The Twelve Deaths of Christmas

skeleton with Santa Mask Christian Century 1921.JPG

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…

  1. 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.

Evening Post, 9 January 1931: p. 9

3. Death by Tree

As mentioned above, I wrote a post on deadly Christmas trees. This is a favorite killer conifer.

Killed by a Christmas Tree.

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…

CHRISTMAS AMUSEMENT,

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

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

Tales of Terrible Turkeys: A Thanksgiving Post

Turkey Horror 1895

I am not fond of Thanksgiving. It’s not that I’m ungrateful; I just don’t see any merit in a holiday based on overeating and football. That and I still shudder at the time a hostess insouciantly defrosted the frozen turkey on top of the drier overnight in a paper bag, leading to hours of projectile vomiting for the whole assembly.

This may explain why you will not find here any heart-warming tales of juicy birds swimming in gravy, dressing, and cranberry relish, but rather a mean-spirited account of vindictive turkeys. Long before the invention of the deep-fat turkey fryer so loathed by the underwriting community, dangerous turkeys were in the news.

While I have only seen wild turkeys at a distance–they look like miniature velociraptors—they are said to be very aggressive and territorial. They are bulky, have sharp beaks and claws, and their heavy wings can do serious damage. One mocks a turkey at one’s peril and it is not wise to wear red around them. The males read the color red as signifying an invading turkey cock and will attack, a motif found in many of these stories. Having heard from those who keep them that domesticated turkeys are rather stupid—I would not have expected that they could do as much damage as these stories suggest.

In Belmont county, Ohio, an old gobbler attacked and killed a playful young puppy because he persisted in chasing the young turkeys. New Ulm [MN] Weekly Review 13 November 1889: p. 2

Turkeys on a Rampage.

Rising Sun, Md., Enraged at his red handkerchief, two large turkey gobblers attacked R.B. Marshall while he was walking near the home of George Nesbitt, owner of the birds, and it required the combined efforts of both Marshall ad Nesbitt to drive the turkeys off.

The birds beat Marshall’s legs with their wings, bruising him severely. He yelled lustily and Nesbitt ran to his aid. Using light sticks as clubs they managed, after a sharp fight, to rout the angry gobblers. St. Tammany Farmer [Covington, LA] 9 May 1908: p. 5

TURKEY ATTACKS ARTIST;

SERIOUSLY INJURES HIM

London, June 9. A Staffordshire artist, while sketching near Hanley was attacked by a turkey and had an exciting encounter with the bird lasting a quarter of an hour.

The turkey approached the artist from behind and made a sudden attack. With his sketch block he aimed a blow at the bird’s head, but missed and then sought refuge behind a tree. The turkey pursued him and injured him quite severely. A party of golfers finally came to the rescue and killed the turkey. Los Angeles [CA] Herald 10 June 1910: p. 16

GOBBLER ATTACKS AUTO

Wins Fight With Bird Mirrored in Varnish of Car.

Prof. Frank W. Magill of Danville, Pa., drove his new highly polished automobile out into the country the first day after receiving it and stopped along the road to chat with a farmer friend.

Up strutted a fine turkey gobbler, which caught a glimpse of its reflection in the polished sides of the machine. The bird immediately challenged the newcomer and with beak and claws flew at the car.

The old bird fought until it was exhausted and the side of the auto was a wreck. The Kentuckian [Hopkinsville, KY] 19 July 1919: p. 10

[A squib from an 1899 Michigan paper told the same story about a new, highly polished buggy.]

When [Mr. Alexander Wedderburn of Chesterhall,] was between three and four years old, having provoked a fierce Turkey cock, by hallooing to him,—

“Bubbly Jock, your wife is a witch,

And she is going to be burnt with a barrel of pitch.”*

The animal flew at the child, laid him flat on the ground and seemed disposed to peck his eyes out, when he was saved by his nurse, who rushed in to the rescue with a broom in her hand.

