The River Resurrectionist: 1879

Death rowing on the Thames, 1858

THE CORPSE-HUNTERS

The Strange Fishing Excursion of a New York Reporter

Drifting in Search of the Dead

The River Resurrectionist and His Queer Calling

The Romances of the New York Waters

[New York Dispatch.]

“Candidly now, Mr. Walker, don’t you find corpse-hunting a dismal calling?”
“As you say, sir, it ain’t the most cheerfullest business in the world. But somebody’s got to do it, and why not me?”
“You have been at it a good while?”
“Nigh onto twenty year.”

“And you like it?”

“Well, I don’t hanker after it to break my heart. But I don’t see much differ between fishing for whales or dead men, likewise women, ‘cept that dead men makes the least trouble. If you want to, you can have a seat in my boat to-night and jedge for yerself. That is, if you are lucky, for the

STIFFS HAS RUN VERY LIGHT LATELY.”

Mr. Zachary Walker spoke as if he was discussing a run of menhaden or shad, and in a voice that seemed to proceed sepulchrally from some phonographic mechanism buried in his stomach. He sat in the back room of a South-street saloon, which looked like a vault in an Egyptian pyramid as befitted such a rendezvous. It was eleven o’clock on the dark and airless light of Monday last, and, as Mr. Walker expressed it, “as hot as the hinges of perdition and as black as the Earl of Hell’s Jack-boots.” But in spite of the heat that gentleman was so wrapped up in a heavy pea-jacket that he bore a singularly close and most appropriate resemblance to a mummy. As if this was not enough, he was drinking hot rum and spice.

“It fetches the sweat,” he explained to the Dispatch representative; “and you’ve either got to fetch sweat or the sweat’ll fetch you.”

Mr. Zachary Walker’s theory, amounting in fact to a rooted belief, is, that as long as a man’s pores are open he is safe from danger of any human ill. Consequently he never permits his to close or “shut pan on him,” as he phrases it. For years he has been famous among those who know him for never imbibing any beverage but hot spiced rum. Water he never drinks.

“And neither would you, sir,” he said to the reporter, “if you seen them in it which I see twenty year. Ugh!”

“’TAIN’T A CANNONBILL.”

Conducted by his perspiring friend, whose progress in the darkness was marked, even in the unsavory waterside odors hanging fetidly over the wharves, by the rank, sour reek of sweat, the Dispatch representative stumbled out on the wharf next to Fulton Ferry. A ghostly young man in a checked jumper started suddenly out of the darkness at the end of the pier. He had a little lantern in whose light he showed to be so soaked and slimy with perspiration that he might just have been fished out of the river. His humid countenance wore a dissatisfied expression, and he grumbled;

“Well, I thought you never was a coming.”

“Never’s a longer day than you ever see yet, Dave,” returned Mr. Walker, casting off the painter of an unseen boat from a ring on the string-piece.

“We’ve most lost the tide, we have, and I hope you’re satisfied.”

“Well, allow that I am, Dave, and call it square. Tumble in, sir.”

WITH HIS HEART IN HIS MOUTH

The reporter dropped into the darkness out of which the swirl and gurgle of the strong ebb tide among the wharf-posts rose. He landed rattling in a boat. Dave followed with the lantern, which he guarded as jealously as if it was some imperial gem. Zachary Walker came last, and in a minute more the dead sweet smell of pineapples and oranges faded behind the boat as the tide carried it swiftly from the rot-dock where the fleet of West India fruiters were asleep.

Dave pulled a stout pair of oars, but there was little exertion with them necessary, for the current bore the boat along so swiftly that the scattered lights on the Brooklyn shore fairly flew past. Zachary Walker squatted in the bow, with the lantern held at the level of his breast. The reporter counterbalanced him on the stern. A long wake of phosphorescent fire trailed along behind.

The first thing that struck the scribe was the intense and keen business attention displayed in Zachary Walker’s every movement. He only spoke in monosyllables now. His eyes were every-where. The flash of the little lantern dotted the water with rapidly changing discs of light. They were here, there and every-where, dancing on the black river, glancing along the piers and diving deep into the gloomy caverns formed by the timbers of the wharves.

BUT THEY REVEALED NOTHING.

At least nothing of the sort of which the boat was in search. Driftwood and garbage matted the docks where the tide raced in and out again, forming strong eddies in which the floating objects whirled round and round as if they were the component parts of a vast hellbroth which some spirit hand was stirring. A few dead animals and fish showed among the wreck, but the fisherman in the boat, though his prey, too, was dead, had no eyes for them. The skiff went steadily in and out one dock after another, and the fiery eye of the lantern peered into every dark hole and corner, but it revealed no prize for the river resurrectionist.

Zachary Walker received these disappointments with philosophical calmness, but Dave, whose other name the reporter had now discovered to be Kimo, enveloped a strong sense of wrong.

“I never see such luck,” he said. “Bust my crust if I don’t think people have stopped getting drownedead.” [sic]
“All the better for the people,” returned Zachary, winking at the reporter. “Eh, sir?”

“The people!” repeated Mr. Kimo, disgustedly. “Oh, yes! To be sure, yes. The people is to be considered—they is. An’ where the bleedin’ ___ does we come in, I want to know?”

The fact of the matter is, sir,” explained Zachary, “Dave’s temper is sort of soured lately. You see

HE HAS BEEN CROSSED IN LOVE.”

“Crossed in love”

“Yes, sir. Last January we was a picking of our way down the river about two o’clock in the morning .The stream was full of ice, but the night were werry bright with a full moon. Suddenly I see a woman on the end of that werry dentical dock there,” pointing to Pier No. 8, which the boat was just rounding. “She stood there jest about a minute, and then she throws her arms up, and over she goes into the drink.

“Well, sir, we couldn’t get the boat through the pack ice atween us and the shore to save our souls. Wot does that Dave Kimo do but snatch a oar and go out on the ice, a-crawlin’ on his belly toward the wharf. Close in the ice was swashed by some wessel as had been towed out that arternoon, and it hadn’t frozen together solid gain. The woman had gone through this, come up, and grabbed the edge of the hard ice, an’ there she hung now, a-yelling for help like a catamount. She wanted to die, but preferred warmer water.

“Dave got her out and brought her aboard the boat. She were a pretty young thing, about twenty year old, and werry nice dressed. She were most crazy, and from her talk we made out she had been left by her husband at the Stevens House, where they was a-stopping.

DAVE KIMO FELL IN LOVE

With her at once. He wrapped her up in the blankets we allus carries, and when we got in at Pier 1 he carries her to the hotel and rushes for the doctor. The nearest one lived at the werry hotel she had run away from, and there Dave finds the husband raving round like a crazy stud-horse, threatenin’ to tear the roof off if he couldn’t find his wife. He hed been away a day and a night on business, and the dispatch he’d senet her to tell her of it hed gone astray. So she thought he hed deserted her, you see. He gev us a clean hundred cases apiece, and you never see two happier people than them. But it was rough on Dave, I allow.”

“A dead skin, that’s what it was,” commented the victim of disappointment. “You show me a deader skin now, ef you kin.”

The boat now passed the South Ferry slip, and held a course of the Brooklyn end of Governor’s Island. A South Ferry boat passed so close that the rough water of her paddles set the skiff dancing crazily, and the reporter asked:

“Don’t you ever get into trouble with the ferry-boats?”
“I never did but once. I was run down by the Atlantic once. My boat was bursted all to splinters and my pardner killed. But I was picked up. Sence then I look twiste afore I cross a ferry-boat’s bows, you can bet your life. Ah! Here’s the channel. Now, then, Dave, take her through easy.”

The skiff slid slowly through the channel separating Governor’s Island from South Brooklyn. The fall of the oars broke the water into phosphorescent bubbles. On the landing wharf the steps of the sentry could be distinctly heard. A dog barked, and a boat moored to the wharf rattled and banged against the piles. Otherwise the silence was as profound as that of an abandoned graveyard.

“This here channel was our best lay onct,” said Zachary Walker, in a husky half whisper. “The shores used to be shoke up with weeds, and many’s the corpse would come down with the tide and get tangled here. Do you mind that young Frenchman, Dave?”
“Ay, do I.”
“Just at daylight one morning we found a stiff here. It was a young Frenchman in a spike-tail coat, and dressed like as fi for a ball. He had a bullet-hole in his head and a revolver in his hand. The police made him out to be a young artist named Pierry. About four days afterward we picked up a young lay at the werry same place. She were dressed elegant and wore diamonds. My souls! Do you ‘member them diamonds, Dave?”
“Oh, don’t I!”

“Well, sir, that pair, so the police found out, was lovers. Both had tempers of their own. One night the was coming from a party in New York—they lived in Brooklyn, you see—and they had a spat. Pierry he puts the gal into a car and walks back, aboard of the boat. About half-way betwixt Brooklyn and New York the people on the boat hears, from the bow,

A SHOT AND A PLUNGE.

“Two days afterward we found young Pierry down in the Buttermilk Channel. When the gal found out about it I s’pose her conscience smote her. Anyway, the same river as drifter her lover down among the mud and tangled grass fetched her there afterward.

“Most of the people we finds, though is unknowns. About three-quarters is poor, poverty-hunted wretches, that is better off in the river than any where else. The rest is, say half accidents and the t’other half wiolences. The accidents generally pans out well enough from their pockets. The wiolences is allus cleaned out.

“Sakes alive! What fearful things I see among them wiolences. Onct I picked up a man which his entrils was eat right out’n him and a lot of eels in there instead. He had been ripped open. Dozens have I found without heads, either rotted or cut off. I can tell you, when I first got to handlin’ them the sights an’ the smells was enough to turn me inside out. But I got used to it, an’ here I am. There’s a way of handlin’ a river stiff, you see, as makes the work easy enough when you know how.

“Our spear of usefulness ain’t limited to stiffs though. Ef we had to depend on them we’d schaww wind instead of beefsteaks most of the time. It’s live men as plays in best for us. Years ago, you see, afore the police was so strict, if you caught a corpse you went through its pockets, and frequently, specially on sailors,

“FOUND A COMFORTBLE PILE.

“Now, however, every thing has to be handed to the police for purposes of dentification. Of course, in cases like Piorry and the young gal, the relatives comes down handsome. But then for two of them we ketch two hundred that ain’t worth the rope we tow ‘em ashore with hardly. Why, sir, in the old days we used to not only empty a body’s pockets, but strip its clothes off. I’ve seen men which wore the duds off of twenty different corpses at one time for a Sunday suit. That was the reason you hardly ever heard of any drowned people being identified in them days. If they hadn’t no marks on their bodies, they couldn’t be.

“Now, contrarywise, we tows a corpse ashore and gives it up to the police just as it lays.

“But I was a talking about live men. There’s more suicides tempted round New York than ever the police dreams of. Men is drunk or down-heareted, or something or other, and they happens to be on a ferry-boat. Every things handy, so over they goes. As soon as they tastes water, though, they weakens, and wishes they hadn’t gone and done it. That’ sour chance. If we can only pick them up, then we’re good for all the money they can lays hands to for rescooing of them and keeping the thing quiet. I raked in seven since the first of the month. One of ‘em is one of the owners of the werry line of ferry-boats he jumped off of. Another is

THE CAPTING OF A OCEAN STEAMER.

“Generally, though we never find their names out, and of course we never ask, most of that sort has money with them. When they hasn’t they says, ‘Meet me at so and so  to-morrow, my man,’ and they never misses fire. If you ever see shame-faced men, it’s them, and they’d ruther pay hundreds of dollars than have the stories against them come out.

“The queerest start I ever had in this way was about four years ago. It was one rainy night in the fall of the year. I was pulling for home with Dave here at the tiller, when a boat drifted past us. We rowed alongside, intending to take it in tow, when we found a man in the bottom. He was sensible, but hit hard with a bullet in his breast. The bottom of the boat was full of blood, and he was so weak he could hardly speak.

