Corpse-Quake: A Grave-Diggers’ Malady: 1889

The Death of the Grave Digger, Carlos Schwabe, 1895


A Strange Nervous Malady Which Sometimes Attacks Grave-Diggers.

(New York World.)

A strange sort of mental affection, known as “corpse-quake,” has often been found to exist among grave-diggers. It is no uncommon occurrence that a person employed in cemeteries for many ears is suddenly afflicted with a shaking similar to that experienced by persons suffering from ague.

A grave-digger who has been employed at the Cypress Hills Cemetery for fifteen years was seen yesterday by a reporter of the World.

“I know of a number of such cases,” said he. “Ten years ago we had three diggers here who had worked together for quite a while. One of the three who used to be a very lively chap and always willing and ready to tell a good yarn, became very quiet all at once. His companions noticed this, and thinking that Joe was not feeling well, let him alone. There was to be a funeral in the afternoon and we went over to dig the grave. As soon as Joe stuck his spade in the ground he began to shake. His companions told him to stop working if he didn’t feel well, but Joe paid no attention and continued with his work until the job had been finished. Three or four more graves were made that day, and every time Joe put down his spade he shook. The other two tried to make fun of him by imitating his shaking while at work. A few days later Joe’s companions had the corpse quake too and a week later had to stop work entirely.

“I thought that the three men had contracted malaria, but, strange to say, they never would have that peculiar shake while away from the cemetery. Joe came back to us, but every time he would pick up a spade and try to work, that old trouble would come back. We insisted upon his giving up the job, as he was falling away. He remained at home for about a week, and his wife told us that Joe was getting better again, when one  day his boy mentioned the word “spade” in his father’s presence. It was the strangest thing in the world—no sooner had the boy said ‘spade’ than Joe took the corpse-quake again. He didn’t last long after that. He would be thinking about digging graves all the time, and this made him so sick that he died shortly after. I don’t remember what became of the other two men. They had to give up the job, and, I think, moved away from here altogether.”

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 11 February 1889: p. 4

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 Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead and on Twitter @hauntedohiobook. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Saved by the Clock: 1901

floral clock with swags 1914
1901 funeral flowers in the form of a clock. The hands point to the time of death.


Girl Was Apparently Dead, but Timepiece Aroused Doubt.


Sister Refused to Permit Burial While the Clock Ticked.

Supposed Corpse Was in a Trance and Awoke on the Fifth Day of Her Sleep.

“I am not superstitious,” said the landlady, “but there was something happened at my house about two years ago that made my flesh creep for a while, in spit of my skepticism.

“Among my boarders at that time were a widow named Mrs. Dodson, her sister, Miss Ashby, and a young man whose name was Mr. Duby. Mr. Duby was a dealer in curios. He had in his collection a number of clocks and watches, and on Miss Ashby’s birthday he made her a present of a eight-day clock. This time piece was very fine. It was about two feet high, was made of scented woods inlaid with gold, and the face, with the exception of the slits for the pendulum and the keyholes, appeared to be hermetically sealed.

“Shortly after presenting this gift to Miss Ashby Mr. Dunby left for a trip in Mexico. About 11 o’clock on the Monday after his departure I was getting ready for bed, when Mrs. Dodson tapped on the door and called to me softly through the keyhole.

“’O, Mrs. Clark,’ she said, ‘won’t you come upstairs a moment, please? Alice has been taken ill very suddenly, and I don’t know what to do for her.’

“I threw on my clothes and hurried up to Miss Ashby’s room, but, quick as I had been, it was plain that she was breathing her last. I dispatched my husband posthaste for the doctor around the corner, but before he returned the girl was gone. Mrs. Dodson and another boarder and myself were alone with her when the end came, and the minute we were assured that all was over Mrs. Dodson looked up at the clock on the mantel and said:

“’Ten minutes past eleven. I must stop the clock.’

Could Not Stop the Clock.

“She walked over and opened the painted glass door and put her hand on the pendulum, but the minute she let go it commenced ticking as loudly and regularly as before. Mrs. Dodson looked round at us in surprise.

“’Why, how strange!’ she cried. ‘It won’t stop.’

“She caught the pendulum again. Even as she held it a faint whirring noise was heard inside the clock, as if it rebelled against this restriction of movement, and no sooner was the pendulum released than it went on with its monotonous vibrations. By the time my husband came with the doctor, Mrs. Dodson had worked herself up into a fever of grief and superstitious fear.

“’It won’t stop,’ she said over and over again.

“My husband tried to comfort her. ‘If you want a clock stopped at the hour of death,’ he said, ‘we will have to get another.

“But Mrs. Dodson would not listen to that suggestion. “I must stop this one,’ she said, ‘or none at all. It has been the custom in our family for generations to stop the clock in the death chamber the minute one of us dies, and Alice would never forgive me if I should fail to do the same thing for her.’

“Seeing that her distress was genuine, my husband took the clock downstairs, and began to tinker with it himself. He turned it sideways and upside down—did everything to it, in fact, except to break it into smithereens—but, no matter how he treated it, it kept on running.

“Mrs. Dodson wept unrestrainedly. ‘It is very strange,’ she said. ‘This is the first clock I ever saw that wouldn’t stop when you wanted it to. Most of them take spells and refuse to run, but this one won’t stop running. The phenomenon is something more than mere chance. It is meant as a warning, and I am going to heed it. I am not going to bury Alice till the clock stops.’

Averted a Premature Burial.

“In vain did we argue with her. Doctors and undertakers pronounced Miss Ashby dead, but, although her body was robed for burial, Mrs. Dodson would not consent to embalming or sepulture. For four days the girl lay in her room upstairs, watched constantly by Mrs. Dodson or a trained nurse, and for four days that clock kept up its everlasting tick-tock. On the morning of the fifth day after Miss Ashby’s death Mrs. Dodson looked out as I was passing through the second floor hall and called to me excitedly.

“’I think Alice is coming to,’ she said. ‘Send for the doctor.’

“I was ready to drop with nervousness, but I managed to gather strength enough to summon the doctor, and then we set to work on the girl. It sounds impossible, but she really did revive, and, although very weak and naturally slow of recovery, she finally regained perfect health. For a long time that clock was an object of superstitious veneration, even to the strongest-minded person about the house, and not till Mr. Duby came home from Mexico did our faith in the supernatural give way to practical common sense.

