detail of a funeral wreath with “Our Darling” coffin plate. Former eBay listing.

 

I once bought an “Our Darling” coffin plate (in original box) as a birthday present for a friend who collects post-mortem photographs. It was in beautiful condition and the box offered reassurance that this was new-old stock, literally, “deadstock” rather than resurrected grave-goods. All the same, the birthday girl eventually got rid of it, saying that there was “something,” “attached” to it.

Many of our ancestors had no compunction in keeping coffin-plates taken directly from a coffin as a memento of a loved one. The plates, which might be made of many different types of cast or hammered metal such as brass, polished tin, pewter, silver-plate and even solid silver, were engraved with the name and dates of the deceased and sometimes with an emblem or short motto like “Baby” or “At Rest.” The inscriptions were almost always reported in newspaper reports of the funerals of the good and the great. The plate might be left on the coffin, to be buried, or  might be removed by the undertaker before the burial and given to the family.

Our darling coffin plate
Our Darling coffin plate with wreath and child’s hand outline. Former eBay listing.

He had the coffin-plate framed, resting gruesomely on a bed of black velvet, and hung it against the wall in the moldy-smelling best room. Frequently, as he was about to retire, he went creaking in, shielding the lamp with his palm to gaze on the relic and sigh a mournful sigh… [tells the visiting parson;] “I ordered extry-coated plate so I can scour when it gits tarnished.” “Mournful” Mullen, Holman F. Day. Our Paper, Massachusetts Reformatory, 26 January, 1907

Alternatively a duplicate coffin plate might be engraved as a memento, or, as in the case of those discarded veterans’ tombstones, so recently in the news, a defective coffin-plate might end up in the wrong place, causing no end of trouble.

UNDERTAKER EXPLAINS COFFIN-PLATE MYSTERY

Mr. Schilling Says Two Plates Were Made, One Being Defective—Body to Be Exhumed.

The mystery surrounding the finding on a vacant lot in Northeast Baltimore of a coffin plate bearing the name of Conrad Kraft was cleared up yesterday afternoon. Undertaker George Schilling, Alsquith and Monument streets, reported to Lieutenant Wellener, of the Northeastern Police Station, that while the plate for the coffin was being engraved a mistake was made in the figure 3. It was not until the plate had been placed on the coffin that the defect was noticed, and the family ordered it to be removed. This Mr. Schilling did, replacing it with a perfect one. The defective plate was returned to the workshop and thrown among a lot of rubbish. Here is remained until last Friday, when it was removed to the “dump” with other refuse by one of Mr. Schilling’s employes. As Mr. William H. Watts was walking across the dump to his home he noticed the plate shining out from a lot of other stuff, and after reading the inscription took it to the Northeastern Police Station.

Mr. Schilling noticed the account of the finding of the plate in The American, and visited Mrs. Kraft and explained the circumstances in which it was lost. Mrs. Kraft did not seem to be perfectly satisfied, and yesterday stated that she would have the body exhumed. Baltimore [MD] American 28 November 1903: p. 16

our babe
Our Babe silver coffin plate. Former eBay listing.

There was a certain amount of controversy about the taste and propriety of displaying a family coffin plate. In the early 1900s it was seen as a nearly obsolete article of mourning apparatus and, at least in popular fiction, a description of a framed coffin plate (on a black velvet background) signaled to the reader that the story was set in an old-fashioned or rural home. The custom seems to have lingered on in the United States primarily on the East Coast or New England states. This story is from a New York home.

“That’s the plate,” explained the laundress.

“But I thought,” said the visitor, “that coffin plates should be left on for—“ She was going to say “for purposes of identification,” but thought better of it.

“Most people do leave ‘em on,” explained the proud possessor, “but it was so pretty, I wanted it. I’m going to have it framed in one of them deep frames soon as I can afford it, and hang it in the parlor. It’ll be awful pretty. I want a wreath of white roses set about it, an’ a big black velvet bow put at the bottom of the wreath.” Jonesboro [AR] Evening Sun 10 January 1905: p. 2

 

 

coffin plate trade card
A trade card for a chaser of coffin plates. http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=3056672&partId=1&searchText=coffin&images=true&page=1

 COFFIN PLATES

A sign is conspicuously displayed on one of the principal streets of this city bearing the announcement, “Coffin Plates Framed Here.” Pray tell us, Mr. Editor, what you would do with a framed coffin plate. Lowell [MA] Daily Citizen and News 23 June 1874: p. 2

Some suggested that the practice of keeping a coffin plate was too morbid to countenance.