“He had tongue enough to beg us not to take him to the Police Station. I didn’t know what to do. I see at once that he were a river thief, and knew I art to give him up. But the pore devil was hurt so bad and begged so hard that I give in at last and took him home along with me. He laid in our room a week. A doctor, which he sent me to hisself, and which was a friend of his, tended to him. As soon as he was well enough he went away in a hack. I never see him again, but one day a Adams Express comes to the house with an envelope

“IT HAD $250 IN IT.

“All I could find out was that it come from a man named John Smith, which, in course, was as good as no name at all. From what I was able to hear I concluded that my man was Big Mike Shanahan, the river pirate. He answered the description anyhow, and about that time he was shot by a watchman on the ship Australasia, but escaped. His pardners was captured on that job and sent up. Mike was reported to have hid somewhere till he could get away afrom the city. If I ain’t very much mistaken, he was hid in my room.”
Another and much more legitimate source of profit to the river resurrectionist, Mr. Walker went on to explain, is grappling for families who have lost a relative, presumably by drowning, frequently employing him day after day dragging suspected points in the river of the missing one. Accidents on the river are also fat jobs. A blow-up like the Westfield’s is a red letter event in the corpse-hunter’s history. Grappling for dead is paid for by the day, and at a very fair rate of remuneration. The relatives of those found generally reward the finder with extra presents.

In regard to the gains of the corpse-hunter, Zachary Walker was adamantinely secret. The reporter could not ascertain whether this proceeded from a fear that he was going to enter into competition with him or not. But only the vaguest and most unsatisfactory hints could be gained. One point, however, struck the Dispatch representative very forcibly. That was that in spite of the police regulations a corpse with any money in its pocket stood or floated a poor chance of ever reaching shore

WITH ITS PROPERTY INTACT.

There are any number of channels of gain open to the river resurrectionist beside that which he claims for his legitimate one. Many and valuable objects are lost overboard from vessels in the harbor and picked up by him. He is a steady customer at the water-side junkshops, where scarcely anything originally worth money can be so badly damaged as to not be worth buying. Then, again, the smuggler must find him a valuable auxiliary. He knows every point and winding of the river front, from the lonely landing places far up town to the somber wharf caves, like “Hell’s Kitchen,” where the river thieves conceal their boats and land their plunder.

A vast quantity of the smuggling of this city is performed by sailors on the sailing vessels plying between here and the West Indian ports. Cigars, bay rum and brandy are the chief objects with which the cunning mariner seeks to evade the vigilance of the Custom-house officials. Contrabandist Jack finds the corpse hunter’s boat a handy vehicle for his purpose, if his own admissions are to be credited.

ZACHARY WALKER’S BUSINESS

Last Monday night was, however, unmarred by any lawlessness. The long pull around Governor’s Island brought the turn of the tide and dawn with it together, and the skiff’s head was turned to New York. A light fog drifted smokily along with the tide, deadening even the steady sound of the falling oars. Suddenly there was a soft jolt, and then the skiff swung slowly round. Zachary Walker sprang up and leaned over the side, a cord with a noose at its end in his hand.

“What’s the matter? Asked the reporter. “Are we aground?”

“Aground! No much we ain’t. Ease her off a little, Dave. Ah! There it is. Now pull a stroke.”

Zakary Walker spoke in the hurried accents of an excited man. The face of Dave Kimo, the misanthrope, shone. The reporter felt an uneasiness in his stomach which grew to positive nausea as the boat ran alongside of a hideous, sodden, shapeless, floating thing at which the tide was softly lapping. The corpse hunter, cord in hand, leaned out over the side, and a brief pause followed.

“Have you got it?” then demanded Dave Kimo.

“Got it, be d___d!” returned Zachary Walker, dropping on the stern thwart. “Give way for home. It’s only a dog.”

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 28 June 1879: p. 11

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.

Potato Bugs, Cow Paunches, and Peaches: Indirect Poisonings

In my well-thumbed files of strange deaths, there are a number of curious poisoning cases. These are not the humdrum “I-mistook-Rough-on-Rats-for-sugar” stories of the harried housewife or careless servant nor the plausible tales of strychnine bought to exterminate vermin—unwanted stepchildren, for instance, or inconvenient spouses. No, these are more subtle, and to my mind, more interesting “indirect poisonings.”

They come in three flavors: animal, vegetable or mineral. Animals are by far the most numerous. We begin with an article by a dog-loving journalist. The baby seems to be an afterthought.

DOG POISONING

(Fort Wayne News-Sentinel)

Out in Spokane Washin., one of those sneaking beasts in human form, whose milk of human kindness has been curdled with the venom of a cancered soul, set out some poison for a dog the other day. The dog found the bit of food that had been poisoned and took the bait. In his agony, the poor creature crawled to his little pal, a 19-months-old child, and licked the baby’s hands. The baby put his hands to his mouth and got some of the poison and was soon in the throes of excruciating pain. At the moment when these lines are written, the baby is hovering between life and death. All this ghastly tragedy because some beast unworthy of the association of dogs had vented his sinister and unnatural spleen upon society. If nothing else will avail to withhold these perverted pusillanimous caninophobiacs from throwing out poison for dogs, let them reflect upon the Spokane case and consider the possibilities of death to human beings which may result from the death of a normal human being’s animal friend. But will a dog hater be much worried about what can happen to a baby? Hammond [IN] Lake County Times 27 February 1930: p. 4

Cow’s milk was often a hazardous commodity. There are too many cases to count of persons killed or driven mad by cows ingesting poisonous plants. [In The Headless Horror, for example, there was a case of an Ohio village in the grip of a witch mania from poisoned milk.] In this snippet, the culprit is supposed to be a snake, but one wonders….

Pittston, Pa., June 18. Eighteen persons were seriously poisoned here yesterday, by milk taken from a cow supposed to have been bitten by a rattlesnake. Evening Star [Washington DC] 18 June 1878: p. 1

Cows also might prove a more direct hazard, especially when the victims were groping around in bovine intestines.

SINGULAR POISONING CASE

Death of Two men from Poison Received in Handling the Intestines of a Dead Cow

Woman and Boy Dangerously Ill.

[From the New Albany Ledger.]

On Thursday of last week a very remarkable and terrible case of poisoning occurred at Tell City, Perry county, resulting in the death of two men, the probable  death of a woman, and the serious illness of a little boy ten years of age. The circumstances of the case, as we learn them from E.E. Crumb, Esq., of Cannelton, are about as follows;

On Wednesday night the cow of Dominic Friant died very suddenly. On the next day (Thursday) Mr. Friant determined to open her and examine as to the cause of her death, suspecting she had been poisoned. He called to his assistance his wife, a little boy of ten years, and Mr. Joseph Sporcey. Upon cutting open the paunch of the cow, small pieces of pewter and a silver spoon were found in it; and each of the parties named pushed their hands into the paunch and felt among its contents for other pieces of the spoons than those already found.

On Friday morning, when the persons arose from bed, they found their hands and arms much swollen and broken out with large red blotches. The swelling continued to rapidly increase and spread until it covered the entire upper part of the bodies of the victim. Medical assistance was summoned, and everything possible done for the relief of the sufferers, but all was of no avail. Mr. Friant died on Saturday, Mr. Sporcey on Sunday, and Mrs. Friant was still dangerously ill on Tuesday and it was thought would die. The little boy was out of danger at last accounts.

The physicians gave it as their opinion that the unfortunate victims took the poison from the cow’s paunch into their systems by absorption, as there was no abrasure upon the skin of either of them. The case is one among the saddest and most singular we have ever been called upon to record. The Cincinnati [OH] Daily Enquirer 13 July 1870: p. 3

Rats were a favorite animal culprit. They could be found in a domestic setting.

Apples Poisoned by Rats

Poison placed in a grocery cellar at Bucyrus, O., to exterminate rats was dragged by them over a lot of apples. Loren Haman bought some of the fruit and his whole family is sick. Ethel, aged 5, died in great agony. Many other purchasers of the apples suffered—New York World Marion [OH] Daily Star 16 February 1899

Or they could be found operating on a grand, public scale.

The National Hotel Sickness Again.

The Editor of the New York Scalpel makes the following statement in regard to the mysterious sickness at the National Hotel, Washington.

We have a patient from the immediate vicinity of this hotel—a very common-sense man and a housekeeper—who assures us that his premises were overrun with rats from the hotel; dozens of them might be seen at almost any hour of the day in the yard—indeed, they were so numerous as to be incredible, and a man from this city was sent for to poison them. He did so, and what he used it is not very probable he told. Those ingenious philosophers are not apt to communicate their secrets. The rats all disappeared. My patient tells me not one is visible on his premises, and they were in numbers so incredible, that he would not venture to say; but we know, for we have been there and seen them in the hotel-yard. He had a servant who had been employed at the hotel, and she told him, that it was known to all the other servants, that a great number of dead rats were taken from the water-tank, which was used for cooking and other household purposes! This was published at the time, and is doubtless true; for a rat’s instinct, after eating arsenic, will lead him to the top of a house to get water; and nothing is easier than for them to get in a water-tank. No other person than those who ate at the hotel were affected, although that sewer opens directly before the room, and under the doors and windows of a telegraphic office, where sixteen gentlemen are constantly operating. It by no means follows that all who ate of the food should be similarly affected; all did not die, and some ate mostly perhaps of dishes that did not require so much of that filthy water in their preparation. Some drank much strong coffee, and coffee is an antidote—in short, some had stronger constitutions, and many are still suffering.

No doubt, the proprietors of the National Hotel felt disgraced at the discovery of the filthiness of their premises; and no doubt the committee felt sore at our letter—it had too much common-sense in it; but we can’t cure committees—never. As for the hotels at Washington, they are the most disgraceful and filthy holes that humanity ever vomited in; and if our business again leads us to Washington, which it often has, and probably will, we will either live out of town in the suburbs, or carry some food with us. Such filth as we have there witnessed, we never wish to see again. We should not have been surprised to have found a rat entire in a hash or a pie.

Whilst reading the proof of this article, we find a very learned paper in the American Medical Monthly, by the excellent Dr. Hall, of Washington — a gentleman who is admired by all who know him — designed to prove the miasmatic character of the disease. The last paragraph is as follows: “One thing, however, jostled my theory, and has staggered me a good deal, and that is, that many persons who partook of but a single meal were seized! Could the miasma have affected or adhered to food? The water of the house I drank copiously without any ill effects.”

Dear Doctor, they never gave you that water to drink; it was a little too filthy for drinking; as the poor woman said, who wished to settle the stomachs of her guests, when they rebelled at their breakfast, her eggs were “not fresh enough for boiling;” so she fried ’em.

So far as regards the power of concentrated exhalations from sewers to produce disease of the bowels, no one doubts it; Heaven knows every physician in a large city is abundantly convinced of its power; but it acts chiefly on children, and in connection with teething; the dysentery of our summers is chiefly admitted to be caused by heat, and is dysentery and nothing else; that this National Hotel epidemic should have been confined solely to one house, and have produced the set of symptoms it did, without a specific or material poison acting on the stomach and its appendages is absurd. Arsenic, mechanically diffused from the decayed rats, and slowly acting on the stomach, is sufficient to account for all the symptoms. The Highland Weekly news [Hillsboro, OH] 9 July 1857: p. 1

See this link for more on this sensational case. [Thanks to Strange Company for the link.]

Fatally Poisoned by Impure Water.

Findlay, October 19. Miss Hattie Wade of Mount Cory, died of a strange malady just two weeks after her mother, Mrs. Rebecca Wade, the two cases showing the same symptoms. Investigation shows the cause to have been poisoning, due to the use of drinking water from a well in which a poisoned rat had been drowned. Cincinnati [OH] Commercial Tribune 20 October 1883: p. 6

We are, of course, reminded by both articles above of that tragic case where a young woman tourist drowned herself in the rooftop water tank of the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles.