“’That clock,’ said Mr. Duby, ‘Is the product of my own inventiveness. I tinkered away on it for months and finally got the works in such condition that nothing short of absolute destruction could prevent its going for eight days after it was once wound. I used to think I was fooling way my time when I pottered around with those old springs for hours at a stretch, but it proved to be the best work of my life. If it hadn’t been for that clock—’

“And we all shuddered at the thought of what would have happened if it hadn’t been for the clock. Oh, no; there was really nothing unearthly about the affair, but since then I have been a good deal more charitable with persons who are naturally superstitious than I was before.”

The Inter Ocean [Chicago IL] 5 May 1901: p. 33

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It was a wide-spread custom to stop the clocks in a house at the time of death, perhaps symbolising that time was over for the deceased. One stopped the clock to avert bad luck or perhaps to ward off another death in the house. A 1909 compendium of “popular superstitions” recorded: “When anyone has died in a home, the clock must be stopped at once, and all the pictures turned toward the wall, or more of the family will die soon.”

There were various, and sometimes conflicting, beliefs about clocks and death. A sampling:

If a clock, long motionless, suddenly begins to tick or strike, it is a sign of approaching death or misfortune.

Van Smith died Saturday night of pneumonia and typhoid fever. He was a noble youth, just budding into manhood. In the room in which he was sick is an old family clock that has not run for a great many years. Several years ago while old uncle Johnnie Smith, the grandfather of the deceased, was lying sick in the same room, a few hours before his death the clock struck several times. A few years afterward Mr. Wm. Smith, father of the deceased, died in the room, and a short while before his death the clock again struck. On Friday night it struck again and Van died on Saturday night following. It was not running, had not been wound up, and was not touched by any one. This is indeed wonderful, but it is true, and can be verified by a score of witnesses.  The Pulaski [TN] Citizen 12 February 1880: p. 3



We have recently been informed of a truly wonderful clock, which is said to belong to a family in Newport. The clock is of simple construction, and belongs to the family of Mr. L—y; but all the efforts of clockmakers have not been able to make it keep time—consequently, it has been permitted to rest in silence. A few hours before the death of Mr. L—y’s sister, some short time since, the clock suddenly struck one, after a silence of many months. It thus continued to maintain its silence until another member of the family was prostrated with a fatal malady, when it again struck one, and on the following day the child was buried. A year elapsed, when a second child sickened and died. The clock was punctual in sounding one a few hours previous to its death. A third child, a little boy fifteen months old, was afflicted with scrofula, which baffled the skill of his physician, and died. The clock gave the usual warning, and struck one. It has never failed in sounding a death knell when any of the family in whose possession it now is were about to die. “There are stranger things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.”—Cincinnati paper. Ballou Dollar Monthly Magazine Vol. 16, 1862: p. 414

Clocks were also said to stop or “die” at the same moment as their owner, in the manner of the old song “My Grandfather’s Clock,”  which contains the refrain: “But it stopped short, never to go again/ When the old man died”] Perhaps this is why Miss Ashby’s clock stubbornly refused to be stopped.

They have a genuine grandfather’s clock in Maryland, at the residence of the late Thos. M. Clavert, in Cecil county. The clock had been running for twenty-one years without repairs. When Mr. Calvert died, the folks looked at the clock to note the moment of his death. The clock had stopped, and they can’t make it run again. The Atchison [KS] Daily Champion 31 January 1880:p. 2


Stopped Short at Moment of Death of Two Members of the Family.

Omaha, Apri. 2. Doctor John F. Hertzman, a physician who has lived in this city for twenty-five years and has held several minor public offices, died this morning at 5:20 o’clock after an extended illness.

Watchers beside his bedside declare that, at the moment he was declared dead by the attending physician, the clock in the bed chamber ceased to tick. The fact has become known and many curious neighbors have called to see the phenomenon. The clock has been permitted to stand at 5:20.

The curious incident is further emphasized by the fact that three years  ago the same clock also stopped at the exact moment of the daughter’s death.

Another curious fact in connection with Doctor Hertzman’s death is told. His age, according to Omaha time, was 48 years, 6 hours and five minutes.

As Doctor Hertzman was born in France, it is figured by the relatives that he died almost at the moment, if not at the exact moment, of the close of his forty-seventh year, when the difference in time between the two points is considered. Tucson [AZ] Daily Citizen 2 April 1902: p. 8

To be Relentlessly Informative, there has been a lot of loose talk about the term “saved by the bell,” as a reference to bells rigged to ring when a prematurely buried person revived. While such devices did exist, they did not inspire the idiom. The phrase had its origins in the boxing ring.

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.

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

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


The Scenes in a Medical College.

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

How the Young Doctors Carry on the Necessary Work

A Sickening Odor Pervades the Place Where Science Operates

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

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

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

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

Dead men tell no tales.

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

The dead can not feel.

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

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

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

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

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

The subjects are handled by the Anatomical Association.

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

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

A dead body is worth $25.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The college is not an attractive place.

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

It needs a cleaning.

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

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

The old plug-hat adorns the skull.

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

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

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

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

Who can describe that odor?

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

But there is no way to prevent it.

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

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

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

“Pretty good subject, eh?”

“Very fair.”

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

“Nearly through with him?”


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

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

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

He is a fresh subject.

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

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

“How many subjects have you had this winter?”

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

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

Those days of horror are passed.

The college authorities will never take such chances again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were beyond all semblance of shape.

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

Was it a man or woman?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chriswoodyard8 AT

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

A Post-Mortem Room Ghost

A short time ago, I promised my readers an occasional series of “Little Visits to the Great Morgues of Europe,” which started with the morgue at the Monastery of the Mount St. Bernard in the Alps. Further morgues will be profiled, but in scouring the journals of the past for crowd-pleasing details of maggots and decomposition discerning readers demand, I got distracted by this account from a hospital morgue in Dublin, Ireland. I pride myself on not being rattled by the average ghost story, but this one actually brought me up rather short.

A Post-Mortem Room Ghost

[The subjoined is a narrative of the experience of Dr. B__. It has been transcribed for the benefit of readers of the Occult Review by Dr. J.H. Power, the record having been previously checked and its accuracy confirmed by Dr. B__.] 

