The Corpse Stiffed the Barber: 1892

Antique straight razor from http://antiquescientifica.com/catalog14.htm
Antique straight razor from http://antiquescientifica.com/catalog14.htm

HE DIED IN THE CHAIR

And Got Very Much the Best of the Barber.

Wanted a Funeral Shave, and Went For It Himself.

An Arizona Story, Which Need Have No Doubts Cast Upon Its Entire Authenticity.

[San Francisco Call.]

“Yes, I’ve shaved more than one corpse in my time,” said a Geary-street barber as the reporter sank into the luxury of the big velvet-cushioned chair and said, “shave.”

“Yes, and I’ve shaved more dead men than I ever got pay for,” said the barber, as he tucked in the towels about the reporter’s neck. “You know the price is $5 for scraping a ‘stiff.’ Well, I never got a cent for one ‘stiff’ that I handled once.

“Tell you about it? Well, if you really want to hear it, though it ain’t a pleasant story.

“It happened down in Arizona, where I had a shop. A tall, lean fellow, looking as pale as milk, came in one day and climbed up into the chair.

“I fixed the towels around him and put on the first dash of lather when in walks an old friend who wanted to pay a bill.

“’Are you in a hurry, sir?’ I asked the big man in the chair. He said he was not in a tone that sounded like a funeral bell. So I talked with my friend who came in to pay the bill and went out to take a drink with him.

“When I came back something else happened that kept me from shaving the big fellow in the chair for fully fifteen or twenty minutes. But some other customers came in and I began to get a move on me. I only ran one chair in Arizona.

“I thought the stranger’s face was awfully cold and damp to the touch as I went about shaving him, now in dead earnest, for there were two waiting.

“I was feeling in a good humor and tried to be pleasant to the big fellow, talking about this and that and the other thing. But he never let on he heard a word I said.

‘Razor hurt, mister?’ I asked him as I always ask everybody, for sometimes, you know, the razor may be a little dull and me not know it.

“Well, the stranger never answered a word.

“Shampoo, sir?’ I says.

“He never let on he heard me.

“I tried him again: ‘Hair trimmed a little?’

“No answer.

“’Bad weather we’re having,’ I said after a pause, but he never said a word.

“Thinks I, ‘he’s a mute, I guess,’ but I didn’t think twice about it, for when a man wants a quiet shave and he’ll only say so, I never bother him. So I went to shaving and talking to the other customers who were waiting their turns and never said ‘beans’ to the tall stranger under me.

“Well, I got the job done, and bay-rummed, washed and dried him and had put the powder on his face. Then I waited for him to get up so I could comb his hair.

“But he never budged.

“I knew he hadn’t gone to sleep, for his eyes were wide open and he was staring at the ceiling. I thought he must be an awful jay not to know enough to raise his head up to get his hair combed.

“’Rise up, please,’ I said.

“But he didn’t rise for a cent.

“Then I got frightened and remembered how cold his face was. ‘Hello,’ I said, ‘he’s’ fainted!’

“I dashed a cup of water in his face, but it didn’t bring him round.

“Then I sent after the doctor, who had his office right across the street, meanwhile leaving him, just as he was in the chair.

“”Why,’ said the doctor when he got out there, ‘that’s my patient. Not more than an hour ago I told him I couldn’t save him and he’d be liable to die any moment. It’s that fellow Rocks who struck the big lead last week and got a ball in him for trying to jump “Fatty’s” claim. I couldn’t get the bullet out, and I told him so.’

“Maybe you can imagine how I felt when I heard that I had been shaving a dead man. I was young in the business then and had never struck that kind of a job before.

“’Yes,’ said the doctor, ‘Rocks has been dead for the last half hour. He must have  given up the ghost right after he got into the chair, for he’s getting stiff now.’

“And what do you suppose brought that living-dead man into my shop. He came over to get shaved while he was alive so it would only cost him two bits. He knew he was going to kick right off, and the idea of his heirs paying $5 for a shave went against his grain. And you’d believe this if you knew old Rocks. He was the closest and tightest man in Arizona.

“No, I never got a cent for that job. I wouldn’t take the two bits the heirs offered me and they kicked about paying the regular fee.”

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 24 September 1892: p. 10

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The barber who shaved the dead was a mortuary service-person little remembered today. The subject seemed to titillate journalists of the nineteenth century, as stories about “Dead Man’s Razor,” involving secret journeys to shave the faces of dead ladies and odd requests from relatives about facial hair stylings, were commonplace in Victorian papers. Some barbers had custom razors made with a skull-and-crossbones moulded into the handle so they would not use that razor on a living man. All of the barbers interviewed in the press emphasised the lucrative aspects of the funerary trade: $5 for a corpse as opposed to 50 cents for the living, hence the barber’s chagrin at being “stiffed.”

There is more on “dead men’s razors” as well as undertakers, grave-diggers, and shroud-makers in The Victorian Book of the Dead.

 

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.

Fiends for a Funeral: The Amateur Mourners

mourning print widow by grave 1846
Mourning Print, 1846, complete with swooning mourner.

In the 19th-century press there was a slight, but revealing collection of stories about funeral fanciers. These were mourners without portfolio, who attended funerals merely for the fun of the thing. As this fashionable undertaker reports, they do not seem to be ghouls, but are generally sympathetic souls.

FASCINATED BY FUNERALS

People Who Are Mourners Regularly, and Find Comfort in so Being.

[New York Sun.]

“Do you see that nice-looking little old lady over by the stained window?” asked a fashionable undertaker of the reporter. “I mean the quaint, respectable-looking little personage, with the black satin dress and the black crape shawl.”

The reporter saw her.

“Well,” continued the undertaker, with an appreciative smile, “she’s as fine a regular attendant as any establishment in this city can produce. I send her an invitation to all my nice funerals, and I have sometimes sent a carriage for her when I knew mourners would be scarce. She is never really happy unless she is at a funeral. She won’t touch weddings, as most women will; her sole amusement, so to speak, is a first-class funeral;” and the undertaker looked over to the old lady with a tender professional interest.

“I have some other nice people on my list,” he went on. “One of my most graceful mourners live in Forty-eight street, and seldom gets down this way, but she hardly ever passes a day without a funeral, and I never saw her at one when she couldn’t’ shed tears with the best of them. She’s one of the heart-brokenest ladies I ever had for a ‘regular.’ Does she really feel badly? Well, I should say she did, most decidedly. She always has a word to say to the family, if she thinks they need comforting, and is very careful to learn all the particulars. Why, she can tell me all the details about some of my own funerals that I had forgotten years ago. She’s as good as a set of books.

“Oh, no, there’s nothing hysterical about these cases at all. I’ve got some men that do just the same thing. There is one now. He’s a curious customer. I sometimes lose sight of him for six month, and then all of a sudden he’ll turn up and not miss a funeral. Of course, I couldn’t ask the women folks why they came, but I asked him one day. He said he couldn’t describe exactly the kind of feeling it gave him, but he thought it sort of quieted his mind and soothed his feelings like. He made one remark about it that I never could quite get the hang of, though I dare say it had a certain sort of meaning for him. He said, ‘ I haven’t got any friends at all myself, and so I like to go to funerals.’ A lady volunteered almost the same kind of remark to me once after she had been to four or five of my best funerals. She said, ‘It makes me feel kind of friendly, you know, and then they are kind to me, and, besides, I feel afraid and solemn, and it always does me good.’

“I think it would be unjust to call it mere curiosity that brings them here, though I have noticed that some of these people watch every detail with the most intense curiosity. They seem fascinated by the presence of death, and their sympathies are moved by the grief of the living. You might think they were very solemn people but the contrary is the case. Some of them are remarkably cheerful, in fact. That little old lady is always very pleasant and vivacious after the ceremony is over. She always comes up and shakes hands with me and is as agreeable a person as one would wish to meet.

