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.

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Baron de Palm’s Ashes: 1877

Baron de Palm crematory
The LeMoyne Crematory, Washington, Pennsylvania, site of the cremation of Baron de Palm. https://sites.google.com/site/bassettownparanormal/paranormal-investigations/lemoyne-crematory

A New Idea in Cremation.

[From the New York World, January 22.]

A report to the effect that Colonel H. S. Olcott carried the remains of the late Baron de Palm in his snuff-box which he kept in his vest-pocket having gained general credence, a World reporter called on him yesterday to see whether or not the report were true.

“Not wholly,” said Colonel Olcott.

“Not wholly?” repeated the reporter inquiringly.

“That is, not all of them,” said the Colonel.

“Have you it with you?” asked the reporter.

“Ah,” said the accomplished President of the Theosophical Society. “Fear not. There is no danger. No ghost could be developed from so small a quantity of ashes. Perhaps a finger, an ear or a nose that is all. Such a ghost would be a promiscuous one. A finger here, a foot there, a nose in this place and a leg in that. Look!”

Here Colonel Olcott produced from his vest-pocket a silver snuff-box of fine workmanship, and, placing it upon the table before him, stood up and repeated a macaronic prayer, partly in Choctaw, partly in Hebrew and party in Egyptian. Then he began a strange though graceful dance, and low, sweet music seemed to issue from the snuff-box, and presently the lid flew open with a click. The Colonel then resumed his natural condition and sat down.

“Now,” said he, rubbing the ashes tenderly between his fingers, “these are what I call first-class ashes. See how white they are. See how finely pulverized. Did you ever clean your teeth”—

“Certainly,” exclaimed the reporter, somewhat indignantly ; “I always”—

“I beg your pardon,” said Colonel Olcott, “you interrupted me. I was about to ask you if you ever cleaned your teeth with cigar ashes.”

“Occasionally, said the reporter, mollified, “and they work splendidly.”

“Then, sir,” said the Colonel, “think how these would work. Talk of magic! Bah! Why, sir, I could just make my fortune cremating bodies to use for tooth-powder.”

“Tooth in,” said the reporter.

“You joke,” said the Colonel. “You should banish levity in the presence of”—

“New patent tooth-powder,” suggested the reporter.

“From levity to profanity, sir. You must really stop.”

“Agreed. But where are the rest of the ashes?”

“With the exception of a few that Dr. Le Moyne used to polish up a dissecting lance with, they are in possession of the different members of the Theosophical Society.”

“Do the other members keep them as you do?”

“No. Some of them keep them in lockets that hang from their watch chains.”

“Ah,” said the reporter.

The San Francisco [CA] Examiner 5 February 1877: p. 2

Baron de Palm was a member of the Theosophical Society and appointed Col. Henry Steel Olcott his executor, leaving him the bulk of his fortune. The Baron had expressed a wish to be cremated instead of buried. Although he died in May of 1876, his body was preserved until six months later, when he became the first modern cremation in the United States.

The preservation of the Baron’s corpse gave Olcott much trouble. As he remarks in his diary:

The body of the deceased was given in charge of Mr. Buckhorst, the Society’s undertaker, to be lodged in a receiving vault until I could arrange for its cremation. I was obliged to devise a better method of preserving it than the weak process of embalming that had been employed at the Hospital, which proved its inefficacy even within the fortnight. It gave me much anxiety, and no end of enquiry and research was involved, but I solved the difficulty at last by packing the cadaver in desiccated clay impregnated with the carbolic and other vapors of distilled coal tar. Decomposition had actually begun when the antiseptic was applied in the first week of June, but when we examined the corpse in the following December before removal for cremation, it was found completely mummified, all liquids absorbed and all decay arrested. It could have been kept thus, I am convinced for many years, perhaps for a century, and I recommend the process as superior to any other cheap method of embalming that has ever come under my notice.

Old Diary Leaves: The True Story of the Theosophical SocietyHenry Steel Olcott, 1895: p. 158

See also Ashes a la carte, for the ingestion of human ashes as well as the use of ashes for cleaning teeth.

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.

Corpse Contracts: People who Sold Their Own Dead Bodies

body snatchers with rotted corpse 1865

The sun is shining, the weather is clement, the birds are chirping in the shrubbery, and it is altogether a grand day to be alive. On such a lovely day, one’s thoughts must, inevitably, turn to bodysnatching. 

It is a sinister fact that, before the passage of the various Anatomy Acts, the doctors of the past paid for stolen corpses for their dissecting rooms. What is less well-known is that various individuals in what might be termed the “pre-corpse stage” sold their own bodies to the anatomists, assigning legal title to their mortal remains with an official document.  One wonders if such contracts were valid if not signed in blood?

 The temperate found many morals to point in these transactions.

THE BIRD OF DEATH DEAD

Demise of a Man Who Sold His Own Body to Buy Drink

Vienna, July 15. A man known as the “Bird of Death,” employed in the Vienna general hospital, met with a singular fate in the discharge of his gruesome duties. His name was Alvis Paxes. He was about 55 years old, and of herculean physique. For 33 years he carried all the corpses from the mortuary chamber, hence his weird name, which the hospital jesters gave him. He died to-day of blood poisoning caused by handling the body of a patent who died from an infectious disease.

Some years ago he sold for cash his own body to a museum manager and spent the money in drink. To-day his body was handed over to the purchaser. Pittsburg [PA] Dispatch 16 July 1890: p. 1

I expect the original German had the connotation of something like “carrion crow.”