See me, at the time the following episode happened, a medical student at a hospital in Dublin. I was not quite a novice, being in the third year of my course. I was in the pink of health, and with the happy irresponsibility of the golden age of twenty-one years. In truth I was a bit of a lad, never happier than when I was playing pranks on citizens both offensive and inoffensive. All the same I was never in serious trouble, for up till then a bottle had never touched my lips, and my little differences with the police were the outcome of friendly religious and political fights.

I mention these few facts about myself as a proof that I was, for my age, a normal Irishman, with vague ideals, content to take life as it came, never troubling about anything practical save what the moment gave, and loyally hating the Government.

While I was taking my turn as resident clinical clerk at the hospital, a young man was brought in one morning with a temperature of 106°, a condition known as hyperpyrexia. No cause was found for his high fever at the time, though later it was discovered that he had been suffering from peritonitis, and, for some reason that I have forgotten, he was sent to the wing of the hospital that was reserved for infectious cases. I saw this patient that morning in company with the physician under whose care he was placed, but not again during the day.

As clinical clerk it was my duty to go round the wards during the night and inspect the patients, reporting to the house surgeon or the house physician if I found anything that I thought needed his attention.

About midnight came my visit to the fever wing. This was built separate from the rest of the building, and I had to go some twenty yards in the open air to get to it. The side door of the hospital, through which I left, was kept locked, and on opening it, I found that snow was falling. Turning up the collar of my jacket, I started to make a dash for my destination, when I saw coming towards me through the snow the hyperpyrexia patient who had been brought in the previous morning. He was clad—so far as my impression went, and I confess that I did not think much of how he was clad, and, of course, the light did not favour a casual glance—in the night-shirt and red flannel jacket that were used in the wards.

Stopping short, I waited for him to come up, thinking that he was walking in his sleep; and having some notion that a somnambulist should not be awakened suddenly, I stood back by one of the buttresses that supported the wall of the hospital. As I glanced round, fully expecting to see a nurse running from the fever wing in pursuit, he passed me in the direction of the side door of the hospital. No nurse was in sight, and on looking again for the patient, nobody was to be seen. The man had gone—nowhere, for I had locked the side door on leaving the hospital, on the right of the side door was an unscalable wall, and immediately opposite this side door was the morgue, the door of which was fastened with a Yale lock of which I had the key. He could not have passed back the way he had come, or I should have seen him.

Then I felt that kind of chilliness down the back which is not caused by cold, for I realized that I had come across something a trifle out of the ordinary.

“There’s no fun in snow,” said I to myself, and made a bolt for the fever wing.

On entering the ward, I saw the night-nurse sitting in a chair asleep, with a book in her lap. I went to the bed of the hyperpyrexia man, and, as I expected, found him dead, the condition of the body showing that he had died but a few minutes before. I next went to the slate on which the night nurse wrote reports of patients, and found that opposite the number of the hyperpyrexia patient’s bed, she had noted that his temperature had fallen and he was better, not more than a quarter of an hour previously.

I then went to the nurse. She woke with a start, and exclaimed, “My God, you did give me a fright. I thought Sister had come in and struck me on the mouth with a clothes-brush.”

“How is No. 19?” I asked.

“Oh, much better,” she replied, “his temperature has dropped.”

“Should you be surprised to hear that he was dead?” I answered.

She was much upset, but still she was not to blame, and as there was no more to be done, the night-porters were sent for, and the body taken to the morgue.

At 9.30 a.m. the pathologist gave demonstrations in the morgue, and by that hour bodies had to be prepared for him by the clinical clerks. This rather nauseous task fell to my share during the week, and about 2 a.m. I decided that I would get on with the preparation of the body of the hyperpyrexia man.

I own that the job had no attractions for me. I was feeling more upset by what I had seen in the snow than I would have believed possible. Up to that time I had laughed at the idea of being afraid of anything uncanny, and would have gone out of my way to meet a ghost. Besides, our morgue was not a very cheerful place. No post-mortem room that ever I came across has many pretensions to liveliness, but in addition the gas burner in our morgue was faulty, and had a way of slowly and silently allowing a jet of gas to grow up to a flare, and then cutting it off till the flame faded to a minute spark. However I would not allow to myself that I was so badly scared as not to be able to do what there was to be done, so I went down to the morgue.

I had to hold myself well together as I put the key in the lock. . . . Then with another effort I pushed the door open.

The gas had not been turned out by the porter, and by its uncertain light I saw the corpse lying on the table, covered with a sheet, with the feet towards me, and facing me, standing at the head, close against the table was the Figure of the man himself, watching.

I must have been a plucky youngster in those days, for even then, frightened as I was, I did not give in. I remember that I did not look straight at the Watcher, but kept my eyes slightly averted. I had in my mind the notion that he could not, or would, not blame me for what I was about to do to his body, if I did not know he was there, and so I pretended that I did not see him. Why I should have thought that he would be so easily deceived I cannot tell, but one has strange notions at trying times.

Strive as I would, however, I could not bring myself to go through the process of prosection in the usual way. I cannot be certain now, but I fancy I had some idea of finding if the man was really dead, and making a wound to test the matter. Still taking no notice of the Figure, I gave the table a pull, and ran it on its castors till it was quite near the gas. The Watcher at the head moved with it. Then, instead of uncovering the body from the head downwards, as I should ordinarily have done, I took hold of the sheet and threw it upwards from the feet. The Watcher at the head did not move. Then, greatly daring, I took the knife in my hand, and made as if to pierce the leg of the corpse. Instantly the Watcher made a motion with his hand, and…

I remember no more till about 9 a.m. the next morning, when the other clinical clerk came to the room and found me asleep on the floor. I think it likely that the mental strain had made me lose consciousness, but I did not feel like telling anybody about it all, and said that I had been tired and had lain down there and fallen asleep. We must have been a happy-go-lucky lot, for the fact of my having chosen the cold stone floor of the morgue as a resting place excited no particular remark from him. I caught a bad cold, and another man did the prosection, but I told nobody what had happened on that dreadful night till many a day later. 

The Occult Magazine July 1918: p. 32-35

Taking up my Relentlessly Informative syringe, the fever ward patients were dressed in red flannel jackets because red flannel was not only warm, but was believed to protect the chest and throat—it was often called “medicated flannel.” An 1861 medical journal suggests also that the toxic poison-sumac dyes in some red flannel served as “a very excellent, gentle counter-irritant,” counter-irritants being thought useful in “drawing out” disease. It obviously had no salutary effect on the patient with peritonitis.