Everyone knows that snake venom is still lethal for a long period after a snake’s death. Apparently it maintains its lethal qualities even in another animal’s body.

SNAKE POISON.

It is stated that the blood of an animal bitten by a venous snake assumes poisonous properties. Frank Buckland on one occasion having seen a rat bitten and killed by a cobra, dissected off the skin to examine the wound. Having discovered the two minutes punctures made by the poison fangs, he scraped away with his fingernail the flesh on the inner side of the skin which he had removed. Unfortunately, he had shortly before been cleaning his nails with a penknife, and had slightly separated the nail from the skin beneath. When he had completed his rapid examination of the rat he walked way, characteristically stuffing the skin into his pocket, (what strange things, alive and dead, did those pockets often contain!)

He had not walked a hundred yards before, all of a sudden, he felt as if somebody had come behind him and struck him a severe blow on the head, and at the same time experienced a most acute pain and sense of oppression at the chest, “as though a hot iron had been run in and a hundred weight put on top of it.” He knew instantly from what he had read that he was poisoned. Luckily he obtained ammonia and brandy, but was ill for some days. “How virulent, therefore,” he says, “must the poison of a cobra be! It had already been circulated in the body of the rat from which I had imbibed it at second hand.” From the account that he gives, however, it seems at least possibly, if not probable that some of the poison was hanging about the wound unabsorbed, and had thus entered his system directly and not, as he believed, indirectly. Murray’s Magazine. The Christian Recorder [Philadelphia, PA] 18 April 1889

I have a note in my files to the effect that “Charles Drury, taxidermist of Cincinnati was poisoned by rattlesnake head on a specimen he was preparing,” but I cannot find the citation.

Tainted poultry has also been responsible for many food poisonings, but not for the same reason as in these two cases. Another reason to avoid Thanksgiving.

IDAHO YOUTH CAUSES ILLNESS OF HIS FAMILY

Feeds Poison to Flock of Turkeys Thanksgiving Morning

Results are Disastrous

Two of Those who Eat the Poisoned Birds in a Precarious Condition and May Die.

Boise, Idaho, Nov. 30. James Bashor, a 12-year-old boy, poisoned his entire family Thanksgiving day, and his brother and sister are so seriously ill that they may die.

The Bashers live on a farm and have a large number of turkeys. It was James’ duty to take care of the fowl and he became very fond of them.

As Thanksgiving day approached the youth heard talk of killing some of his pets. He protested against the slaughter, but his appeals were made light of. On the morning of Thanksgiving day he fed the turkeys a poisonous substance used in the preparation of seed wheat, thinking it would sicken them temporarily and their lives would be saved.

The hired man killed two plump birds and they were served at dinner. Every member of the family was taken sick shortly after the meal and an investigation was made. The boy finally made a full confession. He said that he thought the turkeys would be taken sick, and as no one wants to eat an unhealthy bird they would not be molested.

The physicians who were called in pronounced the members of the family out of danger but two—a boy and a girl. Their lives are despaired of.

All the poisoned turkeys died before nightfall, but the condition of the flock was not noticed until after the dinner had been served. The San Francisco [CA] Call 1 December 1900: p. 8

Two Families Feed on a Poisoned Turkey

Little Rock, (Ark.), April 10th. Advices received here to-night from Conway, a small town in the interior of Faulkner County, gives the particulars of a most singular poisoning, which happened near there last evening, of which it is feared has resulted in the death of several persons. Sixteen in all were stricken down in a single hour, and notwithstanding the attention of the best physicians to be had, at last accounts their efforts seemed unavailing to save hat least half the number.

Two families, Hayes and Crownings, gave a turkey dinner, Will Browning having killed a large wild gobbler turkey. It’s thought the bird got some strychnine just before it was killed, the farmers in the vicinity having put out poison in the woods to kill wolves. Every member of the dinner party was affected in a similar manner, and all but four were thrown into convulsions, and at last accounts eight of the number were in a very critical condition. Sacramento [CA] Daily Record-Union 11 April 1890: p. 1

Did this young man die of anthrax poisoning? It is said that people who sorted wool or worked with animal bone, bristles, or hides were susceptible to inhalational anthrax. The wonder is that it didn’t kill more people.

A SINGULAR POISONING CASE

Jas. Francis McLean, whose singular poisoning was yesterday referred to, was employed in the morocco factory of James. S. Barclay, on Piano Street, Newark, N.J., where imported skins are tanned. Last Wednesday he was engaged in the handling of some Russian hides that were in the process of tanning. While his hand was still wet, he rubbed a pimple of his chin. On Thursday night he was taken ill, and on Friday morning he complained of chills, and his throat was slightly swollen. He continued to grow worse, the swelling extending upward to the forehead and half way down his chest. The swelling affected his breathing and he suffered intense pains. A consultation of physicians was held and the conclusion was reached that the young man was afflicted with a malignant pustule. All efforts to save his life proved unavailing, and on Saturday evening he died, partly from strangulation and partly from nervous prostration. These pustules arise generally from the infusion into the blood of virus from diseased animals, and the skins of animals who had died with disease are said to have communicated the poison months after their slaughter. [N.Y. Times, 6th.] Evening Star [Washington, DC] 7 June 1878: p. 3

Then we have the animal that is man. There are a surprising number of stories of people dying or becoming ill from human bites.

A DYING MAN

Bit His Wife’s Finger and her Life is Despaired Of.

Tiffin, O., March 25. Mrs. Elizabeth Atkinson lies at the home of her parents in this city in a critical condition, the result of being bitten by her late husband while he was in the throes of death. The deceased by W.H. Atkinson, a man high in  railroad circles in Cleveland. He died in that city last week of Bright’s disease, and his body was cremated. While his wife was administering to him just before his death, he seized her little finger in his teeth and in his delirium lacerated the flesh badly. She accompanied the ashes of her husband here, and a few days later the injured hand began to swell, until now her entire arm is swollen to twice its natural size, and she suffers excruciating agony.

It is believed that blood poisoning has resulted and that the woman’s life is in danger. Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 25 March 1902: p. 1

A letter from Portsmouth, Ohio, written by a lady to her husband in this city, makes mention of an extraordinary circumstance. A short time ago a young lady was bitten by a dog. Hydrophobia manifested itself on her, and while confined with the disease she bit her sister, who was waiting on her. The sister was soon attacked by the same disease and bit the mother. All three were alive at the last account, but were all raving mad, and there was no prospect of their recovery. Louisville Journal.Standard [Clarksville, TX] 8 October 1859: p. 2

While insect bites also could be or turn poisonous, this is an unusual story of insect toxicity. Any explanations?

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

Our final animal entry circles back to dogs in a seemingly unlikely case of indirect poisoning.

Singular circumstance. A Baltimore paper states, that a girl died recently in Virginia from having biten [sic] a thread with which she had sewn up a rent made by the bite of a mad dog, in her apron. Ohio Monitor [Columbus, OH] 29 June 1831: p. 2

Stories of indirect vegetable poisons are more rare.

Mr. John Thomas, residing at No. 2233 B street, visited the Odd Fellows’ Cemetery in company with some friends, on Sunday last, and while there weeded some grass from the flowers on a grave. On arriving home he discovered a poison had entered his skin, completely covering his body with a mass of putrid corruption. The doctors in attendance say they are unable to determine the natural of the poison. The Evening Telegraph [Philadelphia, PA] 29 may 1871: p. 8

Singular Case of Poisoning

From Our Jacksonville correspondent we learn of a strange poisoning case. J.M. Dille, a citizen of Richhill township, while cleaning off some ground for the plow, recently, and burning brush with which was mixed some mercury vines (rhus radicans?] and other poisonous vegetation, inhaled some of the smoke of the burning mass. This, singular to relate, acted upon the lungs like poison upon the external surface, and soon produced serious sickness. Mr. Dille is now lying in an almost hopeless condition from the effects of the poisoning. Waynesburg Republican. Washington [PA] Reporter, 27 May 1874: p. 1

A curious case of tobacco poisoning is reported from Brooklyn. A child purchased a cake at one of the refreshment stands in Prospect park. After eating a small portion of it, he was taken with nausea and vomited freely. A physician being summoned declared that the child was suffering from tobacco poisoning, and, on examination, tobacco was found scattered through the cake. This accident indicates the necessity for some sort of supervision of the bakeries, as there is but little doubt that the subordinate workmen are not of the most cleanly habits possible. Chicago Medical Review Denver Medical Times, Volume 2, Issue 3 1883

Indirect mineral poisonings are even rarer (although there have been suggestions that lead leached from pipes or ceramics brought down the Roman empire.) but I find these to be some of the most interesting.

A bartender was believed to have rheumatism, but the doctor suspected that he was suffering from lead poisoning.

One point in his history was suggestive, and that was the fact that he was accustomed to drink a good deal of what he termed “soft stuff,” [i.e. soft drinks] being a total abstainer, yet compelled to drink something when “treated” by his customers. The bottles containing these beverages were closed with old-fashioned lead stoppers and the carbonic acid gas dissolved in the beverages made them much better solvents of lead than uncharged fluids. Eliminative treatment led to quick recovery of the patient and proved the correctness of the diagnosis. Medical Record, George Frederick Shrady, Thomas Lathrop Stedman, Vol. 74, 1908

I have previously written about the perils of poisoned stockings. Here is one more.

Cincinnati, March 18. Last Saturday Louis Mosser, purchased a pair of stockings. He wore them Sunday. Monday morning he was unable to leave his bed, and to-day the physician, who has been in constant attendance, considered his case very precarious. His feet and legs are swollen two or three times their natural size and give him the most intense pain. The stockings were dyed a cardinal red, and it is supposed the coloring matter must have contained poison. The Highland Weekly News [Hillsboro, OH] 24 March 1886: p. 2

And finally, watch out for peaches.

The Granada (Mi.) Register of the 19th ult., says the family of G. Morehead, residing near the Yazoo Pass, were recently poisoned (as is supposed) by eating peaches which had been dried upon a painted scaffold—‘the acid of the peaches, combining with the alkaline and other properties of the white lead, probably producing a poison like sugar of lead.’ Mrs. M. and two of the children died. The other members of the family recovered. Boston [MA] Traveler 2 December 1842: p. 2

My alter-ego, the murderous Mrs Daffodil, has a penchant for what one might call “indirect murder,” never resorting to direct violence, but allowing circumstances or other people to do her dirty work. The cases above seem to be accidents, but contain some useful details. Mrs Daffodil is taking notes.

Any other indirect poisonings? Is the book-page poisoning from The Name of the Rose strictly a fictional creation? Thoughts to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com, who does not lick her fingers when turning over the leaves of a book.

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

Hung by a Corpse – Occupational Hazards for the Resurrectionist

Hung by a Corpse – Occupational Hazards for the Resurrectionist

Life for the Resurrectionist, while certainly nasty and brutish, may also have been gravely shortened by their profession. Oddly enough, people resented those who unearthed and sold their loved ones’ bodies, no matter how much it advanced scientific knowledge, and they put up stiff opposition to the body-snatcher’s clandestine activities.

A RESURRECTIONIST KILLED

Grave Robbing at Mount Hope, Ky., Receives a Bloody Check.

Louisville, Ky., Dec. 18. News of the shooting of a grave robber at the cemetery in Mount Hope was received here yesterday. Several robberies had been committed and when the remains of Miss Morris were interred her fiancé watched the grave. Two men came at midnight and began digging. “Smiley” Jordan, a farm hand of the neighbourhood, was killed, but his companion escaped the fusillade of bullets. Marion County Herald [Palmyra, MO] 20 December 1894: p. 2 

Normally physicians did not go into the field in search of specimens, but perhaps this unfortunate decided to cut out the middle man.