[*The author says that he doesn’t know the meaning of the rhyme but heard it himself as a child, applied to turkey cocks. Karen Davis, author of More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality, says that the term comes from “bubbly”—“snotty” and “Jock” or “Jack,” meaning a rustic boor.  So the turkey’s wattle makes it look like a snotty-nosed peasant. A salutary lesson in not mocking a turkey!] The Lives of the Lord Chancellors and Keepers of the Great Seal of England, Volume 6John Campbell, 1847

Attacked by a Turkey

Frank Stadden narrowly escaped having his eyesight destroyed and his nose bitten off by an infuriated turkey on Monday morning. But here’s the story in brief;

John McCool sold a number of turkeys to Mr. Austin and one of them flew into a tree. Finding it impossible to coax the gobbler from its perch Frank Stadden was appealed to. Frank loaded his blunderbuss and brought the fowl to earth, but it was only slightly wounded and, when he attempted to capture it, the bird showed fight. It struck at Frank, drove its talons into his hands, bored holes into his face with its beak and greatly disfigured his proboscis. Seeing that Frank was getting the worst of the battle Mr. Austin ran to his assistance with a club and dispatched the gobbler. However, in striking at the turkey Austin’s aim was not at all times accurate, and Frank received one of the blows intended for the bird which caused a big blue-black lump to appear with remarkable rapidity upon the polished portion of his cranium. Mr. Stadden asserts that never in his lifetime has he encountered so ferocious a turkey as this particular gobbler, and says he is inclined to the opinion that either its father of its mother was a great American eagle. The Princeton [MN] Union 21 December 1911: p. 2

Only rarely was there a happy ending when a turkey attacked a child.

Charleston, April 24. A mare belonging to John Cooper was the heroine in a savage attack which a large turkey gobbler made upon a small child of Mr. and Mrs. Cooper at their residence, the gentle animal taking a position with surprising intelligence directly over the prostrate form of the little boy and with his [sic] head fighting off the infuriated bird as it tried to scalp the child. The gobbler weighed 24 pounds. It was a magnificent bird and was admired by all who saw it. No harm had ever come, however, to the child, and it seems that I was never thought necessary to especially guard against any attacks of the kind. While the child was at play in the yard, the gobbler attacked him and knocking the child prostrate, was savagely pecking at the head and tearing the flesh, as it closed its beak and pulled at the skin and hair. The child was heard to cry in pain, but it was a minute or two before he could be reached, and when the call was answered, the mare was found enedeavoring to protect the child form the attack. As the gobbler viciously flew and pecked at the child, the mare would put her head in the way and receive the beak. The horse had seen the gobbler attack the child, and with wonderful intelligence and a sense of devotion, she came to his assistance and protection and perhaps saved his life or serious injury. As it was, the child’s head was badly pecked and the scalp torn in places, but the wounds will speedily heal and fortunately the little fellow will not be marked in life.

It is needless to add that a turkey dinner was served at the Cooper home yesterday. The handsome bird was introduced to the axe on short order after its attack upon the child and he is now getting the picking, so to speak. Evening Post [Charleston, SC] 24 April 1911: p. 9

This was the more usual outcome.

A Gobbler Attacks a Child

English, Ind., April 26. An enraged turkey gobbler tore the nose and part of the upper lip off and destroyed an eye of a small child belonging to Geo. R. Cutter Thursday. The babe was in the yard, dressed in a red gown, which enraged the bird. Drs. Brent and Hazelwood hope to restore the nose and lip by stitching, but the eye is torn from the socket. Daily Public Ledger [Maysville, KY] 26 April 1895: p. 3 

Or this.

