Mrs Daffodil must once again beg the indulgence of her readers. Something has gone wrong with the pneumatic tubes that deliver Mrs Daffodil’s work to the public, so she has asked that scribbling person over at the Haunted Ohio blog for the loan of a post to fill the gap. Here, then, without further ado, is “The Plague Shawl.”
Today’s post returns to one of my favorite themes: deadly clothing. We have covered the perils of poisoned stockings and noxious hairpieces. The history of disease is filled with cases of contagion spread by textiles:
In 1665 at Eyam, in Derbyshire, a tailor received a flea-infested shipment of cloth from London. He was dead of the plague within a week. Heroically, the villagers voluntarily quarantined themselves to keep the disease from spreading—at a fearful cost: at least half of Eyam’s inhabitants died.
At Fort Pitt, in 1763, two Native American chiefs were given blankets and a handkerchief from smallpox victims, possibly causing an outbreak of the disease and extensive casualties among the Indians.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1838 story, “Lady Eleanore’s Mantle” tells of a richly embroidered cloak believed to have brought the smallpox to Boston. The story is fiction, but Hawthorne’s readers’ belief in an infected cloak causing an epidemic was not.
In 1872, Ipswich was hit by an outbreak of smallpox, blamed again on textile infection:
During Christmas week two imported cases occurred…a young man brought a bundle of infected linen with him from London, and had it washed in Ipswich. Twelve days after, the servant who washed the linen showed symptoms of small-pox. In another case, a woman, who had been at Highgate Hospital, brought with her a shawl which she had worn during convalescence, but had not been disinfected; and in fourteen days her sister, who washed the shawl, was attacked, and a boy also in a house to which the sister went before the rash appeared upon her. This case might also have been caused by the infected shawl. The disease shortly afterwards broke out in Harwich and was very fatal, as 24 per cent. of the cases admitted died in the hospital. The Sanitary Record, Vol. 8, 1878
In a very recent case, in September of 2012, a young girl contracted the plague from her sweatshirt which had been laid by a decomposing (and flea-ridden) squirrel.
Then there is this story from 1895 illustrating the improbably long shelf-life of smallpox:
TENACITY OF GERMS
How an Old Lady and Her Little Shawl Carried Death With Them.
The tenacity and virility of smallpox germs are to the medical fraternity one of the wonders of contagion, and were never made apparent so startlingly as a few years ago in the little village of Hector, this state, says the New York Sun. This is an isolated place, being at the time of the smallpox epidemic there twenty miles from any railroad, and its people rarely traveled far from home, and few strangers were visitors there. Early in the fall smallpox broke out in the village. The disease was not known to be anywhere in the vicinity. How it happened to appear there was a mystery that remained unsolved for months, but was at last cleared up through the investigation and inquiry of Dr. Purdy of Elmira.
Dr. Purdy learned that one day in the winter preceding the breaking out of smallpox in Hector a passenger on an Erie railway train was taken violently ill just after leaving Salamanca, and a physician who was on board the train discovered that the passenger had the smallpox. When this became known the other passengers in the car hurriedly left it for another one. The car containing the smallpox victim was placed on a siding when the train reached Hornellsville, where it was quarantined.
Among the passengers who left the car when the case was made known was an old lady who had a ticket for Elmira. Her seat had been the one behind the one where the man with the small-pox sat. She had with her a small shoulder shawl, which had hung on the back of the seat ahead of her. When she left the train at Elmira she placed the shawl in her hand satchel. At Elmira she took a Northern Central train for Watkins, the nearest station to Hector, to which place she was going on a visit to her son’s family. She remained there until the following fall when she was driven by her son to visit another son some miles distant. The day was extremely cold, and her son’s ears being in danger of freezing she took the shoulder shawl from her satchel, where it had been ever since she put it away on leaving the Erie train at Elmira the previous winter, and wrapped it about his head.
A few days after the son returned home to Hector he became violently ill. Before it was known what his ailment was he was visited by various neighbors. Then his disease was pronounced smallpox, and it was such a malignant case that he died within a few days. The disease became epidemic and was not eradicated until the following summer. Every family in the village and immediate vicinity lost at least one member by the disease. That the first case originated from the germs collected by the shawl in the railroad car near Salamanca months before there can be no doubt. Idaho Register [Idaho Falls, ID] 15 February 1895: p. 6
I say “improbably long shelf-life” of smallpox, but the virus is capable of prolonged survival. Excavators in the crypt of Christ Church, Spitalfields, 1984-86, for example, took special precautions, not only against the lead dust from the coffins, but against potentially viable smallpox from dead victims of the disease buried there. And in 2011, an 1860s smallpox scab was seized by the CDC from an exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society.
In Russia, the Plague of 1878-79 was reported to have had its origins in a lethal sweetheart’s souvenir.
A COSSACK FROM THE WAR Brings to His Lady Love
A Costly Shawl Which She Wore Two Days,
Then Sickened and Died, and in this
Lies the Origin of the Present Russian Plague.
London, Feb. 3. The origin of the plague in Russia is thus given: A Cossack, returning from the war to Wetlisuka, brought his lady love a shawl which she wore two days and then sickened with all the symptoms of the plague and died. The following four days other members of her family died. The disease spread rapidly, the local authorities not paying any attention to it till half the inhabitants had died and the remainder were unable to bury them. Then, when the epidemic had assumed serious dimensions energetic means were taken for preventing its spreading, and strict quarantines were established: firstly in towns and villages, shutting off streets where the plague reigns from the rest of the place and secondly by surrounding the villages with troops, so that nobody is allowed to pass in or out.
The panic in Russia is almost incredible. Every class and station in life have petitioned for the entire cessation of all intercourse even postal communication between the rest of Russia and the Volga. Letters from Astrachan and Zaritzin are not received by persons to whom they are addressed. Some people even refuse to take money, fearing the germ of infection might be communicated through it. It is almost impossible to describe the terror which has taken possession of the people.
The Russian Sanitary Commission has proposed to shut off the Volga line from all intercourse with Western Russia and permit communication only under quarantine. Russian railway cars are not admitted to German territory. The export of grain from Poland will suffered severely from this restriction. The Roumanian government are discussing the expediency of prohibiting the transit of Russian provisions sent to victual the Balkan army.
(This appears to be a paraphrase of a New York Times article of 2 February 1879. It appeared in the Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 3 February 1879: p. 1)
The Russian plague caused panic throughout Europe, which feared the spread of an epidemic on the scale of the Black Death. The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica observed that the Russian wave of the disease killed about 362 victims out of a population of about 1700.
It is, of course, impossible to tell if the story of the deadly shawl is more than a fanciful legend, although the story is repeated in a scholarly article: “The Russian Plague of 1878-79,” Hans Heilbronner, Slavic Review, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Mar., 1962), pp. 89-112 in the note on pp. 91-92.
A story was bandied about in 1879 that a Cossack, returning to Vetlianka from Turkish Armenia, brought a scarf to his fiancée as a present. She supposedly wore it for a few days, then developed fearful symptoms of an undiagnosed nature, and died within a few days. The members of her family contracted the same disease and so did some neighbors. Refugees from the village reportedly carried the affliction to other Volga towns and villages.
Strangely, the story is also the subject of a poem by Ohio poet Sarah Piatt
THE STORY OF A SHAWL
My child, is it so strange, indeed,
This tale of the Plague in the East, you read?
This tale of how a soldier found
A gleaming shawl of silk, close-wound,
(And stained, perhaps, with two-fold red)
About a dead man’s careless head
He took the treasure on his breast
To one he loved. We know the rest.
If Russia shudders near and far,
From peasant’s hut to throne of Czar
If Germany bids an armed guard
By sun and moon keep watch and ward
Along her line, that they who fly
From death, ah me ! shall surely die.
This trouble for the world was all
Wrapped in that soldier’s sweetheart’s shawl.
Pray God no other lovers bring
Some gift as dread in rose or ring.
Poems, Vol. II, Sarah Piatt (London: Longmans, Green and Co.) 1894
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.
It’s that hap-hapless-est time of the year! which means that it is time for another compendium of vintage fatalities peculiar to the holidays. Today, let’s sing of the Twelve Deaths of Christmas.
You better watch out;
you better not cry;
I’m making a list
Of how people die…
Death by Pre-holiday Excitement
Remember those days when you simply couldn’t wait for Santa? You didn’t suffer the fate of these children or you wouldn’t be reading this.
Curiosity is Fatal
Chicago, Ill., Dec. 24. Unable to wait until tonight little Tony Fragino, 5 years old, lifted the lid in the kitchen stove to see if Santy was starting down the chimney. A spark fell on his clothes. He burned to death.
Omaha [NE] World Herald 25 December 1912: p. 7
The eight-year-old daughter of a laborer named Garth, in Blackburn, Lancashire, died from severe burns received at Christmas. The mother found her daughter in flames in a bedroom, and on questioning her, the little one replied, “Oh, mamma, I’ve been putting my hand up the chimney for Father Christmas.”
Poverty Bay Herald, 14 February 1896: p. 2
2. Death by Fear of Father Christmas
Last year a photo went the rounds of social media showing a distressed-looking young child signing “HELP ME” as he sat on Santa’s lap. This lad was sadly unable to articulate his Santa-phobia.
CHILD’S STRANGE FEAR
FLEES FROM SANTA CLAUS
KILLED BY MOTOR-CAR.