BODY SNATCHER KILLED

Syracuse, N.Y., May 18. Dr. Henry W. Kendall was found in a meadow near the county poor house cemetery this morning with a bullet hole between his eyes. A full kit of resurrectionists tools were found near the body. It is supposed that he was engaged in body snatching. He cannot live. The Atchison [KS] Daily Champion 19 May 1882: p. 1 

Sad mistakes sometimes occurred.

FRENZIED FATHER KILLS WRONG MAN BY MISTAKE

Great Falls, Mont., May 10. Last night the body of the baby of Mr. and Mrs. W.C. Conroy was stolen from the grave in the local cemetery. This morning the father of the dead babe, while hunting the grave robbers, killed Joseph Hamilton, former sheriff of this county, mistaking him for the robber of his child’s grave. Fairbanks [AK] Daily Times 11 May 1911: p. 1

And there seemed to be little honor among corpse-thieves. In one particularly appalling instance, in Ohio an elderly, retired Resurrectionist named Beverly Taylor was murdered, along with his wife and grand-daughter, by his former colleagues, who sold the bodies to the Ohio Medical College: the same institution which Taylor had once supplied.

Sometimes there was disagreement over the spoils of the grave.  Usually an episode like the following would conclude in the arrest or lynching of the grave-robbers, rather than the grave defenders.

GRAVE ROBBER KILLED

Farmer Indicted for Shooting Wm. Gray, of Cantrell Party.

Indianapolis, March 14. Lucius Stout and Hampton West, farmers living 15 miles north of Indianapolis, were indicted today at Noblesville for the murder of Wm. Gray at Frankfort, in a grave yard battle over the possession of a corpse, in which Stout and West opposed Cantrell and his gang of thieves. The evidence before the grand jury showed Stout and West came upon Cantrell and his gang of thieves just as the latter was lifting a corpse from the grave in Beaver cemetery. West and Stout opened fire upon the gang, one bullet killing Gray, while the others escaped. Cantrell and his companions testified before the jury. They said Gray was buried in the swamps near the cemetery. Iowa City [IA] Press-Citizen 14 March 1903: p. 1 

I thought something didn’t quite ring true in this squib. Were Stout and West at the cemetery just as vigilante guardians of the grave? Well, not exactly…

The investigation of the operations of ghouls in the vicinity of Indianapolis, Ind., has taken a new and unexpected turn. The grand jury at Noblesville returned an indictment against Lucius Stout and Hampton West, charging the two men not only with grave robbery, but with murder. Both men are prominent and wealthy farmers. For years, according to the testimony of half the hundred witnesses who appeared before the jury, the two have been the most conspicuous figures among the mourners at all the funerals of the country-side. Even when they were unacquainted with either the dead or the surviving relatives, they were present at the graveside when the corpse was lowered to its last resting place. Suspicion on this account, has rested on the men for some time, but their wealth and position shielded them from open accusation Cantrell’s arrest and subsequent confession, however, implicated both men, and their arrest followed. The indictment returned charges them with the murder of William Gray in September, 1901. At midnight West and Stout, proceeding to a grave in the Beaver cemetery, surprised Cantrell and his gang at work removing the corpse that the two farmers had come to secure. Hot words followed, and both parties drew revolvers. A running fire ensued, in which Gray was mortally wounded and West’s forehead was grazed by a bullet. He bears the scar to-day. During the battle in the midst of the little churchyard, the combatants sheltered themselves behind the grave stones. Cantrell and his men, including Samuel Martin and Walter Daniel, two self-confessed ghouls, running short of ammunition, were forced to abandon Gray. The latter was taken by West and Stout to the West home, where it is alleged he died. By a strange turn in fate, Gray’s body, it is alleged, next made its appearance in the dissecting room of an Indianapolis medical college. Another story, however, relates that upon Gray’s death West and Stout buried his corpse in a swamp near the West home. The Indiana [PA] Democrat 18 March 1903: p. 10

Rufus Cantrell, “The King of the Ghouls,” sang like a ghoulish canary, implicating Stout in the chloroforming of a young woman, the murder of a police officer, and several other unsolved murders. Prosecutors were dubious and in the end Stout seems to have gotten off on a procedural technicality.

Many sextons and graveyard guards thought it prudent to arm themselves. There are thrilling reports of gun battles among the tombstones.

A RESURRECTIONIST KILLED

Last Monday night, Jacob Swein, the sexton of the new City Burial Ground, in Cincinnati, was awakened by a man in his employ, and told that some one was in the grave yard and engaged in digging up bodies. Mr. S., taking his gun, went out, and saw three persons, one of whom advanced towards him with a knife in his hand. Mr. S. immediately raised his gun and fired, with so much certainty as to kill the body-snatcher dead in his tracks. The other two instantly fled, leaving a horse and wagon, and the implements used for digging up the graves behind them. Lebanon [PA] Courier 15 October 1852: p. 2 

If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. Not only did honest Resurrection Men have to deal with over-zealous sextons with guns, there was no guarantee that the corpse they exhumed wasn’t a death-trap. An Ohio artist named Phil. K. Clover was the inventor of the “coffin torpedo.” 

Good News for the Dead

Mr. Phil. K. Clover, the artist, has invented a torpedo designed to make the robbery of graves a hazardous and unpopular business, and has taken the necessary steps to procure letters patent. The torpedo may be briefly described as a miniature needle-gun. It is about six inches long, and is divided into two pieces. The first piece, which is to be nailed inside the coffin, and almost covered by the upholster, contains a spiral spring, to which are attached two small chains, which are to be fastened around the body or around the arms of the corpse. So far the invention is harmless, but just before the final closing of the coffin the second piece, containing a cartridge, and arranged on the needle-gun plan is to be screwed onto the section containing the spring. The torpedo is now ready for action. The grave-robber may dig to the coffin, and remove the covering thereof, but when he attempts to move the body he pulls the chain and sets off the spiral spring, which strikes the needle with great force, explodes the cap, and sends buckshot or ball in an upward direction. The grave-robber, stooping over his work is liable to be shot with deadly effect. Under the most favorable circumstances to him he is likely to be powerfully impressed with a sense of danger, and to vacate the premises with dispatch. The torpedoes will not be very expensive, and several of them may be placed in the same coffin, so that the resurrectionist will have no assurance, when one explodes, that the danger is over. Should the article come into general use, the knowledge of its existence will have a restraining influence, and it will do its work without many fatal cases. Iowa Liberal [Lemars, IA] 31 July 1878: p. 8

TORPEDOES FOR BODY SNATCHERS.

If one may judge from the patent records, live people do a good deal of thinking about death. The very latest device that has been applied to burial appliances is the “coffin torpedo,” which is designed as an effective and very summary punishment for body snatchers. Nothing less than a bomb is introduced into the coffin, before the latter is closed, the arrangement being such—we spare the reader all technical details— that any attempt to force it open will release a spring, strike a percussion cap, and set off the bomb. The thing is done, and the robber is floating in pieces about the air long before he has had any time to prepare for his sudden journey.

But what happens to the corpse? The inventor leaves us in the dark on this point—probably because the question is hard to answer. We are afraid the coffin torpedo has no very brilliant future on this account, and for the further reason that local authorities (who are notoriously difficult to deal with) might object to have their burial grounds studded with infernal machines. Electrical Engineer, Vol. 22, 1896 p. 332

Clover wasn’t the only man thinking along these lines.

SURE DEATH TO GHOULS.

A Lawyer’s Startling Device to Foil Grave Robbers.

The details of the device of Jesse Hodgin, the well-known Westfield [Indiana] attorney, to protect the grave of his wife were made public the other day, says a Noblesville (Inc.) dispatch to the Cincinnati Enquirer. The plan has been examined by experts, who unhesitatingly say that it will put a stop to body snatching by ghouls. They not only say the device will be effective, but they also indorse it because it is inexpensive.

A few inches above the rough box in the grave is an ordinary gas pipe three-quarters of an inch in diameter filled with nitro-glycerine. The pipe occupies a position lengthwise of the coffin and extends from six to twelve inches over each end. There is a cap fastened tightly on each end of the pipe to prevent the deadly explosive from leaking. Scattered promiscuously through the soil about a foot or eighteen inches above the pipe are several dozen concussion caps. A spade or any hard substance that comes in contact with these caps will explode them. The jar will in turn explode the nitro-glycerine, which would mean death to any one within twenty-five or fifty feet of the grave. It is intimated that there is sufficient nitro-glycerine in the pipe to make an excavation in the earth fifty feet square and from ten to fifteen feet deep.

While Mr. Hodgin admits that the explosion would completely destroy the body of his wife, he says he would rather see that done than to know that the remains were ever on a dissecting table in a medical college.

“And I would also know that there would be some dead ghouls somewhere in the vicinity of the grave,” he said. “The plan is original with me and my brother, but I am satisfied that it would prove a success if it was ever tried. When I first mentioned the matter to the sexton of the cemetery, he refused to allow me to put in the device on the ground that it might result in injuring some innocent parties or despoil other graves. I then consulted the trustees who have charge of the cemetery and obtained their consent.” The Newark [OH] Advocate 6 November 1902:  p. 8

It is impossible to know how often these devices were deployed, but here is an incident from 1881.

A more serious incident was reported near the village of Gann [Knox County] about the same time. When three men attempted a grave robbery, they struck a torpedo which had been planted near the bottom of the grave, instantly killing one of the men and breaking a leg of one other. The third party, who was keeping a watch, succeeded in getting his companions into a sleigh, taking flight, and evading arrest.  Ohio State Journal January 20, 1881. 

But when it comes to poetic justice, it would be hard to top this story.

A Man Hung by a Corpse

The Cincinnati (Ohio) Gazette states that on Saturday night, a fellow was stealing a dead body from the graveyard at Cumminsville near that city, when in crossing the fence, he slipped and fell on the outside, and the rope which held the sack containing the corpse, sliding from his shoulders to his neck, at daylight his body was found hanging on the outside of the graveyard fence, while the corpse he had stolen, hung on the inside, both equally lifeless. Weekly Vincennes [IN] Gazette 12 March 1859

I will add the caveat that there’s an identical story about a man stealing a pig.

Given the many hazards inherent in the profession, I was surprised to unearth no tales of body-snatchers crushed by tipping tombstones, buried alive, or infected by diseased corpses. Except this one, about the ghastly end of one phrenologist-turned- grave-robber. This was the story my editor wouldn’t let me use in The Victorian Book of the DeadShe said it was too gruesome.  Thanks to the fearless and always tasteful Undine of Strange Company for sharing!

Other grave threats to Resurrectionists? 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 newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Dead Man Cycling: 1899

Since we are nothing if not topical here, I thought I ought to do something in honor of the Olympics. Even thought it is an Olympic sport, I find watching cycling a tedious pastime, frequently dropping into a coma easily mistaken for death while viewing the surging masses of spandex. But devotees are fanatical about the sport. In this astonishing story, one man crossed the finish line as a corpse.

DEAD MAN WINS CYCLE RACE

Victor in an Australian Contest Goes Under the Tape a Winner.

Vancouver, B.C., Feb. 25. Australian advices by the steamship Miowera tell of a remarkable bicycle race in Sydney, which was won by a dead man.

It occurred at a big electric light carnival. In a one-mile race there were 50 entries, some of the fastest men in Australia taking part in it. While 10,000 people watched this particular race, which was for a magnificent cup, young James Somerville passed under the tape a winner, though dead.

At the start he quickly forged ahead, closely followed by another crack rider named Percy Cliff. They left 48 riders away in the rear and shot around the track almost wheel to wheel. When within 25 yards of the tape Somerville, who still led by half a wheel, was seen to relax his hold on the handlebars. His pedals whirled around, however, and he pluckily held his position. Five yards from the tape Cliff put on a tremendous spurt and struck Somerville’s hind wheel, shooting the machine with its then almost inanimate burden, like a rocket under the tape.