“There’s an unusually lively and pleasant gentleman living in the Ninth Ward who occasionally drops in at my funerals. He does not make it a point to go to them, but, as he says himself, he can never get past them. He told me he was obliged to go in; no matter how important business might be, he would forget all about it as soon as he saw the hearse and carriages. The first time I saw him at a funeral I thought he was certainly one of the nearest relatives. He is a very large, round-faced, benevolent-looking gentleman, that would be observed in any crowed. On this occasion, after he had looked at the deceased person for a few moments, he became greatly overcome with emotion, and someone led him to a chair. Each one of the mourners supposed, of course, that he was known to the others. He wept throughout the discourse, and after it was over shook hands all around with the mourners, and showed a good deal of fervent, and, I have no doubt, genuine sympathy. I did not know until some time after that he was a dummy—that’s the name we sometimes call them by. This man is really as jolly a fellow as you ever met, and they say he has been requested to leave theaters more than once, in case he would not subdue a particularly substantial laugh which he possessed. In fact, most of these people who love to go to funerals are good-hearted people. It is not true, as has sometime been said, that they are touched a little in the head. The fact seems to be that they are emotional and sympathetic, and are strongly affected by any awe-inspiring scene. Even young girls and boys have now and then a fancy for funerals, though none of them can say why. Most of them say it makes them feel better, but if you ask where or how, they cannot say. They all watch everything as though in a sort of a dream.

One of my best hearse drivers used, as a boy, to be a regular attendant at funerals. One day he came around to my stable and asked if he might help us. I let him do so, and after a while he used to take a hand regularly in keeping the hearse in order. When he got old enough to go to work his father had to bring him to me—he wouldn’t work any-where else. If you ask him why he likes this business, he’ll tell you he don’t know.”

A slim, middle-aged man here addressed the undertaker, and was received by that personage in a most friendly manner. The slim man suggested that there might be some way he could be of use before the services were done.

“Now, there’s a man,” said the undertaker, “who is interested only in the mechanical part of the business. He goes to almost all my funerals, but seems to feel no special sorrow or sympathy. His whole mind is taken up with the conduct of the funeral. To suit him, the business must be done with the most solemn exactitude. He said to me the other day that if he could only once have complete charge of a large funeral he would be happy for the rest of his life.”

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 25 August 1883: p. 11

Mrs Daffodil has also posted about “Fiends for a Funeral.”

Moving beyond the amateurs de deuil, there were also hired professional mourners (some cities had mourners’ unions!) and, of course, con-men–and con-women, who followed the coffin.

AT MANY FUNERALS

When Arrested She Wails Some More and Borrows From Judge.

LIVED OFF HER TEARS

Wore Reversible Coat With Gray Inside to Turn When Work Was Done.

It will be some time before Clara Howell, professional mourner and weeper at funerals, will be back at her vocation again. She has been arrested by Policeman Burdette and was released by Justice Gavin on her promise to go to Littleton, where she has relatives, and remain there. Incidentally she “touched” the justice for 25 cents to pay her fare out of the city.

Clara Howell continually wears a black scarf, which extends over her head and under her chin. She never has been seen on the street or at funerals without it.

She was arrested at Miller’s undertaking establishment, Seventeenth and Curtis streets, by Burdette, who had been watching her.

She has been in the habit of begging, says the policeman, and never overlooks a chance to ask for money. But it in the role of professional mourner that she shines.

Slipping quietly into an undertaking chapel or even a private home where funeral services are being conducted she would take a seat and begin to weep. Naturally some of the relatives of the deceased person would be anxious to learn the identity of the mourner and in many cases would address her, whereupon the disconsolate one invariably would say that she was acquainted with the departed one and incidentally call attention to her own poverty.

On such occasions it was easy to beg or borrow and, in this manner, Clara Howell succeeded in “getting the coin.”

The woman wears a reversible coat, one side being black, for mourning purposes, and the other gray, for street wear.

Policeman Burdette received many complaints concerning the woman from undertakers and finally decided to arrest her on a charge of vagrancy.

The Denver [CO] Post 8 March 1910: p. 6

Shirley Jackson has written about 1960s funeral fanciers who were in it for the food following the obsequies.  I have heard from a woman who lives in Manhattan, that there is an entire class of women who scan the obituaries for women’s funerals. Then they attend and condole with the bereaved husband, pretending to be a good friend of the deceased wife. Object: matrimony with the hapless widower.  Apparently these women recognize that there is a limited window of opportunity in which to snap up the grieving male before he is captured by some casserole-toting neighbor.

Are you a fiend for a funeral? Did you meet your spouse at a wake? Put on an expression of genuine sympathy and send to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Similar (and more bizarre) stories are found in my book: The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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 Lost Art of the Coffin Threat


miniature coffinhttp://www.c2coffer.com/buy/10011939/DOLLHOUSE-MINIATURE-LINED-COFFINCASKET-WOOOD-NEW!.html

As I was researching The Victorian Book of the Dead, I ran across the now-forgotten art of the crape threat. The hanging of crape on the door was a well-known and terrifying symbol for death in a household. Some pranksters used crape to taunt or to tease—a young barber’s friends hung crape on his shop while he was away, as an unfunny practical joke, terrifying his sweetheart. One jilted suitor stole crape from another house and nailed it to the door of the woman he had hoped to marry. Crape was also a deadly serious threat, used, for example, in the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, where the wife of a non-union miner was threatened with rocks and bullets through her window and crape on the doorknob.

In a similar vein we find the miniature coffin threat, a much subtler method of intimidation than waving a gun in someone’s face. While small coffins were sometimes used in student or fraternal organization ceremonies, and to symbolize dashed hopes or wishes for an opponent’s demise in political parades, generally if you found a miniature coffin in the mail or on your doorstep, you were in very real trouble.

THREAT

CONTENTS OF NOTE

Miniature Coffins and Threat leads To Two Deaths in Anderson

Anderson, July 16. What is supposed to have caused the killing of T.F. Ramey and Tom Hayes, and caused the arrest of Barney Ramey, the 18-year-old son of Tom F. Ramey, and W.L. Hayes, Ed Wilson, George L. Wilson and Allen Emerson, is a small coffin-like box, a crude, but effective imitation of a model coffin in which a note was left. The box and the note were left on the doorstep of Sante Bagwell, a relative of the dead man, Ramey.

What the note contained has been a matter of speculation and the Daily Mail has received a copy of the note as it was found in the coffin.

Sante Bagwell: We want to give you some straight business talk. You know the kind of house you are keeping and the trouble you are causing in the neighborhood and in families and we have stood for it as long as we are going to. This thing has been due six months. There are fifty men who say they will see a better neighborhood. You can get out, or be took out. The Abbeville [SC] Press and Banner 20 July 1921: p. 3

Angry that Tom Ramey had accused them of sending the coffin, Tom Hayes and four other men came to the Ramey home and began beating him. Mrs. Ramey begged them to stop and when one of the men went to hit her, son Barney Ramey shot Tom Hayes and killed him. Ramey was also shot by one of the intruders and died the next day. The men boasted to Mrs. Ramey that they had money and connections so that the law couldn’t touch them. Barney Ramey was arrested for shooting Hayes, but was acquitted after just 22 minutes’ deliberation. Incidentally, although I assumed that most of the coffins I read about were inch-to-foot scale—dollhouse size–in this case, the “miniature” coffin was 18 inches long.

In this next story, whether or not Mrs Glazier really was cuckolding her husband, the coffin  (the story is ambiguous as to whether it was a full-sized one or a miniature) was a heartless taunt, much as a gangster might send a wreath to a rival to say, “I’m gunning for you.”

A FATAL JOKE

A Wife’s Paramour Sends a Coffin to the Husband, Which Causes His Death.

[Boston Spec. to North American.]

A weird story of a coffin and the delirium it caused the invalid, for whose remains it was intended, comes from the town of Ipswich. Payson Glazier and his wife, with their two children, lived in Linebrook, near Ipswitch. Aaron Sanborn is a neighbor whose attentions to Mrs. Glazier have created more or less talk. A few weeks ago tomorrow there arrived at the Glazier house a coffin bearing a silver plate marked with the name Payson Glazier. The latter at that time was in perfect health. Mr. Glazier destroyed the coffin by smashing it with an ax and reported that Sanborn was responsible for the ghastly joke, if joke it was.

Glazier betrayed the utmost uneasiness over the episode, and when he fell sick with what was called typhoid fever his ravings were all about the coffin. He imagined that the coffin had some connection with his sickness. The other day he died, raving to the end about the coffin. Mrs. Glazier continues to receive and apparently to encourage the attentions of Sanborn, who has a wife living. There is some talk of Glazier having been poisoned, but no evidence to show it. Sanborn refuses to talk about the coffin, and Ipswich is discussing the sensation from all points of view. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 4 May 1890: p. 17

Our Friends, the Cranks, also contributed coffin threats when their world views deemed them necessary.

 FINDS COFFIN MODEL IN MAIL

Military Secretary at Denver Startled by Package from Crank

Denver, Colo. Nov. 7. When Lieutenant Colonel Thomas F. Davis, military secretary of the department of the Colorado, United States army, opened his mail a few days ago he came across a large brown registered envelope, sent from Cripple Creek, and addressed to the army headquarters, Denver. It weighed perhaps half a pound.