The strange fear of a child of Father Christmas was described at the Melbourne morgue on the last day of the sad Old Year, when the city Coroner, Mr. D. Grant; held an inquest into the death of Jack Plummer, aged four years, of Raleigh street, Northcote, Melbourne. Robert Leslie Alexander Blower, tanner, of Raleigh street, Northcote, said that about half-past 8 o’clock on the evening of 24th December he was driving his motor-car behind another car along High street, Northcote, near its intersection with Martin street. Suddenly a child ran from the footpath in front of his car and was struck by the front mudguard. Witness took the child to a doctor and then to the Children’s Hospital, where he died soon after. Stanley R. R. Plummer, father of the dead boy, said that he was present when the accident happened. A man dressed as Father Christmas was near by, and a child took Jack Plummer by the hand and tried to lead him to Father Christmas. Jack was always afraid of Father Christmas, and broke away from his friend and ran madly across the road. Witness could not say why the child feared Father Christmas, but he was of a nervous temperament.
New York, Feb. 22. William W. Babbington, a bookkeeper, decorated a tree Christmas eve, assisted by his wife. Both were slightly pricked by pine needles. Both developed felons and later blood poisoning. Babbington died in St. John’s hospital, Long Island City, on Monday.
Mrs. Babbington, who is to undergo two operations, one for blood poisoning and another for tumor, is awaiting her husband’s funeral before going to the hospital.
The Salina [KS] Evening Journal 22 February 1909: p. 5
To be Relentlessly Informative, a felon is a painful abscess of the deep tissues of the palmar surface of the fingertip that is typically caused by infection of a bacterium. This seems an odd sort of injury from a tree and it is possible that something else caused the blood-poisoning. Or perhaps the trees were sprayed with some arsenical green solution to keep them fresh-looking?
Tragically, a more typical report from the era of clip-on candles was this one:
BURNING CHRISTMAS TREE IS BABE’S PYRE
Trying to Light Candles Child Sets Itself Ablaze
New York, Dec. 29. Three-year-old Percival Dolan was burned to death this afternoon, his clothes having been set afire by a blazing Christmas tree at his home. The child’s mother left him locked alone in her rooms. A tenant heard the child scream and saw smoke coming from the rooms.
She forced the door and found the boy enveloped in flames and rolling in agony on the floor. The mother by this time had been attracted by the screams. The women threw a blanket over the child, extinguishing the flames. The boy was carried to a hospital, where he died within two hours. The boy had set the tree afire while trying to light the candles.
Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 30 December 1900: p. 16
4. Death by Christmas Ornament
Victorian holiday décor was often made from toxic materials like lead and asbestos, but this Christmas bauble was designed to kill.
Christmas Tree Bobble [sic]
A Deadly Booby Trap.
Pittsburgh, Dec. 23 What looked like a little copper tube with wires attached when 14-year-old Ronald Berich hung it on his Christmas tree, turned out to be a detonator which exploded with savage force critically injuring the youth.
The blast blew off thumbs and forefingers on both hands and inflicted serious internal injuries. The boy’s father, Clarence, was only slightly injured. The elder Berich said the device had been knocking about the house for years and that no one knew what it was.
Atchison [KS] Daily Globe 23 December 1946: p. 1
5. Death by Holiday Shopping
Every year we hear reports of fisticuffs over sale goods, stampedes, and sometimes even deaths during the Christmas shopping rush. It was ever thus.
CHRISTMAS RUSH WAS FATAL
Floorwalker in Crowded Store Accidentally Killed in Scuffle With Shopper
Omaha, Nebraska. David Stettsy, floorwalker at the store of J.G. McCrorey & Co., was almost instantly killed in the presence of a throng of Christmas shoppers at 6 o’clock. The killing was done in a scuffle with a shopper and is believed by the police to have been the result of an accident.
Two young men, Ed McGrath and F.J. Riley, were shopping in the store, and McGrath accidentally knocked some goods from the counter. Stettsy seized him by the arm. A brief scuffle ensued, and Stettsy was thrown to the floor. He failed to rise, and bystanders who rushed to his assistance found that he was dead. His neck was broken. McGrath was taken into custody.
Morgan County Republican [Versailles MO] 28 December 1911: p. 7
6. Death by Inadequate Gifts
Then there is the despondency that comes from disappointing a loved one at the holidays.
NOTHING FOR HIS SWEETHEART
Therefore This Young Man Deliberately Hanged Himself.
Charles Schellenberg, thirty-seven years old, a cabinet-maker, committed suicide in his lodging room, No. 641 East Fifth street, yesterday. He had been out of work and was despondent; besides, he was engaged to be married and had promised to buy his sweetheart a Christmas present. He got work two or three days ago but found he would not get paid in time to purchase the present.
Yesterday morning his boarding-mistress called him in time to go to his work, but he said he would not go out. She was arranging bedclothes in the adjoining room during the afternoon, and, glancing through the door cracks, she saw the figure of a man in Schellenberg’s room. She though he had gone out, and imagined the figure to be that of a burglar. She ran downstairs and told two boarders that there was a burglar in the house. They ran upstairs, burst open the door and found Schellenberg hanging to a rope which was thrown over a poker laid on two shelves. The ceiling of the room was so low that the suicide had to draw up his legs so as to hang himself. He had been dead two hours.
The Evening World [New York NY] 25 December 1889: p. 4
7. Death by Too Much Holiday Company
For some unfortunates, the thought of entertaining at the holidays was simply unbearable.
HERE’S A WARNING
Denver, Col. Dec. 23 Wives who would not be Christmas widows, heed the warning in the act of Kenneth K. Kane, a railway mail clerk. Do not invite all your relatives for Christmas dinner.
“I want to get along with everybody, and I want everybody to like me. But it makes me mighty sore when I think of the big crowd my wife has invited to our house for Christmas dinner,” wailed Kane.
He then arranged all the Christmas gifts he had received in the shape of a coffin, lay down inside the casket of gifts and put a bullet through his brain. He died instantly.
The Day Book [Chicago IL] 23 December 1912: p 21
Other accounts say that Mr. Kane was found gripping a letter from his mother-in-law, announcing her intention of visiting and that the packages next to his body were the gifts he had purchased for the family. A neighbor had heard him complain, “I don’t see why we can’t have this Christmas to ourselves.”
8. Death by Fruitcake
Yes, I know—if you are not a fruitcake aficionado, even eating the stuff is a kind of a death, but that is not the issue. The roster of persons poisoned by holiday fruitcake would fill a whole series of posts—that is because (and don’t try this at home) arsenical insecticides look so very much like flour.
Poisoned Christmas Cake Fatal For Five
Newport, Ark., Dec. 26
Whether poison was used accidentally in a Christmas cake that brought death to five persons was being investigated today by authorities.
Mr. and Mrs. Walter Ballew and three of their sons, ranging in age from 15 to 23, died of poisoning as the result of eating the cake. Mrs. Ballew baked the cake early last week for her Christmas dinner. After one of the smaller cakes was served for dinner Thursday, members of the family became ill, and died later.
Sheriff A.C. Albright said he learned Ballew, a farmer, used arsenic last summer for poisoning of insects on cotton. Eight pounds of the poison were found in a barrel in the Ballew attic. The officer is investigating to determine whether Mrs. Ballew used some of the arsenic in the cake mixture by mistake or if someone had placed the poison in the flour intentionally.
Bellingham [WA] Herald 26 1932: p. 10
I can’t resist adding this incident, which sounds like something written by Edward Gorey, even though technically there were no fatalities.
Ate Poisoned Fruit Cake
Terrell, Tex., May 7. Eighteen patients and two attendants of the North Texas Insane Asylum were poisoned yesterday by eating fruit cake. The victims were attacked with vomiting and violent passages from the bowels, accompanied by deathly sickness. All the physicians were brought into service and the victims purged. The latter are now thought to be out of danger. The cake was distributed by Miss Bertie White, a kleptomaniac, but no suspicion rests upon her. The poison is thought to have been contained in the ingredients.
St Louis [MO] Republic 8 May 1892: p. 24
9. Death in a Santa Suit
Those jolly old elves of the past took their lives in their hands. Scores, if not hundreds of Santa-impersonators went up in flames in their cotton beards and suits. You will note the casual use of “another” in the sub-head.
SANTA BURNED ALIVE
Another of Him Reported Fatally Burned
Coshocton, O., Dec. 26. Having impersonated Santa Claus for the benefit of a number of children near his home at Tunnell Hill, George Reed, aged 22, was burned so badly he cannot recover. After the celebration Reed went to his room and in lighting a lamp ignited the long cotton whiskers he wore for the disguise.
Rockford [IL] Republic 27 December 1905: p. 2
Another hazard was the anonymity of the Santa Claus suit.
SANTA CLAUS KILLED
Mistaken for a Burglar at Jackson, Miss.
Jackson, Miss., December 25. Charles R. Young tonight shot and killed his uncle, Prof. Lawrence Saunders, mistaking him for a burglar. Prof. Saunders, who for many years has been teacher in the State Deaf and Dumb Institute, was disguised as Santa Claus, and visiting his sister’s home, knocked for admittance. Young asked who was at the door, and receiving no reply, he fired the ball passing through the door and killing Saunders instantly. Prof. Saunders is a brother of World’s Fair Commissioner Saunders, from Mississippi, and is well known throughout the entire country.
Arkansas Gazette [Little Rock, AR] 26 December 1895: p .6
10. Death by Christmas Card
Peril even lurked in the holiday post….
DEADLY CHRISTMAS CARD.
(Special to Herald.)