 This squib weighs whether the drink or the selling of his aged mother’s body was the greater sin. Whisky seems to have won out. 

Sold His Body for Whisky

Cincinnati, Nov. 17. John Winkler, an old rag picker, who was found dead in his hovel, 608 West Sixth Street, this morning, was a peculiar example of the depths of degradation to which a human being may sink. For many years he was a familiar figure in the West End. For 10 years past it is very doubtful if he drew a single sober breath. He lived in the utmost filth and squalor, and when found dead in his bed had his clothes and boots on. Four years ago his aged mother died, and Winkler sold her body to a medical college. He also sold his own body to be delivered after death and squandered the money in whisky. The Somerset [PA] Herald 23 November 1887: p. 2

 Some had seller’s remorse. 

Trying to Buy Back His Own Body.

This queer story comes from Massachusetts: A man who lives in a suburb of Lowell is seeking to have a deed given by him twenty years ago recovered. The deed conveyed his body to a surgeon now practicing in Great Falls, N.H., for the sum of ten dollars and other considerations, possession to be taken on his death. Since the deed was made the giver has made a fortune in South America and has decided that he would like a Christian burial. The deed provides that the body shall be dissected and the skeleton articulated and presented to a medical university. The lawyers have decided that the deed holds good and that the only alternative is to buy off the doctor. The giver of the deed has made a big offer, but it has been refused. Hartford Courant. Daily Nevada State Journal 16 January 1892: p. 1

 Others imposed on good-hearted physicians. 

TWO HEARTS BUT NO CONSCIENCE

Police of Naples Looking for a Man Who Sold his Own Body to Physicians

NAPLES, April 3. The police of this city are looking for Giuseppe di Maggio, a freak possessed of two hearts, but, evidently, no conscience. Some time ago a medical institute of New York bought Maggio’s body to be delivered after death, for $8,000. With this money Maggio settled down in Naples and lived merrily on his capital, which was soon spent. He ingratiated himself into the favour of a wealthy landowner, whose sister he promised to marry. He pretended that he was to receive a large sum of money from America and supported his story with a fraudulent cablegram. On the strength of his story he borrowed money right and left, including his prospective brother-in-law, and then skipped.

Now a warrant is out for his arrest. The Evening Statesman [Walla Walla, WA] 3 April 1906: p. 2  

Given the date, we may be permitted to doubt the strict veracity of this item. 

Strange Freak to Get Money

Louisville, Ky., Dec. 5. Milton Clark, who is employed at the University of Louisville, medical department, to take care of the dead bodies brought to the place for examination, sold his own body yesterday for the thirty-third time to physicians for dissection. Whenever he is sore need of money he visits a physician interested in one of the various medical colleges and sells his body. Lawrence [KS] Journal World 5 December 1898: p. 2 

Still others, like this sad lady, with the “checquered past,” sold their bodies to clear a debt. I have not yet found Annie E. Jones’s grave in Bridgeport, but Dr. John Cooke was a luminary of the Eastern Ohio Medico-Chirurgical Society. 

A Singular Suicide

There has lived on Glenn’s Run and about Martin’s Ferry and Bridgeport, for the past few years, a queer, gnarly-looking little old French woman, named Annie E. Jones. Her past history has been varied, checquered and not altogether reputable. She had several children, all dead or wandering. She was twice married—the last time to a negro. By some of her children there came a granddaughter named Agnes Racine, a white girl, of rather prepossessing appearance, and together she and her grandmother lived at Martin’s Ferry, till a colored man, named Boggs, essaying to be a Baptist preacher, living in Bridgeport, concluding his Christian duty was to discard his wife and make love to Miss Racine. The tender emotion was reciprocated by Agnes, and Boggs quit preaching, began to vote the Democratic ticket—kicked his old wife out of doors, and took old Mrs. Jones, her granddaughter Agnes, and the illegitimate young one by her, to his home on top of the hill, south of Bridgeport, on Vincent Mitchell’s place, where they have since nestled. Having voted for Hancock, he next, it is alleged—so the old woman said to us the evening she suicide—he began to abuse her terribly, knocking her down and otherwise showing his high appreciation of his—grandmother—by his baby. It seems Agnes lent a helping hand also when necessary to keep the old woman in proper subjection. Time flew apace, and the old woman—who by the way, was rather a good French scholar and more perhaps than ordinarily intelligent—grew tired of her rations of abuse, and soured and sickened of life. This Boggs, as many of the Chronicles’ readers know, was charged with a tried for adultery with this Racine girl in St. Clairsville, and much to the regret of our people, was acquitted; since which time he has been living, it is alleged, in open criminality with the girl, though he claims to be married to her.

The old woman had contracted a bill with Dr. Cook, amounting to $17 for herself and Agnes. She had no money, and though Boggs abused it, she claimed to own, in fee, her mortal body—65 years old, not very comely, and weighing, perhaps, 80 to 100 pounds. She wanted to pay her debts, so she came to see her creditor, Dr. Cooke; he was not in, she went home, leaving a message for him to come up at once. He went, and she asked the doctor “what bodies were worth for dissection?” He replied it depended on certain contingencies. She then informed him she meant to deed him her body, after death, and as she meant to be honest, she would give him the paper just then. The doctor informed her such a transaction such as that must be regularly drawn up and acknowledged, and referred her to  R.J. Alexander as a suitable person to “draw up the papers and make them full and strong.” So she proceeded to wash her clothes and her person, and all things being in readiness she visited Mr. Alexander at his office, when Mr. McDonald, Alexander’s partner, drew up at her request and had acknowledged the following deed:

Know all men by these presents, That I, Anna Eliza Jones, for and in consideration of seventeen dollars in hand paid, the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledge from Dr. John Cook, of Bridgeport, Ohio, do hereby give grant and convey to said Dr. John Cooke my body after my death, to be disposed of as said Dr. John Cooke may desire, either for dissection by any medical college, or for his own private use for dissection. Said Dr. John Cooke to have immediate possession and control of my body as soon as life therein shall be extinct and wherever my body may be at that time.