The colonel opened it hurriedly and then jumped. For out of the envelope fell the model of a coffin, cut from a cigar box, and covered with black satin which had been cut and pasted on with mucilage.

The coffin was written over with strange devices and a couple of sheets of writing paper, scrawled over from top to bottom with daggers and skulls and cross-bones. Visions of bombs like Jacob Schiff got and of the Black Hand and of the Ku-Klux clans flitted across his brain as he rang for an orderly and a pail of water. [An “infernal machine” had been mailed in September to Jacob Schiff, an American financier. The package was stolen from a mailbox by a boy, so the plot was foiled.]

Further examination proved the package to be less dangerous than it looked. The writing was unsigned, and accepting that the package was sent from Cripple Creek, there was nothing to show who or what the sender was. The greater part of the writing was unintelligible, although here and there enough could be made out to show that the writer, evidently insane, had a fancied grievance against the army, and was threatening it with annihilation. The coffin, he explained, was sent to hold the general staff when he got through with them.

Colonel Davis returned the package to the postal authorities, marking on the cover, “Not intended for army headquarters,” and coffin and all are now in possession of the registry department. Post office inspectors are making an investigation of the affair. The sender is believed to be a harmless crank, although the orderlies at headquarters have received instructions to take no chances with queer looking individuals who visit headquarters in the next few weeks. Omaha [NE] World Herald 8 November 1906: p. 6

Voudou was a popular and exotic subject for late-19th-century newspaper stories, both fictional and non-fictional, so readers would have had a nodding acquaintance with fetish charms and spells.  Keep in mind that the journalists of this period were far from politically correct; the characterization of the “ignorant negro,” is, sadly, too often found in stories of African Americans and anomalies.

AN EMBLEM OF DEATH

A Miniature Coffin, Containing the Image of a Man, Found Under Strange Circumstances—Voudouism or Kuklux?

There still remains a relic of barbarism among the colored population of this city, which time and religion can only exterminate—a firm belief in fetish charms and obi. [obeah]. By the strange combination of toe nails, claws, intestines, hair and the like, the ignorant negro firmly believes that he can place an enemy under the spell of voudouism, or by having the “obi” on their person, like Achilles, they are invulnerable. Old negroes, men and women, that make voudouism a business, are looked upon by their race with awe, and their behests, no matter how preposterous, are implicitly obeyed, for fear of coming under the evil eye. At about one o’clock Friday morning, a strange and mysterious thing was found at the door of P. Dufour’s undertaking establishment, on Royal street, near St. Philip, which can be construed into an attempt at

A Fetish Spell,

Although were it in the country, and Mr. Dufour a carpet-bagging official, the circumstance would be termed “intimidation by the kuklux.”

At the hour above mentioned, Sergeant Baveroft, of the Third Precinct, noticed a candle dimly burning on the doorsteps of Mr. Dufour’s store, and thinking some of the night hawks were at work, the Sergt. Grasped his revolver and stealthily approached the spot. As he neared the place a strong gust of wind extinguished the candle, which had the effect of convincing the sergeant that it was indeed burglars plying their avocation. With a bound he jumped on the step, and by the expiring spark of a wax candle, to his horror, he saw

A Tiny Coffin,

Fringed around with black; the lid slightly pushed back, exhibited the image of a man made of some kind of red material.

Brought face to face with death in miniature, the Sergeant, no matter what his feelings were, exhibited no emotion but quietly raised the coffin and carried it to the Third Precinct Station.

An examination showed that the image was surrounded by a powder emitting a very pungent odor, which upon being inhaled by the curious officers caused them to feel as if the hand of sleep was gently pressing down their eyelids. Who put it there, or who went to the expense of money and labor to make this strange present, and what was the object, is yet a mystery, as no person for several hours previous had been seen in the vicinity. New Orleans [LA] Times 20 February 1875: p. 3

Does anyone more well-versed in Voudou ritual than I know the meaning of the red figure and the soporific powder?

Of course, such spells might backfire.

A St. Louis negro woman, arraigned in a police court for assailing her husband, proved that he had made a miniature coffin and inscribed it with her name, that being the voudoo mode of consigning her to the devil. She argued that such an outrage justified her in chastising him. The Daily Astorian [Astoria, OR] 20 April 1879: p. 3

While the target of the coffin found by the New Orleans police officer was a mystery, usually the point was clear to the recipient. There are frequent reports in the papers and in Congressional hearings about African Americans terrorized by coffins containing miniature nooses left on their property by the Klan or similar groups who made it clear what the consequences would be if the families did not clear out.

NEGRO IS WARNED BY COFFIN, NOTE

Monroe County Resident Told to Leave Community, He Reports to Police.

A sinister warning, composed of a note ordering him to “leave Georgia,” placed in a miniature wooden coffin, sent an excited Monroe county Negro to Macon police authorities Saturday afternoon.

The Negro, Whitman James, 52, lives near Montpelier Springs, about 17 miles from Macon.

James said he awoke at daylight to find the small coffin on his front porch in front of the door. On top of the coffin was the following message, written with pencil on tablet paper:

“Warning (printed in large letters across the top.) This is your warning to leave Georgia by Saturday. Your boys must go to. Or suffer.”

The small coffin had been expertly made. [Were these available commercially? Did you just walk into the undertaker’s showroom and ask for one? Was this a home crafts project for the kiddies?] It was of plain board, in an oblong shape, and had been lined inside much in the manner of regular coffins. It was about two feet long and about six inches wide in the widest part.

Enemies Unknown.

James hoped that the Macon police could examine the coffin and find its maker through fingerprints, but when it was learned that the coffin had been handled by many persons, Chief Ben T. Watkins shook his head doubtfully.

The chief held hope, however, that the hand writing would prove an important clew…

The Negro said that he “hadn’t done nothin’ wrong” in his whole life of 52 years, spent in the Montpelier Springs community, and did not know of any enemies.

He said he heard the clock “strike every hour” Friday night, and didn’t look forward to sleeping soundly Saturday night. He did not intend to leave the community if he had to stand guard every night with a gun, he said. Macon [GA] Telegraph 8 January 1933: p. 10

A high-profile example comes from 1915, when the family of Governor Charles Whitman of Rhode Island was sent letters threatening the kidnap and murder of the Whitman baby and packages containing daggers and miniature coffins with plates bearing the names of the Governor and his wife, one containing a message saying that they would soon need a full-sized coffin. As District Attorney, Whitman successfully prosecuted a New York City Police Lieutenant named Becker for the murder of Herman Rosenthal, a gambling house operator. While Governor, Whitman signed Becker’s death warrant and saw him executed. Becker’s supporters sent the threats and coffins when Whitman refused to stop the execution. [See Mike Dash, Satan’s Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, and New York’s Trial of the Century (Reprint, New York: Three Rivers Press, 2008).]

Jilted lovers also used the miniature coffin for spite or revenge.

DOLL POPPED FROM MINIATURE COFFIN

Washington, Jan. 7 A miniature coffin is not considered an acceptable Christmas gift for a young lady nor an attractive addition to Christmas tree decorations, according to the Rev. Harry Spencer, pastor of the Congress Heights Methodist Episcopal church, who today swore out a warrant for the arrest of Byron Sutherland.

Mr. Sutherland is charged with breaking up the recent Sunday School Christmas tree party by mixing in with the other gifts this gruesome donation, which, it is alleged, he had addressed to Miss Elizabeth Spalding, a pretty teacher in the Sunday school.

Sutherland denied that he was the sender, but Mr. Spencer has the word of the messenger who brought it to the church.

Miss Spalding unwrapped a large package which had the appearance of being a dozen long-stemmed roses, but, instead of roses, a two-foot coffin greeted her eye. When she lifted the cover a rubber doll leaped out. Columbus [GA] Daily Enquirer 8 January 1911: p. 5

Is it just my perverse imagination that sketches an entire lurid backstory for Mr. Sutherland and Miss Spalding involving furtive meetings, tearful recriminations, and criminal operations?

Other examples of threats with miniature coffins? And what, if any, relationship is there between coffin threats and the so-called “fairy coffins” of Edinburgh’s Arthur’s Seat? Enclose answers in a tiny Fisk patent burial case and send to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.  You can read more about the art of crape threats in The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available for Kindle.

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

The Death Bell: 1866

Munich Leichenhaus
The Munich Leichenhaus or Waiting Mortuary, meant to prevent burial alive.