“How about photographing the dead?” “We discourage it altogether. It is a ghastly process, and is suggested by minds insane with grief. It would be just as wise to keep the coffin plate or a bit of the shroud as a memento of those who are gone. The Boston [MA] Weekly Globe 26 June 1883: p. 6

And doctors had to be particularly sensitive about such décor.

There is another so-called ornament that has been seen in a country doctor’s office; it is that awful reminder of death that adorns the grim and somber, dank and chilly country parlor or best room too good for daily use. It consists of a black glazed frame in which the coffin-plate of some deceased relative is conspicuously displayed on a black ground surrounded with stiff wax flowers. The very thought of it suggests wailing and gnashing of teeth, and it’s too funereal an object for the doctor’s use. One might just as well go the whole figure and set up a coffin, Chineselike, in the corner, or keep a stock of coffins on hand, to be thrown in as a premium, to soothe the feelings of the afflicted, in case the doctor isn’t successful in snatching a victim from the grasp of death. Besides, a coffin-plate is a sort of card of introduction to whom it may concern, in the hereafter, and to take it from the coffin, is, in a sense, a sacrilege, a deprivation of rights. “Medical Bricabracology,” Leon Noel, The Philadelphia Medical Journal, Vol. 4, 2 September, 1899

This 1905 article describes the custom as something eccentric and quaint.

GLOOMY BRIC-A-BRAC

Coffin Plates Once Used as House Ornaments in Maine.

In New England 100 years ago it was by no means uncommon for people to provide their coffins long before their death and keep the same in their houses, where they could see them every day. It was perhaps a custom having the same purpose and significance as the skeleton at the feasts of the ancient Greeks, to remind the living in their hours of levity of the seriousness of life and the certainty of death.

This was not the idea, however, of a man named Lindsey, whom people now living in Leeds may remember or at least have heard of. He built his own coffin many years before he died and used to keep it in a chamber of his house. He used it generally to keep beans in. It was a very find coffin, made of mahogany and nicely finished and polished. Mr. Lindsey made it with his own hands and gave as reason that if he left the task of providing him with a coffin to his sons it would be just like them to put him in a hemlock one. Perhaps the boys did not relish the implication. At any rate, they did not like to have the coffin about the house and took it away one night and threw it into the river. It was found several miles below, considerably broken and battered as it went over the rips, and old Lindsey heard about it, drove down and got it and was finally buried in it.

Another queer custom that prevailed in this section of Maine down to a comparatively recent date was that of removing the plate for the coffin after the funeral and just before the body was lowered into the grave and keeping it in the best room in the house among the ornaments and bric-a-brac. The writers saw one of these grewsome exhibits on the mantel of a Lincolnville parlor not more than twenty-five years ago, and we shouldn’t be surprised if quite a number of them could be found in the old houses throughout Maine. Bangor News. Prescott [AZ] Morning Courier 2 May 1905: p.1

father and coffin plate broken wheel funeral flowersA
Funeral wreath for “Brother” with coffin plate and photo of deceased. Private Collection

But coffin plates could also be functional as well as decorative. They provided proof of relationships and might be used as an informal type of death certificate.

OFFERS COFFIN PLATE AS EVIDENCE HE IS WIDOWER

Providence Man Astonishes Immigration Board.

Does a coffin plate constitute conclusive proof that Philip O. Turcone is a widower?

Turcone evidently believes the plate made a profound impression yesterday when he fished it from his clothes in presence of a board of penal inquiry at the immigration station. He had come from Providence, where he is employed as a carpenter, to claim Raffaela Pirone as his intended bride. The girl arrived from Italy on the Cretic a few days ago and had been detained on a medical certificate as afflicted with a disease of the eye. When the board interrogated Turcone he said he was a widower. The board asked for proof that his wife is dead and he flashed the coffin plate before their astonished gaze with the statement that he is an advocate of preparedness.