It is hereby witnessed that the real considerable of this deed is the release by said Dr. John Cooke or his claim against me for medical professional services, for myself and granddaughter, Agnes Racine, which amounts to seventeen dollars above mentioned, and by accepting this deed said Dr. John Cooke released said claim.

In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and seal this 25th day of March 1881

Anna E. Jones

The signing and sealing of the above was witnessed by the undersigned at the request of said Anna E. Jones

W.W. Conoway

J.E. MacDonalds

State of Ohio, Belmont County ss: before me, F.C. Robinson, a Notary Public and for said county, personally appeared the above named Anna Eliza Jones and acknowledge the signing of sealing of the above instrument to be her voluntary act and deed, this 25th day of March 1881.

T.C. Robinson, Notary Public.

It was now late in the evening of Friday, and having all things in readiness, she presented the Dr. with his “deed,” receiving therefor his receipt in full for his bill, and the old woman mounted the hill by the aid of a lantern “to deliver the goods.”

Reaching Boggs’, she called for writing materials, wrote a letter to a Mrs. Berry, in Martin’s Ferry, saying among other things, that “ere that reached her the writer would be dead,” &c., Giving this to Agnes, with orders to mail it, she kissed the baby, called for the keys of the door, which at first were refused her, but then given her, she took a chair  in hand and mounted it beside a post in the yard to which was fastened a clothes line—fastened one end of the rope around her neck, the other to the post, and pushed her old bark off, into the darkness and eternity. She informed Boggs & Co., that she meant to hang herself—but, as he alleges, she had threatened to destroy herself with pistols and by starvation before, he paid no serious attention to it. When morning came, however, Boggs & Co. saw the old woman hanging by the neck dead. The alarm was given, Coroner Garrett summoned, and after hearing the facts as related, he decided Anna E. Jones came to her death by her own hand, and of premeditation. The goods were delivered. The old woman was a good as her word. Setting a wholesome example to many creditors, to either “pay up” or “go and do likewise.” We can but revere the old woman’s memory for her determined purpose to pay an honest Dr. bill. Oh! That others we know of would profit by the old woman’s example—pay their bills we mean—or—or—well, a “word to the wise is sufficient.” Dr. Cooke waived all present claim to the old woman: her body was taken in charge by the Township Trustees, and by them buried on Sabbath afternoon, at Bridgeport Cemetery. A solitary vehicle alone formed the funeral cortege, with not a mourner to drop a tear for the strange determined old suicide.

As they rattled her bones over the stones,

The old dead woman that Dr. Cooke owns.

Belmont Chronicle [St. Clairsville, OH] 31 March 1881: p. 3

The rhyme at the end comes from a much-quoted poem called “The Pauper’s Drive” attributed to Thomas Hood. It has the refrain

Rattle his bones over the stones

He’s only a pauper whom nobody owns. 

Ohio was home to some of the giants among bodysnatchers. Yet even the “Prince of Ghouls,” probably knowing that his body would be stolen anyway, decided to profit from it when alive.

 The man about whom more graveyard stories have been told than about any other “resurrectionist,” was “Old Cunny,” the prince of ghouls, who in his day was known to every person in this part of the country, at least by name. He was the bogyman for all ill-behaved children. He was popularly called “Old Man Dead.” His real name was William Cunningham. He was born in Ireland in 1807. He was a big, raw-boned individual, with muscles like Hercules, and a protruding lower jaw, a ghoul by vocation, a drunkard by habit and a coward by nature. His wife was a bony, brawny, square-jawed Irish woman, with a mouth like an alligator. Both had a tremendous appetite for whiskey. Cunny had sold his own body to the Medical College of Ohio. When he died of heart trouble in 1871, the body was turned over to the college. Mrs. Cunningham, the bereaved widow, managed to get an additional $5 bill for the giant carcass of her deceased spouse. The skeleton of “Old Cunny” is to this day the piece de resistance in the Museum of the Medical College of Ohio. Daniel Drake and His Followers, Otto Juettner (Cincinnati, OH: Harvey Publishing Company, 1909): p. 395

 Cunningham’s apprentice and eventual partner followed Old Man Dead’s example.

 PICKLED

CHARLEY KENTON, THE RESURRECTIONIST,

GOES BACK ON THE PROFESSION

HE SELLS HIS OWN BODY TO THE DOCTORS

AND IS CARRIED FROM THE DEATH-BED TO THE PICKLING VAT

  Last Friday night a coffin containing the dead body of a colored man was driven to the Ohio Medical College, taken from the wagon and carried up the stairs, with little, if any, effort at concealment. Arriving in the “dead-room” the body was taken from the coffin, the large artery in the side of the neck cut, the blood removed, and the arteries filled with a preservative fluid, after which the body, divested of its clothing, was tumbled, with no further ceremony, into the “pickling tub,” along with a couple of dozen others which had been quietly accumulating during the past month. There was a peculiar lack of the secrecy which accompanies most of the operations of this sort by which dead bodies are transferred to the dead-room of the college, and a business-like air about the whole transaction which indicated that it was somewhat different from the ordinary cases of grave-robbing and body-snatching. A little inquiry into the case showed that it was a peculiar one—that, in fact, the body was that of one of the most notorious body-snatchers of the city, and that the lack of secrecy in the matter was from the fact that it was merely the carrying out of a plain business transaction, that the dead man had in his life sold his body to the college for dissection after death, receiving the payment, and that in accordance with this agreement his body was thus being removed to the dissecting room for that purpose.