In some parts of Germany, such is the general dread of being buried alive that a system of precaution against this premature act is in vogue, by which more than one person has been restored to life and friends after being mourned for dead. The plan is, for the corpse to be placed in a comfortable apartment, with face uncovered, and with a cord or wire attached to the hands in such a manner that the slightest movement will cause the tinkling of a little bell in an adjoining apartment where some one is always on the watch till there are either signs of life or decomposition, to give the assurance of hopeless death. This custom has led to some striking scenes and curious revelations; and one of the most remarkable of these we are now about to put on record, as we received it, not long since, from the lips of the narrator:

“I had two bosom companions, and we three were nearly always together when our circumstances would permit. We were not alike in scarcely any particular, and for this reason, perhaps, we liked each other all the better. We differed on nearly every point in science, art, literature, philosophy, and religion, and argued every point we differed on.

“On one thing, however, we did agree, and that was, the possibility of being buried alive and the unutterable horror which must attend the subsequent consciousness of the fact. So, in health, we solemnly pledged ourselves, that if within reach of one another at the time of the supposed decease of either, the living should faithfully watch by the senseless form till the return of life or the certainty of death.

“My young friend, Adolph Hofer, was the first to go. He was a believer in the immortality of the soul, and the identity of the spirit with that occupying the mortal tenement. Of course we made our arrangements for watching the corpse according to our compact, but without the slightest hope of ever seeing another spark of life in that loved form.

“It was on the second night after the death of Hofer that Carl and I were sitting in an adjoining apartment conversing about the deceased and his religious belief. We had attached a small cord to the fingers of the corpse, and connected it to a little bell close to us, so that we could be warned of any movement, without being obliged to remain beside the body, which, for various reasons, would not have been agreeable to us.

“If Adolphe’s ideas in regard to the future state are correct,’ observed Carl, in the course of his remarks, ‘there is no certainty that he may now be with us, even in this room.’

“Yes,” returned I, “ if they are correct, Which I do not believe. When a man dies, he is dead, at least so far as this world is concerned.”

“That is your opinion, Jules,” said Carl; “but opinions don’t make facts.”

“It may fairly be presumed they are based on facts, when they cannot be reasonably controverted. If man exists after death as a roving spirit, give me some evidence of it, and then ask me to believe.”

“And what about ghosts?” said Carl, who was both skeptical and superstitious—and he glanced furtively and timidly around the room as he spoke, as if he expected to encounter some fearful apparition.

“Bah!” exclaimed I, contemptuously, “you know my opinion of ghosts and hobgoblins— that they have no existence except in the brains of timid fools.”

“At this moment we heard, or rather fancied we heard, a strange noise in the adjoining apartment.

“What is it?” inquired Carl, in a timid whisper.

“Nothing,” replied I, rousing myself, with a full determination to shake off what I conceived to be foolish fancy. “Are we men or children, to get frightened at the noise of a rat?”

“Hush! hark! I hear something still,” whispered Carl, now fairly trembling with fear.

“Then, if there is anything, we must know what it is!” said I, as I rose and took up the light for the purpose of going to look at the corpse. “Will you accompany me, or shall I go alone?”

“Carl Heilsten slowly and silently arose, as one who felt called upon to perform a fearful duty; but scarcely had he got on his feet, when the little bell connected with the dead was rung violently.

“My nervous system never received such a shock before or since. It seemed for the moment as if I was paralyzed. The light dropped from my hand and was extinguished, and great beads of perspiration stood all over me.

“But I remained inactive only for the time it would take one to count ten. Reasoning that my friend had come to life, and needed immediate assistance, I hastily procured another light; and merely glancing at Carl, who had fallen back upon his seat, white and helpless from his sudden fright, I rushed into the apartment of the corpse, expecting to find Andolphe living, if not actually sitting up or standing.

“To my utter astonishment, however, I found only the dead form of my friend— cold, rigid, motionless. There was such an inflexible look of death on his features, that I could not believe there was a single spark of life in the body, and a close examination of lips and heart proved there was none in reality. And yet the hands had been moved, and were drawn to one side, but rather as if jerked there by the bed-cord, which was hanging somewhat loose, than as if stirred by any internal power.

“But what had moved the hands and rung the bell? This was the startling mystery. The room was not large, and contained no great amount of furniture, and was easily searched. I had just passed the light under the bed and around and behind everything, when Carl, appeared at the door, pale, trembling, and covered with a cold, clammy perspiration.

“Is he alive?” he rather gasped than said.

“No,” I replied, “nor has there been any life in him since his breath went out.”

“Merciful God!” he ejaculatd, nervously grasping a chair for support—”what rung the bell, then.”

“That is the mystery I am trying to solve,” said I “It is possible there may be some person concealed here.”

“I cautiously opened the door of a long, deep closet as I spoke, in which hung the clothes of the deceased, and went in and examined it thoroughly. No other human being was there, and nothing had been disturbed. There was no outlet to the room except the door communicating with the apartment in which we had been watching, and two windows looking out upon a lawn, and the sashes were closed and the curtains drawn. showing no signs of recent disturbance. I then re-examined the room, and particularly the bed, but without making any new discovery.

“This is all very strange!” said I, half musingly, and looking inquiringly at Carl— “very strange indeed!”

“It must have been something supernatural!” he replied, in a hollow whisper, and moving over to the chest in the corner, he sank down upon it.

“As he did so, the sharp click of the spring lock caused him to bound up as if shot. For a moment or two he stood trembling, and then said with more nerve:

“I believe I am a cowardly fool, to be scared at everything! I do not fear anything human, though,” he added, “but this unearthly business unmans me.”

“I now re-examined the corpse, to be sure there were no sign of life in it, and found not only death there, but the beginning of decomposition. Perfectly assured of this, we went into the other apartment, and sat down, to watch through the remainder of the night and ponder the mystery. Scarcely were we seated before we fancied we heard dull, muffled sounds in the dead room, followed by something like a smothered human groan. Carl’s teeth now fairly chartered with terror, and I confess I never felt less courageous in my life. These strange noises only continued for a short time, then gradually died away into silence, after which we were disturbed no more.

“In the course of time our friend was buried, and some time after the funeral we proceeded to open his strong box or chest, according to his direction. Then it was that our supernatural mystery had a natural but horrible explanation:

In that chest was the black and decaying corpse of one whom we had known in life !

“The following is our conjecture:

“Cognizant of Adolphe Hofer’s money and jewels, of their place of deposit, and of our mode of watching the dead, he had, on that eventful night, entered the dead-room through a window, at an early hour, and concealed himself in the closet till midnight; and then set about his work of robbery. Some accidental noise having alarmed us, as he could tell from our conversation, he had either in his haste to secrete himself, or intentionally to frighten us still more, rung the bell in the manner stated, and then got into the chest, which had a powerful spring-lock. My friend Carl, by accidentally sitting down on this, had sealed his doom; and his subsequent groans, and terrible efforts to burst from his narrow prison, were the strange noises which had so disturbed us the second time. The man’s death was a fearful retribution, and the discovery of his dead body spoiled an otherwise wonderful ghost story.

The Vincennes [IN] Weekly Western Sun 3 November 1866

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: While deploring their corseted officers and their penchant for invading Belgium and France, Mrs Daffodil must express guarded admiration for Germany’s zeal to ensure that no mistakes—such as burial alive—occur to deplete the ranks of the Fatherland’s citizenry. The London-based Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial was equally complimentary, saying that Germany and Austria were the only countries to take the peril of premature interment seriously. In point of fact, there seem to be no records of corpses actually reviving in the so-called “Waiting Mortuaries,” or “Totenhaus,” although the gases of decomposition stirred many a false alarm, but it is the thought that counts.

mortuary chamber Munich Death Waiting Mortuary 1897

For more tales of the grim and grewsome, see The Victorian Book of the Dead, available on Amazon and for Kindle.

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

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

 

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

Death Masks

very nasty oliver messel skull mask
Death Masks, Skull mask, c. 1920-29, Oliver Messel http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O126783/masks-costume-messel-oliver-hilary/

I remember with loathing the plastic or rubber masks of my childhood Halloweens. The eye-holes never lined up, leaving the wearer blind, and the materials were thin enough that, if the nose wasn’t adjusted just so, the brittle plastic or clammy rubber would get sucked onto the face to the point of suffocation. Very dispiriting for young Halloween pleasure-seekers.