A Child Killed by a Turkey Cock

An inquest was held at the Police Office, Cheadle, Staffordshire, last Monday, before Alderman Flint, to inquire into the death of a grandchild of a Mr. Finney, of the Cheadle Park farm. It appeared from the evidence of William Philips, one of the farm servants, that on Friday afternoon last, while some of the family were absent at Cheadle Market, the child in question—a remarkably fine boy about two years old—was playing about in the yard with him, and that while he was at work the child slipped away, and went, as he supposed, into the house, but presently, on inquiry being made for the child, it was found to have gone into a field at the further end of the yard, where, on a search being made, it was found lying with its face downward, quite dead, a flock of turkeys being about twenty yards off. From the evidence of Phillips, it appeared that a kind of feud existed between the child and the turkeys, he having on a former occasion killed several of the young ones with a stick, wince which time the “old cock bird (to use the witness’ expression) had made pecks at the child.” Mr. Thomas Webb, surgeon, deposed, that on being sent for to the child the only visible mark of violence found upon it was upon the jaw or lower part of the face, which might have been caused by a turkey’s wing, and was not such a mark as would have been caused by a kick from a horse, but he stated that, as there were horses in the field, he examined the ground closely, but could not discover any horses’ footmark near where the child lay. The coroner and jury, together with the medical man, went to view the locus in quo and the deceased, and upon their return the former addressed a few remarks to them, suggesting that, although there was no positive evidence of the manner in which the child came by its death, there could be very little doubt, looking at the evidence which had been brought before them, that it had been caused by the turkey. A verdict to that effect was accordingly rendered. London Times. 8thConstitution [Washington, DC] 28 October 1859: p. 2

I have my doubts about the previous verdict, but was surprised to find an account of a turkey killing a man:

The victim was Judge Samuel Spencer, of the first North Carolina Supreme Court. He was very old and infirm and had been placed in a chair under a tree in his yard.

“He died in 1794. His death was caused by a most singular circumstance. He had been in ill health, and was in the yard, sitting in the sun. A large turkey gobbler was attracted by some part of his clothing [his hat], which was red, for which color turkeys have a great antipathy.

“The turkey attacked the judge most furiously, and before assistance could rescue him, so severely was he injured that he died in a short time from the injuries.” [Another account says that the gobbler put a spur into the Judge’s temple, killing him.] The History of North Carolina, John Wheeler Moore

In addition to live killer turkeys, there were many reports of families poisoned by eating them. The reason was not always understood, although there were stories of ptomaine poisoning and of cattle dying of “lump jaw” being fed to the poultry, who then died of cholera and were served at table. This last story is an intriguing murder mystery.

POISONED TURKEY SENT TO KILL WHOLE FAMILY

San Francisco, Nov. 29. An attempt to poison the family of Adolph Ottinger, a retired railroad ticket broker, by means of a poisoned turkey sent to his home Thanksgiving, became known today, when the police admitted that they were searching for the would-be poisoner.

The turkey was left in the kitchen of the Ottinger residence during the temporary absence of the Chinese cook. Believing it was the gift of some friend, Ottinger ordered the cook to place it in the pantry until one already being prepared for the table was disposed of.

The following day it was noticed that the turkey had assumed a peculiar color, and becoming suspicious, Ottinger carried it to a chemist who found a large quantity of arsenic in the dressing. There is no clew to the identity of the person leaving the turkey nor to the motive for attempting the murder of an entire family. Los Angeles [CA] Herald 30 November 1909: p. 3

As a side note, Adolph Ottinger was much in the news, including three attempts to burn his mansion and murder Mrs Ottinger [1912] and several arrests for various financial irregularities. A longer article on the poisoning said that the turkey was found on the sidewalk between the Ottinger residence and a police detective’s home by the Ottinger’s chauffeur and that the bird poisoned two grapefruits kept in the same icebox, sickening Mr and Mrs Ottinger.

I wish you non-aggressive and wholesome turkeys for the upcoming Thanksgiving. I will be crouching in the corner in a defensive posture.

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

The Lost Art of the Coffin Threat


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

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

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

THREAT

CONTENTS OF NOTE

Miniature Coffins and Threat leads To Two Deaths in Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

A FATAL JOKE

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

[Boston Spec. to North American.]

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

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

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

 FINDS COFFIN MODEL IN MAIL

Military Secretary at Denver Startled by Package from Crank

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

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

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

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

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

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

AN EMBLEM OF DEATH

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

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

A Fetish Spell,

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

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

A Tiny Coffin,

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

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

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

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

Of course, such spells might backfire.

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

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

NEGRO IS WARNED BY COFFIN, NOTE

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enemies Unknown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

DOLL POPPED FROM MINIATURE COFFIN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swallowed a Fly: Death by Insect

Swallowed a Fly: Death by Insect
Swallowed a Fly: Death by Insect

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

Singular Death.

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

(For another unequal contest, here’s an eyewitness account about hummingbirds killed by praying mantes.)