Charley Keaton, the dead man, was in his life one of the most active body-snatchers in this city, and from his hands have hundreds of “stiffs”—bodies from many of the burying grounds in the city and vicinity, somebody’s loved ones to whose memory tears have fallen and marble shafts aspired heavenward—been sent down through the terrible “chute,” and upward through the death shaft to the dissecting room.

Keaton was a colored man of about forty, and had been for more than ten years in the business of body snatching, making good money at it, and coming to rather enjoy it than otherwise. To him there was nothing more in the handling of stiffs than in so many bolts of cloth or sacks of grain, and no more in dissection than in the business of the butcher or meat vender.

He began his work with “Old Cunny,” the noted resurrectionist, and followed it through all seasons and all weather, until only a few weeks before his death. In it he encountered all sorts of weather and exposures, and so contracted colds and a cough which finally led to bleeding of the lungs, and so his life among the dead ended in death, whose presence was as familiar to him as the days of his years of manhood.

To him the medical college, the chute, the dead-room, the pickling-vault, and even dissection had no horrors; familiarity with these had deprived him of that feeling of repugnance so common to mankind, and especially to his race, and as a result he had expressed a willingness in life that his remains after death should be submitted to the dissecting knife “in the interest of science,” as he said, as he considered his business and that which he supplied, inseparably interwoven with the science of anatomy and medicine, and as a result he had sold—deliberately sold during his life-time–his body to the college professors, receiving the usual price, $35 cash in hand, and giving a receipt and statement that his body should become the property of the college after dissection.

Indeed, he seemed rather to prefer that his skeleton should stand beside that of old “Cunny” in the museum of the college than to mold to nothingness in the dark, damp earth, and in life he frequently contemplated Cunny’s skeleton as it stands, spade in hand, in the college, evidently reflecting that he would someday stand beside it, and keep the “ole man” company through the many years that the college shall stand, instead of being consigned to the changes and final nothingness of the Potter’s field grave.

  So when old Charley died on Friday last, the college authorities were notified, his wife, who had accompanied him on many of his nightly expeditions, and is herself an expert anatomist, prepared the body for dissection, and after the brief funeral service, it was removed from the house on Barr Street, where he lived and whence he had sallied forth for many nightly excursions in the homes of the dead, and taken directly to the college, where it was prepared and put in pickle. It is pronounced “excellent material,” being well developed and obtained without serious delay after death.

  Whether this is strictly “professional,” as viewed from a body-snatcher’s stand-point, seems extremely doubtful. A system which takes the body with the consent of all parties concerned direct from the death-bed to the dissecting-room, and upon an agreed-upon and already paid price, seems to be one which must undermine the business of the profession, and therefore should be frowned down by every patriotic body-snatcher. Hawarden [IA] Independent 14 August 1878: p. 2   

I’ve asked the librarians and archivists at the University of Cincinnati School of Medicine (the successor to the Medical College of Ohio) if Cunningham and Kenton’s mounted skeletons are still in their collection, but no one seems to know. If you have any answers, sack ‘em up and send to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com. 

Mrs Daffodil posted about a unique method of Burking by Snuff,.   Look for similar joy and jollity in The Victorian Book of the Dead, which can be purchased at Amazon and other online retailers. (Or ask your local bookstore or library to order it.) It is also available in a Kindle edition.

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

 

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

The Seven Babies in No. 77

death as baby nurse Death's Doings 1827
The Seven Babies in No. 77, Death as the Baby’s Nurse. 1827

Appalled by the recent discovery of 11 infant corpses hidden in the ceiling of a defunct Detroit funeral home and more than 60 infant bodies found in the same week at another Detroit mortuary, I bring you a grim and grewsome story about a Victorian London undertaker similarly neglectful of his duties. While meant for savage satire, the mock-jocular tone may grate on modern sensibilities.

THE SEVEN BABIES IN No. 77

It is our rule not to puff tradesmen. But to every rule there is an exception, and, therefore, if there be any baby-farmers in want of an undertaker we venture respectfully to recommend to them Mr. Henney, of No. 77, Regent’s-park-road. This gentleman’s speciality is babies. He, of course, does not refuse to “undertake” adults. But he prefers infants, and, indeed, so attached does he become to the little bodies which are committed to his charge that he cannot bring himself to part with them, till at last they melt away in obedience to those inexorable laws of nature which even undertakers cannot long withstand. Six such infants were the other day found in his stable, and one in a tin-box in his house. They were all (see how he clings to them) “in an advanced stage of decomposition.” He said they were “stillborn,” and no doubt he knows; but this is clear, they were “still unburied.”