This story will be found in my upcoming book When the Banshee Howls.

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

A Mother’s Dying Love: 1840

mother rest lilies coffin plate funeral flowers


The plague broke out in a little Italian village. In one house the children were taken first. The parents watched over them, but only caught the disease they could not cure. The whole family died. On the opposite side of the way, lived the family of a poor laborer, who was absent the whole week; only coming home on Saturday night, to bring his scanty earnings. His wife felt herself attacked by the fever in the night. In the morning she was much worse, and before night the plague-spot showed itself. She thought of the terrible fate of her neighbors. She knew she must die, but, as she looked upon her dear boys, she resolved not to communicate death to them. She therefore locked the children into the room, and snatched her bed-clothes, lest they should keep the contagion behind her, and left the house. She even denied herself the sad pleasure of a last embrace. O think of the heroism which enabled her to conquer her feelings, and leave home and all she loved–to die. Her oldest child saw her from the window. “Good bye, mother ,” said he, with the tenderest tone, for he wondered why his mother left them so strangely. “Good bye, mother ,” repeated the youngest child, stretching his little hand out of the window. The mother paused. Her heart was drawn towards her children, and she was on the point of rushing back. She struggled hard, while the tears rolled down her cheeks, at the sight of her helpless babes. At length she turned from them. The children continued to cry, “Good bye, mother .” The sounds sent a thrill of anguish to her heart; but she pressed on to the house of those who were to bury her. In two days she died, recommending her husband and children to their care, with her dying breath.

The Jeffersonian [Stroudsburg PA] 23 June 1841: p. 1

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 Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

The Broom Corn Seed Funeral Swindle: 1866-7

Sarah Bernhardt shamming death in her coffin.

Who among us has not fantasized wistfully about faking their own death and disappearing? Hands?

Recently this helpful article about faking death for various, mostly criminal, reasons, sent me to my files of vintage insurance fraud for some amusing and perhaps instructive anecdotes. Just don’t tell anyone you heard it here…

Obviously the art of disguise figures heavily in faking death. Mrs Daffodil posted recently on a Victorian urban legend about a funerary scam in which the “corpse” was nicely painted to simulate death’s pallor. The peerless master in this next story, however, not only impersonated the corpse, but his own widow, leaving us gasping at the audacity and applauding his self-reliance.


A most remarkable fraud is that of the man Kumf, who was recently imprisoned in Germany for collecting insurance money on his own life. This man was a skilful impersonator, and, disguised as a woman, he applied for an insurance on his own life. As the husband of the applicant he presented himself for medical examination, was accepted, and the policy issued. In course of time he feigned sickness, and was attended by a short-sighted old physician he had selected as a man easily to be duped. One day during his spell of sickness he got up quietly, disguised himself once more as his wife, went to the insurance office, paid a premium about due, and tearfully announced the grievous sickness of the insured. The company seem to have suspected that this illness was not at all genuine, for, having casually asked the name of the attending physician, they sent to that gentleman, whose replies to their questions, however, allayed their suspicions. One day this doctor was called in great haste and told that Kumf was dead. The old fellow does not appear to have been very conscientious or painstaking. On his arrival at the house, he was met by Kumf, this time disguised as the wife or alleged widow, and taken to a darkened room in which lay a corpse. His examination of this must have been nominal, for in a short space of time he quitted the house, leaving behind him the required death certificate. As the bereaved widow, Kumf attended the interment of what purported to be his own body. Still as the widow of himself, he obtained the insurance money on his own life, and his little plot had answered admirably. Unfortunately for him, however, he got intoxicated, first with success and then with liquor, whereupon he neglected to keep up the disguise, went about as the dead man redivivus, was detected, and now languishes in gaol.

The Daily Democrat [Huntington, IN] 17 August 1889: p. 3

Well, he was brilliant up to that last bit. It is disheartening that someone who had taken such pains was, in the end, so careless. Why, if you wanted to appear to be dead, wouldn’t you stay the hell away from places you are known? A disappointing lapse in an otherwise flawless plan.

As the Bloomberg article on faking your own death suggested, the scheme might be more appealing than bankruptcy to those with a large amount of debt.


An ingenious female, living in the Boulevard de Rochechouart (says the Paris correspondent of the Daily Telegraph), lately failed in business, and a writ was issued for the sale of her effects. On Saturday an officer of the Court, or huissier, went with a police inspector to the woman’s abode, in order to seize her goods, but he rang the bell of her door in vain. As the key of the dwelling, however, was in its place, the inspector turned it and the pair then entered the rooms of the debtor, in one of which a strange and sombre scene was presented to their startling sight. On a bed in the centre of the room was the apparently dead body of the female fraud, laid out in all the trappings of woe, and ready for the French equivalent of a wake. Around the presumed corpse were ranged six tall candlesticks, with lighted tapers therein. The huissier, deeming that he had to deal with a genuine dead body, instantly prepared to withdraw with his writ, but the police inspector, more inquisitive and suspicious than the process server, went over to the bed, and, attracted by the extraordinary plumpness of the arms of the corpse, pinched them with considerable vehemence. There was an instantaneous bringing of the dead to life. The corpse chalked carefully as to its face —sat up in its shroud, spoke words to the effect that the trick had failed, and confessed all. The candles were quickly snuffed out, the mourning drapery pulled down, and the process-server proceeded speedily to confiscate everything appertaining either to life or death in the domicile of the deceitful female debtor. 4

Auckland [NZ] Star 31 May 1890: p.

Life insurance was the more usual motive in these cases. I suspect that this is the story that inspired the plot of The Thin Man.



NEW YORK, August 3

When it was disclosed that Henry Schwartz, of San Francisco, an inventor, who was supposedly killed by an explosion in his laboratory, carried a life insurance of 180,000 dollars, the authorities became suspicious. Examination of the body by a dentist showed that the teeth in the dead man’s head were not Schwartz’s. Later, the wife of a labourer, named Rodrigeus [sic], reported that her husband was missing. She inspected fragments of the body and believed that it was her husband. A warrant has been issued for the arrest of Schwartz, on a charge of murder.