So, scarred by that autumnal trauma, I bring you grim tales of death masks—not of the cast plaster faces of the noble dead, but of Halloween disguises that spoiled the fun.

Mask-related accidents like these were sadly common.

Hallowe’en Mask Cause of Death

Cambridge. Her vision obscured by a mask she was wearing home from a Hallowe’en party, Helen Hillyer, 11, was struck and killed by an automobile. Lancaster [OH] Eagle-Gazette 29 October 1926: p. 2

Just as with the Fourth of July, the casualties and fatalities of Hallowe’en were chronicled in the papers the day after. In stories of this kind, the mangling and bloody injuries were often lovingly dwelt on by the journalist, perhaps as cautionary tales.

MASK CAUSED CHILD’S DEATH

Blinded, She Stepped Before Car and Was Killed.

Was Playing Halloween Games With Companions.

Blinded by a mask which she was wearing while playing some Halloween games last night, Gertrude Bender, the seven-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Albert C. Bender of No. 512 St. Clair street ran in front of a St. Clair street car and was instantly killed.

The accident occurred in front of the little girl’s home, but her mother who was there did not know about it for some fifteen minutes. A number of neighbors finally told her. She is almost prostrated with grief.

Last night some fifteen children ranging in ages from six to twelve years were celebrating Halloween with games throwing corn and rapping on windows with tick tacks. Some of them finally bought some false faces at a near by store. It was while playing “blindman’s bluff,” that their little companion met her death.

She had started to run to a place of hiding and did not see the street car coming from the west because of the false face. The motorman tried to stop his car when it struck the little girl, but could not do so for over a hundred feet. He finally brought the car to a standstill in front of the little girl’s home and took the bleeding body from under the wheels. It was carried into the undertaking rooms of H. Beckenbaugh & Son at No. 512 St. Clair street where it was prepared for burial. It was found that the whole left side of her skull was fractured and the left leg broken above the ankle where the car wheel passed over it. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 1 November 1903: p. 17

HALLOWEEN FESTIVITY

Two Girls Were Instantly Killed Near Elizabeth, Pa.

Elizabeth, Pa., Oct. 31. Miss Maude Albon and Miss Agnes McGeary, aged 19 and 16 respectively, were instantly killed Friday night while en route to a Halloween festivity in the neighborhood by a Pittsburg, Virginia & Charleston train. The two girls, with Hilda McGeary, an elder sister of Agnes, had donned their Halloween masks in a spirit of fun and drove directly in front of the train, the masks interfering with their vision at the crossing.

Agnes McGeary was beheaded, her friend, Miss Albon, was badly mangled, and Hilda McGeary escaped unscathed. The Evening Bulletin [Maysville, KY] 31 October 1903: p. 1

Both pranksters and unmaskers might find themselves on the wrong side of the mask:

Quite a serious, if not fatal accident, occurred to A.J. Love, a young and promising student of the Normal School at Ada, O. At the school board-rooms Love put on a false face and entered the room of his fellow-student, John Stout, who, upon seeing the false face and ghost-like appearance of Love became frantically frightened, seized a chair and struck Love square across the eyes, breaking his nose and cutting his face frightfully. At present his face is badly swollen and he is lying unconscious. Repository [Canton OH] 16 April 1879: p. 1

PEEP MAY PROVE FATAL

Bridgeport Man Got Masculine Blow from Hallowe’en “Woman”

Norristown, Pa., Nov. 1 William Hesser, Jr., of Bridgeport, probably received fatal injuries in a Hallowe’en fight here last night.

It is said that Hesser attempted to raise the mask of what he supposed to be a girl because of the feminine attire, but a masculine arm shot out a blow that sent him on his head on the pavement.

The police are endeavouring to find his assailant. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 2 November 1903: p. 1

Some of the strangest death mask stories are not entirely related to the Hallowe’en season. Pranksters have always thought it funny to don sheets or hideous false faces, but, assuming these events occurred as described, there seems to have been a veritable massacre of the innocents via mask.

SCARED THE BABY TO DEATH

Muncy, Pa., Dispatch 26th.

Walter, the two-year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. William Priest, died to-day of convulsions, the result of a fright sustained last evening.

Seven-year-old Margaret Colley, a neighbor’s child, wearing a hideous false face, rushed into the room where Mr. and Mrs. Priest were playing with their baby, and when the little one caught sight of the frightful-looking face he shrieked with fright.

The immediate removal of the false face failed to pacify him in the least. Convulsions soon followed, continuing during the night and until noon to-day when the little one died. The Charlotte Observer 29 January 1897: p. 3

Although, which came first, the shock or untreatable meningitis?

FRIGHT MAY CAUSE DEATH

Hideous False Face Throws Baby Into Spasm and Spinal Disease.

Edward, the 16-months-old son of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Fisk, of Elgin, Ill., is critically ill of a spinal disease through to have been caused by extreme fright. The infant’s recovery is exceedingly doubtful.

The case is a peculiar one. Recently an eight-year-old lad, Harry Shaw, who is a friend of the Fisk family, concealed his face behind a hideous mask and abruptly entered the Fisk home. The infant was terribly frightened. He was thrown into convulsions, spasm following spasm. Later the spine became affected and the child has been in a semiconscious state ever since.

The attending physician, Dr. McCornack, fears that if the child lives he will be either an invalid or imbecile and perhaps both.

Young Shaw was in the habit of spending much time amusing his younger playmate. He had been calling upon older lads with the disguise and had derived great sport therefrom, and had no thought of the effect the hideous mask would have upon so young a child.

The Fisk child’s father is a member of the Elgin fire department. He has been given leave of absence from his duties and is in constant attendance upon the bedside of his sick child.

The mask causing such sad results was one of the most hideous affairs imaginable. It was flaming red, with long hooked nose, protruding chin and generally devilish expression. Grand Forks [ND] Daily Herald 1 March 1898: p. 3

Or possibly some insect-borne disease of the summer.

On a recent visit to the Maryland Hospital, we learned some particulars of a melancholy case of the loss of reason from sudden fright. The subject is a male child, about eight years of age, named John H. Frisbee, the son of a respectable widow lady residing at Fell’s Point, whose phrenological developments seem intended for the elaboration of elevated intellectual conceptions, and whose physiognomy is eminently qualified to give them that expression which the tongue cannot give. And yet the intellect of that noble looking child has been irremediably destroyed by some silly trifler with a false-face! by whom he was frightened some time last summer. The child, at the time, fell suddenly down, and for two weeks exhibited little or none of his former liveliness, and finally his mind gave way entirely, and though he was kept some time in the hospital, no cure could be effected, and he is now in the care of his mother, in a state compounded of idiocy and madness. Balt. Sun. The Adams Sentinel [Gettysburg, PA] 2 December 1839: p. 4

I’ve written before on people said to have been scared to death. Convulsions are often mentioned as the symptoms of a fatal shock or as the cause of death.

At Bowling Green, Kentucky, a short time since, Miss Rochester, daughter of W.H. Rochester, died of fright, occasioned by a rude boy having run after her on her way to school, with a mask or false face on him. She ran, in her fright, into a pond of water, whence she was carried to her father’s house, where—when nature was exhausted by frequent convulsive or apoplectic fits, she expired: aged 5 years and 5 months. Illinois Weekly State Journal [Springfield IL] 2 November 1833: p. 1

This mask prank led to a lawsuit.

Singular Suit for Damages. The case of David Elton vs. George L. Hughes came on for trial in the County Court at Pottsdam, Pa., on Monday 3d inst. It seems that Hughes, either to gratify a private pique, or for some mischief, procured a horrible looking mask and on a Sunday evening, when Miss Jane Eaton, plaintiff’s daughter, was returning, unattended, from conference, he appeared before her with this mask upon his face, which so frightened the young lady that she fell senseless to the earth; and it gave her nerves such a shock that she was confined to her room for several weeks, and at once time it was thought she could not survive. It was for the expense attendant upon the sickness of Miss Jane, and for her services during sickness, that plaintiff now sought redress. For the defence, it was contended that plaintiff had not made out his case, inasmuch as he had not proved that the mask was used by defendant for the express purpose of frightening plaintiff’s daughter. Defendant might have used the mask for his own amusement, and it was certainly not against the law for a man to put on a mask, if he was in such a humor. The jury, however, thought the defendant was too old a child to be amused by playing with a mask and gave plaintiff $200 damages—a very proper verdict. American and Commercial Daily Advertiser [Baltimore MD] 18 June 1839: p. 2

In this case, it sounds like the grieving father brought a civil suit for wrongful death.