DUNEDIN. this day The Health Officer states that a case of diphtheria in Dunedin has been tracked almost with certainty to infection carried by a Christmas card sent from a locality in Invercargill where the disease is prevailing. There are at present a considerable number of cases of diphtheria reported from a comparatively small area in that town.
Poverty Bay Herald, 4 January 1905: p. 2
11. Death by Holiday Fun
So many holiday amusements of the past sound like introductions for the winners of the Darwin Awards…
Which Proved a Very Serious Matter to John McClelland’s Family.
Jeffersonville, Ind., Dec. 26. Last night John McClelland, an employe of the car works, went to his home, and, in order to amuse his wife and children, fired off a lot of shooting crackers. Not satisfied with this he procured a pound of powder and put it into three ale bottles and fastened the bottles up tightly, after he had inserted a fuse to each bottle.
He attempted to fire them off in his yard, but, being unsuccessful, took them into the house and set them upon a table where his wife and baby and a little girl named Berry were sitting, and Mrs. McClelland desired to fire off a shooting cracker, and in order to get a light removed the chimney from a coal oil lamp on the table.
The firecracker went off suddenly and the lamp exploded. The burning oil was communicated to the infernal machines in the three bottles and all three went off with a terrible effect, scattering glass all over the room. The oil set fire to the house and the clothing of the three unfortunate people, Mr. and Mrs. McClelland and Miss Berry.
McClelland succeeded in extinguishing the fire, but not, however, until he was severely burned. His wife was also dangerously burned about the head and face. Mrs. McClelland’s clothing was burned from her body. The powder and glass from the bottles did terrible work. Miss Berry was probably fatally injured by a piece striking her in the side. She was also cut and burned in several places. The explosion tore out window panes, and pieces of bottles were found fastened in nearly every part of the house.
Cincinnati [OH] Daily Gazette 27 December 1881: p. 2
12. Death by Christmas Presents
By far the most common category of Christmas gift casualties arose from “toy” guns–either via gunshot wounds or something like tetanus caused by wadding shot into the skin. “You’ll shoot your eye out,” was no idle threat.
DEATH FROM LOCKJAW
Walter Bejano Dies from Effects of Toy Pistol Shot
Walter Bejano, the 9-year-old son of J. J. Bejano, 234 South Ervay street, died at the home of his parents yesterday morning as the result of a wound from a toy pistol. On Christmas night the little fellow shot himself in the hand with the dangerous toy, the wad almost piercing the left hand, its results causing his death.
Dallas [TX] Morning News 2 January 1904: p. 3
The second tragedy was the loss of an eye to a 5 year old boy who paid an unexpected visit to the decorated Christmas tree and found an air rifle intended for him on the morrow. It is hard to imagine the carelessness that would allow a child of that age to have such a dangerous toy, to say nothing of loading it beforehand.
Springfield [MA] Union 12 January 1914: p. 17
‘SHOOT ME JUST FOR FUN, BRUDDER’
Seven-Year-Old Lad Kills His Younger Brother With Christmas Rifle.
Colorado Springs, Colo., Dec. 26. “Shoot me, brudder, just for fun,” said 5-year-old Henry Johnson, as he lay on a sick bed at his home here yesterday afternoon, to his 7-year-old brother, Clarence, who had been given a 22-caliber target rifle for a Christmas present. Henry had been too ill to be out of bed to celebrate the day, but he watched his brother playing with the new and dangerous toy with all a boy’s deep interest he could summon.
Clarence playfully pointed the weapon at Henry’s breast and pulled the trigger. The bullet entered the sick boy’s body and the lad died an hour later. Clarence is heartbroken and his parents are prostrated at the sad and tragic ending of a day that began with so much joy, happiness and hope in the little home. Christian Johnson, the father of the boys, is a Colorado Midland section foreman.
Denver [CO] Post 26 December 1907: p. 4
But even innocent-looking presents could be lethal:
New York. Very proud of a football he had won in a Christmas raffle, Richard Batterby, ten years old, of Jersey City, was made captain of a football team and was killed in the first rush with the new ball.
A crowd of enthusiastic boys met in a vacant lot at Sixteenth and Grove streets. Richard was the liveliest of them all.
“All together, now! Show them what we can do!” he shouted, when the team was lined up.
There was a rush, and Richard went down under the great pile of struggling boys. Then all except Richard got up for the next play. He lay still, clinging tightly to the ball. His playmates rolled him over and began to scream when they saw his pale face.
A doctor hurried to the scene. He made a short examination, and then said the boy was dead.
Albuquerque [NM] Evening Citizen 1 January 1907: p. 2
There are other reports of children with new skates or sleds who slid under trams, and a very sad story of an infant with a new Christmas doll. The doll fell into a bucket of water; the child drowned trying to reach it.
I’ve written before about poisoned stockings. Mordants and dyes often contained dangerous poisons like picric acid and arsenic. Most of the time the wearer merely sickened; this is one of the few reported fatalities.
YULE STOCKINGS FATAL
Christmas Gift Causes Blood Infection, Killing Woman
Dell Rapids, Jan. 9 A new pair of highly colored “Christmas stockings” worn by Mrs. O. Caldwell of Dell Rapids caused blood infection which resulted in her death.
Aberdeen [SD] American 9 January 1917: p. 7
And, finally, be careful what you wish for.
DIED OF JOY
A Lad Overcome on Receiving His Christmas Present
South Bend, Ind., Dec. 27 Paul Gearhart, 14, was so delighted at receiving a pair of skates that he uttered a cry of joy and fell to the floor dead from heart failure.
Cincinnati [OH] Post 27 December 1892: p. 4
Death sees you when you’re sleeping.
He knows your home floor plan.
He knows when you’ve been bad or good
So evade him if you can….
Other deaths of Christmas? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
The days are filled with the plague-rattle clamor of cicadas. Dying locusts buzz and smear underfoot on the sidewalk, raising visions of scorpion-tailed locusts swarming out of the Pit of the Book of Revelation. It is an evil season….
What with locust resentment, the Zika virus, dive-bombing stink-bugs, and the fact that I am a tick-magnet, I am not an admirer of the Insect Kingdom. Pocket your killing jars, or perhaps don your beekeeping coveralls and veils—today we’ll be pinning down some cases of Death by Insect.
Spider bites, bee-stings, and lethal centipedes may be taken as read, as may deaths from insect-vectored disease. I am more interested in what you might call the personal touch: deaths directly caused by insects with undeservedly benign reputations.
Flies, however, have long been regarded with suspicion in the medical community. One popular slogan stated, “Every fly is a messenger for the Angel of Death.” [Wilkes-Barre [PA] Times-Leader 24 April 1911]
The zoöphagic William Buckland is remembered for having eaten blue-bottle flies; he said that he found it difficult to decide which was the nastier dish: mole or fly. Buckland seems to have suffered no ill-effects, unlike the old woman of the whimsical rhyme, and these unfortunates:
Swallowed a Fly
St. Louis, Sept. 7. Eugene Dixon swallowed a fly Tuesday afternoon and died yesterday. He was playing in the kitchen and was laughing heartily at some incident which had happened when he swallowed the fly. About an hour afterwards he became so ill that it was necessary to call a physician. Notwithstanding the efforts of the medical attendant the child grew worse very rapidly and died in terrible agony. Worcester [MA] Daily Spy 8 September 1894: p. 3
Is there an explanation or did some juvenile illness coincide with the swallowed fly? Perhaps this story holds the answer:
FLY PAPER KILLS A MAN BY PROXY.
Daniel Miller, of Arcola, Swallows a Poisoned Insect and Dies.
Arcola, Ill., Sept. 21. The most singular case of poisoning that has ever occurred in this section happened last night. Dan Miller, aged 60, was eating supper, and accidentally swallowed a fly that had been on fly paper. Miller lived about three hours. Daily Inter Ocean [Chicago, IL] 22 September 1895: p. 5
Arsenic, commonly found in fly papers might explain the child’s “terrible agony.”
The Daily Mail delights in gruesome stories about the immense and disgustingly mobile creatures infesting human ears, eyes, and noses. Such things might have occurred even more frequently in the past when window-screens were less common and children spent more time out of doors.
KILLED BY A BEETLE IN HIS EAR
Atlantic City, Dec. 1 After suffering for months from headaches and acute pains in the head, Somers Braddock, 9 years old, did at the home of his parents here. Doctors had treated him and had failed to locate an apparent cause for his illness. An autopsy was performed and a dead beetle was found in one of the boy’s ears. Lexington [KY] Herald 2 December 1907: p. 8
A labourer died on one of the flat boats on the Levee at New Orleans on the 8th, of a disease which baffled his physician. A post mortem examination took place, and upon examining his brain, it was discovered that an insect of about an inch long, known by the name of a centipede or a thousand legs, had crawled into his ear, causing thereby an excruciating death. Maine Cultivator and Hallowell Gazette [Hallowell, ME] 24 July 1841: p. 2
We must question whether this next dire and improbable story happened in this exact way or whether it has more in common with tales of reptiles said to inhabit the stomachs of unwary drinkers from springs.