The crowd yelled wildly, but silence ensued when Somerville, after crossing the tape, plunged head foremost from the machine. When picked up he was dead. Physicians who examined his body said he must have had an attack of heart failure on the last lap. Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 25 February 1899: p. 1

A thrilling narrative, indeed!  But who was this plucky post-mortem winner?

OBITUARY MR JAMES SUMERVILLE AETAT 23

The friends of the above-named well-known cyclist will regret to learn that he died in Sydney Hospital at about six o’clock this evening. It may be remembered that at the electric light bicycle race held on the Sydney Cricket Ground on Thursday last deceased fell while riding for the Trustees’ Gift and sustained fracture of the skull. He was taken to the hospital and at first, according to the newspaper reports, hopes were entertained that he would recover; but these proved illusive and he never regained consciousness, but died as stated above.

Deceased was a very respectable, well-conducted young man, much liked by those who knew him. He was second son of Mr. J. Somerville of Yarra, and until recently he assisted his father and brothers in carrying on farming. Lately however he became enamoured of cycling and devoted much attention to it. In his career as a cyclist he was fairly successful, having last year won two races at Braidwood and one at Cootamundra, and about four months ago he was first in a local road race from Tarago to Goalburn.

He was single and leaves a father, mother, and three brothers to mourn their loss.

The body will be brought to Goulburn by mail train to-morrow morning, and the funeral will leave Mr. Wiseman’s Auburn-street, at five pm., for the Presbyterian cemetery, North Goulburn. Cyclists are by advertisement requested to attend. Goulburn Herald [NSW] 23 January 1899: p. 3

An inquest was held a few days later, giving an affecting description of his funeral and some unexpected details.

The Inquest on Somerville.

The inquest was on Tuesday resumed on the body of James Somerville, the Goulburn cyclist, who was fatally injured whilst riding in a race at the electric light cycling carnival at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Thursday night. A number of witnesses were called to show that the ground was well lighted during the progress of the race in question, and the track was in good order. Senior-constable Pearse, who was stationed within the enclosure, stated that the riders were in a bunch until within 150 yards of the wining post, when they spread out. He saw two men fall near the fence, and went to their assistance. In the casualty room he asked deceased how it happened, and he replied, “I know nothing about it.” Joseph Cliff, cycle mechanic, Waterloo, who fell with Somerville, said that in the rush for the finish he was three yards behind him, and another man was an equal distance ahead. He saw him suddenly fall, but did not notice the machine strike the fence. Henry Johnston, who was a spectator of the race in the public reserve, stated that he saw deceased fall a few feet away from where he was leaning over the fence. In falling deceased struck witness on the arm. He thought Somerville’s machine must have struck the back wheel of a bicycle in front of him. Fred Rathgen, who was present at the carnival in the capacity of referee, said that he was standing close to the scene of the fall. Deceased was on the outside of the bunch, and nearest the fence. The front wheel of his bicycle must have struck another bicycle, as it turned it completely round, and brought the machine to a standstill, throwing deceased off. He struck the track with his head, and lay there bleeding and motionless. The jury, without retiring, found that death resulted from injuries accidentally received. The funeral took place in Goulburn on Tuesday afternoon. A large number of cyclists took part, walking in procession in front of the hearse in couples, with their bicycles on the inner side. Before the cemetery was reached the wheelmen numbered over seventy, and the procession had a very imposing effect. Following the hearse were the mourning coaches, a large number of other vehicles, and horsemen. The hearse was draped in the riding colours of the deceased. The remains were interred in the Presbyterian cemetery. The Rev. Stanley Best, assistant minister of St. Saviour’s Cathedral parish, officiated at the grave, and in the course of a brief address said that it was a beautiful sight to see so many of the deceased’s fellow cyclists attending the funeral. Handsome wreaths had been sent by the local and metropolitan branches of the League of Wheelmen and by the promoters of the electric light cycle meetings. Mr. R. Sidney Craig conducted the obsequies. General sorrow is expressed at the untimely end of so promising a young man. Goulburn Evening Penny Post [NSW] 26 January 1899: p. 4

Wait—he spoke? He was injured on Thursday and died on Friday? But what about the exciting narrative of young Somerville crossing the finish line as the winner, lifted off his bicycle a corpse?

Alas, for the world of strange deaths, this fanciful tale had more revolutions than a peloton.

Usually a tragic event needs to fade at least slightly into the mists of history before becoming distorted, but Somerville—the man, the myth, the legend—began his victory lap almost immediately.

He died on the 23 of January 1899 and a month later, the story heading this post appeared in the Michigan paper. In April, not even three months after the tragedy, the local paper was commenting on the far-flung variants of the story and even they had their facts wrong with “died some days after.”

English Fancies and Australian Facts.

It has often been a puzzle to understand where English journals get their Australian news from. Some of it is fearfully and wonderfully mangled during the process of transposition form the columns of the Australian to those of the English press. He is a paragraph in point, taken from the “British Weekly,” one of the most respectable of English religious weeklies, which has a large circulation in these colonies:

A bicycle race was won by a dead man at Sydney a few days ago. When James Somerville, a champion Australian bicyclist, was within 25 yards of the winning post, he released his hold of the handles, and his head dropped forward, but he apparently continued to work the pedals, and came in the winner. He was lifted from his bicycle, and was found to be dead. The doctors said he died during the last lap.” The facts of the unfortunate case, it will be remembered, are that James Somerville was thrown from his machine while racing on the Sydney Cricket Ground, and died some days after from the injuries received. Goulburn Evening Penny Post [NSW] 8 April 1899: p. 4

This story whirled round the world nearly as fast as the bicycle of the unfortunate Somerville. In a discussion of long-distance cycle racing the tale was commented upon with an even stranger assertion about the story having its origins in a fictional yarn in a cycling magazine.

Thus an English contemporary: Those of us who’ve done long distances know that it is quite possible to drop into a semi-sleep and yet keep on pedalling. But it is news that a man may be dead and yet ride a bicycle.

The latest tall tale arrives from Australia. A telegram tells how James Somerville, a champion rider, came to his death suddenly. It was during a race, when within 25 yards of the winning post, he released his hold of the handles and his head dropped forward. But he worked the pedals for all he was worth, and came in the winner. He was dead; the doctors said he died in the last lap. Who was James Somerville, anyhow? A “prize tale” in a cycling contemporary a few months ago had this incident as its foundation, and the name of the hero thereof was James Somerville The Ballarat Star [Vic.] 6 May 1899: p. 6

Much in the same way that some continue to insist that Victorians photographed their dead standing, held miraculously upright by a mere posing stand, this story had wheels, running on for years after Somerville’s death. What is strangest of all is to find the dead-man-winning tale repeated in Australian papers in 1899, where, you would think, the actual story might have been known.

One of the latest versions was published in 1925. The story was freshened by a preface reading, “It is not long since a valuable cup was won in a bicycle race at Sydney by a man who was actually dead when his bicycle flashed past the winning post.” [Dallas [TX] Morning News 9 August 1925: p. 1] The story was also repeated as true in the Evening Star (Washington DC) 27 February 1949: p. 56 in one of those features about “quaint stories from the past.” Even today you can find dozens of sites where James Somerville’s post-mortem victory is celebrated. Lore, we must admit, is stronger than death.

Was there actually a fictional story in a cycling magazine where this legend got its start? Or is that just another part of the Somerville legend? No valuable cup for guessing. chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

See this story from The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales from the Past, at Mrs Daffodil’s blog. It is dated 1892; could it have been the inspiration for the cycling dead man?

Undine of Strange Company writes in with a chilling parallel from the world of horse racing. Thanks, Undine!

Your post about “Dead Man Cycling” reminded me of this memorable finish from the world of horse racing. (Lewiston Sun, June 5, 1923)

Y

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.

Three Fatal Drops: 1880s

The Dying Artist, Z. Andrychiewicz, 1880s

THREE FATAL DROPS.

DYING BOY POISONED

NOVELIST’S GRIM SECRET

END OF DAYS OF AGONY

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

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

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

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

An Incurable Disease.

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

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

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

“Three Drops Only.”

My father said:—”You mean —?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so fell asleep, and sleeping, died.

New Zealand Herald  24 December 1929: p. 14

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

Ghost Fires and Melting Masks: The Macabre Mirth of the Vintage Hallowe’en

It’s Beggar’s Night here in my town and some people worry about making Halloween safer and healthier. To that end, my neighbor gives out pencils to trick-or-treaters. I prefer unhealthy treats like M&Ms and KitKats. After all, a child could put an eye out with a pencil. Safety first.

 But it was not always thus.

A boy is crushed during a Halloween out-house tipping; blinded by a Halloween mask, a girl drives into the path of a train; a child is killed by a falling pumpkin.  Halloween has always been an inherently dark, dangerous, and unwholesome holiday.

The social columns of vintage newspapers are filled with fascinating snippets like “A pretty tea was given by Mrs. A.P Clawhammer for her friend Miss Margaret Pruritis of Dismal Seepage, Iowa.”  These news items burble along in a predictably restful pattern, listing the decorations, the refreshments and the entertainments at local parties. As I was researching the topic of vintage Halloween disasters, I found these two Halloween items in the social column of a Georgia newspaper and was struck by their casual cruelty side by side with the genteel details.

 Philatheas Entertain

The Philathea Class [this was a Bible study group] of the First Methodist Church entertained at a most successful Halloween party on Friday evening in the church parlors.

          Their guests included the members of the Baraca Class, and the officers of the Sunday School and their wives.

          Autumn leaves, pumpkins and chrysanthemums were used in decorating, carrying out the Halloween idea.

          The ladies of the class, garbed as ghosts, welcomed them into the parlors, where many surprises of a fearful and spooky nature awaited them. On shaking the hand of Miss Daisy White, president of the class, so cordially offered them, the unsuspecting guests (or victims) were given a severe and agonizing shock. A small electric shocking machine explained this mystery. This was one of the most amusing incidents of an eventful evening.

           Miss Burt Entertains

Miss Georgia Burt entertained her Sunday School class at a most delightful Hallowe’en party Friday evening in Kennesaw.

          The house and spacious veranda were very artistically decorated with autumn leaves, black cats, owls, ghosts and witches, which gave the interior such a weird aspect, one felt as if he were really in the land of Goblins.

          The veranda and interior were illuminated with Jack o’ lanterns, and two large pumpkins were placed at the entrance, and were very attractive, with large faced cats on each side with candles lighted in them, defining the features.

          The children were entertained throughout the evening by various games suggestive of the season, and fortune-telling….

          The most remarkable event of the evening was a real live black cat coming to take part in the Hallowe’en celebration, but the little cat died next morning and Miss Burt was accused of poisoning it as she was told by several friends she would surely be an “old maid” if she should keep it. Marietta [GA] Journal 7 November 1919: p. 7          

Although there were no razor-blades in apples or poisoned candy, Halloween fatalities were an expected part of the fun. Some newspapers published lists totting up Halloween victims from all over the country. Alcohol and firearms figure heavily in most accounts, but you also find macabre accidents:

Columbus, O., Nov. 1 An unknown man was run over by a Main Street car, shortly before 3 a.m. today, and instantly killed, being terribly mangled. The motorman saw the body lying across the track as he approached, but supposed it to be a Halloween dummy. There was nothing on the body by which it might be identified. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 2 November 1904: p. 4

 KILLED BY PAPIER MACHE MASK

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

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

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

          Fire was a constant theme in the Halloween celebrations of the past. For example, in 1906 an entire Leipsic, Ohio city block, to the value of $100,000, went up in flames because of a Halloween paper lantern mishap. Lives were frequently lost when costumes were ignited by jack-o-lanterns or candles. A Halloween dance could become a Dance of Death, especially when a Ghost Fire was involved. At an April 1908 “Ghost Dance” in New York, a young woman was burnt to death when the alcohol in the following ritual exploded.

Would You Know Whom you Are to Marry?