WORE A HIDEOUS FALSE FACE

Strange Estate Left by a Farmer’s Child.

Republic Special.

Rochester, N.Y., Aug. 24. Letters of administration have been applied for by Thomas Partridge of Penfield on the state of his daughter Mary. The application states that the estate consists of an action for $10,000, which he is bringing against Mrs. Terrill of Penfield, on account of his daughter’s death. The story behind this peculiar litigation is this:

Mrs. Terrill is a neighbour of the Partridges and had shown an intense dislike for Mary Partridge, a child 10 years old. One day last December, it is claimed, that Mrs. Terrill put on a hideous false face and called at the home of the Partridges. Little Mary answered the bell, and as she opened the door Mrs. Terrill thrust her head, covered with the painted mask, toward the child and shrieked. “Now, I’ve got you. I will take you away.” Then she ran away to her own home. The child Mary fell to the floor in convulsions caused by fright and being delicate and of an extremely sensitive nature, she never recovered. The convulsions continued at intervals until her life was exhausted and she gradually wasted away. Her death occurred on July 30 last, from nervous exhaustion. The St. Louis [MO] Republic 26 August 1900: p. 15

I have not found the resolution of the case. Although young Mary was a long time dying from the fright, given the animus of Mrs. Terrill,  possibly Mr. Partridge would have had a good case for second-degree murder.

Several years ago I did a post on the macabre mirth of the vintage Hallowe’en. This was a star item:

KILLED BY PAPIER MACHE MASK

Paint Melted and Caused Girl’s Death by Blood Poisoning.

ORANGE, N.J., Nov. 13. Little Freda Henke, the fourteen-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Otto Henke of 24 Church Street, this city, is dead at her home as a result of blood poisoning contracted by wearing a papier mache mask at a Hallowe’en party she recently gave a number of her young friends.

At the party all the children wore masks, and there was much romping. The perspiration on the girl’s face melted the paint on the mask and this contaminated an abrasion on her upper lip. New York Times 14 November 1902.

There were numerous reports of children killed by poisonous dyes in candy. Those same toxic colors were used to dye decorations and color masks.

Poisoned by False Face

George Watkins of North Scranton, is in a serious condition at his home as the result of blood poisoning, sustained by wearing a Hallowe’en false face. Watkins was dressed in a fantastic garb Hallowe’en and as part of the disguise wore a paper false face. The mask became wet and the poisonous dye percolating through the paper soaked into the skin on his face. Wilkes-Barre [PA] Times 23 November 1906: p. 12

***

Goldie Wiggins, aged 4, daughter of George Wiggins, of 92 West Second Street, died last night at her parents’ home, the result of poisoning contracted Halloween night. The little one, while enjoying the festivities of the night in question, wore a mask. She ate an apple without removing the mask [??], and in so doing the supposition is that a portion of the coloring matter of the mask found its way into the child’s stomach. Despite the best of medical attention the child failed to rally, and death ensued. The parents of the child are prostrated over the affair. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 3 November 1903: p. 9

Today parenting magazines and police departments issue annual warnings about the perils of face-masks, and recommend face-painting as a safer substitute, although recently this mother had a warning about that as well.

This vintage case had a much worse outcome.

SATANIC MASK THE CAUSE OF DEATH

Society Girl Dies of Blood-poison Resulting from Use of Grease Paints.

Appleton, Wis., March 16. Word was received in Appleton today announcing the death in Chicago yesterday from blood poisoning of Miss Mary Schmidt, an instructor in chemistry in a Black Creek, Wis., school, who on Jan. 23 last, attended a leap year masquerade disguised as Satan and after the party was unable to remove the mask of home made grease paints.

The girl was kept at home for several weeks after the party and Outagamie and Calumet county physicians attempted to remove the paints. Later she was taken to Chicago for treatment. Duluth [MN] News-Tribune 15 March 1908: p. 1 and The Times Recorder [Zanesville OH] 17 March 1908: p. 2

A cautionary tale, indeed.

So don’t forget to vet those masks for visibility and that face-paint for purity.  I’ve given up the idea of going as Satan for trick-or-treat and will instead be causing panic in the neighborhood by flitting around in Victorian mourning attire as “Sexy Woman in Black.”

Other lethal holiday masks or pranks? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Death Masks The Woman in Black: Victorian widow's weeds, c. 1907. http://fashionmuseum.fitnyc.edu
Death Masks The Woman in Black: Victorian widow’s weeds, c. 1907. http://fashionmuseum.fitnyc.edu

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.

 

Tombstone Madness: A 19th Century Occupational Disease

Gothic entrance to Elmwood Cemetery 1886

Ghouls prowled the cemeteries of the 19th century, seeking corpses to unearth, sack, and sell to the anatomist. While our Victorian ancestors were terrified that they might be buried alive, they had an equally deep fear that their dead bodies would be resurrected, not on the Day of Judgment, but in the dead of night by the body snatchers.

To prevent this, graves were salted with explosives like the “coffin torpedo,” or bodies were held in vaults until they were too decayed for dissection. Sometimes heavy weights or cages (mortsafes) were placed over graves to discourage diggers. Family members took turns standing vigil over graves and many cemeteries had watchmen.

It was a thankless job. The ghouls at the head of their profession could open a grave, extract the corpse, and refill the soil in under an hour. A watchman had to be vigilant, walking the grounds of a cemetery in the dark, and in all weathers, for rain softened the ground and allowed for a quicker opening of a grave. Body snatchers might be armed and more than one watchman was murdered or exchanged gunfire among the tombstones. It was no wonder that, in the 1880s, a new occupational disease emerged.

TOMBSTONE MADNESS

A New Form of Mania that Affects People Who Guard Cemeteries.

[Philadelphia Times]

The men who patrol the cemeteries after the sun has gone down are armed with pistols and clubs, and are generally accompanied by trained and savage bloodhounds. In addition to these external and tangible means of defense they must be gifted with rare and peculiar mental organization. So many men have lost their reason through watching graves at night that person in that position have come to believe that they risk lapsing into a state of melancholia perfectly distinct form any other form of insanity. Sextons and grave-diggers call this affliction “tombstone madness.”

A startling realization of this fact was telegraphed throughout the country yesterday. It was announced that several of the soldiers who do sentry duty day and night at the tomb of Garfield, amid the dreary solitude of Lakeview Cemetery, near Cleveland, have become insane. Anything or any device is used by the men to get away from the ghostly muster of tombstones or the dark array of mounds.

An old watchman at Glenwood Cemetery explained this to a Times reporter yesterday by saying that in all probability the soldiers detailed at the grave were not picked.

Take half a dozen men from any walk of life,” he continued, “and place them at night to watch graveyards, and the chances are that in a short time five of the six will feel like retiring permanently to a lunatic asylum.

“If a man wants to enter this profession and be a success at it, he must be about as impressible as brick and mortar. If he has the least bit of imagination he had better abandon the business, for when the moon is obscured by clouds and he is walking about a cemetery, shivering from his heels upward, he will mistake tombstones for ghosts. He will think that the owls, as they whiz past his ears with their mournful hoots, are unquiet spirits come to haunt the receptacles of the bodies which they once permeated. When the noise of his footsteps makes the rats disappear with rustling sound into little thickets of evergreens he will start and grasp his weapon. The very whine of his dog will make him feel nervous, and bit by bit his reason would become impaired.”

“I could give you some sad reminiscences of people who watch graveyards,” said one of the oldest watchmen at Laurel Hill cemetery, in a strange, solemn tone. Then, half jestingly, he added: “But they’re buried in the past, and it’s my business to let what’s buried remain so.” He did not mind telling one story, however.

“I used to work in a Brooklyn cemetery before I came to this city,” he began. “It was then that the terrible scene I shall speak of occurred. We wanted an assistant night watchman very badly, but none of the persons who presented themselves could endure staying up with the graves for more than two or three nights each. At least there came an unfortunate man whose health seemed shattered by overwork and privation. It was his last venture. He had tried to get employment everywhere without result, and his wife and children were suffering. We took him on. I don’t think I shall ever forget his face the morning after his first night in the graveyard. He said he had endured unheard of agony, but was hopeful of getting over it in time. The following night was dark and windy. Rain came down in torrents, and there were flashes of lightning every few minutes. At about one o’clock the head watchman heard a loud cry; there was a sound of running feet, followed by the report of a pistol. A search was made, and the unfortunate man found lying on his back across a grave, dead. There was a small hole in his temple, and his own revolver, one barrel of which was empty, lay three feet away where he had flung it, imbedded in the ground. It was certain that some fearful creation of the imagination had so terrified him that he took his life to escape from it.”