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

See also The Death Bug of Chicago for a fanciful tale of insect death.

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

Cholera Jokes

Cholera searching for his big clown shoes. Illustration of Cholera being spread by Miasma, by Robert Seymour
Cholera searching for his big clown shoes. [Illustration of Cholera being spread by Miasma, by Robert Seymour]
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)

 A physician wrote Sir Henry Halford:

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.

“Who goes there?”

“Er—hic—er fren,” responded the truant.

“Advance, friend, and give the countersign.”

“Hain’t got no—hic—countersign,” amiably replied private; “but I’ll ‘er—hic—give yer er—hic—warmellin.”

Pretty soon the officer of the day came round, and said to the sentinel, who was absorbed in munching a huge piece of watermelon stuck on the end of his bayonet.

“Did Perkins pass you just now?” “Yes, sir.” “Did he give the countersign?” inquired the lieutenant, taking a bite himself, as the man presented arms.

“Well, no, sir,” said the sentinel, confidentially; “the password was ‘Cholera,’ but he said ‘Watermelon,’ so I passed him and put the other half in your tent.”

“Did, eh?” mused the officer. “Hum! Watermelon, eh? Well, I guess that was near enough!” San Francisco Post.

Salt Lake [UT] Tribune 16 October 1884: p. 3

Other tasteless cholera jokes? No lemons, please. Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

I’ve previously written on “The Plague Shawl” and the spread of disease through textiles. Also on the Disease Elemental.

Undine, from Strange Company, who knows her forteana AND her bad poetry, writes in with this absolutely brilliant cholera poem:

THE MELON

[New York Star.]

Who started the cholera?

I, said the Melon,

I am the felon.

From warmth of a torrider

Country than Florida

I carried the cholera;

We sailed to Marseilles

With favoring gales,

And from there we went on

To visit Toulon.

Where next do we go?

Just wait; time will show,

But it will not be long

Ere the Germans will find

That cholera loves

A trip on the rind.

Daily Illinois State Journal [Springfield, IL] 27 August 1884: p. 2

 

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

A Man Buries Himself Alive: A Story for Father’s Day

A Man Buries Himself Alive: A Story for Father's Day urn willow

In this heart-rending story, a father’s grief drove him to literally join his lost child in the tomb.

Extraordinary Suicide in New Orleans.

A MAN BURIES HIMSELF ALIVE

HE TAKES POISON IN A TOMB

The New Orleans Crescent of the 24th gives the following remarkable story of a suicide

Sylvester Rupert, 37 years of age, an Englishman by birth, and by trade a ship carpenter, lived with his wife and two children in a house on Perdido street. In October last the yellow fever, then prevailing, counted among its victims the youngest child of the Ruperts—their little girl Lizzie, about four years old, and the particular pet of the father. This was a blow from which the father never recovered. Not able to buy a tomb, he had the child buried in the ground in Greenwood Cemetery. The grief preyed heavily upon him. It was his only thought; and, being out of his regular employment, he found employment in his grief.

He bought a burial lot and some bricks and other material, and with his own hands, and all alone in the Cemetery, built him a brick tomb. He had not the means to make the tomb a stylish one; so in its mouth or entrance he fitted a wooden frame, and on this frame he fitted a piece of board and secured it with screws in its four corners. On this board, with which he enclosed the vault,  (in lieu of the usual brick and mortar or marble slab) he had carved nicely with his knife the burial inscription of his child. The tomb finished, he disinterred the child’s body and placed it there. He fastened the board with screws, in order that he might afterward have no trouble in removing it when he felt like gazing upon the decaying remains of his child.

This employment finished, it was his habit to visit the Cemetery, open the tomb, and look at the corpse of his pet. He always carried a screw-driver in his pocket with which to remove and replace the board and also to remove and replace the lid of the coffin. Neither the haggard aspect of the shrinking little corpse, nor the foul odor of its decay could repel him, and his morbid grief. His visits were frequent, and sometimes his wife went with him. He frequently complained to her that he could not get work; and this inability doubtless fostered the despondency which was drawing him to death. He frequently spoke of having no faith in the future, and of death as a desirable thing.