Press, 5 August 1925: p. 9

Ah, there’s the snag: procuring that all-important body for insurance purposes. In the old days, you could probably just pick up a plausible-looking corpse lying around in graveyard, back alley, or medical college, but the end of bodysnatching meant that murder was the only option.



Vienna, October 28. In order to perpetrate a life insurance fraud a chauffeur named Toman murdered an unknown man, removed the eyes and nose, to prevent recognition, and dressed the body in his clothes, containing personal letters. Toman has escaped.

Dominion, 30 October 1911: p. 5

Of course, if you were actually fond of the soon-to-be-corpse, there was always that old standby: bricks in the coffin.

Audacious Attempt to Defraud an Insurance Company.

A Hungarian count, named Enling, found himself lately in New York with a curious household upon his hands, consisting of a wife ten years older than himself, and a handsome mistress, whose position was recognised by Mrs Enling without annoyance. He was also almost destitute, but found money enough to take out a policy for 10,000 dollars upon the life of his mistress, who fortunately soon after fell sick. A doctor who was called in, who seems to have been a very incompetent physician, and after the farce had been played a short while, the girl shammed death, deceived the physician, and successfully lay for inspection by friends for about an hour. Then the coffin came, and full arrangements were made for the funeral. After the obsequies, Enling lost no time in making his claim upon the insurance company. Something in the case, however aroused their suspicions, and they got an order from the Board of Health to exhume the coffin, which, upon inspection, proved to contain nineteen bricks carefully held in place by some slips of board. The undertaker has since confessed to having shared in the business for a bribe of 250 dols, and Enling and the woman have both been arrested. Great interest is shown by the public in the case, and Barnum, whose monster show is to open very soon, has bought the coffin and eighteen surviving bricks—for one of the nineteen has been stolen by a curiosity hunter—for 1000 dollars.

Star 27 July 1874: p. 3

Here we see again the importance of the Incompetent Physician, a pivotal figure in domestic poisonings or pseudocides.

In this next case, how different things would have been if Dr. Bassett’s wife could have recognized his extra-domestic interests without annoyance.

A New Way to Get Rid of a Wife.

We announced on Saturday, that Dr. Bassett was drowned from the Southerner, on her way from Cleveland to Detroit. It now seems there is a little romance in the story, and Dr. Bassett is still alive and kicking. A gentleman came on board of the Southerner, and purchased a ticket for himself, calling his name Morse. The clerk gave him a state room and told him he should be compelled to put another man in the room with him. All satisfactory. Mr. Morse was very indifferently dressed. In a very short time, a person very genteelly dressed called for a ticket under the name of Dr. Bassett. The clerk gave him a berth in the state room with Mr. Morse. In the passage up, the story was started by Morse, that Dr. Bassett had fell overboard, while in the act of vomiting. All credited it. After a few moments, the Captain came to the conclusion, that it was singular that no other person than Mr. Morse saw the accident, and some surmised foul play. Dr. Bassett’s baggage was looked for in his room, but nothing but an old russet leather valise, with his name on it, could be found. This appeared rather singular for so genteel a traveller, who at least would require a change of linen. Thus matters remained until after the boat’s arrival at our wharf, and Mrs. Bassett was telegraphed that she was a widow.

On reviewing the whole circumstances, it was concluded that Mr. Morse ought to be arrested and an investigation had. Accordingly, a warrant was obtained and an officer took charge of him. Mr. Morse and Dr. Bassett, from the story of the prisoner, are one and the same man, and the unfortunate plot was a stratagem to rid himself of his wife at the east. He tells the story thus: When he got the ticket, he wore an old suit. As soon as he got the key of his state room, he entered at once, and placed upon his person another suit of clothes and a pair of false whiskers and went to the clerk for another ticket, as Dr. Bassett, which he says is his real name. The drowning scene was got up for the eastern market, where he has a wife, and desires it for home consumption.

But here again, is the dilemma. The doctor is a stranger here and the last we heard from him, he had not been able to prove that he was himself, or in other words, that he was the identical Dr. Bassett, and the police still hold him a prisoner, until he can make satisfactory evidence, that Dr. Bassett is not now a drowned man in Lake Erie.

Pittsburgh [PA] Daily Post 18 September 1850: p. 2

If you were Mrs. Bassett, called upon to identify the scoundrel, what would you do? I suppose it would have depended on whether she was the beneficiary of any will or life insurance policies.

Our final tale has some instructive points: the introduction of the cholera motif; the purchase of chloride of lime; the creation of the speedily-doomed McFadden. But the elaborate plot quickly collapsed under the sheer weight of numbers…


Mayor of Eaton the Dead Man.

Attempt to Realize $20,000 on Life Insurance.

Arrest of all the Parties to the Fraud.

[From the Cincinnati Gazette 20th.]

All the facts and incidents connected with the reported sudden death of a man near Lebanon, Ohio, and his hasty burial at Eaton, seem to have came to light, and we present them below in detail. The whole affair reveals a long premeditated plot of fraud, on the part of heretofore respectable citizens of both Eaton and the vicinity of Lebanon; and although the parties implicated may not be convicted of crime, their criminal intentions seem very strikingly manifest, and no one will envy them the reputation they have made for themselves in this matter.

On Monday, the 24th, a man, who gave his name as W.T. McFadden, rode out from Cincinnati in the omnibus driven by Abner L. Ross, and got out at Frank Richardson’s near Lebanon, having complained of being sick on the way out. In the evening Frank Richardson went into Lebanon, reported that McFadden had died of cholera within twenty minutes after stopping at his house, telegraphed Mary McFadden, care of B.M. Batchelder, Eaton, that her husband was dead, and bought a coffin which he took home with him. The undertaker wished to go with him and encoffin the corpse, but his services were persistently declined. It has been ascertained also that Mr. Richardson purchased some chloride of lime and peppermint drops, when he was town after the coffin, the use of which will appear in the sequel.

On Tuesday morning, when everybody was supposed to be absorbed in Christmas festivities, Mr. Richardson called in a few neighbors, as they supposed, to lay out the corpse, but they found the coffin closed and they were only asked to help lift it into a spring wagon. On asking to see the corpse, their attention was directed to the offensive smell coming from the coffin, and warned of the danger of catching the cholera, and the lid was not removed.