CHILD KILLED BY A BEETLE
A correspondent writing from Ashley, pa., August 23, says: A post-mortem examination has just been held upon the body of a two years old child of Mr. Louis Schappert, a butcher residing in this place, which died a day or two since in great agony. It was taken suddenly and violently ill, and nothing could be administered that seemed to give any relief. Its body swelled to nearly twice its size, and it died vomiting blood. On the opening of the stomach of the child, the cause of the singular illness and death was discovered. In the coating of the stomach, with the huge horns firmly imbedded was an enormous stag beetle. The only explanation that could be given as to the manner of the insect getting into the stomach was that given by the child’s mother, who stated that the night the child was taken sick, and a few moments before the first symptoms, it had asked for a drink. The mother gave the child a drink from a cup containing water and sitting on a chair beside the bed. There is no doubt that one of these horned beetles had fallen into the cup while flying about the room, and the child drank it with the water. Eastern Argus [Portland, ME] 7 September 1871: p. 4
We’ve read before about Butterflies of Doom—black moths and winged insects as tokens of death. This multi-colored angel of death played a more direct and deadly role as a child was
LURED TO DEATH BY BUTTERFLY
Child Reached For It and Was Killed by Fall From Fire Escape.
New York, June 15. Mary Fletcher, 6 years old, fell from the third floor fire escape at No. 1813 Amsterdam Avenue, yesterday afternoon, and was killed.
The child had been permitted by her mother to play on the fire escape. A large butterfly alighted on the brick wall near the child, and she made an attempt to catch it. In her excitement she fell through the opening. New Haven [CT] Register 15 June 1899: p. 8
The U.S. Bureau of Entomology made a shocking revelation about the Brown-tail moth.
MOTH CAUSES TUBERCULOSIS
Brown-Tail Variety Has Already Killed a Government Agent
(Washington Dispatch to New York World)
The announcement that a New England woman is seriously ill from the “brown-tail moth rash” is causing alarm in states where the pest is spreading. The bureau of entomology is making constant war on the brown-tail moth, but it is on the increase.
“We lost one of our men from the effects of the rash caused by the hair of the caterpillar going into his lungs and pores,” said Dr. L.O. Howard, chief of the bureau.
C.L. Marlatt, assistant chief of the bureau, said:
“The brown-tail moth exercises a very deleterious effect on health. The hair which cover the caterpillars of this moth are strongly nettling and not only are they so from accidental contact with a caterpillar which may fall on clothes, face, neck or hands from an infested tree, but also from the myriads of hairs which are shed by these caterpillars when they transform to the chrysalis state.
“Breathed into the lungs, the hairs may cause inflammation and become productive of tuberculosis. Thousands have suffered from brown rash. All of the assistants who have been connected with the government work with these pests in the New England states have been seriously poisoned. Two of them had to give up their work and go to the southwest to try to recover from pulmonary troubles, super induced by the irritating hairs of the brown-tail moth. The death of one man on the work was due to severe internal poisoning contracted in field work against larvae.
“This insect is a most undesirable neighbour, even if it were not responsible for great injury to orchards and ornamental trees.”
The brown-tail moth was imported by a florist in Somerville, Mass., twenty years ago, probably on roses from Holland or France. Its presence was not discovered until 1897, when it had made much headway.
Dr. Howard believes the moth can be killed out if the people will fight it. Evening Times [Grand Forks ND] 23 November 1911: p. 4
The caterpillar of the moth does cause skin irritation and breathing difficulties, but we cannot blame it for tuberculosis.
On the other hand, I recently saw a headline about a motorcyclist being choked by an inhaled moth. (In a related note, a dense swarm of mayflies caused multiple motorcycles to crash and closed a bridge in Pennsylvania.) What are the odds of that happening?
BOY KILLED BY MOTH
Flies Into His Mouth, Lodges in Windpipe and Prevents Breathing
Owensboro, Ky., Oct. 18. Almost instant death from swallowing a candle moth was the fate that befell 10-year-old Jessie Moore, son of George Moore, of Whiteville, this county. The moth passed into the boy’s windpipe, and altho a physician was in the house at the time, he could do nothing to save the child’s life.
The boy and his father were sitting in front of a fire. The former had fallen asleep in his chair with his mouth slightly open. A large moth fluttering around a lamp on a table nearby suddenly flew into the boy’s open mouth. The father saw it and supposed that the boy would be awakened, but was alarmed when instead he became black in the face and was apparently thrown into convulsions. In an adjoining room with a smaller child of the Moore family was Dr. McDonald of Whitesville and he was quickly called into the room to see the boy, but the lad died in a few seconds. The moth had gone into the boy’s mouth and lodged squarely on top of the windpipe, completely shutting off his breath. Fort Worth [TX} Star-Telegram 18 October 1907: p. 11
I am not sure if this next item is just a fictional tale for the papers or whether night-moths are really such crack shots with a pistol. It sounds like an episode of House.
KILLED BY A MOTH.
Princess Caravella, a singularly lovable woman, had been entertaining a party of friends at dinner at the Caravella Palace in Naples, and, as she had promised, to attend a ball towards midnight, she went to her bedroom to lie down for a few minutes’ rest to refresh herself for the dance.
At 11 o’clock her maid entered the room to awake her, whereupon the Princess asked her to return a little later, and. twenty minutes afterwards, when she returned, the girl found her mistress still lying on her bed with scarcely a muscle of the face changed, but stone dead, with the mark of a tiny bullet in the region of the heart.
The maid’s shrieks quickly brought the Prince and the whole household to the room, and within ten minutes the judicial and police authorities arrived. It was clear that no stranger had fired the shot, since the bedroom was situated on the third floor, and no one had entered the gates of the palace between the hour of ten and midnight.
At length the Prince was arrested on a charge of having murdered his wife with the little pistol which lay by her side on the table, and one chamber of which was empty, colour being lent to the accusation by the fact that he was notoriously jealous.
His trial resulted in acquittal, partly in consequence of an extraordinary piece of testimony which was produced in court by one of the police officials. The testimony he related was this: A couple of days after the murder, on the removal of the seals from the door to the bedroom, he made a careful investigation of the apartment, and had found on the floor by the bedside one of those enormous night moths, the bodies of which are almost as thick as a man s thumb, and which abound in Italy. He declared that the moth’s wings were badly singed, as if it had flown against the candle that stood on the table by the bedside.
He produced the math in court, and then proceeded to point out to the judges that some of the powder on the insect’s wings was apparent on the black ebony and gold stock and trigger of the little revolver which had been found on the table with which the shooting had been done.
He then called the attention of the judges and the jury to the phenomenal facility with which the trigger yielded, and advanced the argument that the Princess had been killed by the night moth, which, he alleged, must have flown into the room, attracted by the candle-light, and falling with singed wings on to the table, had discharged the revolver in the violence of its contortions. Hastings Standard 18 July 1914: p. 1
These horrifying tales brought back childhood memories of reading about hapless South American villagers overwhelmed and eaten by army ants, leaving behind only skeletons.
Killed by Ants.
A broken-hearted mother, a peasant woman living near Schlang, Bohemia, is weeping over her discovery a few days ago refuting the popular belief that red and black ants, while a nuisance, are no menace to life or limb.
The woman, going out to labor in the fields after nursing her babe, laid the infant on the ground in the shade and went to work. After a while the child began to cry violently. The mother, thinking that it simply wished to be taken up, paid no attention to it.
The cries increased in violence at first, and then gradually died away, presently ceasing entirely. When the mother had finished her task and returned to her infant she at first thought it had been stolen. Her attention was attracted to a swarming heap of black ants, and on approaching was horrified to see one hand of the child sticking out of the mass of insects. The baby had ceased to breathe. Its eyes had been eaten out, and the insects, swarming into its throat, had literally choked it to death. Denver [CO] Rocky Mountain News 17 March 1902: p. 3
COUPLE KILLED BY ANTS
El Paso, Tex., Aug. 17. Jesus Gonzales and his wife, Maria, unknowingly camped on a nest of desert ants while crossing the country here and were so terribly bitten by the insects that they succumbed at the hospital later. Grand Forks [ND] Daily Herald 18 August 1908: p. 3
Reports of spider deaths almost always follow the same monotonous thread. Here are two of the more singular cases.
To demonstrate the potent character of molecular influence, I would refer you to an incident that occurred in San Francisco, Cal., where a lady, Mrs. Jervis, was bitten by a poisonous tarantula. She lingered for six months in continual agony, her blood literally drying up, till she was reduced to an absolute skeleton. Three months before her death her entire right side became paralyzed; yet, strange to say, the hand had a tendency to crawl, and the fingers incessantly moved like the legs of a spider. The encyclopaedia of death and life in the spirit-world, John Reynolds Francis p. 77-8
I’ve written before about people who died from accidentally swallowing spiders. This fellow apparently did not read the papers as he wantonly and deliberately ate three spider egg sacs.
A singular death, reported by a correspondent of the Louisville Courier-Journal occurred in Tishomingo County, Mississippi, a few days ago. Mr. Pennington, a stout healthy farmer, living about four miles from Iuka, had a slight chill last Sunday. The day before he was in excellent health. Monday morning he felt the approach of another chill and lay down on the bed. After lying awhile he remarked to a member of his family that he had heard it said that spider-webs “were good for chills,” and that he believed he would try the remedy, whereupon he rose from the bed and gathering from the wall or ceiling of the room a web in which were three “spider balls,” as they are called, swallowed them without more ado. Very soon his throat, lips and the whole of his face were greatly swollen by the action of the poison. Who has not seen hundreds of young spiders not so large as a pin-head, swarm from one of these balls when broken open? And who, but this ill-fated Mississippian would ever have thought of swallowing a spoonful of them as a remedy for the chills, or for anything else. Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 20 August 1870: p. 2
Potato bugs/beetles, while bad for the potatoes, do not usually bother people. Any explanations for this unusual case of insect toxicity?