He had, we presume, been paid to bury them, because, however fond a man may be of children, he does not like even “stillborn” ones for nothing. But he did not bury them. He could not bring himself to do it. He kept the babes, and he did not return the money. Perhaps in keeping them he may have been influenced by another motive besides that which we have suggested. He may have said to himself: “Possibly doubts may arise in some one‘s mind as to whether these children really were stillborn. So, as I am not a medical man myself, I’ll keep them by me in case inquiries should be made.” Anyway he did keep them, until one day last week a young man going into the stable was “nearly overpowered with the stench,” and searching for the cause found a partially-decomposed “stillborn” infant, and went away and told the police, who came and found six others, “stillborn,” too—all “ stillborn.” We do not know whether Mr. Henney is an admirer of Tennyson, but we daresay he is, and we can fancy him handing over to the police the last child, the one that was found in the tin box, and saying, with tears in his eyes, “ ‘He was dead before he was born,’ Mr. Policeman.” This is why we say that he is the very undertaker for baby-farmers. In baby-farms, when a child is born on the premises, it is usually stillborn, we believe.

We suppose there is something in the genius loci which occasions this, for of course the baby-farmer has nothing to do with it. Her business is with the living, not with the dead, and so when a child is “stillborn” she looks out for a good-natured undertaker like Mr. Henney to take it off her hand. Mind, we do not say, because we do not know, that Mr. Henney has any connection with baby-farmers. We are merely pointing out what an admirable baby-farmer’s undertaker he would be, if the baby-farmers would employ him. His peculiar mode of doing business enables him to “undertake” at a cheaper rate than other tradesmen; he can afford to do it at an almost nominal price, because he does not pay any burial-fees. Consequently, he ought to do a great trade, if the law would only let him alone, as, no doubt, he, up to last week, believed it would, for the law is very indulgent to the undertakers. It requires no qualification from them. It does not register them. It does not inspect their premises. It is the easiest thing in the world to become an undertaker; a man has merely got to call himself one, and there he is, duly qualified to bury. He takes a window somewhere, he puts up in it a little coat-of-arms, with a pious motto, such as “In coelo quies,” or “Resurgam,” underneath which he writes “Funerals furnished,” and then he goes out about the real business of his life,—the business to which he has been brought up, chimney sweeping, or scavenging, or stealing, or whatever it may be—and leaves his wife to attend to the corpses if any come in. Thus as we pass along the streets we see the business of undertaker combined with almost every other business under the sun, “Carpenter and Undertaker,” “Upholsterer and Undertaker,” “Coal and Com Merchant and Undertaker,” “Greengrocer and Undertaker,” and so on. We do not remember ever having seen “Confectioner and Undertaker.” But we should not be in the least degree surprised to see it, for undertaking, like oysters, is one of those things which goes well with everything else. It is the pleasantest and easiest of avocations. Anybody can follow it who has sufficient strength to walk round the corner and order a horse of the job-master, and sufficient knowledge of arithmetic to add a percentage to the price he charges.

Whether in the interests of a community which, as a rule, desires that Christian burial should follow upon death, the undertaking business ought to be so very easy, is another question. We are disposed to think it should not. We can conceive that there may be considerable danger in leaving undertakers so completely alone as they are left at present. It may be quite true that the seven infants found upon Mr. Henney’s premises were “stillborn,” and we feel sure that if any lady had offered to him a quick-born and full-grown corpse he would have buried it in the ordinary way. But can the same be said of all undertakers? This is what we do not feel so sure of. We fear that there are men in the undertaking business who would be quite capable of leaving the body of a person who had been born alive, but had subsequently died, to rot in an out-house, like Mr. Henney’s seven still-born infants If there are such men, there is, as things are at present, nothing to prevent them from so dealing with the corpses committed to their charge, provided they live in secluded neighbourhoods away from other habitations.

For the purposes of the business which he pursues, Mr. Henney’s establishment is unfortunately situated, being near an infants’ school, with the inmates of which the “stench” of the seven “stillborn” but nevertheless decomposing children in Mr. Henney’s stable, appears not to have agreed. It is, indeed, stated that “serious illness” has been produced in the school by the disagreeable odour. Owing to this cause Mr. Henney’s peculiar mode of conducting funerals would probably, sooner or later, have been discovered, even if the young man of whom we have spoken had not gone into the stable at all. But supposing this Mr. Henney to have lived a little way out in the country, or near an extensive piggery or soap-boiling establishment, or other place where a “stench” would naturally be expected, it is manifest that he might have persisted in his present course of allowing the “dead to bury their dead,” for almost any length of time without being discovered. But whether it is safe to act upon this injunction in all cases, whether it is right to leave the dead to bury themselves when somebody else has been found to bury them, are questions which we venture to propose, and which we hope some one will answer. We do not like to reiterate an assertion or an argument more than is absolutely necessary to ensure its being understood, but we cannot refrain from saying plainly what we have already implied, that since sauce for the gosling is sauce for the goose, and since seven still-born infants have been found rotting in one undertaker’s stables, it may possibly be our own destiny to be resolved into our original elements in a bed of quicklime beneath the flags of some of other undertaker’s kitchen, and that we do not at all relish the prospect.

In Cuba, as we read somewhere the other day, the bones of Chinese Coolies are sometimes used for the purpose of refining sugar. We are not aware whether human bones are so used in this country. Perhaps Mr. Henney can inform us. Will he be so kind as to tell us what he and his friends in the trade are in the habit of doing with any bones which they may chance to have over? We are very curious to know, because it seems to us that if an undertaker is paid to bury a body, and he not merely does not bury it, but sells the bones to anybody else, and pockets the price as well as the burial-fee, he is guilty of conduct which, whether he may think so or not, is in theory distinctly dishonest. Of course, we know that every business has a morality of its own; and we are quite prepared to learn that Mr. Henney is, according to his own light, as honourable a man as Brutus. But if Brutus had lived in these days, and in London, he would have been tried at the Old Bailey.

