The River Resurrectionist: 1879

Death rowing on the Thames, 1858

THE CORPSE-HUNTERS

The Strange Fishing Excursion of a New York Reporter

Drifting in Search of the Dead

The River Resurrectionist and His Queer Calling

The Romances of the New York Waters

[New York Dispatch.]

“Candidly now, Mr. Walker, don’t you find corpse-hunting a dismal calling?”
“As you say, sir, it ain’t the most cheerfullest business in the world. But somebody’s got to do it, and why not me?”
“You have been at it a good while?”
“Nigh onto twenty year.”

“And you like it?”

“Well, I don’t hanker after it to break my heart. But I don’t see much differ between fishing for whales or dead men, likewise women, ‘cept that dead men makes the least trouble. If you want to, you can have a seat in my boat to-night and jedge for yerself. That is, if you are lucky, for the

STIFFS HAS RUN VERY LIGHT LATELY.”

Mr. Zachary Walker spoke as if he was discussing a run of menhaden or shad, and in a voice that seemed to proceed sepulchrally from some phonographic mechanism buried in his stomach. He sat in the back room of a South-street saloon, which looked like a vault in an Egyptian pyramid as befitted such a rendezvous. It was eleven o’clock on the dark and airless light of Monday last, and, as Mr. Walker expressed it, “as hot as the hinges of perdition and as black as the Earl of Hell’s Jack-boots.” But in spite of the heat that gentleman was so wrapped up in a heavy pea-jacket that he bore a singularly close and most appropriate resemblance to a mummy. As if this was not enough, he was drinking hot rum and spice.

“It fetches the sweat,” he explained to the Dispatch representative; “and you’ve either got to fetch sweat or the sweat’ll fetch you.”

Mr. Zachary Walker’s theory, amounting in fact to a rooted belief, is, that as long as a man’s pores are open he is safe from danger of any human ill. Consequently he never permits his to close or “shut pan on him,” as he phrases it. For years he has been famous among those who know him for never imbibing any beverage but hot spiced rum. Water he never drinks.

“And neither would you, sir,” he said to the reporter, “if you seen them in it which I see twenty year. Ugh!”

“’TAIN’T A CANNONBILL.”

Conducted by his perspiring friend, whose progress in the darkness was marked, even in the unsavory waterside odors hanging fetidly over the wharves, by the rank, sour reek of sweat, the Dispatch representative stumbled out on the wharf next to Fulton Ferry. A ghostly young man in a checked jumper started suddenly out of the darkness at the end of the pier. He had a little lantern in whose light he showed to be so soaked and slimy with perspiration that he might just have been fished out of the river. His humid countenance wore a dissatisfied expression, and he grumbled;

“Well, I thought you never was a coming.”

“Never’s a longer day than you ever see yet, Dave,” returned Mr. Walker, casting off the painter of an unseen boat from a ring on the string-piece.

“We’ve most lost the tide, we have, and I hope you’re satisfied.”

“Well, allow that I am, Dave, and call it square. Tumble in, sir.”

WITH HIS HEART IN HIS MOUTH

The reporter dropped into the darkness out of which the swirl and gurgle of the strong ebb tide among the wharf-posts rose. He landed rattling in a boat. Dave followed with the lantern, which he guarded as jealously as if it was some imperial gem. Zachary Walker came last, and in a minute more the dead sweet smell of pineapples and oranges faded behind the boat as the tide carried it swiftly from the rot-dock where the fleet of West India fruiters were asleep.

Dave pulled a stout pair of oars, but there was little exertion with them necessary, for the current bore the boat along so swiftly that the scattered lights on the Brooklyn shore fairly flew past. Zachary Walker squatted in the bow, with the lantern held at the level of his breast. The reporter counterbalanced him on the stern. A long wake of phosphorescent fire trailed along behind.

The first thing that struck the scribe was the intense and keen business attention displayed in Zachary Walker’s every movement. He only spoke in monosyllables now. His eyes were every-where. The flash of the little lantern dotted the water with rapidly changing discs of light. They were here, there and every-where, dancing on the black river, glancing along the piers and diving deep into the gloomy caverns formed by the timbers of the wharves.

BUT THEY REVEALED NOTHING.

At least nothing of the sort of which the boat was in search. Driftwood and garbage matted the docks where the tide raced in and out again, forming strong eddies in which the floating objects whirled round and round as if they were the component parts of a vast hellbroth which some spirit hand was stirring. A few dead animals and fish showed among the wreck, but the fisherman in the boat, though his prey, too, was dead, had no eyes for them. The skiff went steadily in and out one dock after another, and the fiery eye of the lantern peered into every dark hole and corner, but it revealed no prize for the river resurrectionist.

Zachary Walker received these disappointments with philosophical calmness, but Dave, whose other name the reporter had now discovered to be Kimo, enveloped a strong sense of wrong.

“I never see such luck,” he said. “Bust my crust if I don’t think people have stopped getting drownedead.” [sic]
“All the better for the people,” returned Zachary, winking at the reporter. “Eh, sir?”

“The people!” repeated Mr. Kimo, disgustedly. “Oh, yes! To be sure, yes. The people is to be considered—they is. An’ where the bleedin’ ___ does we come in, I want to know?”

The fact of the matter is, sir,” explained Zachary, “Dave’s temper is sort of soured lately. You see

HE HAS BEEN CROSSED IN LOVE.”

“Crossed in love”

“Yes, sir. Last January we was a picking of our way down the river about two o’clock in the morning .The stream was full of ice, but the night were werry bright with a full moon. Suddenly I see a woman on the end of that werry dentical dock there,” pointing to Pier No. 8, which the boat was just rounding. “She stood there jest about a minute, and then she throws her arms up, and over she goes into the drink.

“Well, sir, we couldn’t get the boat through the pack ice atween us and the shore to save our souls. Wot does that Dave Kimo do but snatch a oar and go out on the ice, a-crawlin’ on his belly toward the wharf. Close in the ice was swashed by some wessel as had been towed out that arternoon, and it hadn’t frozen together solid gain. The woman had gone through this, come up, and grabbed the edge of the hard ice, an’ there she hung now, a-yelling for help like a catamount. She wanted to die, but preferred warmer water.

“Dave got her out and brought her aboard the boat. She were a pretty young thing, about twenty year old, and werry nice dressed. She were most crazy, and from her talk we made out she had been left by her husband at the Stevens House, where they was a-stopping.

DAVE KIMO FELL IN LOVE

With her at once. He wrapped her up in the blankets we allus carries, and when we got in at Pier 1 he carries her to the hotel and rushes for the doctor. The nearest one lived at the werry hotel she had run away from, and there Dave finds the husband raving round like a crazy stud-horse, threatenin’ to tear the roof off if he couldn’t find his wife. He hed been away a day and a night on business, and the dispatch he’d senet her to tell her of it hed gone astray. So she thought he hed deserted her, you see. He gev us a clean hundred cases apiece, and you never see two happier people than them. But it was rough on Dave, I allow.”

“A dead skin, that’s what it was,” commented the victim of disappointment. “You show me a deader skin now, ef you kin.”

The boat now passed the South Ferry slip, and held a course of the Brooklyn end of Governor’s Island. A South Ferry boat passed so close that the rough water of her paddles set the skiff dancing crazily, and the reporter asked:

“Don’t you ever get into trouble with the ferry-boats?”
“I never did but once. I was run down by the Atlantic once. My boat was bursted all to splinters and my pardner killed. But I was picked up. Sence then I look twiste afore I cross a ferry-boat’s bows, you can bet your life. Ah! Here’s the channel. Now, then, Dave, take her through easy.”

The skiff slid slowly through the channel separating Governor’s Island from South Brooklyn. The fall of the oars broke the water into phosphorescent bubbles. On the landing wharf the steps of the sentry could be distinctly heard. A dog barked, and a boat moored to the wharf rattled and banged against the piles. Otherwise the silence was as profound as that of an abandoned graveyard.

“This here channel was our best lay onct,” said Zachary Walker, in a husky half whisper. “The shores used to be shoke up with weeds, and many’s the corpse would come down with the tide and get tangled here. Do you mind that young Frenchman, Dave?”
“Ay, do I.”
“Just at daylight one morning we found a stiff here. It was a young Frenchman in a spike-tail coat, and dressed like as fi for a ball. He had a bullet-hole in his head and a revolver in his hand. The police made him out to be a young artist named Pierry. About four days afterward we picked up a young lay at the werry same place. She were dressed elegant and wore diamonds. My souls! Do you ‘member them diamonds, Dave?”
“Oh, don’t I!”

“Well, sir, that pair, so the police found out, was lovers. Both had tempers of their own. One night the was coming from a party in New York—they lived in Brooklyn, you see—and they had a spat. Pierry he puts the gal into a car and walks back, aboard of the boat. About half-way betwixt Brooklyn and New York the people on the boat hears, from the bow,

A SHOT AND A PLUNGE.

“Two days afterward we found young Pierry down in the Buttermilk Channel. When the gal found out about it I s’pose her conscience smote her. Anyway, the same river as drifter her lover down among the mud and tangled grass fetched her there afterward.

“Most of the people we finds, though is unknowns. About three-quarters is poor, poverty-hunted wretches, that is better off in the river than any where else. The rest is, say half accidents and the t’other half wiolences. The accidents generally pans out well enough from their pockets. The wiolences is allus cleaned out.