At Piqua, Ohio, last week, Rev. W. L. Fee picked a quantity of potato bugs off his vines and placed them in a tin can; then pouring boiling water into the can, he stood over it to watch its Christian effect on the enemy, but soon became very ill and it was concluded the vapor had poisoned him. Cleveland [OH] Leader 2 June 1871: p. 3
I was surprised to find no human-roach fatalities. As a student I lived in a subterranean apartment infested with roaches the size of Medjool dates. They were an insolent, cowardly bunch, fleeing under the sofa at the flick of a light switch. I always feared they would swarm me in my sleep or perhaps burrow into my skull through the ear….
ROACH KILLED BIG COBRA
Monster Reptile Meets Death in a Most Unusual Way.
Rex, the king cobra at the Bronx Park, the largest reptile in captivity and the deadliest snake on earth, is dead.
He was murdered while he slept, in the most cowardly and atrocious manner—by a little black roach. The king of all snakes had suffered indignities for some weeks, and the ignoble way his earthly career was ended was the climax. Last Sunday a week ago Raymond L. Ditmars, the curator of reptiles at the Zoo, who had been noticing the irritability of Rex for more than a week, tempted him with a choice water snake, the prize dainty for a cobra. While Rex was swallowing this morsel he was held and a tumor cut from the left side of his jaw. If he had not been taken advantage of in this fashion he couldn’t have been overcome. He got well from the operation.
Rex ate only on Sundays, and this time of the year he slept most of the time between meals. Last Sunday he had a square meal and, snake-like, went to sleep. He did not stir after this meal.
Yesterday morning Keeper Charles Snyder, whose special pet Rex was, noticed that the snake was lying particularly still. When he poked him with a stick the snake didn’t move and Snyder investigated. Rex was dead. He hadn’t been sick and bore no marks of violence. This puzzled the keeper.
Dr. W. Reid Blair, the veterinarian, was called in to perform an autopsy. It was thought something the snake had eaten had disagreed with him, but the autopsy proved this theory unsound.
Upon further cutting up it was found that the cause of Rex’s death lay in his head. The head was cut open, and inside the brain was found a little black roach, still alive. This roach had bored into the cobra’s cranium. This is the first case of the kind on record. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 30 January 1910: p. 6
Even though I have found no actual roach fatalities, there is this unsettling report, which suggests that the roaches were using the children as appetizers.
The following interesting letter from Mr. Herbert H. Smith, the collector and naturalist, gives a vivid picture of the roach nuisance in the tropics:
“Cockroaches are so common in Brazilian country houses that nobody pays any attention to them. They have an unpleasant way of getting into provision boxes, and they deface books, shoes, and sometimes clothing. Where wall paper is used they soon eat it off in unsightly patches, no doubt seeking the paste underneath. But at Corumba, on the upper Paraguay, I came across the cockroach in a new role. In the house where we were staying there were nearly a dozen children, and every one of them had their eyelashes more or less eaten off by cockroaches–a large brown species, one of the commonest kind throughout Brazil. The eyelashes were bitten off irregularly, in some cases quite close to the lid. Like most Brazilians, these children had very long, black eyelashes, and their appearance thus defaced was odd enough. The trouble was confined to children, I suppose because they are heavy sleepers and do not disturb the insects at work. My wife and I sometimes brushed cockroaches from our faces at night, but thought nothing more of the matter. The roaches also bite off bits of the toenails. Brazilians very properly encourage the large house spiders, because they tend to rid the house of other insect pests. The Louisiana Populist [Natchitoches, LA] 12 February 1897: p. 4
Bed-bugs are hardly benign insects, but they seem to have grossly exceeded their brief in this case:
Killed by Bedbugs.
A remarkable case of the death of a woman was reported recently from Franklin township, Beaver County, Pa. The death occurred while the woman was suffering with a violent attack of headache, to which she has been subject for nearly three years. For the past three years she has been living in an old house which was badly infested with bedbugs. Shortly after moving into it she began to be troubled with a strange type of headache, which seemed to increase in violence with each returning attack until at times she was rendered unconscious by the severe pains, which she often described as resembling a heavy weight or pressure on the top of her head. The strange nature of the case and his inability to render aroused the attending physician’s curiosity, and with the consent of the bereaved husband, he cut open the skull after the woman’s death. He found firmly lodged on the top of the brain in a clotted mass, a large number of bed-bugs. How they got there baffles all who have heard of the case. The doctor has placed his strange find in alcohol and has sent an account of the case to a medical school in New York. Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 17 February 1888: p. 3
Naturally, I have to add the caveat that the sufferer, the physician, and the medical school are unnamed, in the time-honored manner of urban legend. And Harrisburg is a long way from Beaver County.
We began with flies, let us finish with maggots because while flies are the messengers of the angel of death, their maggots get you coming and going…. Maggots do have their place–in genuine corpses and possibly for cleaning out infected wounds. But they are a dreadful way to die.
EATEN BY MAGGOTS
PITIABLE CASE OF AN OLD MAN FROM BARBER COUNTY
A very pitiable case of an old man, friendless and unable to care for himself is at Dudley’s sanitarium on North Market street. About a week ago an old man drifted in here from Barber county. He stayed at a place on the corner of Harry and Hydraulic avenues and became very ill with diabetis [sic] and was unable to care for himself. He was removed to the city hospital and remained there two days. As he was absolutely penniless, the hospital could not afford to keep him and he was taken to the county jail. He was placed in a cell and made as comfortable as possible. As the man was helpless and unable to take care of himself, he was soon in a horrible condition. Yesterday a Mrs. Cox, who does much work among the poor classes, found him there and arranged to have him removed to the Dudley place. The men who moved him, had to protect themselves with handkerchiefs soaked in alcohol, while they washed and dressed him in clean clothing. It was found that he was practically being eaten alive by maggots. The sight was too horrible for some of the men to stand and they had to retire from the room. Many think that the city needs a hospital under police supervision where unfortunate cases like this can be cared for until arrangements can be made for a proper home for them. The Wichita [KS] Beacon 4 July 1899: p. 5
Many might think that a better class of pesticide was what was needed, to control the flies.
One might say that such things would not have happened to the gentleman above, if he had had someone to look after him. But maggots will find a way.
EATEN BY MAGGOTS Horrible Death of a Woman at Milwaukee.
Milwaukee, Wis., Aug. 13. Mrs. Anna Beatty, who lived with her family at Bay View, last evening, died a most horrible death. About two weeks ago a fly got into one of her nostrils, and it was some time before she was able to remove it, and when she did an itching sensation remained and her nose and throat began to swell. She became alarmed, and a week ago Sunday a physician was called. Since that time Mrs. Beatty had been suffering in a manner almost indescribable, and the doctors say a similar case is unknown to medical science. It is stated that soon after she was taken sick maggots were discovered in her nose and throat, and for several days Mrs. Beaty had been unable to swallow anything like food. Her death was the result of having been literally eaten up by maggots. She died in the greatest agony, and her affliction was a puzzle to the doctors. Upon examination of the body it was found that the partition of her nose was gone, a hole had been eaten through the roof of the mouth, the soft palate had disappeared, and the throat was frightfully eaten. St Paul [MN] Daily Globe 14 August 1890: p. 1
Other dire deaths by insect? “The worms crawl in; the worms crawl out…” chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
The theory about rats being exonerated for their role in spreading the Black Death, with plague gerbils now being blamed—a premise for a Monty Python sketch if ever there was one—made me think about another type of Black Death: the cholera. And from there it all went downhill to the brief survey you see before you, not about certain fortean phenomena associated with the pandemics, nor gruesome incidents arising from the disease’s horrible mortality, but about–cholera jokes.
The disease was (and is) no laughing matter. It was dubbed “The Black Death” for the blackened faces of dehydrated victims, some of whom died within hours. Six massive pandemics were reported up through the early part of the 20th century and the disease still kills over 100,000 people a year. The fact that jokes could be made about such a hideous threat is a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit, or, realistically, the usual denial and gallows humor triggered by trauma.
There was much controversy over cholera’s source and it was this ignorance that caused so much terror. It was believed to be caused by eating watermelons, pineapples, or other fresh fruit; by over-indulgence in alcohol; and from drinking chilled water in the summer. Pork was also implicated. Miasma theory suggested that bad air or stenches were to blame for disease and that bad odors signaled the presence of cholera. Immigrants from Eastern Europe were regarded with the gravest suspicion. Even the great Pasteur had no real answers. In 1892 his advice for staying well was “Keep the abdomen warm, avoid fruit, bad water, and chances of contagion.”
Some doctors suggested boiling everything eaten or drunk: a humorous story from the 1880s told of a man who insisted that his wife boil pancakes and ice and burn her “Hamburg lace” and “Brussels carpets” for fear of invasion by foreign microbes. In 1914 a reporter claimed that the Austrian military was white-washing their coal to avoid contagion from Russian prisoners-of-war. How, exactly, that was supposed to help, remains a mystery. Panic over cholera was as pervasive as that seen in recent Ebola outbreaks. It was said that fear of the disease alone killed many of the victims.
A man who had been sentenced to death at Vienna, was offered a full pardon, if he would consent to pass the night in the bed of a person who had died of cholera. In about four hours he was seized with vomiting, violent cramps, and all the symptoms of cholera. Ultimately, by medical assistance, his life was saved. His astonishment was unbounded when he was informed that the bed was perfectly pure. The Daily Dispatch [Richmond, VA] 13 November 1855: p. 4
Such uncertainty and panic, naturally, led to many dubious preventatives and remedies of all descriptions.