So we trust that in like manner there may be a searching inquiry into Mr. Henney’s conduct and mode of carrying on business, and that it may be clearly ascertained, if possible, whether all these seven infants really were still-born, and whether he has any more. We will also venture to express a hope that, one of these days when there is time, and the Eastern and other burning questions are settled, Parliament will take up undertakers, and examine them before Select Committees or Royal Commissions, or some way or other (we do not in the least care what) ascertain whether what is called Christian burial is the rule or the exception in this country, and then legislate accordingly.

Truth, Volume 1, 8 February 1877

In case you wish to read more about the lucrative profession of baby-farmer, see this well-researched link and this, with some dreadful details and photographs. And this, about Amelia Dyer, who stood at the peak of her loathsome profession.

The reference to Tennyson is from “The Grandmother,” where an elderly woman bewails her many losses: “But the first that ever I bare was dead before he was born.”

The additional frisson caused by the note about Chinese bones used in sugar refineries in Cuba is a reference to the use of bone-black (charcoal made from bones, usually animal) filters to remove impurities and make the finished product white sugar. While it is true that the Cubans imported Chinese laborers by the thousands when slavery was outlawed, I sincerely hope that this was an urban legend. And now I’m wondering if the bone collectors of the “rag and bone” profession got some of their supplies from the undertakers…

An undertaker in New York state got into similar trouble, but had a reasonable explanation:

For keeping dead babies in his cellar on ice for days or even weeks, a Greenpoint, N.Y., undertaker is in trouble with the authorities. His explanation is that he keeps the corpses until there enough of them to make a paying load, when he takes them to the cemetery. Macon [GA] Telegraph 22 July 1885: p. 2

And at least he kept them on ice. It was a common practice to bury still-born children into the gap at the foot of an adult grave.

IN CIGAR BOXES

Many Little Bodies Find Nameless Graves.

  “We have many people bring us little babes in boxes, ranging in size from a cigar box to a coffin a foot or so long,” said a sexton. “They hardly ever leave instructions, so we just put the boxes at the bottom of some grave we dig for a grown person.” Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 31 January 1892: p. 9

The practice of “filling in” a gap at the foot of an adult grave with a child’s coffin, was a source of much pain to bereaved pauper parents. They much preferred that their babies be buried in a plot with other children.

Does anyone have access to any of the stories of the original discovery of the bodies in Mr Henney’s stable? Or of the illnesses at the adjoining infants’ school? Ice well and send to ChrisWoodyard8 AT gmail.com.

For other stories of corpse collectors and the undertaking trade, see The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition.

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

Ashes à la carte

 

coffee can urn
Ashes a la carte Coffee Can Urn https://mcphee.com/products/modest-urn

Recently I noted some startling tabloid-fodder in the British press;  an article about a daughter grieving her late mother, who decided to eat her Mum’s ashes with her Christmas dinner. She was quoted as saying sadly, “I feel like she can live on by being inside of me.” Comments on the story ranged from sympathy for her loss to harsh words about her mental state.

It is such a strange and unpalatable story (is there a medical term for this curious taste–parental pica, perhaps?), but if you can’t trust the Mirror, who can you trust?

Just yesterday a report about cookies supposedly baked with human ashes was being circulated, although there is a possibility that it is merely a sensational story.

Since this blog is nothing if not topical, here is a similar story from 1901. At that date, cremation was a relatively new idea (The first modern crematorium in the United States was built in 1876; the first in England in 1878.) and its proponents were sometimes seen as eccentric or even mad. In this story, an excerpt from The Victorian Book of the Dead, we meet Mrs Matilda Francefort, who took to heart the sentiment: “bone of my bone; flesh of my flesh.”

Cremation’s Odd Phases

One Widow Reported to Have Eaten the Ashes of Her Husband

Complications That Happen

A good many queer things have happened in connection with cremation, but perhaps the strangest of them all was the case of Mrs. Matilda

Francefort. Matilda ate her husband, which sounds cannibalistic, but isn’t.

In 1896 Mr. Francefort left his sphere of usefulness in Brooklyn and his soul, it is to be hoped soared to a better world. As for his body, they took it to Fresh Pond and cremated it. Then his widow went after the ashes and took them carefully home with her. All widows do not. Some don’t even buy a niche for them at the crematory or pay storage for them in the cellar.

But Mrs. Francefort was different. She got the ashes of the late Mr. F. and carried them home in a japanned tin box, like a tea canister or a spice box. Perhaps that was suggested to the sorrowing widow the disposition she should next make of them.

At any rate she decided to eat them. There was much to be said in favor of this plan. It was economical. She would save the expense of an urn and niche and a monument by being all that herself. Then, too, she and the dear cremated had lived together for 31 years and she was lonesome without him. She was informed that the ashes would enter permanently into her system and it seemed to be a clear case of eating your cake and having it too. Anybody could see that under the circumstances it was the only way of keeping the family together.

Having decided to eat her husband, the next question was the manner in which he should be served. Mrs. Francefort went over his qualities with a sorrowful heart. He had been a witty man; there was always a spicy flavor in his conversation. Mrs. Francefort made a note: “Spice.”

Then she defied anybody to say that he had not been the salt of the earth. Another note: “Salt.” Still she had to admit that he had a bit of a temper. Note number three: “Pepper.” But then, he was always sweet to her. Final note: “Sugar.” Clearly Mr. Francefort’s post-mortem specialty should be in the condiment line. Mrs. F. determined to take him as seasoning.