Dr. N.S. Richardson, brother of Frank Richardson, formerly surgeon of the 12th Ohio cavalry and a practicing physician of Eaton, was the only person present during the reported death of McFadden. In reference to his part in the affair, it is said that on Monday he left Eaton with the declared intention of meeting McFadden at Lebanon, to close a contract for the sale to him of a tract of land in the West.

On Tuesday Dr. Richardson returned to Eaton, and stated that he met McFadden according to agreement, but that immediately after his arrival upon an omnibus at Frank Richardson’s, he was taken violently ill with an attack of cholera and died.

Dr. Richardson then engaged an undertaker to go to Lebanon with a horse, to bring the coffin containing the remains to Eaton for interment. He also visited a clergyman, and requested him to hold a brief burial service at the Methodist Episcopal church in the evening, which, owing to other engagements, the minister was unable to perform. The undertaker started for Lebanon, and when four miles beyond Middletown met Frank Richardson with the coffin said to contain the corpse, in a spring wagon. The coffin was transferred to the hearse, which was driven rapidly to Eaton, B.M. Batchelder, who accompanied the undertaker, urging him to apply the whip. The coffin arrived in the evening, about 6 o’clock and Dr. Richardson, securing the assistance of three or four citizens, had the supposed remains conveyed immediately to the burial ground and interred.

A woman personating Mrs. McFadden was present when the corpse arrived, and was loud in her passionate cries to see her dead husband, but the stench from the coffin and the danger of contagion were urged upon her, and the gratification of her wishes was denied.

On account of the suddenness of the reported death, and the secrecy with which the corpse was encoffined and removed, suspicion was aroused in the minds of the citizens of Lebanon that there was something wrong in the affair. They telegraphed to parties in Eaton, and officer Wampler and an assistant started over to Eaton, with warrants to arrest Dr. Richardson and Batchelder. They arrived about midnight, and learning the circumstances of the interment, their suspicions were strengthened, and they made the arrests. Early on Wednesday morning the undertaker was sent to disinter the remains. Upon opening the grave, it was found that other parties had preceded them; the coffin had been broken open and its contents removed during the night. Here was more mystery, which was not solved till Dr. Richardson, seeing the plot would all come to light sooner or later, made a confession the same day, to the Prosecuting Attorney, that McFadden held a life insurance policy in favor of his wife for $20,000, that Batchelder, who is an agent for a life insurance company, McFadden and himself had entered into a plot to publish McFadden’s death, while McFadden should secrete himself, and thus secure the $20,000, which was to be divided among them, that the coffin contained broom corn seed, [cheaper than bricks?] which they had removed after the interment, so that, should the insurance company institute a search, this evidence of their guilt would not exist. The story was confirmed by finding the broom corn seed where Dr. Richardson said he deposited it.

Where was McFadden? The statements of Dr. Richardson and Batchelder in regard to his whereabouts were not satisfactory. But during the day Mr. Ross, who drove the omnibus in which McFadden rode to Lebanon, arrived in Eaton, and in one of the little crowds he met about town, talking over the strange affair, he espied the missing McFadden, and who should he prove to be but his Honor the Mayor of Eaton, Mr. [Luther C.] Abbott. When charged by Mr. Ross with being his late sick passenger, he stoutly denied it, but on being taken into the presence of Dr. Richardson he had to give up. Whether he has been arrested or not we do not know. Frank Richardson, however, was arrested, and in the same spring wagon in which he drove away the full coffin, he was compelled on Thursday to ride back with the empty coffin, beside an officer. As the wagon was driven along the streets of Lebanon an immense crowd, mostly of boys, followed, crying out, “Where’s your broom-corn seed?” “What’s the price of broom-corn seed?” He and his brother; the doctor, and Batchelder, are now lying in the jail at Lebanon, waiting further developments.

The Dayton journal, in its account of the affair, says:

It appears that policies for $20,000 insurance in the Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company of Brooklyn, of which B.M. Batchelder, of Eaton, was agent for that place were taken for W. T. McFadden, who seems to have been a fictitious personage. A policy for $5,000 was taken in the same interest in the Mutual Benefit in Dayton of which Mr. I.H. Kiersted is agent, and $5,000 in the Connecticut Mutual, of which Dr. Jewett is agent.

We understand that Frank Richardson disclaims any participation in the plot, until after the enacted death in his house, but the fact that the family were all opportunely absent on that interesting occasion; that he had borrowed the spring wagon; and had it there in readiness before McFadden arrived, and had also borrowed sacks to hold the broom-corn seed, seem to indicate special preparations for the part he was to perform.

The charge of murder against these parties will, of course, have to be withdrawn, as no murdered man can be found, and what crime can be substituted in its place will puzzle the prosecuting attorney to determine.

Louisville [KY[ Daily Courier 31 December 1866: p. 1

Top tip: The fewer people involved in your insurance fraud, the better.

Alas, the conspirators seem to have undone themselves by their cleverness. Even though quick burials were mandated for cholera deaths, the undue haste aroused suspicions of murder. This apparently was not their first funeral scam:

We learn from the Eaton Democrat that “others matters have been brought to light, which go to show that this was not the first operation of the kind, in which these gentlemen have been engaged, and as they have realized money on some of them, they will be, or have been arrested on charges which come within the power of the law. The arrested parties were Dr. Richardson, and Bachelder, of this place, and Frank Richardson of Lebanon. L.C. Abbott, the most honorable Mayor of our city, is the man who personated the McFadden, who was reported dead, and it also turns out that McFadden is a myth, there being no such man, and the wife who was so broken-hearted at the news of his death, a “woman of the town,” from New York. The man who passed examination for insurance under the name of McFadden, is said to be a Mr. Blake, a resident of Kentucky.”

The Daily Empire [Dayton, OH] 7 January 1867: p. 3

And what inspired the Mayor of the county seat of Preble County, who was also a lawyer and former Prosecuting Attorney, to participate in such a plot? Bad business investments? Tapping the public till? Eaton was a rather unlucky little town, decimated first by cholera in 1849 and by a massive fire in 1859. Perhaps Mayor Abbott did not have fire insurance.

I am at a loss to understand how he escaped arrest and prosecution; he was re-elected Mayor (to much adulation in the local papers) and was still practicing law in Eaton in the 1870s.

Other fake-death insurance frauds?

I have the borrowed broom-corn seed sacks waiting. chriswoodyard8 AT

[Thanks to Michael Robinson for the initial link about faking death.]