When the old man had finished this narrative he was silent, with a vacant look, and allowed bright tears to chase each other down his cheek. Suddenly he made a brisk motion and forcibly forgot the subject of his narrative. “There are amusing things sometimes,” he said, speaking at first with an effort. “A short time ago a man was put to work at night in a cemetery not far from here. He strolled around in an affected, indifferent way, whistling tunes dear to his countrymen. In the course of his rambling he tumbled bodily into a newly-made grave and a lot of loose earth fell on him when he reached the bottom. He struggled wildly, and in about an hour and three-quarters managed to get out, screaming lustily that the devil had dug a grave and tried to bury him in it. With a single bound he cleared a four-foot fence, rolled down a forty-foot hill, and that’s the last of him, for no one about here ever set eyes on him again, dead or alive. He must have gone back to Ireland, for he wasn’t hurt at all. Some practical jokers once tried to scare a watchman, a friend of mine. It was immense fun—for the watchman. They got into the cemetery disguised as body-snatchers, and pretended to be opening graves. There were three individuals. One got seven buckshot in him, the second received five in his leg, and I forget what happened to the third. The only thing that is more dangerous than watching graves is robbing them.”

“What is it produces the dreadful melancholia?” asked the reporter.

The old man looked around him mysteriously and added, as he moved away: “I’m not a doctor nor a scholar, but I have my belief that it’s the miasma from the graves that poisons the blood and warps the brain. Just see, cool as it is this evening, the vapour is rising—rising.” And the old watchman pointed toward the setting sun, against which blazing background a filmy mist could be seen ascending from the ground like the genie from the fisherman’s box in the Arabian tale.  Texas Siftings [Austin, TX] 28 April 1883: p. 3

One could also perhaps point to exposure to the heavy metals used in embalming and coffins, insect-borne disease from that miasma, or to overindulgence in the warming flask sometimes employed to ward off the cold. The post of watchman may also have been a profession of last resort for those with few prospects.

Here is the story of a soldier who apparently had a breakdown while guarding the Cleveland grave of President Garfield. This was before the immense tomb we see today was finished. I have not found any others, although there were some strange incidents at the cemetery [another post, another day]. The journalist may have exaggerated the insanity toll.

A Soldier Becomes insane While Guarding Garfield’s Tomb.

Cleveland Dispatch to Philadelphia Press.

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

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

The font is badly blurred, but I believe the name is correct, although I have not found Private Kashinsky in the regimental roster. The papers had a difficult time with Eastern European names.  Any other insane guards?  Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Portions of this post appear in 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.

Inventive Deaths – How to Die in a Better Mousetrap

sept 1915 The Electrical Experimenter, 18th c static exp.
Inventive Deaths – How to Die in a Better Mousetrap Early static electricity invention

As a child I remember being terrified by a story in (I think) Strange Worlds by Frank Edwards about a clockmaker who was slowly strangled to death in the gears of a tower clock. Inventors often seem a hapless lot. If they aren’t being blown up by their own patented explosive shells (Samuel H. Mead/Mead-Meigs Safety Explosive Bullet), they hang themselves from their own perpetual motion machines or are found wandering the streets of great cities, hopelessly insane when their creations fail to make them rich.

We all know (or think we know), how the inventor of the guillotine met his end under its blade. In fact Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin proposed a more humane method of capital punishment, but did not create the guillotine. Antoine Louis was the inventor of the machine, which was briefly known as a louisette, but Guillotin’s name became attached to it because of his advocacy of the device as more civilized method of execution. The Doctor was imprisoned during the Terror but actually died in his bed in 1814. Guillotin’s family was so mortified by the connection that they changed their name after they failed to persuade the French government to rechristen the instrument.

When I ran across the story of the “demented inventor” at the end of this post who devised an similarly elegant and creative method of suicide, I went in search of obscure inventors—mostly Americans–who died at the hands of their better mousetraps.

KILLED

By the Invention He Had Spent 25 Years Perfecting

New York, June 13. Herman O. Mortiz, a Brooklyn inventor, sixty-two years old, was killed at Coney Island by a device on the invention of which he had spent more than a quarter of a century and all his savings.

Mortiz’s invention was an aerial toboggan slide. Permission had just been granted to operate it, all the laws of the department being complied with. The first car was empty and went without any trouble. Other cars with persons in them were sent over. The device seemed to be working to perfection and as the various cars, one after another, went down the steep slide and came up with a round turn, Mortiz stood and looked on, his face beaming with pleasure. He fairly shouted for joy. The dream of the last twenty-five years of his life was realized and his face beamed with delight as his friends alighted from the cars and pronounced the construction a success and as certain to make him a fortune.

Inspector Rittenhouse, and Charles Otis, a friend of the inventor, rode in the last car to be tested. Mortiz stood at the foot of the incline. The car had nearly reached the top, a distance of about seventy feet.

There was a cracking sound, a shout, and Rittenhouse and Otis shot backward. Their car had failed to hold the steel dog until the top of the incline had been reached. It came down with great velocity straight for the place where Moritz was standing. The car was almost upon him when he turned to get out of the way. It was too late. The heavy vehicle struck him in the back, knocking him through the wire netting and out into the Bowery walk. He died two hours later. Rittenhouse and Otis were thrown from their seats, but were uninjured. Morning Herald [Lexington, KY] 14 June 1902: p. 8

Singular Suicide – Horace Wells, the Discoverer of Ether.

“the same individual who made the original discovery of ether, or chloroform, and of its successful application in surgery or dentistry….The ingenious discoverer of the powers of this extraordinary substance, in its application to surgery, has himself fallen a victim to his own discovery, the only rational conclusion after reading the account of this suicide and of the steps which led to it, seems to be that Dr. Wells has been in the habit of producing intoxication in himself by the habitual use of ether, or chloroform. Under one of the paroxysms produced by the intemperate use of this powerful agent, it seems he sallied forth into Broadway, where he committed the pranks upon some unfortunate females at night, which led to his arrest by the police, causing a great noise to be made in the public prints. For the purpose of drowning the consequences of this exposure, and not being able to meet the issue of his strange acts, Dr. Wells deliberately goes to work and commits suicide, using his own medicine to destroy the sensation of pain in the act. New York Herald 25 January 1848: p. 1

Dr. Horace Wells was one of three physicians who claimed to have discovered the use of ether as an anesthetic. Unfortunately he became addicted to chloroform and in a moment of exhilaration threw vitriol at a prostitute on Broadway. He was arrested and taken to the Tombs where he committed what may have been the first suicide under anaesthetic.

 No suspicion was entertained by the keepers of any intention of self-destruction, as Mr. Wells appeared to be rather cheerful on Sunday, conversing freely, and while out of his cell, on the corridor, appeared to pay particular attention to the sermon delivered by the Reverend gentleman who preaches every Sunday to the unfortunate and abandoned creatures confined in the Tombs. The principal subject of the discourse related to the ill effects arising from the early and constant association with disreputable females, and seemed to throw Mr. Wells into a deep meditation….On the following morning, (Monday) Mr. Jackson, one of the deputy keepers, opened the cell door, between 8 and 9 o’clock and was astonished to find Mr. Wells in a sitting position on his bunk, with his head resting in one corner of the cell, his right leg hanging over the side of the bunk and the left lying straight on the straw mattress. Between his legs, on the mattress, lay an empty vial labeled “Pure Chloroform,” a razor, and a penknife. The razor was fixed with a slip of wood running from the back of the bald along the handle, made fast with a piece of wire, and some threads drawn from the sacking of his mattress. The left leg of this unfortunate man exhibited a most horrible sight, from a desperate gash, evidently inflicted by the razor. This wound was made about the center of the thigh, severing the femoral artery [illegible] nearly to the bone, and some six inches in length, from the effects of which he bled to death. On his mouth he had placed a silk handkerchief, bunched up, and another passing on the outside and tied on the top of his head, on which he had placed his hat. This handkerchief was supposed to have contained the chloroform, which he inhaled just before he inflicted the fatal wound…. [The deceased left a lengthy letter explaining how he came to commit the offense as well as letters of farewell to friends and family.]