“Sakes alive! What fearful things I see among them wiolences. Onct I picked up a man which his entrils was eat right out’n him and a lot of eels in there instead. He had been ripped open. Dozens have I found without heads, either rotted or cut off. I can tell you, when I first got to handlin’ them the sights an’ the smells was enough to turn me inside out. But I got used to it, an’ here I am. There’s a way of handlin’ a river stiff, you see, as makes the work easy enough when you know how.

“Our spear of usefulness ain’t limited to stiffs though. Ef we had to depend on them we’d schaww wind instead of beefsteaks most of the time. It’s live men as plays in best for us. Years ago, you see, afore the police was so strict, if you caught a corpse you went through its pockets, and frequently, specially on sailors,

“FOUND A COMFORTBLE PILE.

“Now, however, every thing has to be handed to the police for purposes of dentification. Of course, in cases like Piorry and the young gal, the relatives comes down handsome. But then for two of them we ketch two hundred that ain’t worth the rope we tow ‘em ashore with hardly. Why, sir, in the old days we used to not only empty a body’s pockets, but strip its clothes off. I’ve seen men which wore the duds off of twenty different corpses at one time for a Sunday suit. That was the reason you hardly ever heard of any drowned people being identified in them days. If they hadn’t no marks on their bodies, they couldn’t be.

“Now, contrarywise, we tows a corpse ashore and gives it up to the police just as it lays.

“But I was a talking about live men. There’s more suicides tempted round New York than ever the police dreams of. Men is drunk or down-heareted, or something or other, and they happens to be on a ferry-boat. Every things handy, so over they goes. As soon as they tastes water, though, they weakens, and wishes they hadn’t gone and done it. That’ sour chance. If we can only pick them up, then we’re good for all the money they can lays hands to for rescooing of them and keeping the thing quiet. I raked in seven since the first of the month. One of ‘em is one of the owners of the werry line of ferry-boats he jumped off of. Another is

THE CAPTING OF A OCEAN STEAMER.

“Generally, though we never find their names out, and of course we never ask, most of that sort has money with them. When they hasn’t they says, ‘Meet me at so and so  to-morrow, my man,’ and they never misses fire. If you ever see shame-faced men, it’s them, and they’d ruther pay hundreds of dollars than have the stories against them come out.

“The queerest start I ever had in this way was about four years ago. It was one rainy night in the fall of the year. I was pulling for home with Dave here at the tiller, when a boat drifted past us. We rowed alongside, intending to take it in tow, when we found a man in the bottom. He was sensible, but hit hard with a bullet in his breast. The bottom of the boat was full of blood, and he was so weak he could hardly speak.

“He had tongue enough to beg us not to take him to the Police Station. I didn’t know what to do. I see at once that he were a river thief, and knew I art to give him up. But the pore devil was hurt so bad and begged so hard that I give in at last and took him home along with me. He laid in our room a week. A doctor, which he sent me to hisself, and which was a friend of his, tended to him. As soon as he was well enough he went away in a hack. I never see him again, but one day a Adams Express comes to the house with an envelope

“IT HAD $250 IN IT.

“All I could find out was that it come from a man named John Smith, which, in course, was as good as no name at all. From what I was able to hear I concluded that my man was Big Mike Shanahan, the river pirate. He answered the description anyhow, and about that time he was shot by a watchman on the ship Australasia, but escaped. His pardners was captured on that job and sent up. Mike was reported to have hid somewhere till he could get away afrom the city. If I ain’t very much mistaken, he was hid in my room.”
Another and much more legitimate source of profit to the river resurrectionist, Mr. Walker went on to explain, is grappling for families who have lost a relative, presumably by drowning, frequently employing him day after day dragging suspected points in the river of the missing one. Accidents on the river are also fat jobs. A blow-up like the Westfield’s is a red letter event in the corpse-hunter’s history. Grappling for dead is paid for by the day, and at a very fair rate of remuneration. The relatives of those found generally reward the finder with extra presents.

In regard to the gains of the corpse-hunter, Zachary Walker was adamantinely secret. The reporter could not ascertain whether this proceeded from a fear that he was going to enter into competition with him or not. But only the vaguest and most unsatisfactory hints could be gained. One point, however, struck the Dispatch representative very forcibly. That was that in spite of the police regulations a corpse with any money in its pocket stood or floated a poor chance of ever reaching shore

WITH ITS PROPERTY INTACT.

There are any number of channels of gain open to the river resurrectionist beside that which he claims for his legitimate one. Many and valuable objects are lost overboard from vessels in the harbor and picked up by him. He is a steady customer at the water-side junkshops, where scarcely anything originally worth money can be so badly damaged as to not be worth buying. Then, again, the smuggler must find him a valuable auxiliary. He knows every point and winding of the river front, from the lonely landing places far up town to the somber wharf caves, like “Hell’s Kitchen,” where the river thieves conceal their boats and land their plunder.

A vast quantity of the smuggling of this city is performed by sailors on the sailing vessels plying between here and the West Indian ports. Cigars, bay rum and brandy are the chief objects with which the cunning mariner seeks to evade the vigilance of the Custom-house officials. Contrabandist Jack finds the corpse hunter’s boat a handy vehicle for his purpose, if his own admissions are to be credited.

ZACHARY WALKER’S BUSINESS

Last Monday night was, however, unmarred by any lawlessness. The long pull around Governor’s Island brought the turn of the tide and dawn with it together, and the skiff’s head was turned to New York. A light fog drifted smokily along with the tide, deadening even the steady sound of the falling oars. Suddenly there was a soft jolt, and then the skiff swung slowly round. Zachary Walker sprang up and leaned over the side, a cord with a noose at its end in his hand.

“What’s the matter? Asked the reporter. “Are we aground?”

“Aground! No much we ain’t. Ease her off a little, Dave. Ah! There it is. Now pull a stroke.”

Zakary Walker spoke in the hurried accents of an excited man. The face of Dave Kimo, the misanthrope, shone. The reporter felt an uneasiness in his stomach which grew to positive nausea as the boat ran alongside of a hideous, sodden, shapeless, floating thing at which the tide was softly lapping. The corpse hunter, cord in hand, leaned out over the side, and a brief pause followed.

“Have you got it?” then demanded Dave Kimo.

“Got it, be d___d!” returned Zachary Walker, dropping on the stern thwart. “Give way for home. It’s only a dog.”

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 28 June 1879: p. 11

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

In a Munich Dead-House

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

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

IN A MUNICH DEADHOUSE.

By Leon Mead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whereupon he opened the door for them to enter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here she broke down, and began to weep violently.

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

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

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

A few points:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of these stories from Gaubert had a tragic ending:

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

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

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

A Modern Mummy: 1880

A. Beier, Undertaker and Embalmer, 1902

EMBALMING A MODERN MUMMY
Friends of the Deceased Would Call To Pay Their Respects.

[New York Herald.]

Strange, grewsome stories have been yielded by the old morgue, but what is doubtless the most remarkable tale of all was told yesterday by Undertaker Ferdinand Brown, of Sixth street. Brown has often spoken of the matter, but only now, after 14 years, does the strange incident reach the public.

Mummies are common in Egypt, but they are not looked for in New York City. Yet one could be seen in the morgue in this city from August 12, 1878, to July 5, 1880, sitting in one of the rooms of the deadhouse, placed there on private exhibition by Undertaker Brown, who had not been paid his fees by the relatives of the man. The person whose body was thus disposed of was Otto Berger, a German, who was born in Baden-Baden, and came to this country in 1875.

Berger was an eccentric individual, and when he died, penniless, in the city insane asylum, there was no one to prevent the disposition of the his body made by the undertaker. His father was the head servant for the Grand Duke of Baden in Carlsruhe. The son was wild, however, and some difficulty with a woman compelled him to leave Germany and come to this country. His old habits did not leave him in the new land, and though he worked now and again at his trade of upholstering, he went on frequent sprees.

He continued correspondence with his parents, and often they sent him money in answer to his urgent appeals for help. Finally they wearied of his repeated demands and his father wrote him that he could do no more for him, and that he would have to shift for himself.

Otto then resorted to various expedients to get money. An ingenious friend inserted a death notice in a newspapers and sent it to the father, requesting at the same time that he forward a sum of money necessary to pay the funeral expenses.

The Duke’s head servant was deeply affected by the news of the death of his wayward son, and he promptly forwarded the sum asked; thanking the friend of his son for looking after the body.

The poor old retainer’s money furnished the means for another long spree for Otto. Berger made the acquaintance of Carl Schmidt, a painter, who lived at No. 197 Seventh street. He took up his quarters with him, and they became fast friends. He did not give up his drinking habits, however, and his dissipations finally drove him insane.

Schmidt had him placed in the insane asylum on Ward’s Island, where he died two months after he was admitted, on August 11, 1878.

Schmidt determined to give the body of his friend a decent burial, so he gave it in charge of Undertaker Brown, who embalmed the body, and wrote to Berger’s father, in Carlsruhe, asking what disposition should be made of it. Great was his surprise when he received a reply from the perplexed father to the effect that he had already paid the funeral expenses, but if he had been deceived by a trick he was indifferent as to what became of his son’s body.

The idea then occurred to the undertaker of mummifying the body and putting in the morgue as an object of interest and curiosity.

He received permission from Register Nagle in writing to keep the embalmed body for six weeks, in case no offensive odors arose, until he heard from Germany. After that he readily had the permit extended. Brown then, by repeated embalmings, succeeded in hardening the body until it was like stone.

It was placed in a sitting position in a room in the morgue for two years, and there Brown and Schmidt took their curious friends and those who knew Berger in life.