So she put a pinch of him in her coffee at breakfast and sprinkled him lightly over the boiled shad. At luncheon he went into the tea, and contributed distinction to the lamb stew. At dinner—well, at dinner the supply of Mr. Francefort’s ashes went down in more ways than one. And whatever the gentleman may have done in life, there is one thing sure, he never disagreed with his widow when he was dead, though a little of him did perhaps go a long way.

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 16 March 1901: p. 12

Was this just a whimsical flight of fancy by the author?  Mrs. Francefort is found in several other newspaper stories when she was involved in a lawsuit over timber rights. The tongue-in-cheek flavor is often found in news stories about human remains. Perhaps a little gallows humor was required for audiences to swallow such a grim tale.

Here is story of a similar piquancy, although I cannot find this “ludicrous mistake” in any of Twain’s published works. It is likely that the celebrity’s name was added to a well-known anecdote. There was a variant of the tale where the tooth-brusher was a servant girl.

A LUDICROUS MISTAKE

Mark Twain Uses Human Ashes for Toothpowder.

New York Letter Kansas City Journal

I was told yesterday a rather amusing story at the expense of Mark Twain—and the same story is already a standing joke in society. Not long ago the humorist was traveling in the country and stopped one evening at a house presided over by an elderly woman. He was shown to a room somewhat bare of ornament and furniture, yet slept peacefully until morning. When morning came and he arose, he became mindful of the fact that although he had provided himself with a toothbrush, he had forgotten his toothpowder. He consoled himself with the thought that there must be tooth powder lying somewhere about. After a brief search he discovered something in a small box on the mantel, which certainly resembled tooth powder. At any rate, he used it vigorously on his teeth and found it satisfactory. When he got down stairs he apologized to his hostess for using her tooth powder. She appeared surprised. “What tooth powder?” she inquired, blandly. “It was on the mantel,” Mark replied. “On the mantel?” she repeated. “Yes, in a small box. It was excellent,” he declared. “Good gracious!” she ejaculated. “That wasn’t tooth powder!” “What was it?” asked Mark, now slightly alarmed. “Why, that was auntie,” said she. (It seems that “auntie” had been cremated.)

San Francisco [CA] Chronicle 14 December 1886: p. 2

Similar mix-ups involving human ashes are found in a previous post on stolen cremains.

I’ve speculated before about the possibility of a hoarding disorder involving a loved one’s remains. If the stories about eating Mum or Mr. Francefort are not urban legends, they, too, might fall into this rare category.

In 2011 a widow who said that she was addicted to eating her husband’s ashes was profiled on a show called My Strange Addiction. Other historic cases of dining on the detritus of the dead?  (Other than the well-known ritual to prevent a vampiric relative from preying on surviving family members….) chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

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

 

Elbows on the Table – Professor Segato’s petrified corpse furniture

Segato's Table
Professor Segato’s petrified corpse table. Not made of marble.

The object above looks like an indifferent specimen of Renaissance pietra dura/ pietre dure,the decorative art of hardstone inlay, or perhaps clever marquetry, made to look like polished jasper, carnelian, and sardonyx. It is, however, made of petrified pieces of human viscera, bone, and muscle, the creation of Professor Segato of Florence, who discovered a process to preserve human remains by turning them into a stone-like substance. Dura mater instead of pietra dura.

I first ran across a hint of this ingenious mineralizer in an 1881 newspaper squib:

 A Florentine chemist has by some mysterious process converted the corpse of a girl to the semblance of marble, perfectly white and hard, and the petrified body is being shown at the Milan exhibition. Jackson [MI] Citizen 22 November 1881: p. 3

Professor Segato (1792-1836) was featured in an 1855 article in Harper’s Magazine:

 “In this hospital [Santa Maria Nuova, Florence] is to be seen the museum of the late Prof. Segato, who discovered the process of petrifying animal substances, so that, while they retained their natural colors and shapes, they became as hard as stone. The church, as usual, interfered with his art, on the grounds that it was contrary to the Scriptural doctrine of “into dust shalt thou return.” Consequently, unable to prosecute the discoveries further, he soon after died, leaving to the world this unique museum as the evidence of his success and to tantalize science with regrets for the last secret.”

Concerning a remarkable table made by this discoverer, the writer says:

“It comprises every portion of the human body transformed to stone, destined to endure as long as the world itself, if not ground to pieces by violence. There are two tables, one finished and polished, the other incomplete, made of mosaics, formed by sections of human bones, brain, lungs, blood vessels, intestines and muscles, as firm as marble, showing the internal structure of each, all resembling colored stones. Without an explanation every visitor would presume them to have come from some stone mosaic manufactory for they are symmetrically arranged in squares, with the great variety of colors nicely graduated. Different portions of the human body, showing the internal anatomy, are so perfectly petrified as to form perfect objects of study of the medical student. Even morbid anatomy was subjected with entire success to this process. Animals of all kinds, reptiles, chickens, in and out of the egg. In short, nothing that had warm blood was capable of resisting his petrifying touch.”

“The Roman Church, above all others, did wrong to discourage the art. Next to medical colleges it is the largest dealer in dead men’s bones. What an improvement it would have been, instead of exhibiting a knee-pan in a vial, or a dried skull in a gold case, to have held up for adoration an entire saint as fresh as in life. All skepticism in relics would then disappear, for however easy it may be to substitute one bone for another, there could be no possibility of destroying personal identity. The stone saint would be the actual image of the live saint; no daguerreotype could be half so exact; and when not in use, could be quietly laid by on the shelf, as is frequently done in life.”