Undine of Strange Company shares two brilliant cases of insurance fraud: The Wrath of Walburga and Give the Howards a Hand! Thanks, Undine—your posts are always a jaw-dropping pleasure!

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 Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

The Undertaker’s Christmas Card: 1900

undertaker drops in on invalid to wish merry christmas

The Undertaker’s Christmas Card.


(The leading furniture and cabinet shop in Yuma, on secular days, decorates the sidewalk with lofty piles of coffin cases. These are taken inside on Christmas day).


Ho, all ye folks whose lungs are broke.

Come, step into my shop;

It offers play in finer lay

Than the hotel Christmas hop.


At caskets fine, redwood and pine,

Fresh from the Northern coast;

Dead sure to pall you, one and all,

When you give up the ghost.


Just step inside, this Christmas-tide,

The way you’re bound to tread,

For here we show how we bestow

You, when you’re good and dead.


With Christmas gone, who passes on

May con our cherry wares

Upon the curb, while none disturb

Who pauses, gasps and stares.


For here the whole town likes to loll

In gay familiarity,

To cough and spit, and chat a bit,

About the times’ prosperity.


As, all the while, around this pile,

We radiate our jollity,

The emblem rife of death in life,

And burial of quality.


God rest you, then, ye lungless men,

This sultry Christmas-tide,

And bake you here, in atmosphere,

Until you’re glad you died.

Blue Pencil Magazine,  By H. A. Kemble, William E. S. Fales, 1900 p. 28

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 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.

Three Fatal Drops: 1880s

The Dying Artist, Z. Andrychiewicz, 1880s





A remarkable manuscript of deep human interest —the disclosure of a dramatic incident. in the life of a famous novelist—came into the possession of the London Daily Express recently, said that journal in its issue of November 15

It is from the pen of Miss Dora Christie-Murray, daughter of the late Mr. David Christie-Murray, and it was accompanied by the statement that the. writer had been inspired to place the facts on record after reading the account of the trial of Richard Corbett on a charge of murdering his mother, whom he killed, he said, because she suffered from an incurable disease. Miss Christie-Murray’s story is as follows:

When my father was a young man, travelling in the Belgian Ardennes, he came across a cottage tucked away from civilisation, inhabited by an old couple and their son. The parents were of typical peasant class —heavy and loutish, their backs bowed with work, neither expecting nor hoping for anything beyond their lives of daily toil. But the 16-year-old son, a bright, flame-like spirit, was a changeling to their dull eyes.

Without any book-learning he was a genius. Untutored, he had the knowledge with which all artists are born, and above all he had the great, sorrowful gift of music. But all his beauty of soul was imprisoned in a sickly body that found work, of even the lightest kind, impossible. The parents, irritated by his helplessness and frightened by his alien ways, found him a burden, a useless clog on their own dull, stupid lives, and the boy in turn was bewildered by his parents’ lack of understanding and sympathy.

An Incurable Disease.

My father, naturally attracted by the boy, approached the parents with a view to adopting him, and was met with open-armed enthusiasm. To cut a long story short, he finally took the boy away, resolved that his artistry should find its own level. The boy—let us call him Henri—lived for a few months in heaven, but the sickness of his early life turned to an incurable disease, and, in spite of all the loving care my father gave him, he became feebler and feebler, and at last bed-ridden. All his days and nights, and finally all his minutes, were one protracted agony that not even the most powerful drugs could assuage.

The time came when it was only a question of days before the end—and such days! Such aeons of pain, such helpless, shrieking agony, that my father could hardly bear to stand by the bedside. Finally one day he turned to the doctor, almost frantic with his inability to do anything, and said:—”For God’s sake, man, do something! I cannot bear to see. this going on any longer.”

The doctor looked at him strangely for a moment, then picked up a small bottle which he handed to him. “When I am gone, monsieur,” he said, “and the pain becomes very acute, you may give Henri three drops of this medicine—just three drops, remember; more would be fatal.”

“Three Drops Only.”

My father said:—”You mean —?”

“Three drops only; more would be fatal,” repeated the doctor.

“Thank you,” said my father, and the doctor left the room.

As he turned to where the boy was lying, exhausted after his last paroxysm of pain, Henri opened his eyes and said faintly: “I can’t bear it, sir. Help me!”

My father, gentle as a woman, went down on his knees and lifted the boy’s head in his arms.

“My boy,” he said, “you have only a few more days to live, and they will be full of pain and agony. I have something here that might help to relieve the pain a little, and if I give it to you you will go to sleep and never wake up again. Will you take it?”

“I’ll take anything from your hands,” said the boy.

So, with hands that never faltered, my father poured out the overdose and held it to the boy’s lips, and the boy drank it trustfully, then settled down with a smile of unutterable peace, and just whispered, “God bless you, sir.”

And so fell asleep, and sleeping, died.

New Zealand Herald  24 December 1929: p. 14

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 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.

Consumption Cottage: 1915

the story of a country house consumption 2
Consumption Cottage A cottage infected with consumption.

Recently I’ve been fascinated by “hoodoo” or “unlucky” or “ill-starred” houses where the body counts pile up. Today, for the upcoming  World TB Day, we visit a house haunted by the ghosts of consumption.



President of the Illinois State Association for the Prevention of Tuberculosis.

One becomes accustomed to lurid tales of disease and suffering in the city slums. The resident of the country town is prepared to believe any sort of story dealing with the unnecessary sacrifice of human life in great centers of population. He hears such stories with a certain smugness and self-satisfaction. He forgets,—if he has ever known,—that there are usually disease breeding slums in every city, town or hamlet, regardless of its size or location.

Over in Effingham County, in the outskirts of a prosperous town, stands an old house, situated pleasantly enough in the shade of two giant maples. The country road sweeps past it and green pastures and fields of corn extend away as far as the eye can see. In the morning, robins and jays and thrushes run riot in the trees. There is something homelike in the very dilapidation of the place.

Certainly this is not slums!

But it is. It is very doubtful if any dark and evil-smelling room in the crowded tenements of Chicago can tell a more ghastly story of the sacrifice of human life than this road-side house in Effingham County.