The body was dressed as in life. Brown one day took a crowd of friends to the morgue. The body had been removed and was not to be seen.

“I didn’t want to have a petrified corpse here,” Morgue Keeper White said to him, “so I had it buried in potter’s field. I didn’t think it was right to exhibit such a thing in the morgue.

Brown never wrote Berger’s family of the disposition he was making of the son’s body, and for two years hundreds of persons gazed at the mummy in the New York Morgue. When I saw Mr. Brown last night he said he had grave doubts that the body was buried. He thought it had gone to some museum.

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 13 October 1894: p. 14

The more things change, the more they stay the same. This article talks about the “extreme embalming” trend, where the dead are displayed in life-like poses.

https://www.the-sun.com/news/5049666/extreme-embalming-dead-funeral-pose/

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

The Dead-Hole in the Cellar: A Visit to a Dissection Room: 1887

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you might have noticed a fondness for “slice of life” stories and interviews with practitioners of specialized professions like freak-makers. Today’s post offers a “slice-of-death” (in a literal sense) visit to the dissecting room of the Ohio Medical College in Cincinnati. We’ve heard before about the notorious William “Old Cunny” Cunningham, the star body-snatcher of that establishment, who is mentioned several paragraphs in as presiding over the college museum.

DEATH AND LIFE

The Scenes in a Medical College.

A Visit to the Dread Dissecting-Room by a Reporter.

How the Young Doctors Carry on the Necessary Work

A Sickening Odor Pervades the Place Where Science Operates

The Subjects Now on the Slabs and the Dead-Hole in the Cellar.

Skeleton of “Cunny,” the Grave-Robber, and Other Weird Features of the Place.

Death makes cadavers for dissection. The cadavers help to educate doctors. People must die. We must have doctors.

This story of the dissecting-room is a very old one, but people never grow tired of it. There is a mystery, a horrid fascination about the place, which ever thrills and at the same time repels mankind. Ever since medical science came to bless and protect the human race the doctor’s knife has been busy upon the dead to better understand how to save the living.

Dead men tell no tales.

The fate of being hacked to pieces grates upon the sensibilities of those in this world.

The dead can not feel.

If they could, the keen knife of the ambitious sawbones would be stayed in its course through the muscles and flesh and vitals of the helpless victims upon the stone slabs.

Soon another corps of young physicians will be turned loose from the medical colleges in this city.

The dissection-room work is nearly over. Since the 15th of October the students of the Ohio College, on Sixth street, have improved their time by becoming acquainted with the human anatomy. Every night by the glare of the jets they have worked diligently upon the inanimate forms of some poor creatures who had no friends to bury them.

Subjects have been very scarce this year. It has been found necessary by Dr. Cilley, demonstrator of anatomy, to place ten students on one “stiff,” instead of five, as formerly. The boys have kicked considerably against being so crowded, but to no avail.

Body-snatching has become dangerous. The risk of being shot or lynched is not relished by ghouls. The law is also very severe against grave-robbing because all paupers who die in public institution whose friends do not claim them are turned over to the doctors.

The subjects are handled by the Anatomical Association.

This is a Board composed of physicians who distribute them among the various colleges according to the number of students.

The Ohio gets the most, but that college has been compelled to stint its students in cadavers to practice on.

A dead body is worth $25.

That is the market price paid for stiffs at the medical college.

The villains Ingalls and Johnson, who murdered the Taylor family, sold their three victims for $35. [Beverly Taylor, an elderly, retired body-snatcher, his wife, Elizabeth, and granddaughter Eliza Jane Lambert were murdered in 1884 and their bodies sold to the Ohio Medical College.]

Now the doctors ask questions when any one wants to sell a corpse. Since that horrible atrocity the venders of dead people are rarer and more wary. The professional body-snatchers have moved away from Cincinnati.

An Enquirer reporter was permitted to visit the Ohio Medical College a few days ago.

He saw many horrible sights, but they are necessary to science.

The students were at the time of the call listening to a lecture and the reporter pursued his tour of inspection without observation or hindrance.

The college is not an attractive place.

It is dingy, dusty, and a horrid smell of penetrating force permeates the interior.

It needs a cleaning.

The museum, which contains a valuable collection of specimens of diseased humanity, and innumerable jars of preserved monstrosities, exhales a musty odor which would try the stoutest stomach. The dust is two inches thick on the floors, windows, glass-cases and grinning skeletons.

The bones of Old Cunny, the notorious body-snatcher, hang from the railing of the balcony. His skeleton is the most conspicuous object in the museum.

The old plug-hat adorns the skull.

In his mouth, between the teeth, is the pipe he smoked before he died. Cunningham was a great character. He was in his day the most extensive grave-robber in the country. While he was janitor of the Ohio College there was never a short supply of stiffs. The faculty of the institution could always depend on “Cunny” to find the most desirable subjects, for he never had any compunctions of conscience about the grave he despoiled. Before he died the body-snatcher ordered that his body be dissected. As a mark of respect to his memory for the service he had rendered, his bones were strung on wires and hung up in the museum

Stairways on either side of the College lead to that most loathsome of all places in the average man’s estimation—the dissecting room.

The reporter entered from the west door. The room is always kept locked and the janitor had the key.

Before the threshold was reached a most noisome smell struck the olfactories of the newspaper man.

Who can describe that odor?

It is infinitely more nauseating than a charnel-house. A slaughter-house is attar of roses compared with it. The desiccating company’s building at Delhi is as sweet clover or new-mown hay after catching a whiff of the aroma in the dissecting-room.

But there is no way to prevent it.

The young doctors soon become accustomed to the stink and pursue their work on the decaying human flesh with the utmost nonchalance.

Two of them were busily occupied when the reporter stuck his nose, which he held by his hand, in the open doorway.

They were seated on stools under the glare of a gas jet which cast a lurid light on the ghastly cadaver, already mutilated beyond recognition by the skillful knives of the soon-to-be physicians. The students were on either side of the subject and looked up for a moment from their occupation to say, “how de do.” The strong light at the table made an intuitive contrast unpleasant with the gloomy aspect of the dingy room. It was not yet dark outside, but the dirt-stained windows would not admit a ray of sunlight. The ambitious and energetic students continued to examine the muscles and veins exposed by their dexterous wielding of the sharp steel.

“Pretty good subject, eh?”

“Very fair.”

The corpse, which was that of a middle-aged man, had been cut out of all shape. In fleshly places the bones protruded from the flesh.

“Nearly through with him?”

“Yes.”

Of course the votaries of science can’t stop their researches on account of sentiment for their purpose is to study the dead that the living may be preserved from untimely graves.

As the dissecting course is nearly over there is a dearth of stiffs in the Ohio College. The tables on which it is customary to lay the bodies have been piled up, and only seven of them are occupied. There is a sickening amount of debris scattered about the rooms. Bones, ribs, portions of legs, arms and headless trunks greet the visitor at every turn.

A colored boy, apparently about eighteen years old, lay stretched on his stomach across one of the slabs.

He is a fresh subject.

His arms and feet hung over the end and two or three incisions were all the marks visible upon his person.

“Rather too fat for a first-class stiff,” remarked the janitor. “The boys want lean people. Consumptives are the best. Very corpulent dead men or women are not received when we can get any other kind.”

“How many subjects have you had this winter?”

“Only ten, I think. We should have had forty to give all the students a chance to dissect the various parts. You see, when five men work on the same stiff one can dissect the arm, the second another arm, the third the head, and the other two a leg each. The boys, however, have done the best they could on the material offered. Here’s where they draw them up.”

The man walked over to a sort of elevator, where a chute extends clear to the pavement. By means of a pulley, the bodies are hauled into the dissecting-room. It was through this hole that the body of Scott Harrison was lifted to the repulsive place where it was found by his son.

Those days of horror are passed.

The college authorities will never take such chances again.

If the corpse of a prominent citizen gets within range of the knife and saw it will not be their fault.

Near this chute, connected with which are such terrible associations, was the body of a woman.

She was wrapped in a sort of bunting, but the hands and arms were exposed. It was a shapely arm, and her hands were soft and pretty.

Perhaps she was somebody’s sweetheart or wife. She could not have been more than thirty years of age. The little hand had become shriveled since death, which had occurred about one month ago.

The janitor knew nothing of her history. He believed she had come from the Hospital. If her friends had claimed the remains she would have received a decent burial.

It was impossible to tell the sex or age of any of the other subjects.

They were beyond all semblance of shape.

On a table in the east room was a pile of ribs which still held together.

Was it a man or woman?

No inexperienced, casual caller could tell what it as. The janitor said it once was part of a woman, but the doctors had completed their dissection, and before  school closed the ribs would be thrown into boiling water and the result would be a mass of bleached bones, which, with the other bones would be placed together and a skeleton would adorn some anatomical museum or a doctor’s office.

“Do you pickle bodies here in summer,” was asked of the janitor.

“Sometime; but it isn’t pleasant because we can’t keep the stiffs from smelling bad.”

The two young doctors were still examining the muscles of their subject when the reporter left the scene. The horrible odor seemed to follow them down stairs into the street. It was a welcome change…from the silence of the dead-room to the active, busy hum of life.

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 13 February 1887: p. 13

“This story of the dissecting-room is a very old one, but people never grow tired of it.” What a touching opening sentence–like a well-loved bedtime story!  Interviews with body-snatchers were, briefly, a popular feature of many nineteenth-century newspapers. No morbid detail was spared, although the article above is unusually emphatic about the smell. It is also a surprisingly less fluent piece than is normally  found in the pages of the Enquirer. One-sentence paragraphs are not typical of 1880s journalism.