The prison was visited during the day by many of our eminent doctors and dentists, and, from remarks made by Drs. Hosack and Smith, founded on interviews with Mr. Wells, prior to his arrest, they were decidedly of opinion that the deceased was perfectly insane on the chloroform practice. We are informed that this chloroform is nothing more than an extract from alcohol and chloride of lime, which, upon application, is inhaled from a sponge. Dr. Walters, the coroner, was called to hold an inquest, and the jury rendered a verdict, “that the deceased came to his death by suicide, by inflicting a wound in the left thigh with a razor, while laboring under an aberration of mind” New York Herald 25 January 1848: p. 1

Killed by His Own Invention

The cause of the death of Samuel Wardell, which occurred at the Kings County Hospital on Wednesday night, was most singular. He was a street-lamp lighter, and lived on Malbone street, in Flatbush. His duties necessitated early rising and for a time he trusted to the usual methods in such a case until a failure on the part of the alarm clock to perform its customary functions nearly caused his dismissal from the service. He made an invention of his own. On the top of his clock he adjusted a heavy stone, so nearly evenly balanced that the natural shaking of the clock occasioned by the striking of the bell would cause it to roll off to the floor and thus awaken the sleeper by its crash. This was successful until Monday night. A party had been held during his absence. All the available rooms had been utilized for the accommodation of the guests, and the position of Wardell’s bed had been so changed to make desirable space that the head stood directly under the clock.

He returned early in the morning. Too tired to change the position of his bed he hastily retired. For some reason he seemed unable to go to sleep, and not until an hour before the customary time for rising did he finally lose consciousness. True to its perfect mechanical arrangement the little bell tinkled; the heavy stone rolled slowly in its place and fell, striking the sleeping man on the skull–the stroke that cost him his life. N.Y. World. Quoted in San Francisco [CA] Bulletin, 8 January 1886: p. 4

Others in the death roll of American ingenuity:

John Manier, killed at the Gilbert Car Works in Troy, New York when a machine with rotating knives he had invented broke apart, hurling a knife straight into his heart. Aberdeen [SD] Daily News 2 May 1891: p. 2

Stockton, Cal., Dec. 27 Roy Austin McKeel, 19, was electrocuted at his home in Lodi, near here, today while conducting an experiment with an electric welding outfit which he had recently perfected and sold to an electric house.

McKeel was taking a correspondence course in electricity. While at work his hand dropped across a wire carrying a high voltage, and standing on a steel plate laid on wet ground, he closed the circuit, receiving a shock from which he died in a few minutes. Omaha [NE] World Herald 28 December 1920: p. 2

Herbert Goers, 26, of Evansville, Indiana, who was crushed and impaled on the picking arm of a corn picker machine he had worked on for five years. Omaha [NE] World Herald 9 October 1909: p. 5

Victor Palmer, described as an inventor of wonderful versatility, had been working on a scheme to keep the water in a bathtub at an even temperature by means of a gas heater. He was found, nude and gassed, under the water of his tub, while testing the apparatus. One of the rubber connection pipes had come loose. Fort Worth [TX] Star-Telegram 26 April 1911: p. 6

H S Roper, inventor of a steam bicycle, died when it went out of control, throwing him on his head. Jackson [MI] Citizen 5 June 1896: p. 2

A mother and son named Juergens were killed by an electrical apparatus used to heat a chicken incubator, which the son had developed. The son touched a live wire and when the mother went to his aid, she too was electrocuted. Olympia [WA] Record 17 April 1906: p. 5

At Laporte, Ind., last week, Harry May, a New York inventor, was killed by the accidental explosion of a secret waterproofing compound, used in the manufacture of artificial stone. Elmer E. Harding, owner of a cement block works, to whom May had sold the patent on the compound, was severely burned, but will recover. Industrial World, Volume 43, Issue 2, Part 2, 1909, p 1300

Thomas Midgley, Jr., the chemist who gave us leaded gasoline and chloroflurocarbons, contracted polio in 1940. To help his caregivers lift him, he devised an elaborate system of cords and pulleys. He somehow became entangled in his device and was strangled to death by it, age 55.

Dr. Sabon von Sochocky died of the luminous paint which he had invented for the painting of watch dials in the plant of the United States Radium Corporation. Times-Picayune [New Orleans, LA] 15 November 1928: p. 13

George Webb, a prison guard at San Quentin met a painful death in the prison jute mill when a fanning device he had created and attached to the main shaft of the mill caught his clothing and whirled him up to the ceiling. San Francisco [CA] Call 1 August 1913: p. 13

The Russian Captain Stepanof, inventor of a system for laying submarine mines, was blown up when a cable snapped and allowed two mines to touch..The Saint Paul [MN] Globe 17 February 17 1904: p 4

And finally, the piece—true or false–that sent me on the hunt for unfortunate inventors:

GUILLOTINED HIMSELF.

Deliberate Preparations Which a Demented French Inventor Made to Take His Own Life.

Arthur Charollais, a demented inventor, 40 years old, guillotined himself this week in his laboratory at Mulhouse in Alsace. He had constructed the machine himself. It was an exact duplicate of the legal French guillotine, but was made of costly woods and finely polished.

The triangular knife had engraved on it: “This blade cut Arthur Charollais’ neck, October, 1900.”

Near the body was found a note reading: “Distribute my belongings among the poor. Demolish this guillotine. It is intended solely for my own private use.”

Charollais’ servants heard an unfamiliar electric bell suddenly ringing persistently, and rushing to answer it discovered with horror a wriggling, headless body, with blood gushing in streams from the neck. The head was in a basket with sawdust where it had fallen.

The suicide had so arranged the knife that its fall started an electric bell.

Marietta [OH] Daily Leader 7 November 1900: p. 7

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

 

The Last Word: Coffin Plate Capers

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

UNDERTAKER EXPLAINS COFFIN-PLATE MYSTERY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 COFFIN PLATES

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

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

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

And doctors had to be particularly sensitive about such décor.

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

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

GLOOMY BRIC-A-BRAC

Coffin Plates Once Used as House Ornaments in Maine.

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

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

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

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

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

OFFERS COFFIN PLATE AS EVIDENCE HE IS WIDOWER

Providence Man Astonishes Immigration Board.

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

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

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

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

USES COFFIN PLATE TO PROVE HIS DEATH

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

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

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

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

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

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

COFFIN PLATES IN THE PARLOR

A QUEER CUSTOM LIKELY TO SURPRISE STRANGERS TO CONNECTICUT HOUSEHOLDS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becker “Murdered,” Says Coffin Plate

Widow of Ex-Lieutenant Puts Blame on Whiteman

Latter Doesn’t Believe the Story.

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

He Doesn’t Believe it.

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

Plate Removed.

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

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

A CURIOUS FACT

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

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

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

 

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

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

And this, from England:

SINGULAR STORY.

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

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

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

The Coffin in the Mail

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FINDS COFFIN MODEL IN MAIL

Military Secretary at Denver Startled by Package from Crank

Denver, Colo. Nov. 7. When Lieutenant Colonel Thomas F. Davis, military secretary of the department of the Colorado, United States army, opened his mail a few days ago he came across a large brown registered envelope, sent from Cripple Creek, and addressed to the army headquarters, Denver. It weighed perhaps half a pound.

The colonel opened it hurriedly and then jumped. For out of the envelope fell the model of a coffin, cut from a cigar box, and covered with black satin which had been cut and pasted on with mucilage.

The coffin was written over with strange devices and a couple of sheets of writing paper, scrawled over from top to bottom with daggers and skulls and cross-bones. Visions of bombs like Jacob Schiff got and of the Black Hand and of the Ku-Klux clans flitted across his brain as he rang for an orderly and a pail of water.

Further examination proved the package to be less dangerous than it looked. The writing was unsigned, and accepting that the package was sent from Cripple Creek, there was nothing to show who or what the sender was. The greater part of the writing was unintelligible, although here and there enough could be made out to show that the writer, evidently insane, had a fancied grievance against the army, and was threatening it with annihilation. The coffin, he explained, was sent to hold the general staff when he got through with them.

Colonel Davis returned the package to the postal authorities, marking on the cover, “Not intended for army headquarters,” and coffin and all are now in possession of the registry department. Post office inspectors are making an investigation of the affair. The sender is believed to be a harmless crank, although the orderlies at headquarters have received instructions to take no chances with queer looking individuals who visit headquarters in the next few weeks.

Omaha [NE] World Herald 8 November 1906: p. 6

Miniature coffins  were usually recognized as a threat, not unlike the practice of a gangster sending funeral flowers to a rival.

Jacob Schiff was the head of Kuhn, Loeb and Company, one of the world’s largest banking houses. Anarchists sent an “infernal device” to his office, which was discovered when the black powder leaked out one end.

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.