Miss Pirone’s case is one that usually gets a deportation order from Washington because her physical affliction is ordinarily contagious. She will appear, however, and Turcone stands ready to pay expense of hospital treatment. Boston [MA] Herald 27 October 1915: p. 9

Many coffin plates were rather substantial, so it took a special kind of resolve to carry one to court in one’s stocking.

USES COFFIN PLATE TO PROVE HIS DEATH

Colored Woman Takes It From Her Stocking for Evidence in Probate Court

New Haven, Jan. 27. A nickel coffin plate from her husband’s coffin was the novel proof of his death, submitted by the widow, Mrs. Joseph Trent, colored, in the local Probate Court today. Trent died recently in New York, leaving real estate in this city. The widow appeared in the court today, and after expressing her wish to probate the estate here, pulled a marriage certificate from her pocket, exclaiming, “This shows you that I was married to him.”

Then, producing the nickel coffin plate, which she took from her stocking, she continued, “This shows you my husband is dead.”

The evidence was accepted and her application placed on file. Boston [MA] Journal 28 January 1910: p. 3

1884 masonic coffin plate
An 1884 coffin plate designed for a Mason.

For this family with the custom of collecting coffin plates, the mementos were cherished for the tale they told of a long and distinguished lineage.

COFFIN PLATES IN THE PARLOR

A QUEER CUSTOM LIKELY TO SURPRISE STRANGERS TO CONNECTICUT HOUSEHOLDS

Milford, Sept. 16, 1889. A stranger calling at the residence of Mr. Thaddeus Smith, on Brad street, one of the oldest and most respected inhabitants of Milford, is likely to be surprised while sitting in the parlor to see a queer oblong silver plate lying on the centre table. At first the caller may think it is a door plate. On closer inspection he will find that is bears an inscription to the memory of the venerable Mr. Smith’s daughter, and is nothing less than a silver coffin plate. It lies on the stand among hymn books, photographs albums, card cases and other drawing room trinkets. None of the Smith family ever refers to it unless the subject is mentioned by a caller. Then they describe, in tones of affectionate tenderness, the many virtues of the daughter that was so dear to them. The coffin plate occupies in that household much the same place of veneration that an urn with the ashes of the dead holds in the houses of the advocates of cremation.

Singular as the custom may seem, there are many New England homes, especially in this part of Connecticut, where coffin plates of dead relatives or cherished friends are kept as mantelpiece ornaments or on the centre tables in the parlor. One family in New Milford is said to have a collection of no less than fourteen brass, silver, and plated relics taken from the coffins of dead members of the family, reaching down to within fifty years of the founding of the colony two centuries and a half ago. The oldest of this rare collection of coffin plates bears the name and date of the birth and death of one of the original settlers of New Haven colony. It is black and discoloured by the lapse of time,   but the family would as soon think of parting with it as they would of losing the family Bible, which contains the genealogical records of the entire race.

An amusing story is told about the coffin plates collected by a Stratford family. There were nine or ten of them in places of honor about the parlor of the old-fashioned farmhouse. Some years ago an irreverent burglar entered the house at night, and seeing the glittering mementos of the dead decorating prominent pieces of furniture in the room dumped them all into his booty bag, and together with the silver knives and forks and what other portable household effects he could conveniently carry, made his exit unmolested. Great was the consternation of the easy going farmer and his family when they awoke the next morning to find that their dining room silverware had been carried off, but they were shocked beyond expression when they discovered the rape of the coffin plates, which could not be replaced at any cost.

They were proportionately gratified a day or two later to receive a box by express, in which were packed all the missing coffin plates. With it was a note in a rough hand, which said.