In these interviews, the Resurrectionists often reiterated the idea that what they did was done in the name of Science and that they preferred to snatch the bodies of the poor and friendless. “Friendless” was the key word, for even the poor could cause a scandal or a riot by demanding their loved ones’ bodies. Janitors were frequently a reporter’s guide to the chambers of horrors. They knew the institutional workings inside and out and since they occasionally supplemented their income by collecting the odd cadaver, they could speak to the acquisitions side of the profession. As a completely random aside, medical schools today have the same aversion to overweight subjects.

Other interviews with body-snatchers? And I would kill for a photo of “Old Cunny’s” skeleton in the museum. No one I spoke to at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine knows what became of that gentleman’s earthly remains.

Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

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

A Father’s Vow: 1882

A FATHER’S VOW

He Declares That His Dead Children Shall Never Leave Him

He Has Their Bodies Embalmed, and the Casket Placed in a Room Where He Keeps Them for Twenty Years.

[Philadelphia Press]

A funeral took place in Palmyra, N.J., on Tuesday last, which furnishes the sequel to one of the most remarkable cases ever known. The bodies of three embalmed children, which had been preserved by an eccentric father for twenty years, were interred in one grave, the father having died three months before, and the remaining members of the family being unwilling to perpetuate his singular ideas, in violation of common custom.

In 1859 Henry Coy lived in a comfortable old-fashioned dwelling, on the northeast corner of Front and Cooper streets, Camden. His family then consisted of himself, a wife and two children—one a girl of five years and the other a curly-haired, handsome boy of two. Mr. Coy was a surgical instrument maker, engaged in business in this city, on Eighth street, near Walnut, and afterward in the neighborhood of Second and Dock streets. He was regarded as a skillful man at his trade, and was said to be worth money, but his reticent disposition and disinclination to mix in society prevented any specific inquiry as to his exact financial standing. People who knew him in a business way, however, were content to spread the rumor that he was a man of no inconsiderable wealth. His entire time out of business hours was spent with his family, to whom he appeared devotedly attached.

THE FATHER’S STRANGE CONDUCT

Soon after the war began, Mrs. Coy died, after giving birth to another child—a girl. She was buried, and after that the father seemed more than ever in love with his children. The little daughter was rather a delicate child, and in 1862 she was taken ill and died after a few weeks’ sickness. Unceasing attendance at the little one’s bedside, and the constant loss of sleep, seems to have strangely affected the fathers mind. He would not permit any of the neighbors to touch or even look at the dead body, and declared that it should never leave his sight while he lived. And the eccentric man then went to work to accomplish that purpose. With the assistance of a mysterious stranger the little corpse was subjected to an embalming process and then incased in an air-tight casket and carefully deposited in one of the upper chambers of the dwelling. Old-time residents of Camden remember well that it was a popular superstition that the spirit of the child used to regularly appear at the windows in a supplicating attitude, and the house was said to be haunted. All attempts to see the mummified corpse or to learn the truth of the queer story were fruitless, and in a few months there were not many persons who gave it credence. Some time between the latter part of 1863 and the summer of 1864 observing people noticed that the baby had disappeared, and the previous appearance of a physician’s chaise at the door a dozen times during the week led to the believe that the infant had died and had been embalmed, as the first one had been. The doctor was a strange one, and nothing could be gleaned from him. Just when the boy died is not known, but it is supposed that he followed not long after the second death, and was also put in a casket and laid alongside his brother and sister.

MOVING THE BODIES

In 1866 the story of the mysterious embalming was renewed, and for some unexplained reason it was whispered about the upper part of Camden that Mr. Coy was a Mormon; that he had a dozen or more wives concealed in the house, and that every night prayers were said over the bodies of the dead children. There appeared no just foundation for these stories, for the father was rarely seen on the street, and during his brief absence from home the dreary-looking old house seemed entirely deserted. The upper stories were never opened, and cobwebs collected over the windows and under the eaves. The man became such a thorough mystery that all efforts to ferret out his secret were abandoned, and the gossips were obliged to build their startling stories of ghosts and uncanny noises by night purely from imagination. Mr. Coy left Camden for a time, and, it was popularly supposed, took the bodies of his children along with him; but nothing definite was known of his movements nor of the truth of the rumor, until five or six years later, when he moved. It was then noticed that three oblong boxes were carefully packed in a wagon, and the father drove away with them.

Nothing more was heard of Coy until his recent death was announced, and then the story of twenty years ago was either forgotten or deemed too incredible for revival. The triple burial at Palmyra on Tuesday, refreshed the strange tale in the minds of a few, and it was shown that the rumor had been correct.

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 6 May 1882: p. 10

Henry is buried at the Epworth Methodist Church Cemetery under a stone which reads “Henry – Sarah Coy and Family.”

A chapter titled “Bone of My Bone: Collecting Corpses, Relics, and Remains” in The Victorian Book of the Dead tells of other mourners who just could not let go of their loved ones. 

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

Twenty Acres of Skulls

A burial party at Cold Harbor with a bier full of skulls of bones. Library of Congress

A remembrance of the horrors of war for this Memorial Day weekend.

 A MODERN GOLGOTHA

Malvern Hill, One Year After the Battle, Was a Field of Skulls.

“I think the ghastliest sight I ever saw,” said Sheriff Barnes yesterday, “was during the late war on the field of Malvern Hill. I was in the battle, and a more terrible battle I never witnessed. But that is not the exact time to which I refer. About a year after the battle was fought my regiment was ordered out into the neighborhood of the same old field. We went over the very same ground, and there in the open field,  exposed to the torrid sun, were bleaching the bones of our comrades who fell in that awful engagement. It was a sight I shall never forget. On every side lay a waste of skulls—skulls of almost every shape and size—a modern Golgotha. We could not identify them, however, and could only gaze with a feeling of sorrow on the aggregate pile of human heads that had once been full of life and feeling. After the deeper emotions excited by the spectacle had worn away, I thought of the infinite variety of shapes that were presented by the heap. There were no two of the same shape or size, and it was rather a matter of course, though melancholy, interest, to inspect the different skulls as they lay crumbling in the sultry atmosphere of that August day. It was, after all, a mournful sight, and one that was full of abiding pathos, to think that all that was left of the gallant men that figured in the fight of that eventful day was a lot of skulls that were now beyond recognition, and that would soon be a part of the dust on which we were standing. Such is a picture of that awful sight, and only one of the many horrid scenes in the portraiture of war.” Atlanta Constitution. 

Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 25 March 1893: p. 12

Abiding pathos did not long abide in the face of economic development:

MALVERN HILL

The Confederate Dead –Twenty Acres of Human Bones.

A correspondent thus writes of the Confederate burial place at Malvern Hill, Virginia:

“The cemetery keeper offered to act as our guide, and, after showing us the fort and its adjacent rifle-pits, he escorted us to a large field on the northwest side of the fort, and there a most terrible scene presented itself. Thousands of Confederate soldiers, who had fallen in their desperate and persistent attempt to take Fort Harrison, were buried by the Confederates where they fell. Twenty acres or more have just been plowed up by the owner of the field, and the plowshare turned to the surface all these skeletons. Over the whole tract the bones are strewn in profusion, and grinning skulls stare the visitor in the face on every hand.

“When the farmer was questioned, he said the land was now the richest piece he had, and in justification of his sacrilegious act, stated that ‘he didn’t put ‘em there, nohow.’ We learned afterward that the bones had been taken away by the cartload and sold to fertilizing mills in Richmond. Two humane men, too poor to do anything else, came one day we were there, and attempted to burn some of the bones to prevent the wretches from carting them off. But a long job they will have if they attempt to burn them all.”  

Cincinnati [OH] Commercial Tribune 3 May 1869: p. 6

For background on The Battle of Malvern Hill.  At this, the last battle in the Peninsula Campaign, the Confederates lost over 5,000 men without gaining any military advantage whatsoever.

As General D.H. Hill said after the Battle of Malvern Hill, “It wasn’t war, it was murder.”

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

Posing the Corpse: 1890-1913

https://wellcomecollection.org/works/h4mhu4fu

Periodically we see articles about families who have their dead loved ones posed in life-like ways, doing the things they enjoyed in life for the wake or viewing.  It is a nice change from the hackneyed repose of the supine dead, although it makes me wonder if my family would choose to have me stuffed and placed at the organ, with a vintage tape of one of my recitals playing on the PA system.

The term “extreme embalming” has been coined to describe this trend. As usual, the idea of positioning the dead as if they were alive is nothing new.  There was an entire appalling genre of photographs of 19th- and early-20th-century medical students posing with cadavers and we find descriptions in vintage newspapers of mocking and obscene behavior towards corpses in the dissection room. [Another day, another post.] There were also accounts of body snatchers treating corpses as if they were living drunks to allay suspicion and there are several urban legends and jokes about the propped-up dead being “killed” by someone ignorant of the imposture.