“There is, however, in this museum the head of a young girl, with long flaxen hair, of remarkable beauty, as soft and tresslike as in life. Belonging to this head is a virgin bosom, snow white, and of a perfection of form that nature seldom equals, and art never surpasses. Power’s Greek slave, or the Venus de Medici, could exchange busts with this maiden without loss; so exquisite are its proportions, and so pure its outlines. Here, then, is a figure which women will envy, and men admire through all time, as cold and hard as flint, yet warming feelings with love and pity for the fate of one so young and beautiful. All that is known of her is that she was found dead under the roof of a church that fell in, and Segato possessed himself of her corpse.”

The story above was quoted in the “Curiosity Shop” question column of the Chicago Inter-Ocean.  The paper continued its article with details suggesting that the story was a traveler’s tale, but then gave an account of an investigation by the New York Sun, which seemed to conclude  that the table was real.

 “The author of the above does not give his name, but investigation through periodicals of the last quarter of a century shows that Segato’s table has “cropped up” every little while as a favorite “traveler’s tale” for the assistance of sensation-seeking newspaper correspondents. Not more than two years ago an account of it was given in a medical journal, which should have known better than to give place to such an account without full verification. The writer mentions, but one table and places it in the Pitti Palace, though none of the guide books bear out his story by any mention of it.

“’In the Pitti Palace at Florence is a table which for originality in the matter of construction and ghastliness in conception is probably without a rival. It was made by Giuseppe Segatti, who passed several years of his life in its manufacture. To the casual observer it gives the impression of a curious mosaic of marbles of different shades and colors, for it looks like polished stone. In reality it is composed of human muscles and viscera. No less than a hundred bodies were requisitioned for the material. The table is round, and about a yard in diameter, with a pedestal and four claw feet, the whole being formed of petrified human remains. The ornaments of the pedestal are made from the intestines, the claws with hearts, livers, and lungs, the natural color of which is preserved. The table top is constructed of muscles artistically arranged, and it is bordered with upwards of a hundred eyes, the effect of which is said to be highly artistic, since they retain all their lustre, and seem to follow the observer. Segatti died about fifty years ago. He obtained his bodies from the hospitals, and indurated them by impregnation with mineral salts.’

“A few months ago a correspondent of the New York Sun undertook to run the story of this remarkable table to earth and find out how much truth there really was in it, and the alleged great discovery of its maker. He ascertained that some fifty years ago there was a physician in Florence named Giuseppe Segato, who declared that he had discovered a process of so changing the constitution of human flesh as to render it perfectly hard and make it keep its form and appearance indefinitely. He is said to have submitted specimens of his work to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who thought well of the discovery and offered to purchase it. The physician refused the offer, and while he waited for a higher bid died, either suddenly or after a very short illness. He never revealed his process and his secret was buried with him.

The traveler who is curious to look up the specimens of Segato’s work, which are in St. Mary’s Hospital in charge of one Dr. Stanislao Bianchi, is amazed to find them very different from what he has been led to expect by the accounts he has received of them. The “table” is oval, of what looks like mahogany; it is about eighteen inches long by twelve wide, and consists of a top only; it has no appearance whatever of ever having had a pedestal. The human petrifications on it consist of thin and small sections or slices about one-sixty-fourth of an inch thick, which are veneered upon it. Some are diamond shaped, some oval, others square, with surfaces like fine-grained wood, all arranged in a symmetrical rectangular oblong design; there is a border around it, presenting at first sight the appearance of a checker board. Some of these veneers, by the effects of dampness, have become detached; one or two have fallen off altogether.

Professor Bianchi pointed out that these veneers were small bits of organisms of the human body such as the loins, kidneys, liver, spleen, lungs, skin, all of natural color, and that probably, in order to get them of small size, they had been taken from boys’ cadavers. There were, however, no human eyes in the border or anywhere else. Dr. Bianchi showed other specimens of Segato’s process—a female scalp of perfectly natural color, with long flowing hair attached; a woman’s breasts, fair and white, perfectly life-like. These preserved parts were not hard and stony to the touch, as though actually petrified, but were like pasteboard in thickness and firmness. It seems fair to conclude that the veneered pieces on the table had similar texture. Other specimens, including fishes, reptiles, human hands, and feet subjected to the same process seemed much firmer. The officers of the hospital evince far less interest than might have been expected in these curious articles in their care, and further investigation must be looked for to assure us of what importance the discovery may prove to science. Daily Inter Ocean [Chicago, IL] 20 April 20 1889: Vol. XVIII, Issue 27, Part 2, p. 11

Despite the detail, this account seemed completely improbable to me. The newspapers of the 1870s and 1880s were noted for their interest in petrified corpse stories. Even if such macabre mobili had existed, surely they had been “ground to pieces by violence” or by time.

But the internet is a wonderful thing. Today you can see, at this online museum, Professor Segato’s astonishing and disturbing handiworks.  [site is in Italian.]

If you have any interest in a more detailed analysis, see “An anencephalus foetus petrified by Gerolamo Segato (1792-1836),” R. Ciranni, G. Fornaciari, V. Nardini, D. Caramella in Med Secoli. 2008;20(1):7-17. It is fascinating to note that, despite radiography, CT scans, 3-D reconstruction and virtual endoscopy, Professor Segato’s method of petrification is still a mystery.

His grave, in Santa Croce Church, Florence, bears an epitaph that translates loosely as “Here lies Girolamo Segato—who would be intact, petrified, if the secret of his art had not died with him.”

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

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

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.