“Here is your coffin signboards. I have found they wasn’t much but German silver in them, and that ain’t my line. You’re welcome to ‘em, and thanks for your silver in spoons, which I’ll keep. Merry Christmas.” New York [NY] Herald 18 September 1889: p. 13

Coffin plates were considered by some to be a sacred relic. Hence the outrage at this miserly widower:

Another instance of this despicable quality [meanness], bordering on sacrilege, has been told to us. A man who had just married his second wife, and was brushing up his house, so as to have it in keeping with such an event, took the coffin-plate of his wife to an engraver, and wanted to know how much it would cost to erase the inscription thereon, and put in its place his own name, so that he might use it for a door-plate. The original cost of the plate, inscription and all did not exceed one dollar! This is an actual fact; and all the parties reside in Springfield. Springfield Republican. Main Cultivator and Hallowell [ME] Gazette 13 February 1847: p. 1

Strangely, coffin plates were occasionally used as a forum for protest. For example, William Abson, who was accused of poisoning his wife, killed himself in prison, leaving instructions that on his coffin plate should be inscribed: “I am innocent of that for which I lose my life.” New York Herald 23 March 1861: p. 8

The Charles Becker case , where a former police Lieutenant was convicted and executed for the murder of gambler Herman Rosenthal, was one of the most notorious examples of getting the last word:

Becker “Murdered,” Says Coffin Plate

Widow of Ex-Lieutenant Puts Blame on Whiteman

Latter Doesn’t Believe the Story.

New York, Aug. 1. A silver plate bearing the inscription “Charles Becker, Murdered July 30, 1915, by Governor Whitman,” was placed tonight on the coffin containing Becker’s body, by direction of his widow. The plate is four by seven inches in size and the letters in script are an inch high. It is securely fastened. Becker’s body is to be buried tomorrow.

He Doesn’t Believe it.

Albany, N.Y., Aug. 1. “I cannot believe it,” was Governor Whitman’s sole remark tonight when told of the plate on Charles Becker’s coffin.

Plate Removed.

New York, Aug. 1. The police, it was announced tonight, had had removed from the coffin of Charles Becker a silver plate placed there by his widow on which was inscribed the charged that the former police lieutenant, electrocuted Friday, was “murdered by Governor Whiteman.” Mrs. Becker was informed that the inscription was a criminal libel on the governor and was prevailed on to permit its removal. Macon [GA] Telegraph 2 August 1915: p. 6

The coffin plate also had a more discreet function:  to ensure the safety of graveyard personnel.

A CURIOUS FACT

In leaden coffins it is customary to make a number of holes, underneath the coffin plate, to give egress to the gases, which would else, by their accumulation, first bulge and then burst the coffin. When this precaution is neglected, considerable danger ensues to the grave diggers, who have on many occasions been seized with asphyxia, or even killed on the spot, by the poisonous gases emitted from a suddenly burst coffin. To escape these hazards, they not unfrequently ‘tap’ the coffins, and let out a jet of gas, which being ignited, burns from ten minutes to half an hour. Schenectady [NY] Reflector 8 February 1850: p. 6

Has anyone ever seen evidence for this illuminating practice,  like scorch marks on old lead coffins? Could such gases be harnessed today as a source of energy?

Coffin Amelia
The Coffin of HRH Princess Amelia, showing the beautiful coffin furniture, including a coffin plate. http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?assetId=1612960923&objectId=3587418&partId=1

 

And, finally, just as visions of tombstones and phantom funerals presaged death, so did dreams and visions of highly-specific coffin plates.

A Cincinnatian dreamed three years ago of seeing a friend’s funeral, and that friend has since drank himself to death with cheerful regularity, dying on the date seen on the coffin-plate of the vision. This they call a prophecy, out there. Jackson [MI] Citizen 26 July 1870: p. 5

And this, from England:

SINGULAR STORY.

The death of Mr. F. H. Wiggin, proprietor of the Northumberland Arms, Bermondsey, took place on Thursday morning, the 8th inst. Mr. Wiggin retired to bed the previous night in his usual health and spirits, but at 5 o’clock in the morning he ruptured a blood-vessel, and in six hours he expired from exhaustion. It seems a remarkable presentiment of his death was made known to him two months previously, when, to amuse his children, he drew upon a slate a coffin, and wrote an inscription, a verbatim copy of which was inscribed on his coffin plate on his interment, as follows:—”Frederick H. Wiggin, died October 8th, 1868, aged 40.” This sketch and inscription he showed to his wife, and others who happened to be present. The remains of the deceased, who was much respected, were, on Monday, taken from London to Horton, for interment by the side of his father’s grave.—Daily News, 19 October. The Spiritual Magazine, Vol. III, 1 November, 1868

Have you ever seen a coffin plate? Or framed one as a parlor ornament? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

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