SOME CHOLERA DISINFECTANT.
A Cincinnati local was presented, during the hot weather, with a sample of a “deodorizer and cholera disinfectant,” with a request to notice it. He says he noticed it as soon as he smelt it, and thus relates the sequel:
Didn’t wish to terrify the family by the ostentatious display of cholera precautions of an extraordinary nature, so we took our patent deodorizer home secretly, concealed under our coat.
Terrible commotion in the street-car. The windows were thrown up hastily, handkerchiefs applied furiously to noses, and a general application of camphor gum, of which each one had a supply in his pocket. Profane fellows swore at the Board of Health for not cleaning the streets. One was sure it was in the gutters: another thought it was in the air; a toper, half drunk, said he was satisfied “it was in the (hic) water.”
“I’ll tell you what it’s in,” said a gloomy man, eyeing us suspiciously.
“What?” the passengers shrieked, with one voice:
“It’s in the car!”
With a wide yell, they jumped up at once and tumbled out, leaving us all alone, and monarch of all we deodorized.
Got into the house unperceived, and deposited the disinfectant in the cellar, and then hurried back to the office. There was a good deal of it about our clothes, so much so that one or two men who owed us borrowed money avoided us altogether. Felt emotions in the region of the stomach, that were disagreeably suggestive. Got a little alarmed, and concluded to deodorize the disinfectant, which we did with a glass of brandy. Felt a little better ourself, but began to feel alarmed about the effect of that disinfecting; compound upon the family. Hurried home — found the house shut up, and nobody in. Terrible smell about the house — neighbors all terrified. Asked one of them where my family was, and he said they had gone down to the bone-boiling district, to get out of the smell!
Opened the door, but had to close it again, the smell was so bad. Went around to the back yard, and saw the rats leaving in great precipitation. A neighbor suggested that a candle be lowered down the chimney, to test the foulness of the air before the house was opened. Saloons in the neighborhood doing an immense business in the sale of brandy and whisky. Flannel belts in demand. A country-woman with a load of watermelons mobbed and driven back. Arrival of a police officer, who arrested us for keeping a nuisance on our premises. Explanations made, and we are paroled until the house can be opened. Burnt some pitch on the front doorstep and were then enabled to get to throw up the windows. Whew! neighbors said they preferred cholera.
The disinfectant is nearly abolished now, and family back again, enjoying their usual health, they say they don’t wish to be disinfected any more. Boston [MA] Journal 13 October 1866: p. 2
As an aside, the disease had ravaged Savannah, Georgia in July of the same year, so this wasn’t an “off year” for cholera.
Physicians were one source of cholera humor.
Nibs: Peculiar feature about this epidemic of cholera in Europe, Nobs.
Nobs: What’s that?
Nibs: Why, the more the disease spreads, you see, the more it is contracted. The Medical Brief, Vol. 22, 1894
“How do you like your new French doctor?”
“Well, I told him I had cholera, because I didn’t know how to say dyspepsia in French, and I’m afraid he has not given me the right remedies.” Wit and Humor of the Physician, Henry Frederic Reddall, 1906
When cholera broke out, there was often difficulty in finding gravediggers; sometimes four or five men would be needed to be successively hired before a grave could be finished. One Ohio gravedigger seems to have kept his nerve and his sense of humor:
When the body of Hillary Neil, who was the first citizen of Xenia [OH] to die with the cholera, was taken to the cemetery, Mr. Cline, not having received notice in sufficient time, did not have the grave ready to receive it. One of the men who accompanied the corpse grew impatient at the delay, and stepping up to Mr. Cline said: “Can’t you keep a few graves dug ahead, and not wait till a man dies, and you get an order before you begin the work, and thus keep us waiting?” “Certainly,” replied Mr. Cline, “if you will take the measure of the people before they die; and if you think that a good idea, I will just take your measure right here, and when they haul you out, will put you in without delay.” This put a quietus upon his enthusiasm, and he did not leave his measure. History of Greene County: Together with Historic Notes on the Northwest, R. S. Dills, 1881
The Hartford Courant told this story in 1869:
“Cholera fenced in. — You have noticed the flaming handbills setting forth the virtues of a cholera remedy, that are posted by the hundreds on the board fence enclosing the ground on Main Street, where Roberts’ opera house is being erected. Well, there was a timid countryman, the other day, who had so far recovered from the ‘cholera scare’ as to venture into the city with a horse and wagon load of vegetables; and thereby hangs a tale. He drove moderately along the street, when he suddenly spied the word ‘Cholera,’ in big letters on the new fence, and he staid to see no more. Laying the lash on to his quadruped, he went past the handbills like a streak of lightning, went—’nor stood on the order of his going’ — up past the tunnel, planting the vegetables along the entire route, — for the tail-board had loosened, — hardly taking breath, or allowing his beast to breathe, till he reached home at W___.
“Safely there, he rushed wildly into the midst of his household, exclaiming,
“‘O, wife, wife, they have got the cholera in Hartford, and have fenced it in.'” The Funny Side of Physic, Addison Darre Crabtre, M.D., 1880
You cannot have everything, as the man said when he was down with small-pox and cholera, and the yellow fever came into the neighbourhood. (1881)
Dear Sir, I was the first to discover Asiatic cholera and communicate it to the public. (1906 joke book)
During the prevalence of the cholera in Ireland, a soldier, hurrying into the mess-room, told his commanding officer that his brother had been carried off two days before by a fatal malady, expressing his apprehensions that the whole regiment would be exposed to a similar danger in the course of the following week.
“Good heavens!” ejaculated the officer, “what then did he die of?”
“Why, your honor, he died of a Tuesday.” Gems of Irish Wit and Humor, 1906
A little girl being sent to the store to purchase some dyestuff, and forgetting the name of the article, said to the clerk, “John, what do folks dye with?” “Die with? Why, cholera, sometimes,” replied John. “Well, I believe that’s the name; I want three cents’ worth.” The Revolution 29 December 1870
Cholera and Watermelon
During the camping of the First Regiment at Santa Rosa, the pickets found considerable difficulty in preventing the men absenting themselves without leave, a circumstance for which the mint juleps of the town bar-rooms and the large contingent of pretty Santa Rosa girls—small blame to them—were chiefly accountable. One particularly sultry evening, while the sentinels were pacing their beats with their tongues fairly hanging out of their mouths with heat, and wondering whether the pirates in the mess tent would drink every last drop of beer before the “relief” came, one of the guards observed a private approaching, who was staggering along under the combined load of much conviviality and an enormous watermelon under each arm.
Literary men have, somehow, received a kind of social black eye; that is, no one believes that they are quite as good husbands or as good fathers as they should be; and, from the observatory of a casual view, this is correct. Few people know to what extremities literary men are reduced. Few, very few indeed, know how they court the so-called muse of inclination. The man who handles the drawing-knife or plane can, if he be in good physical condition, do his work creditably; but the literary man, though he be in robust health, and though he may not have an ache or a pain, is frequently unable to do acceptable work. This is a curious freak which no student of metaphysics can explain, for the mind of man, although it is constantly becoming clearer and more capable of comprehension, is still something which a Newton cannot define, nor a Bacon perfectly explore. A man’s mind seems to have but little to do with his affections, for, although his heart may be warm, his words are sometimes cold.
“I want you to go to bed,” said Mr. Mecklamore, the well-known novelist, to his little girl. “Every night when I sit down to work you persist in snorting around. Go to bed; I’ve got work to do.”
“She can’t understand you,” said Mrs. Mecklamore; “I don’t think that she is well.”
“She’s always ill when I want to work. She seems to study the time. What do you want to snort that way for? You are enough to drive a man crazy!”
“Robert, I don’t think the little girl can help it,” the wife replied. “She is too young to know anything about the importance of your work.”
“Well it’s time she was learning,” the author exclaimed, turning, with an angry air. “Other people can work without interruption. I don’t see why I should be imposed on. I’ll go down town, I can write there without interruption,” and he gathered up his papers and left the house.
Quietly, and without interruption, he worked for several hours. Occasionally, when his mind was deep in the molding of a character, he would see a little anxious face, and hear an exclamation of gladness; but he waved aside the vision and worked on. Late at night a boy came with a note. The message ran:
“I am very uneasy about Dora; I think she has the diphtheria.”
“My work is done for tonight,” he mused; and, arranging his papers with a discontented air, he went home. Ho found the doctor there. The little sufferer smiled at him when he entered.
She tried to say something, but “papa’s come,” was all he could understand.
An unfinished manuscript stared at him.
“Is it a very violent attack?” he asked of the physician.
The mother sat on the edge of the bed. The father approached. He could not see the lines of the manuscript now. The little girl choked, and they lifted her up. The father put his arm under her head. The unfinished manuscript was dim.
“She has been ailing for several days,” said the mother, “but we did not think there was anything serious the matter with her. She has been so gay and so full of frolic that we didn’t think anything could ail her.”
The sufferer looked at her father and tried to speak, but failing, she put her hand into his and smiled. The unfinished manuscript was dim. With a struggle she said:
“Am I bad?”
“No, angel,” whispered the father.
“Do you want me to go to bed?”
“No darling.” The unfinished manuscript was fading more and more.
“She is past all help,” the doctor said.
The mother hid her face in the window curtain. The father took her in his arms. She looked at him and was dead.
The unfinished manuscript had faded.