Two Irishmen had been left to stay up all night with the corpse of a departed friend, says the Hutchinson News. About midnight they became hungry and thirsty, but could find nothing about the house to alleviate the pangs. Mike suggested to Pat that they step around to a nearby saloon before it closed. They did not want to leave the object of their watch, so after discussing the proprieties they decided it would be best to take the corpse with them. One on each side of the body they marched to the saloon, propped the corpse up to the bar in a natural position and called for the drinks. The barkeeper set out three glasses well filled and the two friends swallowed their portions with expressions of satisfaction Then, forgetting the corpse, they left the saloon and started back. The barkeeper saw the untasted glass before the remaining form, and said: “Come hurry and drink; I have to close.” No answer. Again he urged the silent customer to “drink up,” as the closing hour had arrived. Several times he repeated the call, getting madder each time, and finally he picked up an empty glass and threw it at the obstinately silent form, hitting the head and knocking it to the floor. Just then Mike and Pat, who had remembered their duty, rushed in. The barkeeper called loudly: “I want yez to witness, I did it in self-defense when he drew his knife!”

The Columbus [KS] Daily Advocate 3 April 1913: p. 2

Watches and wakes were noted for the copious amounts of alcohol consumed and subsequent riotous behavior. It is a wonder we don’t find more examples of corpses being dragged out to join the fun.

A CORPSE’S ORGIE

It Is Made to Join a Revel,

And Stands Propped Against a Stove-Pipe,

While the Gang Drinks to Its Health.

Ghastly Wake Held Over “Tubbe” Lutterby’s Body,

During Which the Watchers Get Into a Fight,

But Are Interrupted By the Arrival of Officers.

A Sacrilegious Affair That Has Stirred Up the West Side.

It Is Without a Parallel and Is the Sensation in the West End.

An orgie [sic] with a corpse.

A bacchanalian revel in which the body of a deceased boon companion is made to join while the revelers clink their beer glasses as the stiffened body of their late comrade, rigid and cold in death, stands propped up against a stove-pipe.

Such is the stance of a scandalous and sacrilegious affair, information of which inadvertently leaked out and set the vicinity for squares about Frenchman’s Corner wild with excitement last Saturday evening.

A week from yesterday afternoon Herman Henry Lutterbey breathed his last, after a short season of quick consumption, in the second-story flat at the north-east corner of McLean and Harrison avenues, a place known as Frenchman’s Corner.

The deceased was known familiarly as “Tubbe,” and resided with his wife (?) He was a son of Rudolph Lutterbey, who is

A HEAVY STOCKHOLDER

In the Herancourt Brewing Company and is Superintendent of the concern and also a partner of Christian Muhlhauser in the malt business. Lutterbye, pere, is a wealthy man, and young Herman, probably for that reason, never established a Sunol [famous race horse] record as a devotee of industry. Instead of gaining a living by the sweat of his brow, the lines of his fate were cast in pleasant places, and he had a reputation of being a hail fellow well met, generous to a fault, and he has figured in many a “big time” with the friends he chose, and the chosen four of his intimacy were a lot of fellows who would never set the world on fire even if a sufficient supply of combustibles were at their command. Young Lutterbey’s life need not be further adverted to, for when the disease grasped him it found

A READY VICTIM.

For although a man of fine physique and apparent strength, a long stretch at the shrine of Bacchus had weakened him, and at 5 o’clock of a week from yesterday he died after a short illness.

A multitude of friends mourned the departure of a good fellow from their midst, and the widow (?), prostrated by grief, was sent earl in the evening to the residence of her father-in-law, 115 Harrison avenue, while several of the “Tubbe’s” best friends arranged to pass the night with the remains. Frank Schlerenbeck’s saloon is on the first floor, and the mourners (?) had carte blanche for refreshments. It appears that their sense of sincere grief was equated only by their craving sense of thirst, for they drank freely to drown their sorrow, and ere long their better judgment was drowned in the load of beer and whisky that went upstairs. As the fumes of liquor mounted to their brains and tears stole down their cheeks as they recounted the many virtues of “Tubbe,” and the sundry good times they had had together, it may have seemed that the corpse took on a semblance of life and was among them a living presence again, and

THE SOUNDS OF WEEPING

And wailing gave way to tipsy expressions of mirth and jollity, and a fanciful suggestion to take just one more drink with “Tubbe old boy” was readily acted upon.

Straightway to the coffin went to the watchers, and the corpse was tenderly lifted and stood upon the feet. The stove pipe furnished a convenient resting place, and against it the corpse was placed, while all hands again sought the table and its load of bottles.

About this time “Cookey’s” string band hove around the corner, but a proposition by one of the gang to invite the band upstairs for a dance was speedily vetoed by Mr. Schlerenbeck, and the ceremony proceeded with the disadvantage of no music to enliven the occasion. However, they seemed to have atoned for the lack of instrumental melody by a supplement of vocal harmony which was not attuned to suit the trained ear of Jacob Rasp, for when he remonstrated a crack in his entirely too critical auricular appendage cut the offended organ and sent him to rest on a sofa, while the noise of the carnival filtered out through the blinds and called Patrolman John Wams[illegible] and Merchants’ Policeman Lewis Pin[illegible] to the apartment. If those officers had not had the

USUAL AMOUNT OF NERVE

Of the average member of the finest they might have dropped at the ghastly sight.

The boys didn’t have sufficient time to get “Tubbe” back to his coffin, and silent, stiff, stark, and staring the corpse stood, literally a ghost, while the guests were busy keeping the beer from getting too warm. The party broke up then and there, and order was speedily restored. Next morning news of the affair leaked out and became the talk of the neighborhood. There were special reasons why it should be kept a secret, and with nothing but rumors to base their wagging tongues upon, it was noised about that the boys had threatened to kick the stuffing out of “Tubbe” for talking so much, and even

SET THE REMAINS ON THE STOVE.

And gave it sardines to eat. Such reports were damaging, and were calculated to injure the standing of any body in the moral aspect of a community, and for each assertion there was a denial. It was given out that Victor Grese, a Mr. Spoonagel, who is known as “Spoony,” Philip Hermann, and Jacob Rasp, composed the watch, but the friends of all these men say that such things could not be, and the most vigorous denunciations were given for any body who would start such vile rumors. Grese could not be found last evening. His friends say he was not in the party. Hermann has a good reputation also, and that stands him in good stead at this hour of scandal. Mr. Rasp’s ear is quite sore.
The matter was kept so quiet that the same watch was on again Sunday evening. Monday afternoon, in the same room, Rev. Mr. Schmidt, the German Protestant pastor, officiated at the funeral ceremonies, and the body of poor, erstwhile gay and thoughtless Tubbe was borne to its last resting-place in a grass-grown nook in a cemetery on the New Baltimore pike, and a large body of a friends attended.

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 26 October 1890: p. 1

Despite the open bar, the phrase “it may have seemed that the corpse took on a semblance of life and was among them a living presence again,” suggests the intimate relationship between the living and the dead of, say, the rituals of Dia de los Muertos or those of the Ma’Nene festival of the Toraja peoples of Indonesia, where the dead are exhumed to be groomed, dressed in new clothing, and walked about the village.

Lutterbey is apparently the correct spelling, to judge by Rudolph Lutterbey’s entry on findagrave.com. The Enquirer must have been pretty sure of its facts to include that potentially libelous (?) with reference to young Lutterbey’s “wife.”

But posing corpses wasn’t all fun and games. Sometimes the corpse was enlisted in the cause of justice.

THE ACCUSING FINGER.

Chicago Police Propped Up a Corpse and Took Prisoner Before It.

Chicago, Nov. 22. Ordeal by murdered corpse, applied yesterday by the police to secure a confession to the murder of Natoli Selefani, whose body was found in Lake Michigan a fortnight ago, failed to secure the desired result.

The body of Selefani, which had been in Mount Carmel cemetery, was exhumed, carried to a vault, and placed in a sitting posture. The right arm and hand were propped up in such a manner that the index finger pointed directly at the face of any person entering the vault. The attitude of the body was made as nearly as possible like that which would be assumed by a person saying “You are the man who killed me.”

Police Inspector Shippy then took to the vault Peter Miro, Frank Bell, Charles Benzio, and Joyce Toppin, a colored porter of a saloon in which Selefani passed considerable time on the day of his death. One by one he caused them to confront the accusing finger of the dead man and watched for a sign of nervous collapse. Benzio and Bell went through the ordeal without exhibiting a sign of emotion. The colored porter was badly frightened, but he did not reveal anything like a clew. Miro refused to enter the vault, and the officers were compelled to drag him before the corpse and compel him to gaze upon it.  He did not say anything that would indicate that he was connected with the murder. T

The Barre [VT] Daily Times 22 November 1904: p.1

It was an ingenious plan, but I cannot find that anyone confessed after being confronted with the corpse, which, incidentally, sounds a more animated version of cruentation.

Should any of you have had just the teeniest bit too much punch at the wake and think that performing a corpse puppet-show would be a good idea, read this cautionary anecdote:

CORPSE PLACED AT THE TABLE

HIDEOUS JOKE PERPETRATED AT A CLEVELAND WAKE.

MOURNERS FLEE AND THE POLICE ARE CALLED.

WOULD-BE JOKERS ARE SENTENCED TO WORKHOUSE.

Cleveland. O., June 25. A body dressed in shroud and ready for burial sitting upright on the dining-room table in a West Twenty-third street house, caused a panic among relatives and friends attending a wake.

Mary Fitzgerald, aged 47, who attended the wake, was arrested by Patrolman Ganss. She was fined $10 and costs and was given 20 days in the workhouse by Police Judge McGannon. Mrs. Fitzgerald is employed at the Bristol hotel.

“We set the corpse on the table for bit of fun.” Mrs. Fitzgerald told Judge McGannon. “Everybody was in the back room when we did it. We called them in, and when they saw it they jumped out of the windows and ran into the yard.”