Then Build a Ghost Fire on Hallowe’en.

          …For centuries young men and maids on the eve of All Saints’ day have invoked ghostly information as to their futures.

There are many methods of doing this—such as holding a candle lighted mirror over your head and walking backward down a crooked stairway as the clock strikes midnight. If you are a girl the apparition of your future husband will cloud the mirror’s surface. If you are a man vice versa….But the oldest as well as most mirth-provoking mode of procedure is the ghost fire.

A ghost fire is made as follows:

A big dish pan is placed in the center of the floor of a dark room. The pan contains some four or five pounds of salt which has been fairly well saturated with wood alcohol. The party gathers around the pan, chanting the incantation quoted above. Each has been given a chestnut, and each chestnut has been marked in some distinguishing way. A lighted match is thrown on the salt, which breaks into a blaze that gives off an uncanny green light. The chestnuts are then thrown in, and the girl whose chestnut pops first will be the first bride. Of course, she must immediately eat the chestnut. BUT—that is not all.

She is supposed to see the face of her future husband arising from the flames! Wyoming State Tribune [Cheyenne, WY] 31 October 1919: p. 7

My friend Nick Reiter of The Avalon Foundation had this to say about what seemed to me a dubious indoor entertainment:

“First off, the amount of alcohol needed to soak 4 pounds of salt is a lot of alcohol. The fire from that wouldn’t so much be explosive, but rather hot and very long lasting. It would be difficult to put out. It would also make the pan hot enough to burn the hell out of the floor….

“Wood alcohol is methanol – not ethanol as in booze, or isopropyl as in rubbing alcohol. They all burn about the same, but wood alcohol is very toxic, both in fume and in ingestion. I would not have wanted to eat a chestnut [roasted that way.]”

A different sort of Halloween divination proved fatal to a Pennsylvania woman:

BECAME THE BRIDE OF DEATH.

Miss Minner’s Fatal Effort to Win a Halloween Husband.

Sharon, Pa., Nov. 6. A very peculiar case has come before the local physicians in this city. Miss Luelia Minner, of Charleston, this county, attended a Halloween party, and the guests indulged in familiar Halloween legends. Miss Minner had heard that if a young lady would swallow a chicken’s heart her future husband would be the next gentleman she would meet. The girl tried the experiment and the heart lodged near the windpipe and caused an abscess to form in the throat. She kept gradually growing worse until today, when the matter broke forth and emptied into the windpipe, choking her to death. Deceased was 21 years old and a popular young society lady. Daily Inter Ocean [Chicago, IL] 7 November 1895: p. 1

Halloween pranks could turn out to be deadly for the pranksters, who were particularly at risk for being shot by irate householders.

 As a result of a Hallowe’en prank two men were shot at Shelby, O., and both may die. Floyd Armstrong and Morris Brower placed cannon crackers in the spouting at Roscoe McCormick’s house. McCormick fired both barrels of a shotgun with deadly effect. Recorder [Indianapolis, IN] 10 November 1900: p. 5

 Or the victims, as in this extraordinary story:

FATAL END OF PRACTICAL JOKE

Rochester, NY, Nov. 1 The authorities of Allegany County are looking for the persons who manufactured a skeleton out of animals’ bones which frightened Mary Oldfield of Karrdale to death last night.

          Miss Oldfield, accompanied by two friends, was returning from a Halloween party, where they had listened to grewsome stories until their hair stood on end. When about to enter the woods a rattling of bones was heard overhead, and looking up, the trio were overcome with horror at seeing a skeleton of gigantic proportions sweeping down on them from above. With a cry of terror. Mary dropped dead.

          A searching party found a wire leading from the ground to a tree top, to which was attached a skeleton by a pulley.  New York Times 2 November 1900: p. 5

A very happy and safe Hallowe’en to all of you. Dibs on the KitKats.

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

The False Funeral: 1860

THE FALSE FUNERAL.

I never liked my uncle’s business, though he took me when my father died, and brought me up as his own son. The good man had no children. His wife was long dead; and he had an honest old woman for a housekeeper, and a flourishing business in the undertaking line, to leave to some body; but he did not leave it to me, and I’ll tell you the reason.

When I had been about five years with him, and had grown worth my salt, as he used to say, a death occurred in our neighborhood, which caused greater lamentation than any we had heard of since my apprenticeship began. The deceased gentleman was a Mr. Elsworthy. The family had been counted gentry in their day. I should have said my uncle lived in York, and all the world knows what Yorkshire families are. Well, the Elsworthys were of good family, and very proud of it, tho’ they had lost every acre of an old estate which had belonged to them time out of mind. I am not sure whether it was their grandfather’s dice and cock-fighting. or their father’s going surety for a friend, who did something wrong in a government office that brought them to this poor pass; but there was no house in all York where candles went further, and tea leaves were better used up. There was a mother, two sisters, and a cousin who lived with them. The mother was a stately old lady, never seen out of the black brocade. The sisters were not over young or handsome, but they dressed as fine as they could. The cousin was counted one of the prettiest women in Yorkshire, but she walked with a crutch, having met with an accident in her childhood. Master Charles was the only son, and the youngest of the family; he was a tall, handsome, dashing young man, uncommonly polite, and a great favorite with the ladies. It was said there was some red eyes in the town when the story got wind that he was going to be married to the Honorable Miss Westbay. Her father was younger brother to the Earl of Harrowgate, and had seven girls beside her, without a penny for one of them; but Miss Westbay was a beauty, and the wonder was that she had not got married long ago, being nearly seven years out, dancing, singing, and playing tip-top pieces at all the parties. Half-a-dozen matches had been talked of for her, but somehow they broke down one after another. Her father was rather impatient to see her off; so were her sisters, poor things, and no wonder, for grow up as they might, not one of them would the old man suffer to come out till the eldest was disposed of, and at last there seemed something like a certainty of that business. Young Mr. Elsworthy and she struck up a courtship. He was fascinated–isn’t that the word?–at an assize ball, paid marked attentions at the bishop’s party, and was believed to have popped the question at a picnic, after Lord Harrowgate, the largest share holder in the North Eastern Bank, got him promoted from a clerkship to be manager. It’s true he was some years younger than Miss Westbay, and people said there had been some thing between him and his pretty cousin; but a Lord’s niece with beauty, accomplishments, and a serviceable connection does not come in every young man’s way; so the wedding-day was fixed for the first of January; and all the milliners were busy with the bride’s bonnets and dresses.

It was just a month to come, and everybody was talking of the match, when Mr. Elsworthy fell sick. At first they said it was a cold; then it turned to a brain fever; at last the doctor gave no hopes of his recovery, and within the same week Mr. Elsworthy died. The whole neighborhood was cast into mourning. A promising young man, in a manner the only dependence of his family, newly promoted to a station of trust and influence, and on the eve of marriage, everybody lamented his untimely death, and sympathized with his bereaved relations, and his intended bride. I think my uncle lamented most of all. None of his customers, to my knowledge, ever got so much of his sorrow. When he was sent for in the way of business, it struck me that he stayed particularly long. The good man could talk of nothing but the grief of the afflicted family–how the mother went into fits and the sisters tore their hair– how the cousin talked of wearing mourning all her days–and how it was feared that Miss Westbay, who insisted on seeing him, would never recover her senses. The country papers gave expressions to the public grief. There was a great many verses written about it. Nobody passed the house of mourning without a sigh, or a suitable remark. My uncle superintended the making of the coffin, as I had never seen him do to any other; and when the workmen were gone home, he spent hours at night finishing it by himself.

The funeral was to set out for the family vault in the Minster church, at Beverly, about three o’clock in the afternoon. It was made a strictly private affair, though hundreds of the towns men would have testified their respect for the dead by accompanying it all the way. The members of the family, in two mourning coaches, and the undertaker’s men, were alone allowed to follow poor Elsworthy to his last resting place, and the coffin was not to be brought till the latest hour. My uncle had got it finished to his mind, but evidently did not wish me to look at his work. He had a long talk with Steele and Stoneman, two of his most confidential assistants in the workshop, after hours, and they went away looking remarkably close. All was in train, and the funeral to take place the next day, when, coming down his own stairs they were rather steep and narrow, for we lived in one of the old houses of York my uncle slipped, fell, and broke his leg. 1 thought he would have gone mad when the doctor told him he must not attempt to move, or mind any business for weeks to come, and I tried to pacify him by offering to conduct the funeral with the help of Steele and Stoneman. Nothing would please the old man; I never saw him so far out of temper before. He swore at his bad luck, threw the pillows at his housekeeper, ordered me to bring him up the key of the workshop, and kept it fast clutched in his hand. I sat up with him that night. In a couple of hours he grew calm and sensible, but could not sleep, though the house was all quiet, and the housekeeper snoring in the corner. Then he began to groan, as if there was something worse than a broken leg on his mind, and

“Tom,” said he, ” haven’t I always been kind to you?”

“No doubt of it, uncle,” said I.

“Well, Tom, I want you to do me a great service–a particular service, Tom, and I’ll never forget it to you. You know Mr. Elsworthy’s funeral comes off to-morrow at three, and they are very high people.”

“Never fear, uncle; I’ll take care of it as well as if you were there yourself.”

“I knew you would, Tom,–I knew you would. I could trust you with the hearsing of an earl’s coffin ; and for managing mutes, I don’t know your equal. But there’s something more to be done. Come over besides me, Tom; that old woman don’t hear well at the best, and she’s sleeping now and no mistake. Will you promise me”–and his voice sunk to a whisper–“that, whatever you hear or see, you’ll make no remark to any living, and be as cautious as you can about the body? There’s foul play,” said he, for I began to look frightened; “but maybe this leg’s a judgment for taking on such a business. Howsomever, I’m to have three hundreds pounds for it; and you’ll get the half, Tom, the full half, if you’ll conduct it properly, and give me your solemn promise. I know you’ll never break.”

“Uncle,” said I, “I’ll promise, and keep it too; but you must tell me what it is.” “Well, Tom,” and he drew a long breath “its a living man you’re going to put in that coffin in the workshop! I’ve made it high and full of air holes; he’ll lie quite comfortable. Nobody knows about it but Steele and Stoneman and yourself; they’ll go with you. Mind you trust no one else. Don’t look so stupid, man; can’t you understand? Mr. Elsworthy didn’t die at all, and never had brain fever; but he wants to get off with marrying Miss Westbay, or something of that sort. They’re taking a queer way about it, I must say; but these genteel people have ways of their own. It was the cousin that prepared my mind for it in the back parlor; that woman’s up to anything. I stood out against having a hand in it till I heard that the sexton of Beverly Church was a poor relation of theirs. The key of the coffin is to be given to him; it will be locked, and not screwed down, you see; and when all’s over at the vault–it will be dark night by that time, for we don’t move till three, and these December days are short–he’ll come and help Mr. Elsworthy out, and smuggle him off to Hull with his son the carrier. There’s ships enough there to take him anywhere under a feigned name.”

“Could he get off from the marriage no easier?” said I, for the thought of taking a living man in a hearse, and having the service read over him, made my blood run cold. You see I was young then.

“There’s something more than the marriage in it, though they didn’t tell me. Odd things will happen in my business, and this is one of the queerest. But you’ll manage it, Tom, and get my blessing, besides your half of the three hundred pounds; and don’t be afraid of anything coming wrong with him, for I never saw any man look so much like a corpse.”