The Daily Globe [St. Paul MN] 3 January 1884: p. 3
The sun is shining, the weather is clement, the birds are chirping in the shrubbery, and it is altogether a grand day to be alive. On such a lovely day, one’s thoughts must, inevitably, turn to bodysnatching.
It is a sinister fact that, before the passage of the various Anatomy Acts, the doctors of the past paid for stolen corpses for their dissecting rooms. What is less well-known is that various individuals in what might be termed the “pre-corpse stage” sold their own bodies to the anatomists, assigning legal title to their mortal remains with an official document. One wonders if such contracts were valid if not signed in blood?
The temperate found many morals to point in these transactions.
THE BIRD OF DEATH DEAD
Demise of a Man Who Sold His Own Body to Buy Drink
Vienna, July 15. A man known as the “Bird of Death,” employed in the Vienna general hospital, met with a singular fate in the discharge of his gruesome duties. His name was Alvis Paxes. He was about 55 years old, and of herculean physique. For 33 years he carried all the corpses from the mortuary chamber, hence his weird name, which the hospital jesters gave him. He died to-day of blood poisoning caused by handling the body of a patent who died from an infectious disease.
Some years ago he sold for cash his own body to a museum manager and spent the money in drink. To-day his body was handed over to the purchaser. Pittsburg [PA] Dispatch 16 July 1890: p. 1
I expect the original German had the connotation of something like “carrion crow.”
This squib weighs whether the drink or the selling of his aged mother’s body was the greater sin. Whisky seems to have won out.
Sold His Body for Whisky
Cincinnati, Nov. 17. John Winkler, an old rag picker, who was found dead in his hovel, 608 West Sixth Street, this morning, was a peculiar example of the depths of degradation to which a human being may sink. For many years he was a familiar figure in the West End. For 10 years past it is very doubtful if he drew a single sober breath. He lived in the utmost filth and squalor, and when found dead in his bed had his clothes and boots on. Four years ago his aged mother died, and Winkler sold her body to a medical college. He also sold his own body to be delivered after death and squandered the money in whisky. The Somerset [PA] Herald 23 November 1887: p. 2
Some had seller’s remorse.
Trying to Buy Back His Own Body.
This queer story comes from Massachusetts: A man who lives in a suburb of Lowell is seeking to have a deed given by him twenty years ago recovered. The deed conveyed his body to a surgeon now practicing in Great Falls, N.H., for the sum of ten dollars and other considerations, possession to be taken on his death. Since the deed was made the giver has made a fortune in South America and has decided that he would like a Christian burial. The deed provides that the body shall be dissected and the skeleton articulated and presented to a medical university. The lawyers have decided that the deed holds good and that the only alternative is to buy off the doctor. The giver of the deed has made a big offer, but it has been refused. Hartford Courant. Daily Nevada State Journal 16 January 1892: p. 1
Others imposed on good-hearted physicians.
TWO HEARTS BUT NO CONSCIENCE
Police of Naples Looking for a Man Who Sold his Own Body to Physicians
NAPLES, April 3. The police of this city are looking for Giuseppe di Maggio, a freak possessed of two hearts, but, evidently, no conscience. Some time ago a medical institute of New York bought Maggio’s body to be delivered after death, for $8,000. With this money Maggio settled down in Naples and lived merrily on his capital, which was soon spent. He ingratiated himself into the favour of a wealthy landowner, whose sister he promised to marry. He pretended that he was to receive a large sum of money from America and supported his story with a fraudulent cablegram. On the strength of his story he borrowed money right and left, including his prospective brother-in-law, and then skipped.
Now a warrant is out for his arrest. The Evening Statesman [Walla Walla, WA] 3 April 1906: p. 2
Given the date, we may be permitted to doubt the strict veracity of this item.
Strange Freak to Get Money
Louisville, Ky., Dec. 5. Milton Clark, who is employed at the University of Louisville, medical department, to take care of the dead bodies brought to the place for examination, sold his own body yesterday for the thirty-third time to physicians for dissection. Whenever he is sore need of money he visits a physician interested in one of the various medical colleges and sells his body. Lawrence [KS] Journal World 5 December 1898: p. 2
Still others, like this sad lady, with the “checquered past,” sold their bodies to clear a debt. I have not yet found Annie E. Jones’s grave in Bridgeport, but Dr. John Cooke was a luminary of the Eastern Ohio Medico-Chirurgical Society.
A Singular Suicide
There has lived on Glenn’s Run and about Martin’s Ferry and Bridgeport, for the past few years, a queer, gnarly-looking little old French woman, named Annie E. Jones. Her past history has been varied, checquered and not altogether reputable. She had several children, all dead or wandering. She was twice married—the last time to a negro. By some of her children there came a granddaughter named Agnes Racine, a white girl, of rather prepossessing appearance, and together she and her grandmother lived at Martin’s Ferry, till a colored man, named Boggs, essaying to be a Baptist preacher, living in Bridgeport, concluding his Christian duty was to discard his wife and make love to Miss Racine. The tender emotion was reciprocated by Agnes, and Boggs quit preaching, began to vote the Democratic ticket—kicked his old wife out of doors, and took old Mrs. Jones, her granddaughter Agnes, and the illegitimate young one by her, to his home on top of the hill, south of Bridgeport, on Vincent Mitchell’s place, where they have since nestled. Having voted for Hancock, he next, it is alleged—so the old woman said to us the evening she suicide—he began to abuse her terribly, knocking her down and otherwise showing his high appreciation of his—grandmother—by his baby. It seems Agnes lent a helping hand also when necessary to keep the old woman in proper subjection. Time flew apace, and the old woman—who by the way, was rather a good French scholar and more perhaps than ordinarily intelligent—grew tired of her rations of abuse, and soured and sickened of life. This Boggs, as many of the Chronicles’ readers know, was charged with a tried for adultery with this Racine girl in St. Clairsville, and much to the regret of our people, was acquitted; since which time he has been living, it is alleged, in open criminality with the girl, though he claims to be married to her.
The old woman had contracted a bill with Dr. Cook, amounting to $17 for herself and Agnes. She had no money, and though Boggs abused it, she claimed to own, in fee, her mortal body—65 years old, not very comely, and weighing, perhaps, 80 to 100 pounds. She wanted to pay her debts, so she came to see her creditor, Dr. Cooke; he was not in, she went home, leaving a message for him to come up at once. He went, and she asked the doctor “what bodies were worth for dissection?” He replied it depended on certain contingencies. She then informed him she meant to deed him her body, after death, and as she meant to be honest, she would give him the paper just then. The doctor informed her such a transaction such as that must be regularly drawn up and acknowledged, and referred her to R.J. Alexander as a suitable person to “draw up the papers and make them full and strong.” So she proceeded to wash her clothes and her person, and all things being in readiness she visited Mr. Alexander at his office, when Mr. McDonald, Alexander’s partner, drew up at her request and had acknowledged the following deed:
Know all men by these presents, That I, Anna Eliza Jones, for and in consideration of seventeen dollars in hand paid, the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledge from Dr. John Cook, of Bridgeport, Ohio, do hereby give grant and convey to said Dr. John Cooke my body after my death, to be disposed of as said Dr. John Cooke may desire, either for dissection by any medical college, or for his own private use for dissection. Said Dr. John Cooke to have immediate possession and control of my body as soon as life therein shall be extinct and wherever my body may be at that time.
It is hereby witnessed that the real considerable of this deed is the release by said Dr. John Cooke or his claim against me for medical professional services, for myself and granddaughter, Agnes Racine, which amounts to seventeen dollars above mentioned, and by accepting this deed said Dr. John Cooke released said claim.
In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and seal this 25th day of March 1881
Anna E. Jones
The signing and sealing of the above was witnessed by the undersigned at the request of said Anna E. Jones
State of Ohio, Belmont County ss: before me, F.C. Robinson, a Notary Public and for said county, personally appeared the above named Anna Eliza Jones and acknowledge the signing of sealing of the above instrument to be her voluntary act and deed, this 25th day of March 1881.
T.C. Robinson, Notary Public.
It was now late in the evening of Friday, and having all things in readiness, she presented the Dr. with his “deed,” receiving therefor his receipt in full for his bill, and the old woman mounted the hill by the aid of a lantern “to deliver the goods.”
Reaching Boggs’, she called for writing materials, wrote a letter to a Mrs. Berry, in Martin’s Ferry, saying among other things, that “ere that reached her the writer would be dead,” &c., Giving this to Agnes, with orders to mail it, she kissed the baby, called for the keys of the door, which at first were refused her, but then given her, she took a chair in hand and mounted it beside a post in the yard to which was fastened a clothes line—fastened one end of the rope around her neck, the other to the post, and pushed her old bark off, into the darkness and eternity. She informed Boggs & Co., that she meant to hang herself—but, as he alleges, she had threatened to destroy herself with pistols and by starvation before, he paid no serious attention to it. When morning came, however, Boggs & Co. saw the old woman hanging by the neck dead. The alarm was given, Coroner Garrett summoned, and after hearing the facts as related, he decided Anna E. Jones came to her death by her own hand, and of premeditation. The goods were delivered. The old woman was a good as her word. Setting a wholesome example to many creditors, to either “pay up” or “go and do likewise.” We can but revere the old woman’s memory for her determined purpose to pay an honest Dr. bill. Oh! That others we know of would profit by the old woman’s example—pay their bills we mean—or—or—well, a “word to the wise is sufficient.” Dr. Cooke waived all present claim to the old woman: her body was taken in charge by the Township Trustees, and by them buried on Sabbath afternoon, at Bridgeport Cemetery. A solitary vehicle alone formed the funeral cortege, with not a mourner to drop a tear for the strange determined old suicide.