Mrs. Fitzgerald said that she and another woman had been drinking. A call for police was sent to the station. Several patrolmen went to the house where the wake was being held. They found the people standing in the street and very much frightened.

The Times Herald [Port Huron MI] 25 June 1909: p. 1

Other examples of posing the corpse (outside of the dissection room)? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com, who may be seated one day at the organ….

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 Christmas Tree with Lamps of Skulls: 1898

A CHRISTMAS TREE WITH LAMPS OF SKULLS

The Vision That Appeared to a Demonstrator of Anatomy at Midnight.

It was 12 o’clock last Saturday night when Dr. W.O. Wilcox climbed the stairs of 21 Powell street to go to his room. It was the time when graveyards yawn and give forth their dead; but the doctor had no reason to suppose the spirits of the air would haunt him in the privacy of his own chamber, so he opened the door without hesitation and stepped inside.

There was no need of striking a light. The room was illuminated by a score of prim and ghastly lamps, that clung to the green bangles [sic] of a Christmas tree standing upon a table. They were skulls, and the eyeless sockets flashed fire from within as they nodded their grisly heads to the swaying of the branches.

On the table under the bone-fruited tree were some of the doctor’s dissecting knives, gleaming balefully in the eye light from the skulls. There were crossed shinbones lying on the black tablecloth, white as the symbol of death on a pirate’s ensign, and more skulls–evidently windfalls from the boughs above. Between the jaws of one of these was a half-smoked cigarette, which the grinning head seemed to be thoroughly enjoying.

There were skeletons of hands, feet and other parts of the human bony building, mingled with the steel implements of surgical craft, and to many of these objects of cub-medico humor were attached cards bearing inscriptions as appropriate as witty.

By means of one of these inscriptions one skull complained bitterly of the unusually long time between drinks. Another, whose way in this world had probably strayed from the straight and narrow path, demanded ice and steam beer, while the head of a child declared it had been the victim of a mother’s neglect.

Dr. Wilcox is a demonstrator of anatomy in one of the colleges, and although the students of his class declare they never woud do such a thing as desecrate a Christmas tree with the products of the grave, still the doctor is looking among them for the one who planned his pleasant Christmas surprise.

The San Francisco [CA] Call 27 December 1898: p. 8

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.

Dicing with Death

Dicing with Death gambling with death
Dicing with Death

In my recent look at superstitions, gamblers are often described as the “most superstitious” of folk.  The papers of the past took much pleasure in interviewing card-sharps and casino habitués about their pet hoodoos, which might involve, for example, a lucky elephant watch fob or a gambler’s horror of an onlooker’s foot on his chair. But, realistically, what are the odds that I would give you a post on such penny-ante gambling superstitions when there are charms and omens involving death or body parts to be had?

Omitting the well-known “Dead Man’s Hand” and the “death futures” insurance taken out on the lives of famous people like Queen Victoria and King Edward VII, we find that trinkets associated with execution or suicide were cherished by gamblers.

HANGMAN’S ROPE

Russian variant of the superstition. Reported March 27th, 1880

The hangman is permitted to trade upon the superstition still current in Russian society, respecting the luck conferred upon gamesters by the possession of a morsel of the rope with which a human being has been strangled, either by the hand of justice or by his own. Immediately after young M’Cadetzky had been hanged, only the other day, Froloff was surrounded by members of the Russian jeunesse dorée, eager to purchase scraps of the fatal noose; and he disposed of several dozen such talismans at from three to five roubles apiece, observing with cynical complacency that “he hoped the Nihilists would yet bring him in plenty of money.” The Warner Library, Vol. 17, 1917

The ladies were quite as avid as the men to acquire gruesome charms.

Some years ago Louise, Duchess of Devonshire and the late duke were walking on the seashore at Eastbourne when there was washed in at their feet the hand of a negro which apparently had been cut off at the wrist. On one of the fingers was a ring of Oriental workmanship. The duchess had this ring removed and has kept it as a talisman ever since. She has worn it at Monte Carlo when she has had on “a little bit” at the tables and also when she played bridge.

Hangmen from time to time receive letters from women of position offering them sums of money for locks of hair or buttons from the garments of their victims. They make the stipulation that these must not be removed until after the culprit is dead. It seems that in the lore of the superstitious the ghastly object has no significance if taken in life. Even more intensely appreciated is a coin which has been rubbed on the dead body of an executed. This, it is said, will bring almost fabulous wealth to the possessor. Those who gamble are ready with any price for such a memento. In England, at any rate, there are overwhelming difficulties in getting possession of such, indeed it is only the personal friends of the governors of the prisons where executions take place or the hangmen who can secure them. Columbus [GA] Daily Enquirer 27 November 1910: p. 7

One man who had a remarkable run of luck at Monte Carlo last year ascribed it all to a franc which he wore on his watch chain. This coin had a grim history, for it was the only piece of money found on the body of a gambler who committed suicide in the grounds of the Casino after losing his entire fortune at the gaming tables. The Chickasha [OK] Daily Express 14 August 1901: p. 3

It is interesting how the gamblers in the following story are shocked, shocked! that anyone would rob a grave for a lucky charm. I imagine them uneasily fingering their unsavory talismans in their pockets as they spoke to the reporter.

DEAD WOMEN’S FINGERS.

They Are Not Particularly Sought After by Gamblers.

According to a story that comes from Cincinnati, says the Chicago News, a woman’s grave there was lately desecrated by a gambler for the purpose of getting the forefinger of the woman as a guaranty of good luck.

“I never heard such a story before,” said a well-known gambler. “Gamblers are superstitious, but not in this way that I have ever heard of. They have a mortal fear of pennies, and will often throw them away, thinking that the copper brings them bad luck. In the game of faro bank coppers are generally used and pennies are considered as omens of evil if carried in the pockets.

“It is just the same with old pocket-knives or anything that may be thought unlucky. They would sooner fling half their possessions into the river than run the chance of losing a game. It is sometimes very amusing to see how these superstitious notions prevail, but I suppose they are so well established that they are taken quite seriously.

“Then gamblers make a great deal of how they take their seats at a table and whether they are accosted by anyone while they are playing. If you put our foot upon a gambler’s chair while he is playing he would call you a hoodoo and probably black your eye for your, a such a thing is counted unlucky.”…[S]aid another gambler, on reading the dispatch, “It was a pretty tough job to undertake, even for a gambler. I wonder how any man could do it. He was a tough character, I’ll bet.”

“The man must have been crazy,” chimed in a third. “Some gamblers have their superstitions, but on the whole they are pretty much like other men. They don’t, as a rule, act in such an outrageous manner as this. I fancy the man was off the square a bit.” Salina [KS] Daily Republican 23 January 1892: p. 3

Enthusiastic amateurs aside, bereaved relatives seemed to regularly get permission to dig up graves in order to locate lottery tickets. Inspiration for the 1961 film Mr. Sardonicus…?

Corpse Exhumed to Obtain Prize Lottery Ticket

Brussel, Sept. 10. A romance has just been unfolded in connection with the recent Brussels lottery. For some time the chief prize of $40,000 was unclaimed, and the identity of the winner as just been established in a remarkable manner.

It appears that a young Belgian, aged 19, had purchased a ticket for the lottery, and shortly afterwards he was killed while at work through a stone falling on him. A few days before the result of the lottery was announced he was buried, according to custom, in his Sunday clothes. Some weeks passed and no claimant came forward for the first prize. Then the young man’s friends remember that he had a lottery ticket in the waistcoat pocket of his best suit, and an application was forwarded to the authorities for permission to have the body exhumed. After the usual official delay, the request was granted, and as was expected, the winning ticket was found in the dead man’s clothes. The relatives are now claiming the money. The Oregon Daily Journal [Portland, OR] 11 September 1910: p. 49

Did the newspapers delight in these stories merely as species of urban legend? A parallel  case was reported in 2014 when a woman dug up her father’s coffin in search of his “real will.” I’m betting that at least some of these gruesome exhumations actually occurred. They accurately reflect the very real wardrobe shortages of the poor and working classes. Let us have two more.

MISSING LOTTERY TICKET.

FOUND IN A GRAVE

Madrid, January 4. A widow named Colila learned that her husband had bought a fifth share in a lottery ticket, which had won six thousand sterling. Failing to find the ticket, the widow obtained an exhumation order, and found it in the pocket of a waistcoat in which her husband was buried. Press, 6 January 1925: p. 7

Just as the undertaker’s men were about to a coffin at Paris in which lay the body of a man who, according to Continental custom, was dressed in his best clothes for burial, his widow noticed sticking out of his coat pocket a fractional lottery ticket. To her astonishment on examining the ticket she found that it had drawn the third prize in the Christmas lottery, entitling the holder to a very large sum. Auckland [NZ] Star, 10 March 1928: p. 3

Lotteries, particular those held at Christmas, were a tradition throughout Europe and many arcane methods were devised for picking the lucky numbers. In this case, the death of Emperor Napoleon III spurred wild plunges on the numbers of his life.