On Wednesday he went to the Cemetery with two shrubs which he had purchased and planted them in front of the tomb. On Thursday, when he left home, he told his wife that if he had no better luck in finding work she would never see him again. He also said something about having a place in which to rest.

That evening, or that night—for no one saw him in his gloomy proceedings—he visited the cemetery; taking with him his screw-driver, an iron trunk-handle, a small rod of iron, a piece of wire, some new screws, and a large vial of laudanum. Unscrewing the board of the tomb, he threw away the screws and filled the screw-holes in the board with clay.

With his new screws he then secured the trunk-handle to the inside of the board. This work, of course, had to be done outside the tomb. Pushing his child’s coffin aside, he got in by its side, taking with him his poison and the other articles with which he had provided himself. His hat he placed upon the coffin; his coat which he had taken off, he wrapped around a brick for a pillow. He shut himself in with the board, by means of the handle he had screwed to it; the board fitting outside the wooden frame. The iron bar, which was of the proper length, he placed across the frame inside. The thickness of the frame would not allow the bar to pass through the trunk-handle on the inside of the board; so he secured the handle and the bar by means of his wire, coiling it through the one end around the other. He did not succeed in fitting the board squarely upon the frame. One corner of it caught upon the brickwork outside the frame; this he did not discover, probably owing to the darkness of the night; and but for this little circumstance his fate would probably have never been discovered, or not at least for many years. Having thus hid himself away, as he fancied, beyond mortal discovery, he drained off the contents of his laudanum bottle, composed himself on his back, placed the brick and coat beneath his head, and went to sleep, and on into the unknown region of the suicides.

As he did not return home on Thursday night, his wife feared the worst, remembering well the tendency of his late conduct and the tenor of his parting words. On Friday morning she rose early and went out to the cemetery. She looked all around, and failed to find her husband. She went and looked at their tomb, and was about to leave, when she happened to notice that the board did not fit snugly into the frame as usual. Looking closer, she discovered the mud in the screw-holes; and putting her hand on the board, found it was standing loosely. She pulled it out a little, and the first thing she saw was the dead face of her husband. She fainted away, and laid in the grass she could not tell how long. She recovered at last, got up and went and informed the sexton, Mr. Merritt, of her discovery. The latter went and looked at things, and sent word to the coroner; and the inquest was held, as we have stated, on Saturday.

The coroner’s verdict was in accordance with the facts so plainly apparent—suicide by laudanum.

Albany [NY] Evening Journal 2 February 1859: p. 2 LOUISIANA

This story was so detailed, yet so bizarre in its unique details of self-immurement, that I thought it might have been a journalist’s invention. Grave records show that Sylvester Rupert, who died 20 January 1859, is buried in Greenwood Cemetery.

Often the 19th-century press focused on brutal, drunken, or absent fathers, yet there are a distressing number of stories of fathers pining themselves to death or committing suicide to follow a dead child or being visited by the  prophetic ghost of a lost darling. A Cincinnati man who said that his daughter came and stood by his bed at night, begging him to come to her, cried, “There’s the wraith of my child—she’s winking at me—I shall, shall go.” He eluded his terrified family, ran upstairs, and cut his throat. In another sad case, a railroad engineer whose child had died set a place for her at the dinner table and spoke to her as if she was still there. He told his wife that the little girl accompanied him on the locomotive and assured him that he would be with her soon. Shortly afterwards, he was killed in a train wreck.

This is an excerpt from The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available for Kindle. Or ask your library/bookstore to order it. You’ll find more details about the book here and indexes here.

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

Mr Mathias Rises from the Grave: 1888

a mausoleum.JPG

MONSIEUR MATHIAS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hold on! I will give you a hand.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Begone, profane man! Begone!’

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

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

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

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

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

‘The others! what others?’

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

‘Why, the dead, of course!’

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

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

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

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

‘Here’s to you, Mr Mathias.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Go in again! go in where?’

‘Into the tomb!’

‘Never!’

‘You won’t! Once! Twice!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A FAITHLESS WIFE TRAPPED BY HER HUSBAND

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

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

Press, 13 April 1914: p. 7

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

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

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

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