I promised my uncle to do the business and keep the secret. A hundred and fifty pounds was no joke to a young man beginning the world in an undertaking line; and the old man was so pleased with what be called my senses and understanding, that before falling asleep, close upon daybreak, he talked of taking me into partnership , and the jobs we might expect from the Harrowgate family; for the dowager-countess was near fourscore, and two of the young ladies were threatened with decline. Next day early in the afternoon, Steele, Stoneman, and I were at work, The family seemed duly mournful; I suppose on account of the servants. Mr. Elsworthy looked wonderfully well in his shroud; and if one had not looked closely into the coffin, they never would have seen the air-holes. Well, we set out, mourning-coaches, hearse and all, through a yellow fog of a December day. There was nothing but sad faces to be seen at all the windows as we passed; I heard them admiring Steele and Stoneman for the feeling hearts they showed; but when we got on the Beverly road, the cousin gave us a sigh, and away we went a rattling pace; a funeral never got over the ground at such a rate before. Yet it was getting dark when we reached the old Minister, and the curate grumbled at having to do duty so late. He got through the service nearly as quick as we got over the miles. The coffin was lowered into the family vault; it was more than half filled with Mr. Elsworthy ‘s forefathers, but there was a good wide grate in the wall, and no want of air. It was all right. The clerk and the clergyman started off to their homes; mourning-coaches went to the Crown Inn, the ladies were to wait till the sexton came let them know he was safe out—the cousin would not go home without that news–and I slipped him the key at the church-door, as he discoursed to us all about the mysterious dispensations of Providence.

My heart was light going home, so were Steele and Stoneman’s. None of us liked the job, but we were all to be paid for it; and I must say the old man came down handsomely with the needful, not to speak of Burton ale; and I was to be made his partner without delay. We got the money, and had the jollification; but it wasn’t right over, and I was just getting bed, when there was a ring at our door bell, and the housekeeper came to say that Dr. Parks wanted to see me or my uncle. What could want and how had he come back so soon? Parks was the Elsworthy’s family doctor, and the stranger at the funeral; he went in the second mourning coach, and I left him talking to sexton. My clothes were thrown on, and I down stairs in a minute, looking as sober as could; but the doctor’s look would have sobered any man. “Thomas,” said he, “this has turned out a bad business; and I cannot account it; but Mr. Elsworthy has died in earnest. When the sexton and I opened the coffin, we found him cold and stiff. I think he died from fright for such a face of terror I never saw. It wasn’t your uncle’s fault; there was no doubt he had air enough; but it can’t be helped; the less said about it, the better for all parties. I am going to Dr. Adams to take him down with me to Beverly. The sexton keeps poor Elsworthy, to see if anything can be done; and Adams is the only man we could trust; but I know its of no use.”

The doctor’s apprehensions were well founded–Mr. Elsworthy could not be recovered; and after trying everything to no purpose they laid him down again in the coffin with air holes. The ladies came back, and we kept the secret; but in less than six months after, a rumor went abroad of heavy forgeries on the North Eastern Bank. On investigation they proved to be over fifty thousand, and nobody was implicated but the deceased manager. His family knew nothing about it; being all ladies, they were entirely ignorant about banking affairs; but they left York next season, took a handsome house at Scarborough, and were known to get money regularly from London. They never employed any doctor but Parks; and his medical management did not appear to prosper, for they never were well and always nervous; not one of them would sleep alone or without a light in the room; and an attendant from a private asylum had to be got for the cousin. I don’t think the matter ever left my uncle’s mind; he never would undertake an odd job after it; and all the partnerships in England would not have made me continue the business, and run the risks of another false funeral.

Altoona [PA] Tribune 30 August 1860: p. 1

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

Consumption Cottage: 1915

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

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

THE STORY OF A COUNTRY HOUSE.

By GEORGE THOMAS PALMER, M. D.,

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

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

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

Certainly this is not slums!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet, tuberculosis is a preventable disease.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Cow’s Moo Kills Child: Stories of Being Scared to Death

screaming

Does anybody remember the 1958 William Castle film, Macabre, where movie-goers got life insurance in case they died of fright? It is that sensational theme—death by terror—that we focus on today. We casually toss around phrases like: “I was scared to death!” “I just about dropped dead when I heard the news!” Is there fear or perhaps an uneasy memento mori under these words?

It was axiomatic in the newspapers of the past that people could die of fright. We might call it something different now: Broken Heart Syndrome, takotsubo or stress-induced cardiomyopathy. Typically, past news reports spoke of persons “frightened (or thrown) into convulsions.” Doctors certainly knew about things like heart failure, but it is interesting how often “dying of fright” is cited as a cause of death in thousands of news items. Whether or not it was true; it was certainly believed to be true. It may have simply been a journalistic convention–a convenient way to explain an unexplained death, or a way to make a story more sensational.

Here’s a snippet from a longer article that gives some standard contemporary medical wisdom about death from fear:

FRIGHTENED TO DEATH The Shock Which Ends Life With a Broken Heart

[British Medical Journal.]

The serious effects of shock to the nervous system, especially by fright, are constantly witnessed, the results being most commonly syncope and convulsions. Death itself is, fortunately, comparatively rare. It is reported in the newspapers to have occurred at Brockley on March 21st, in the case of a girl aged eighteen, who was frightened to death by a man dressed as a ghost, near the Deptford Cemetery. The pathology of emotional death is of great interest, and varies in different cases. In some instances a fatal issue results from sanguineous apoplexy; in others, and much more frequently, from shock to the heart. Examples of the former are recorded by Dr. D. Hack Tuke in his “Influence of the Mind Upon the Body.” Thus a woman at Bradford received a fright from a man throwing a stone against her window. He had previously threatened her. She soon afterward complained of numbness, and rapidly became insensible. There was right hemiplegia. She died in seven hours, and on post-mortem examination a clot of blood was found in the left lateral ventricle….[I]f the heart, as in Hunter’s case [John Hunter, the eminent doctor and surgeon for whom the Hunterian Collection is named], be strongly contracted on its contents and the blood expelled, one efficient cause of syncope with fatal results is present. Probably this was the pathological explanation of this unfortunate girl’s death from the silly practical joke played upon her. She arrived home after her fright in the road by the Deptford Cemetery at Brockley looking very ill and excited. She is said to have taken off her water-proof, drawn a chair to the table to take supper, then fallen forward with her head on the table, and died after a short struggle. Mr. Hollis, the medical man who was called in, made a post-mortem examination and reported that all the organs were healthy, but that the state of the heart, combined with the fright, would account for death. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 29 September 1883: p. 10

Thunder, lightning, trains, mad dogs, earthquakes, sudden noises, glare from an automobile headlight, comets, Fourth of July fireworks, encounters with tramps and the insane: all were mentioned as causes of death by fear. Burglars were a particularly common cause of death, so common, in fact, that if you read that a lady, frightened by a burglar, dropped dead of heart failure before the alarm could be raised, The End, you’ve pretty much covered that category.

A more interesting cause of death was the apparition. In this case, the “ghost” was the lady’s doppelgänger, which she rightly understood as an omen of her own death.

Mrs. Coombes, Wife of one Coombes, a Chairman; her Death was occasioned by a Fright, being far gone with Child; for going into the Cellar, to all Appearance well, she gave a great Shriek, her Husband running down to her to know the Reason, she declar’d she saw her own Apparition in a Winding Sheet, standing before her; nor could any Arguments deface the Impression made on her Mind, so strongly did she believe it. She sickened immediately, and died soon after. Whitehall Evening Post Or London Intelligencer [London, England] 3 January 1761: p. 2

DIED OF FRIGHT

Miner Sees an Apparition and the Scare Proves Fatal.

[Susquehanna (Penn.) Cor. New York Press.]

Robert Montgomery, a well-known resident of Wanamie, Penn., recently died from fright or a belief that he had been warned of his approaching death, and that he had a premonition that he could not live.

Montgomery, who was a brave soldier in the war, was employed in a coal mine near Wilkesbarre. Tw weeks before he died he said that when working he head a peculiar noise in the mine. He paid no attention to it.

Soon a strange feeling came over him as though there was a strong draught circulating through the mine, and he became chilly. He looked up from oiling the machinery at the repetition of the strange noise. He said he felt as though there was some one else there besides himself, but he could not see any one.

Then he beheld something white like a man’s figure. It moved as though floating in the air and kept a certain distance from him. He spoke to the apparition, but it made no answer and soon disappeared.

Montgomery made search, but did not find anyone. He told his friends that he regarded the wraith as an omen of death. He at once gave up his position, and in two days took to his bed, although he had no specific sickness which the physicians could discover. He continued to talk of the wraith, and said it was of no avail to take medicine because he was doomed.

His friends tried to dispel his thoughts about death by saying that the “supposed” wraith was a man sent into the mine by the company to see if he performed his duty. But Montgomery would only believe that it was an omen of death, and gradually grew weaker until he died. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 5 December 1896: p. 11

Fake ghosts/supernatural creatures were one of the most popular causes of death by fear; they also drove a surprising number of the nervous into hopeless insanity.

MINER SCARED TO DEATH

Zanesville, O., Dec 25. Howard Mills, a miner living near Coaldale, was scared to death about midnight by some boys who rigged up a “ghost,” which with the aid of some thin paddles with hooks to swing through the air, was able to emit unearthly groans and shrieks. Mills was confronted with the machine while returning home late at night, and was so overwhelmed with the terrific noise and the suddenness of the apparition that he dropped dead in his tracks. He was a stalwart man, 47 years of age, and the father of six children.The Ohio Democrat [Logan, OH] 2 January 1902: p. 1

At Preston, England, two boys, Richard Foreshaw and Robert Mawdsley, have been committed for trial for manslaughter in frightening a young girl to death. They got a coffin and tied a string to it, placing it in a path where it would be passed by some young factory girls at dark and by drawing it along gave the girls a severe fright, from which one of them died the next day. Pittsfield [MA] Berkshire County Eagle 3 December 1858: p 2

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

There is a tradition that [at “The Old Mansion”] an invalid wife was frightened to death by her husband placing a hideous mask at the window of her sick room, and that this husband, while enamoured of his housekeeper, affected great grief at his wife’s funeral, sitting his horse backward and demanding a sheet for his tears. Growing out of this tradition is another ghost story to the effect that the spirit of this woman haunted the house for many years and that groans, screams, stealthy footsteps and other fearful sounds, drove tenant after tenant away from the place. A History of Caroline County Virginia, Marshall Wingfield, 1924: pp. 356-58

The Frankfort Journal of Aug. 17th, has the following—In a school at Turin, superintended by the nuns of St. Joseph, the children having lately made a disturbance by uttering cries, the sisters threatened them with the apparition of the devil, if they continued to make a noise. Soon after, on a signal given, there appeared a chimney sweep dressed in a frightful garb, with horns and a fiery looking mouth. The children were so much frightened that some of them fainted. At the noise caused by this scandal, the house and street were soon filled with a crowd. At length the Rector of the parish came, and put an end to the shameful exhibition, but not till several of the children had died of terror.” Washington [DC] Globe 5 October 1833 p. 3

A LESSON TO PONDER ON.

William B. Drees, of Minster, is a raving maniac and thereby hangs one of the saddest tales that pencil ever sat down. It is a lesson of horror to the practical jokers, who are all too numerous.

Drees was a young man, his age being only twenty-four. As he was of a highly excitable temperament, he was early singled out a victim of those who foolishly believe pranks that cause terror and suffering to others are fun. One of those strange black nights when monstrous forebodings and awful shadows creep upon him, who is solitary and alone in its racking silence, a party of these crept noiselessly upon him, as he stood guard in an immense deserted factory and clothed in white sheets, suddenly arose about him as so many ghosts, uttering the most dreadful groans. Affrighted beyond measure he fled wildly into the outer darkness, running until he fell from sheer exhaustion. It was a great joke and excruciatingly funny, and the jokers almost split their sides with laughter, until they heard that Drees had been picked up in convulsions. Then they had some doubts about it and when they saw him started for the asylum shackled hand and foot, they realized the criminal folly of which they had been guilty. Portsmouth [OH] Times 11 April 1908: p. 6

A few nights ago Henry Waters, a youth, whose home is near Youngstown, Ohio, was aroused from his sleep by something in the room. He sat bolt upright in bed. The moon shone through a window, and as young Waters looked towards the light he saw a tall figure in ghostly attire slowly approaching. He spoke, but the ghost made no reply. Then he grasped his revolver, and thus armed and thus emboldened said: “If you are a man I kill you; if you are ghost this won’t hurt you.” He pulled the trigger and report came, but as with quick motion the ghost lifted an arm Waters heard the bullet rebound against the headboard of the bed. This sent a cold chill through the youth, but he discharged his revolver again and again, and then, wild with fear, hurled it at the intruder. At that moment the ghost threw off his disguise, several other parties to the joke came laughing in and lights were struck. The merry-makers had drawn the bullets from the pistol, leaving enough powder to make a report, and at each discharge the play-ghost had thrown a bullet against the headboard. All this the practical jokers expected Waters to enjoy, as he was a jovial fellow, but they found him first dazed, then incoherent, then raving, and now, as his parents fear—a maniac. New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette [Concord, NH] 16 March 16 1882: p. 2

While fainting at the sight of blood is a cliché, dying at the sight of it was actually not uncommon.