An English magazine not long since described some of the curious theories and superstitions which prevail among devotees of the lottery and the gaming-table, regarding “lucky numbers.” There are traditionally fortunate and unfortunate combinations, and there are also newer favorites, based very often on figures connected with the chronology of famous men. The career of Napoleon III. would seem to be considered by gamblers a specially successful one, for since his death they have been betting furiously on all numbers supposed to bear a relation to sundry pivotal events of his life. In Vienna, in Milan, in Rome, the newspapers notice this universal rage among regular patrons of the lottery for staking their fortunes on Napoleonic numbers; and, what is also curious, these numbers have in several instances turned out lucky. Thus, in a late Vienna paper we read that “the death of the Man of Sedan has brought good luck to the old women of this city who give themselves up with unquenchable passion to the lottery.” At the last drawing, as the paper goes on to say, the numbers most eagerly seized upon were 3, for Napoleon III.; 65, for his age; 20, for his birthday, it falling on the twentieth of the month; 90, as the highest number in the lottery, hence interpreted to signify “emperor;” and finally 52, the year of his accession to the throne. To the joy of all the old lottery-gossips, the luck fell on these numbers, 3, 20, and 90. At Rome the death of Napoleon III. has furnished new combinations for all the devotees of the lottery. At Milan the same infatuated class have “pointed a moral” of their own from the event—a moral quite different from the one extracted by sermonizers. They have been playing heavily on number 20 (a gold Napoleon being worth twenty francs), and on number 13, which latter, as the proverbially unlucky one, is interpreted to mean the ex-emperor’s death. On the first drawing after his death these two numbers proved to be the lucky ones of the lottery, and it was then found that there had been a great number of winners. Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Volume 11, April 1873

In Sicily, lottery numbers were chosen by dream symbolism and prayers to dead relatives, saints, and executed criminals.

The petitions of most lottery-players are addressed to the souls of executed criminals, a kind of devil-worship not easy to explain. A favourite soul is the Anima Pia (pious soul), who was executed in the seventeenth century. These souls in purgatory have need of the prayers of the living, who threaten to withhold them if no help is vouchsafed. The Anima Pia is propitiated by a lighted lamp placed on four evenings in the four different corners of a room. Lottery-numbers are then revealed in a dream, and strict secrecy imposed on the person who dreams them.

Witchcraft is also invoked by the gamblers as well as the saints. Persons believed to know of winning numbers are called subjects, and are possessed by a spirit. A certain priest and three monks, long since dead, are still famous for having made the fortunes of several individuals. The system of numbers used by the cabalists is very complicated and confusing, the figures being mixed intricately and one standing for another. A more simple way is to play the numbers attached to various events, objects, or personages. If some one plays in the lottery with the assistance of Saint Lucia, for instance, he plays twenty-four for her eyes and the date of the day on which he buys his ticket. On the Day of the Dead (November 2nd) fire is the figure of the tomb, thirteen of the wax candles, and twenty-five of the mass. There are special numbers for every saint’s day or other holiday; and there are numbers belonging to the special attributes of the saints, as for example, to Saint Anthony’s pig or Saint Joseph’s staff….Poor women pray to their dead relations before going to bed. Mommino, the writer of the articles from whom these facts are drawn, knew a woman who, only a year ago, refused to take flowers to the family tomb on All Souls’ Day, because none of her dead relations had ever revealed winning numbers to her in a dream. “They forget me,” she said, “so I will forget them.” Macmillan’s Magazine, Volume 75, 1897

Venetians had a really gruesome method for seeking lucky lottery numbers.

In Venice not long ago a lottery drawing gave rise to the opening of coffins, in order that the sign of a lucky number might be detected in the eye or on the lips of the corpse. Shrouds, dusty and covered with mould, were examined for traces of writing that might lead to the sought-for knowledge, and new-born infants were closely inspected for birthmarks that would reveal the secret, while it is said that ladies of birth and education wore their dresses with the insides turned out, in order to propitiate the god of the wheel. In Naples a begging monk was fallen on by two footpads, and, failing to tell them the lucky number, was beaten so severely that he afterwards died. Otago [NZ] Witness 14 October 1897: p. 43

And

There is a curious superstition in Venice that if a stranger dies in a hotel the number of his room will be lucky at the next lottery. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 16 January 1898: p. 17

This next article is meant to reassure readers as to the prudent character of the future Sovereign of Great Britain, unlike those common gamblers who carried skeletal hand mascots to the gaming tables.

[Edward] The Prince of Wales is quite a frequenter of Monte Carlo and one of its luckiest players in a moderate way, for my bold prince is none of your plungers. His winnings at Monte Carlo and other gaming tables have assisted him in no small degree toward keeping the family pot boiling. Some two or three years ago he made a coup which enabled him to satisfy the demands of some of his most important creditors. He possesses the gambler’s disposition par excellence, being neither too timid nor too bold, too trusting nor too credulous, too pessimistic nor too optimistic He has none of the common gambler’s superstition, and does not believe in any signs, omens, or mascots. The latter is something that all the regular habitués of Monte Carlo religiously pin their faith to. And it is amusing to see the character of the mascots on which they rely. Some of them suggest very strongly the uncanny things which the witches in “Macbeth” drop into their cauldron. Any portion of a corpse is highly esteemed as a mascot, such, for instance, as a little finger bone, or a small piece of a toe joint. One Portuguese player recently aroused much envy by carrying about with him the skeleton hand of one of his countrymen who had been murdered in a quarrel at the card table. If the mascot comes from one who has committed suicide its mascotism is supposed to be doubly powerful. The last time Sarah Bernhardt was here she had for her mascot the head of one of her favorite parrots, who had strangled himself by getting that same head between the bars of his cage, though whether accidentally or with suicidal intent no coroner’s jury ever determined. The Deseret [UT] Weekly, Volume 46, 1893

I’ll fold with one of the more gruesome stories of gambling luck. This comes from an eerie tale of Monte Carlo superstition and synchronicity called “That’s funny. Not a grain of lead,” over at Mrs Daffodil’s blog.

Crack! a sudden shot broke through the great room and everybody who was not watching a stake rushed into a corner, where some unknown plunger had just taken the last plunge into eternity by blowing out his brains. The attendants collected from every corner and formed a hedge round the dead man. Quickly and soundlessly they began moving him out by a side-door, while gamblers picking up their stakes ran to dip a finger in his blood for luck. In five minutes he had disappeared as though he had fallen off a liner into a boiling sea. Monte Carlo cannot afford to have scandals on the premises any more than any well-established and well-connected institution, and is generally more successful than others in concealing them. Blood is soon mopped up, especially if the passers believe that it is a charmed fluid. The roulette ball was soon spinning round again, and the only trace of the tragedy was the struggle of a dozen gamblers to sit where the suicide had been sitting all the afternoon. It was a superstition that the dead gambler’s spirit does not leave the rooms immediately with death, but remains to avenge his ill luck on the bank; and against the unknown forces of the underworld even the bank cannot win…. Scribner’s Magazine, Volume 72, Edward Livermore Burlingame, Robert Bridges, Harlan Logan, editors, 1922

It is an uncanny echo of crowds surging round the scaffold with their handkerchiefs to sop up the blood of martyrs, broken on the wheel.

Other corpse-related gambling superstitions? Roll them bones to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com. And see “Hunches and Hearses at the Racetrack,” for a story relevant to this subject.

After this was published, Undine of Strange Company sent me this account of a lottery superstition from the Hull [UK] Packet, 19 August, 1828. She saw my lady fingers and raised me a decomposed, severed head. We have a winnah!

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.

 

Mr Mathias Rises from the Grave: 1888

a mausoleum.JPG

MONSIEUR MATHIAS

[From the French of Jules Lermina, in the Paris “Figaro.”

Everybody in the little town of Lyre-sur-Ys was astonished when it became known that Mr Mathias was dead.

He was barely forty-five years of age, and was a robust man, as straight as an arrow. About three years before he had become the husband of a young girl of twenty, a niece of the tax collector, and whom he had loved with frenzy.

Of course, once dead, Mr Mathias was credited with having been during his lifetime the possessor of every virtue. It would have gone hard with the one who should have dared speak of him as having been a usurer or a miser, as people termed him while living.

No man would have dreamed of publishing anew the account of that celebrated marriage, which certainly did him honour, and which would have brought back to mind the remembrance how all had feared that tall, artful, avaricious and rich man whom people supposed to occupy his spare moments in concocting poisons, with which he experimented on dogs. It was no time to talk about that then. He was dead. Peace to his ashes.

After all, thinking the matter over, was there anything so very extraordinary about this death It was plain that Mr Mathias had had forebodings of its approach, for had he not, but a short time before, sent to Paris for workmen to erect in the cemetery the mortuary chapel that was at that moment waiting to receive his mortal remains? Besides it had been noticed that of late he had prowled about the house as if fearing mysterious robbers. He sequestered his wife and closed himself up for weeks in his laboratory, the chimney of which seemed in ablaze every night. All these were the premonitory symptoms of brain trouble had said Dr Labarre, who had decided that death had resulted from apoplexy.

Mr Mathias had a splendid funeral. One-third of the population of the town had followed his remains to the grave-yard, and it may even be said there were a few moist eyes when the oaken coffin was lowered into the crypt of the chapel, a real monument in itself, where two men of his size might have slept at their ease.

The mourners returned from the funeral, wondering what the widow would do.

* * *

Now, the truth of the matter is that Mr Mathias was not dead.

Two hours after the ceremony, any one who might have been in the vault where the coffin rested would have certified to the truth of this statement. Two sharp clicks, like the snap of a spring-, resounded, and the coffin opened like a closet. Mr Mathias sat up, stretching his limbs just like a man waking up. Through a grating in the ceiling a little light entered. Mr Mathias stood up, slowly rubbing his slightly benumbed knees.

Taking all in all, he felt comfortable, quite comfortable. The dose of the narcotic, which he had carefully measured himself before taking, had had the effect he desired. People had supposed him dead and buried, so much the better.