As they rattled her bones over the stones,
The old dead woman that Dr. Cooke owns.
Belmont Chronicle [St. Clairsville, OH] 31 March 1881: p. 3
The rhyme at the end comes from a much-quoted poem called “The Pauper’s Drive” attributed to Thomas Hood. It has the refrain
Rattle his bones over the stones
He’s only a pauper whom nobody owns.
Ohio was home to some of the giants among bodysnatchers. Yet even the “Prince of Ghouls,” probably knowing that his body would be stolen anyway, decided to profit from it when alive.
The man about whom more graveyard stories have been told than about any other “resurrectionist,” was “Old Cunny,” the prince of ghouls, who in his day was known to every person in this part of the country, at least by name. He was the bogyman for all ill-behaved children. He was popularly called “Old Man Dead.” His real name was William Cunningham. He was born in Ireland in 1807. He was a big, raw-boned individual, with muscles like Hercules, and a protruding lower jaw, a ghoul by vocation, a drunkard by habit and a coward by nature. His wife was a bony, brawny, square-jawed Irish woman, with a mouth like an alligator. Both had a tremendous appetite for whiskey. Cunny had sold his own body to the Medical College of Ohio. When he died of heart trouble in 1871, the body was turned over to the college. Mrs. Cunningham, the bereaved widow, managed to get an additional $5 bill for the giant carcass of her deceased spouse. The skeleton of “Old Cunny” is to this day the piece de resistance in the Museum of the Medical College of Ohio. Daniel Drake and His Followers, Otto Juettner (Cincinnati, OH: Harvey Publishing Company, 1909): p. 395
Cunningham’s apprentice and eventual partner followed Old Man Dead’s example.
CHARLEY KENTON, THE RESURRECTIONIST,
GOES BACK ON THE PROFESSION
HE SELLS HIS OWN BODY TO THE DOCTORS
AND IS CARRIED FROM THE DEATH-BED TO THE PICKLING VAT
Last Friday night a coffin containing the dead body of a colored man was driven to the Ohio Medical College, taken from the wagon and carried up the stairs, with little, if any, effort at concealment. Arriving in the “dead-room” the body was taken from the coffin, the large artery in the side of the neck cut, the blood removed, and the arteries filled with a preservative fluid, after which the body, divested of its clothing, was tumbled, with no further ceremony, into the “pickling tub,” along with a couple of dozen others which had been quietly accumulating during the past month. There was a peculiar lack of the secrecy which accompanies most of the operations of this sort by which dead bodies are transferred to the dead-room of the college, and a business-like air about the whole transaction which indicated that it was somewhat different from the ordinary cases of grave-robbing and body-snatching. A little inquiry into the case showed that it was a peculiar one—that, in fact, the body was that of one of the most notorious body-snatchers of the city, and that the lack of secrecy in the matter was from the fact that it was merely the carrying out of a plain business transaction, that the dead man had in his life sold his body to the college for dissection after death, receiving the payment, and that in accordance with this agreement his body was thus being removed to the dissecting room for that purpose.
Charley Keaton, the dead man, was in his life one of the most active body-snatchers in this city, and from his hands have hundreds of “stiffs”—bodies from many of the burying grounds in the city and vicinity, somebody’s loved ones to whose memory tears have fallen and marble shafts aspired heavenward—been sent down through the terrible “chute,” and upward through the death shaft to the dissecting room.
Keaton was a colored man of about forty, and had been for more than ten years in the business of body snatching, making good money at it, and coming to rather enjoy it than otherwise. To him there was nothing more in the handling of stiffs than in so many bolts of cloth or sacks of grain, and no more in dissection than in the business of the butcher or meat vender.
He began his work with “Old Cunny,” the noted resurrectionist, and followed it through all seasons and all weather, until only a few weeks before his death. In it he encountered all sorts of weather and exposures, and so contracted colds and a cough which finally led to bleeding of the lungs, and so his life among the dead ended in death, whose presence was as familiar to him as the days of his years of manhood.
To him the medical college, the chute, the dead-room, the pickling-vault, and even dissection had no horrors; familiarity with these had deprived him of that feeling of repugnance so common to mankind, and especially to his race, and as a result he had expressed a willingness in life that his remains after death should be submitted to the dissecting knife “in the interest of science,” as he said, as he considered his business and that which he supplied, inseparably interwoven with the science of anatomy and medicine, and as a result he had sold—deliberately sold during his life-time–his body to the college professors, receiving the usual price, $35 cash in hand, and giving a receipt and statement that his body should become the property of the college after dissection.
Indeed, he seemed rather to prefer that his skeleton should stand beside that of old “Cunny” in the museum of the college than to mold to nothingness in the dark, damp earth, and in life he frequently contemplated Cunny’s skeleton as it stands, spade in hand, in the college, evidently reflecting that he would someday stand beside it, and keep the “ole man” company through the many years that the college shall stand, instead of being consigned to the changes and final nothingness of the Potter’s field grave.
So when old Charley died on Friday last, the college authorities were notified, his wife, who had accompanied him on many of his nightly expeditions, and is herself an expert anatomist, prepared the body for dissection, and after the brief funeral service, it was removed from the house on Barr Street, where he lived and whence he had sallied forth for many nightly excursions in the homes of the dead, and taken directly to the college, where it was prepared and put in pickle. It is pronounced “excellent material,” being well developed and obtained without serious delay after death.
Whether this is strictly “professional,” as viewed from a body-snatcher’s stand-point, seems extremely doubtful. A system which takes the body with the consent of all parties concerned direct from the death-bed to the dissecting-room, and upon an agreed-upon and already paid price, seems to be one which must undermine the business of the profession, and therefore should be frowned down by every patriotic body-snatcher. Hawarden [IA] Independent 14 August 1878: p. 2
I’ve asked the librarians and archivists at the University of Cincinnati School of Medicine (the successor to the Medical College of Ohio) if Cunningham and Kenton’s mounted skeletons are still in their collection, but no one seems to know. If you have any answers, sack ‘em up and send to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.
A Hasty Conclusion Which Gave a Father Much Pain—An Irishman’s Waistcoat the Cause of It All.
N.Y. Tribune. A young husband and father was hastening along in a suburban town one afternoon not long ago to cover the short distance between the railroad station and his home. When he started for business in the morning his little son was ill with a fever, so anxiety had driven the father from his office at an earlier hour than usual. As he caught sight of his cosey home, in its setting of greensward, ivy and shade trees, he could not help thinking how blessed he was to have such a place to live in, and, above all, that there were awaiting him within it a loving wife, a handsome son and the prettiest, sweetest, cunningest baby in or out of Christendom.
As the reason of his early coming home crossed his mind, however, a cloud spread over his joy, and he quickened his pace to put an end to his suspense. He had come within half a block of his home, on the opposite side of the street from it, when he saw something white on its door-bell knob. He imagined he saw the object sway gently in the breeze. Gazing intently on it, he had walked a dozen paces when of a sudden he felt a sinking in his heart, an indefinable impression of fear, of poignant grief and desolation.
In another instant the feeling had transplanted into words, “My God, it’s crape, Arthur is dead,” and the breath seemed to leave his body. Pictures of hopes, and hopes destroyed, of a happy hearth and a desolate one, of a sunny smile with an aureola of curls and a little face pale and cold in death, lacerated his soul like so many knives, as they flashed across his brain with the rapidity of sparks from an electric machine.
“Why did they not telegraph? Perhaps they did, and the telegram did not reach me. It takes me an hour to get home. How will Mary bear up under it? Perhaps it has killed her, too! No, no; she wouldn’t die. She would live for baby. O, God, why did you take my first born? Why did you not take me instead? All my dreams for his future, all, all for naught.” It can not be said that he thought these things. The impressions that gleamed across his consciousness would have translated themselves thus had they not succeeded one another too rapidly to be put into words.
He had slackened his gait, casting his eyes on the ground, but now he hurried along, and summoned up courage to look at the white object again. It did not seem to be crape now, as he neared it, but what else could it be? A puzzled uncertainty lightened his load of grief, but not until he had crossed the street and entered his gate did he solve the mystery.
The white cloth was a waistcoat turned inside out, which an old Irishman had hung on the doorbell knob while he was cutting the grass. It did not take the undeceived father long to tear the waistcoat down, fling it clear over the fence into a neighbor’s yard, rush into the house and ask breathlessly.
“How is Arthur?”
“Why, he’s much better. What is the matter, John?”
John at first felt heartily ashamed of himself, but as he looked at his wife, who still wore a gaze of troubled inquiry, at the baby in her arms and at Arthur, whose arms were about his legs and whose mouth was turned up to receive the kiss which would follow mother’s, a feeling of thankfulness overflowed his heart at the thought that after all his grief might have had sufficient ground, and he kissed wife and children heartily.
When he told his wife the story she did not scold him for his foolishness, but, moving closer to him, said:
“How thankful we ought to be that it isn’t so!”
Cincinnati [OH] Commercial Tribune 4 November 1890: p. 2
There are a number of 19th-century tales of the panic caused by seeing what was believed to be crape hung on the door to mark a death.
Susanna Cornett shared this awkwardly spelled version of a popular hymn on the subject: “Ring the Bell Softly (There’s Crape on the Door.)” I imagine it was set by a half-drunk compositor while the printer’s devil snickered.