New York, May 22. Fright resulting from the discovery that the front of her shirt waist was covered with a crimson stain was responsible, physicians believe, for the death of Mrs. Kate Harding, a widow, 33 years old, of No. 301 Webster Avenue, Parkville, who was accidentally stabbed in the breast by a sharp-pointed bread knife in the hand of her sister, Mrs. Rose Logomasin, this morning. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 23 Mary 1908: p. 2

A singular death is reported from Darion, England. A young lady, the daughter of a surgeon, happened to go into a kitchen where a butcher was in the act of killing a brace of ducks. Seeing blood running from one of the birds she fainted and, being removed to a couch, died almost immediately. Death is supposed to have resulted from the shock occasioned to the nervous system, the young lady having a great aversion to the sight of blood of any kind. Macon [GA] Telegraph 10 August 1865: p. 3

Sudden Unexplained Death Syndrome is a recognized, if elusive disease, perhaps related to the Old Hag. This man seems to have had something similar.

HIS FOES

Attacked Him in a Dream and Wilcox Died of Fright When He Woke Up.

Marion, Ind., September 20. Peter S. Wilcox, aged 60 years, awoke his wife at 4 o’clock this morning by springing up in bed and fighting an imaginary foe. Mrs. Wilcox attempted to rouse him from what appeared to be a dream, but before she could do so he fell back on the bed and died. Physicians declare he had died of nightmare.

Mrs Wilcox said her husband was subject to nightmare and that he had been frightened a number of times, believing he was murderously attacked. She said he often told her of what he had experienced in the dreams and that he feared he would not recover from the shocks. Wilcox apparently was in excellent health. He owned a large fruit and garden farm and worked yesterday. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 21 September 1906: p. 1

Others did not have to dream, their enemies were real.

 DIED OF FRIGHT

Caused By Her Husband’s Threat To Kill Her.

The curtain fell on the final act of a remarkable domestic tragedy when Mrs. Florence Buehler expired in the County Hospital. The woman actually died from fright.

Her husband was Ernest Buehler, and her life for a long time had been most unhappy. Several months ago she applied for a divorce, but friends effected a truce between herself and her spouse. Two weeks ago, however, the family troubles again became acute when Buehler threatened his wife with a revolver. The woman left her home at 5220 Maplewood Avenue with the purpose of visiting a lawyer’s office, but was waylaid by Buehler, whose actions became so menacing that Mrs. Buehler in her terror fell unconscious. In this condition she was taken to the hospital.

Buehler was arrested, and in a cell in the Twentieth Precinct Station pricked his wrist with a pin, causing great loss of blood. He was then removed to the County Jail Hospital where he succeeded in killing himself.

Meanwhile Mrs. Buehler hovered between life and death. Two days ago she was told of her husband’s suicide. This news intensified the first shock, and she sank rapidly until death came to her relief. It is not known that the couple had any relatives in Chicago. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 19 September 1900: p. 6

Animals could also die of fright:

The Lafayette Courier says that a farmer on the line of the Valley Road, near Delphi, had a valuable colt frightened to death a few days since, by the whistle of a locomotive. The colt was over two years old, and one of the farmer’s sons was engaged in breaking him to harness. While standing near the track of the railroad, a train came thundering along—the engine gave a shrill and long continued whistle, which so frightened the animal that he plunged forward, and after running about fifty yards, fell dead. The Vincennes [IN] Weekly Western Sun 25 April 1857

While the parade was passing Rohrbacher & Allen’s store Friday, a horse owned by F.F. Fenn of Tallmadge dropped dead. He was frightened to death by the big elephant. It is said he burst a blood vessel. His remains were at once removed to the bone yard. Akron [OH] Daily Democrat 15 September 1899: p. 4

Captain Godfrey, of the 7th Cav., said: “I once saw a cat frightened to death. It was one that used to play with my children at West Point. It was playing around the baby carriage with a child, when Prof. Bassey’s big dog came up. He made a grand rush at the cat, but stopped within 10 feet of it. The cat braced itself up, bowed its back, assumed a defensive attitude, and prepared for war. I drove the dog off, and going to the cat, put my hand on its back, when it fell over. It never moved. It was dead. There was no frothing at the mouth, nor any of the contortions seen in fits. The cat was simply scared to death.” The National Tribune [Washington, DC] 25 December 1890: p 5

At the Brighton review of English volunteers a horse, died of fright. He was near the 18 pounder battery when it was fired, and at the report he leaped suddenly up and fell dead— the cause, a rupture of the great vessels of the heart, through terror. Vincennes [IN] Gazette 31 May 1862

Our Dumb Chums could also be the cause of sudden death. This piece is from James Rodwell, who wrote so eloquently about the perils of rats in a previous post.

Unhappily, however, these rat-frights do not always terminate so harmlessly as in the preceding cases…The “Presse,” of Paris, some time ago related an extraordinary case of death from fright. A young woman was passing near the Rue Cadet, when she suddenly fell to the ground, exclaiming “The rat! the rat!” At first nobody could comprehend the meaning of her exclamations; but on being taken into a druggist’s shop, and placed on a chair, a rat was seen to run from beneath her gown. It was then evident that the rat, which had come from a sewer just as she was passing, had got between her legs, and that, when she fell from fright, it had concealed itself under her clothing. She was taken home to her friends, in a state of delirium, which lasted four days, during which time the only words she uttered were “The rat! the rat!” but on the evening of the fourth day she expired.

Now here was a melancholy occurrence arising out of this immoderate fear of rats. What had the rat done to her? Nothing whatever, except hiding in her clothes, and making its escape as soon as possible. Yet from the veriest fear she becomes deranged, and dies a maniac. The Rat: Its History & Destructive Character, With Numerous Anecdotes, by James Rodwell, (Uncle James.) 1858

FRIGHTENED TO DEATH BY A CAT

Animal Jumps on Bed in St. Louis Hospital and Patient Dies From the Shock

Shortly before the death of Mrs. Mary Ziegler of 1210 North Spring Avenue, St. Louis, a cat gained entrance to her room in the hospital, where she had undergone a critical operation. The cat clawed at her and frightened her to death.

It was near midnight before the physician in charge had succeeded in getting her to sleep. The nurse, wearied with her constant watching, was also asleep.

The patient awoke to find a cat on her bed. Then followed a shriek and a howl. The woman’s cries awakened the nurse, who rushed in to the room to find a gray cat tearing the covers around the patient. The nurse made a clutch at the animal, but it eluded her hand and, leaping from the bed, ran from the room. She chased it through the halls and it was finally cornered and put out of the building. When the nurse returned to the ward the patient was shaking with terror, and it was found that he shock had wrecked her nervous system. She died before morning. Evening News [San Jose, CA] 7 August 1906: p. 3

Near Chappell’s Gap, Ky., a three-year-old girl was frightened to death by a gander which had attacked her.Daily Public Ledger [Maysville KY] 7 April 1911: p. 1

COW’S MOO KILLS CHILD

Baby Frightened into Convulsions When Wandering Bovine Puts Head in Window

Investigation by Dr. H. Albert McMurray, coroner of Westmoreland County, into the death of James Henry Pershing, 3-year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Pershing of Grapeville revealed that the child literally was frightened to death.

Several days ago the boy was playing when a cow at pasture in a lot adjoining the house looked in at an open window of the room where the child was. As the little one glanced toward the window the cow mooed loudly.

With a scream the child collapsed and went into convulsions. A physician was unable to give the boy any relief, and death ensued twelve hours later. Greensburg (Pa.) Dispatch Philadelphia Record. The Tulsa [OK] Star 18 December 1915: p. 7 

A Lady Frightened to Death. The Rockingham (Va.) Register states that Mrs. Dietrick, wife of Mr. Jacob Dietrick, residing near Mt. Crawford, in that county, was frightened to death a few weeks since. Her little daughter for sport threw a tree-frog upon her lap, which began jumping up towards her face, and so frightened her that she died in two or three days. Daily National Intelligence [Washington, DC] 15 June 1852: p. 3

I assumed 20th-century medical advances would wipe out “death by fear,” but the term lingered on. I was surprised to see a 1994 news story about a man who, the police said, apparently died of fright while accusing another driver of trying to run him over. Any later examples? And have any of you actually seen a death certificate where the cause of death is “fear?”  Notarize and rush to 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.

Hearse Seen on Way to Wedding is an Ill-Omen: 1904

classical hearse 1904

Hearse Met on Way to Wedding: Death Follows.

A strange wedding tragedy was the subject of investigation by the Plymouth, England, coroner yesterday.

On Wednesday Mary Dicker, the wife of a laborer, set out with her husband and daughter for the church where the latter was to be married to a young man named Menhennitt. On their way the wedding party met a funeral procession, and Mrs. Dicker was so much affected by this evil omen that she trembled violently all the way to the church, and declared that some calamity was bound to follow.

In the evening the bridegroom’s father gave a wedding party, and Mrs. Dicker, who seemed by that time to have recovered form her fright and to be in the best of spirits, was asked to sing a song. She did so, while still sitting in her chair.

In the middle of the song she fell forward and it was thought that she had fainted. She was carried into an adjoining bedroom, and a doctor was sent for, but before he arrived the morning’s ill omen had been fulfilled and she was dead.

It appeared that she had suffered a good deal from heart trouble, though the symptoms had disappeared during the last 12 months. Dr. Croft Symons stated that death was due to syncope brought on by the excitement of the morning.

A verdict of “death from natural causes” was recorded.

Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 18 February 1904: p. 5

It was a popular superstition that seeing a hearse or a mourning coach on one’s wedding day was a deadly omen for the marriage. There was also a belief that a bride who saw a hearse on her wedding day would lose all of her children.

On a foggy morning last week…a bridal party consisting of two young women with enormous bouquets, and two very nervous looking young men, drew up in a four-wheeler at the entrance to a registry-office, situated in one of the meanest of the mean streets off Islington. Just as they were all alighting, a hearse, meandering along in the fog, collided with the cab, and for the moment the wheels became interlocked. Bridegroom, bridesmaid, and the best man were in no way disconcerted. But, alas! For the poor little bride the harmony of the day was broken. Bursting into tears she declared that nothing would induce her to get married “with a hearse for an omen.” And neither laughter, chidings, nor entreaties served to shake her resolve. Back into the cab she got, bouquet and all, and in a few minutes the very woe-begone quartet drove off. Inangahua Times, 7 April 1897: p. 4

The Islington bride sensibly postponed the festivities, while the following bride did not. A word to the wise…

BRIDE’S FATAL SUPERSTITION

Portsmouth, Eng. While a Portsmouth woman was going to church on her wedding day her taxicab overtook a funeral procession. She regarded it as an ill omen and was disposed to postpone the ceremony, but was dissuaded by friends. The bride, however, was depressed. A fortnight after she became ill and died. Wilkes-Barre [PA] Times 16 September 1920: p. 16

 

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.