Since a long while Mr Mathias had made his preparations. The vault had been fitted up with great care. In it were suitable clothing, food, and a few bottles of good wine. As nothing stimulates the appetite more than a funeral, even if it is one’s own, Mr Mathias seated himself comfortably on his coffin, broke his fast and drank good luck to the future.

It is about time to say why, of his own free will, Mr Mathias was at that moment six feet below the surface of the ground.

As usual, there was a woman mixed in the matter. Unmoved by feminine charms until the age of forty, Mr Mathias, formerly an apothecary, who made a fortune with anti-spasm pills, fell in love with pretty Anne Peidefer, the niece of the tax-gatherer at Lyre-sur-Ys. He had bluntly proposed to the young girl, who had just as bluntly refused to become Mrs Mathias, in consequence of which he fell in love like a fool. I beg pardon I should say like a man of forty who allows himself to fall in love. Not being of an over-honest nature, he had woven such a subtle web about the tax-gatherer, that in less than a year’s time, knowing that the Government’s cash did not count up right, the unfortunate man was seriously considering the advisability of committing suicide. It was at this moment that Mr Mathias appeared in the guise of a saviour and made his terms. The niece offered herself up as a sacrifice to save an uncle who had been a father to her, although her affections were already pledged to a clerk in the office of a notary in the neighbouring town. As a sad victim on the altar of duty, Anne became Madame Mathias.

She soon felt all the consequence of the catastrophe. Mr Mathias (and perhaps he was not far wrong) was convinced that his wife hated him. From this conviction to the belief that she was deceiving him, there was but one step. Ever tormented by this suspicion, he became a monomaniac. His wife never put her foot out of doors, and nobody came to see her. Still, Mr Mathias imagined that the reason he did not catch his wife wrongdoing was on account of his awkwardness, and in his own mind he voted himself an ass.

It was then that a bright idea struck him. He would pretend that he was going on a journey, not to Versailles or Havre, as do comedy husbands, but on a long, long journey, from which it would seem very difficult for him to return.

And then, some night, he would come back as much alive as ever, to the great confusion of the guilty one.

He allowed himself three days’ time, and he was quite pleased with himself as he thought of all this, in stretching himself out comfortably in his coffin once more.

Mr Mathias was getting impatient as the third day drew to a close. He waited until the cemetery clock struck eleven, the hour he had chosen to begin operations.

His plans had all been well laid. The wall of the graveyard bounded his property. He had on hand a complete suit of black clothes in which to array himself as a phantom druggist. In the graveyard only would he wear his shroud, to be in keeping with the predominating colour of the locality. Once over the wall he would hie straight to his wife’s apartment. Then the fun would begin!

Mr Mathias dressed himself, and, everything being all right, he tilted over the marble slab covering the vault, climbed up into the mortuary chapel, opened the door, and walked out into the graveyard with his winding sheet on his arm.

As soon as he got into the alley, he unfolded the ample shroud and tried to cast it around his shoulders. But the sheet was quite heavy, and he failed in his attempt. Just as he was about to try it over again he heard a voice behind him say:

‘Hold on! I will give you a hand.’

Not to realise what a disagreeable surprise this was, would be a certain proof that one had never been at midnight in a graveyard trying to put on one’s shroud.

The voice that had addressed Mr Mathias came from the sexton of the graveyard, old Grimbot, an odd fish, well known in all the neighbouring taverns. He drew near and looked Mr Mathias full in the face, exclaimed:

‘Hello! is that you, Mr Mathias? Already!’

Mr Mathias, not a little embarrassed kept on trying to wind his shroud about him, hoping that a ghostly appearance would rid him of his inopportune companion. It did not, however. On the contrary, Grimbot kindly assisted him in putting on his sheet and arranging it so that the folds fell gracefully.

‘I have just left my tomb,’ began Mr Mathias, in a hollow voice.

‘So I see,’ said Grimbot interrupting him. You seem to be in a much greater hurry than the others.”

Mr Mathias did not listen to him. He was now taking long strides, walking on tiptoe, just like a ghost. Grimbot kept up with him and continued

‘’The idea does not come to the others so soon. They generally let a month or two go by.’

Mr Mathias suddenly turned toward him and extended both arms, exclaiming:

‘Begone, profane man! Begone!’

‘Tush! Tush!’ said Grimbot, in a fatherly tone. ‘Don’t mind me—after all I suppose you want only to take an airing like the other fellows.’

Mr Mathias kept on straight ahead, not deeming it worth his while to answer. He soon perceived, through the darkness, the gate of the cemetery. Being always prepared for the worst, he had a few louis in his pocket. ‘Come,’ said he, offering a couple of gold pieces to Grimbot, ‘let’s waste no time in talk. Here let me have the key.’

‘What! The key! you want to go out! That’s a funny notion! But, I say, none of that!’

‘I will give you four louis!’ groaned Mr Mathias.

‘Say now, stop that,’ replied Grimbot, ‘or else I’ll knock you on the head. I have no objection to your leaving your tomb and walking about. The others do so too ‘

‘The others! what others?’

Grimbot gave a wide sweep around with his hand, as he replied:

‘Why, the dead, of course!’

‘The dead—who is talking to you about the dead? Why man, I am alive, still living don’t you see?’

‘Phew! that is an awful joke; but, see here, l am a good fellow. Come along and take a drink with me.’

Like a pair of pincers his hand grasped Mr Mathias’ wrist. He dragged him to a small building, where he lived, and made him enter on the ground floor.

Mr Mathias was literally dumbfounded. After closing the door Grimbot got a bottle from a shelf, and, filling two glasses he took one and held it up, saying:

‘Here’s to you, Mr Mathias.’

‘Listen to me, good man,’ said Mr Mathias. ‘You want to have your little joke at my expense. Well and good. But there is a time for all things. For a reason that concerns me only, I have allowed myself to be buried. Now business of great importance requires my presence outside. Let me go, and, I assure you, I shall pay you well.’

While he was speaking, Grimbot had slowly walked around the table and taken a position, standing, his back against the door.

‘You are a good talker,’ sneered he. ‘So you are alive, eh? Well, you are not the first who told me that. You see I hear such strange stories. I am quite fond of my subordinates. Every night one or two of them come without ceremony to take a drink with me. Last night it was the notary. You know whom I mean your neighbour, Radel, the one that has the broken column. The night before last I had a call from Mme. Claudin, a mighty fine looking woman I can tell you. I am a good fellow. I let them walk about at night and chat with them but as to letting them go out, that is quite another thing.’

Mr Mathias began to feel uncomfortable. And no wonder, for Grimbot spoke with perfect composure, like a functionary who understood the responsibilities of his office.

He was a medium-sized, thick-set man, with hands like a gorilla’s. His eyes were black and glistening. A shiver ran through Mr Mathias’ frame as the idea struck him that the man was crazy.

Yes, that must be it. He must be a visionary fellow, who believed his graveyard peopled with ghosts. He lived in a fantastic world, the creation of a drunkard’s brain.

Mr Mathias began talking, pleading, supplicating. Why, how could he, the good, kind, intelligent, Grimbot, make such a mistake as to take him for a dead man, and he burst into a laugh.

‘Here!’ said Grimbot curtly; ‘enough of this! so long as you won’t behave reasonably, you will have to go in again.’

‘Go in again! go in where?’

‘Into the tomb!’

‘Never!’

‘You won’t! Once! Twice!’

Mr Matias looked at the enormous hands. Overcome with terror, he glanced around, looking for an opening to escape through. There was but one, the door, and there was Grimbot propped up against it! Anyhow, he had to pass, cost what it may! So he rushed forward with a scream.

Grimbot quietly put forward his open hand, into which the throat of his assailant fitted closely. Mr Mathias hiccoughed and tried to struggle. The hand closed more tightly. Mr Mathias slid down on the floor, kicked about for a little while, and then remained motionless.

Grimbot, like one used to occurrences of this kind, picked him, and, walking with the dignified step of a man conscious of having done his duty, he carried him back to the tomb, where he cast him into the crypt. He then kicked the slab back into its place, closed the grated door, and resumed his walk among the tombs muttering:

‘Did you ever see the like? Wanted to go out, eh! And me lose my situation? Not much.’

This is why Mr Mathias’ widow was able shortly after, to marry the one she always loved.

Tuapeka [NZ] Times, 25 April 1888: p. 6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The husband-pretending-to-be-dead motif is well-known to folklorists; usually it ends in tears, murder, or divorce. Here is a representative specimen:

A FAITHLESS WIFE TRAPPED BY HER HUSBAND

Stockholm, April. 10. Karl Peterson, a wealthy merchant, who had only been married a year, became suspicious of his wife, and arranged with a doctor and a solicitor for a mock death. The husband was placed in a coffin, and his will was read, leaving all his property to his wife.

Directly the doctor and solicitor departed, the wife telephoned to her lover the splendid news that her “monstrous husband was dead.” The lover arrived and kissed the wife, and Peterson thereupon leaped out of the coffin and confronted them. The wife fainted and the lover fled. Petersen was subsequently granted a divorce.

Press, 13 April 1914: p. 7

But in this month of loves and doves, one does like a happy ending, particularly for the much-tried Madame Mathias.

And how refreshing it is to find a public functionary so assiduous in his duties as well as impervious to bribery!  The citizens of Lyre-sur-Ys, alive or dead, must surely congratulate themselves on the efficient M. Grimbot. Mrs Daffodil feels confident that he never lost a corpse to a Resurrectionist.

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.