There is nothing very unusual in its appearance. It is old and unpainted; the weather boards are loose and broken and in many places the fallen shingles have left exposed gaps in the roof. Within, there is a living room of moderate size, the wall paper stripped off and with large spaces where the plaster has fallen and the lath are seen. The smooth coat of the walls is almost gone and the rough sand surface is broken in hundreds of places where nails have been driven. The floor is worn and rough and broken.

Opening from this living room, and similarly dilapidated and out of repair, are two little bedrooms, about seven by ten feet in size and one of these is the scene of the repeated tragedies that have occurred in the house during the past fifteen years.

Consumption Cottage The “death room” in the cottage, where an unusually large number of its inhabitants died of consumption

In this room, incidentally, in the year 1900, a man died of tuberculosis. With the death of this man, his wife and children moved away and another family moved in. In this family was a young woman. And this young woman sickened and, in a few months, she died. She died from tuberculosis. She had slept constantly in the room in which the former householder had died.

And so the second family moved away and a man and his wife moved in and occupied the ill-fated bedroom. Ten years ago—in 1904—the wife of this couple died in the house. She died from tuberculosis.

The young widower vacated the place. Shortly after, there moved in a man and his wife and a family of children. So far as can be learned, they were all in good health at that time. But that was several years ago.

It was not long however, until a son of the household,—a young married man,—sickened and, after a while he died,—from tuberculosis, and his young widow went back to her old home town where she died from tuberculosis, leaving two children who were placed in a charitable institution.

Then came the death of a little child in the “death room”;—a death from miliary tuberculosis,—and the following year, the mother of the family died from tuberculosis and was buried at the expense of the county,— for by this time the disease and the expense and inefficiency which go with it were beginning to render the family destitute.

The year following that in which the mother and infant died, a married daughter succumbed, leaving behind her two children, both of whom are now dead, one certainly having died from miliary tuberculosis.

The next year another grown son of the family became a victim of the disease. In 1913, a married daughter, who had been raised in the house and who had left it as a bride, came back to the ill-starred home and died of tuberculosis, leaving three small children who have been farmed out among relatives of the husband.

Just a few weeks ago, another daughter, twenty-one years of age was claimed as a victim of tuberculosis, dying in the little “death room.”

This seems a shocking record for the ramshackle old house;—but it is not all. One of the daughters, who had escaped death in the place, married a prosperous young farmer and moved away. She became the mother of six children, one of whom died from tuberculosis following whooping cough. And then this young mother died of tuberculosis and her remaining five children were farmed out with friends and relatives.

And then another daughter was married and moved to an adjoining county. When she was but developing into womanhood,—at twenty years of age,—shortly after the birth of her first child—she died of tuberculosis and her baby followed her in death—a victim of tuberculous meningitis.

And now of that ill-fated family but three remain,—the father and two children, a boy of ten and a girl of fourteen. The father is gaunt and emaciated. The two children show evidences of the disease which will probably eventually claim them.

While the death record of the house, as it is now written, seems appalling,–while the story of motherless children and of their dependence is impressive—one can only guess at the extent to which the baneful influence of the place will spread. Already the blight has extended into other communities. Already, perhaps, the infection which will wreck other homes has been implanted.

And yet, tuberculosis is a preventable disease.

It takes no very fanciful imagination to see the dreadfulness of all this; but even to the sordid and the cold-blooded there is a definite and unpoetic appeal. This house is said to have already cost the county of Effingham over $2,000.00 for material aid, for medicine, for doctors and for funerals. And that $2,000.00 has not begun to solve the problem.

The house has enormously increased the “pauper expense.” Tuberculosis is not a disease of paupers; but it is essentially a pauperizing disease.

Illinois Health News, Volume 1, 1915: pp. 69-71

Sixteen–perhaps nineteen, by the time this article was published–victims of a “preventable disease….”  Precisely just how preventable tuberculosis was at this time is open to debate. Many physicians felt that proper diet, rest, fresh air and sunshine would keep the dread scourge from taking root. Others believed that consumption was caused by intemperance and vice (with a side-order of damp sheets and airless rooms) and that only the weak and lazy would succumb, leaving the fittest to survive and strengthen the gene pool. I find it interesting that the author, Dr. Palmer, seems more interested in the public expense, rather than the human toll, as he makes that crack about “inefficiency” in the same breath as noting that the mother was buried at the expense of the county and speaks of the “dependency” of those orphaned children.

The author worked with the Illinois State Board of Health and also edited The Chicago Clinic and Pure Water Journal, which, despite its subtitle of “A Medical and Surgical Journal,” gave “special attention to climatology and mineral water therapy.” In other words, he was something of a water-cure advocate, which, at this late date makes him a medical maverick.  Am I imagining things, or is he hinting that the house itself is the source of infection and that the “death room” is a lethal chamber for all who occupy it?  I’ve certainly heard of sickroom flowers held responsible for carrying “morbific bacteria” and poisonous wallpapers shedding arsenical green to be inhaled or ingested, but neither are cited here. He mentions “slums,” a notorious breeding ground for urban consumption, but there is no suggestion that, despite its disrepair, this house replicates the tenement’s cramped and noxious environment, nor does he remark on how frequently the disease annihilated families.

Despite the bare laths and what looks like mold on the remaining plaster, the metal beds (to prevent bed-bugs) are neatly made with patch-work quilts and someone has made an effort to decorate with a picture over the bed and (Biblical?) prints tacked to the wall. It is a pathetic attempt at respectability in the face of the shadow of death.

As a completely irrelevant aside, is the sentence quoted as the caption on the first image meant to echo Sherlock Holmes’ “It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”?

Other examples of lethal houses? Check to see if you have a hectic flush before sending to chriswoodyard8 AT


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 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.


At the Window: 1887

mother rest lilies coffin plate funeral flowers

One of the most touching scenes ever witnessed in this city occurred at the Garrison mansion last Saturday when Mrs. Frank Garrison was told that she could not live. Her darling baby had been kept in another room for fear it might contract the disease, diphtheria, and when she was told that she could only live a few hours at most she wanted to see her precious baby once more, and it was taken outside the house and held up to the window so she could gaze into its innocent face before death closed the scene. She gave it such a look as only a mother can give. The sight was enough to start tears from any eye. At such a moment immortality beyond the grave becomes a consolation. Iowa Falls Sentinel.

Muscatine [IA] Weekly Journal 12 August 1887: p. 3


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 Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.