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

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

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

Extraordinary Suicide in New Orleans.

A MAN BURIES HIMSELF ALIVE

HE TAKES POISON IN A TOMB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr Mathias Rises from the Grave: 1888

a mausoleum.JPG

MONSIEUR MATHIAS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hold on! I will give you a hand.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Begone, profane man! Begone!’

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

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

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

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

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

‘The others! what others?’

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

‘Why, the dead, of course!’

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

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

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

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

‘Here’s to you, Mr Mathias.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Go in again! go in where?’

‘Into the tomb!’

‘Never!’

‘You won’t! Once! Twice!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A FAITHLESS WIFE TRAPPED BY HER HUSBAND

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

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

Press, 13 April 1914: p. 7

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

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

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

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

The Death Bell: 1866

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The following is our conjecture:

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

The Vincennes [IN] Weekly Western Sun 3 November 1866

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

mortuary chamber Munich Death Waiting Mortuary 1897

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

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

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

 

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

Death by Owl

skull owl finis.JPG

This weekend begins the “International Festival of Owls,” and while we do find some touching stories of owls as pets and grudging acknowledgment that they keep down vermin, the papers of the past are more likely to report on owls killing domestic fowls or sheep, or on monster owls with 4-foot wingspans. Owls are silent, taloned killers and they have long been heralds of death. Even today some people believe that their call is a token of doom. It must have felt that way to this unfortunate Long Island woman:

OWL IS CAUSE OF SUDDEN DEATH

YOUNG WIFE SUCCUMBS TO ATTACK OF APOPLEXY

Heard Omen in Screeches.

Dies When Bird Flies Against Window

New York, June 15. Mrs. Josetta Coonan O’Neill, wife of James T. O’Neill, assistant corporation counsel in Brooklyn died suddenly in their summer home in Argyle Park, near Babylon, L.I., early yesterday, from apoplexy caused, it is believed, by fright when a screech owl flew against the window of her room just before she retired. Mrs. O’Neill for two days had lived in fear of the owl, a dark-feathered bird that had followed her about the grounds and had passed and repassed her husband and herself when they went out. Her dread is believed to have reached a fatal climax when the owl flew against the window in the darkness, screeching.

The body of Mrs. O’Neill last night lay in the home of her mother, Mrs. Thomas Coonan in Seventh street, Brooklyn, on the Park Slope, the home from which the young woman went forth a bride only last December.

Mrs. Coonan, who is an invalid, was in the Argyle Park home of her daughter when Mrs. O’Neill died. There was no warning that death was to visit the house. Mrs. O’Neill, only five minutes before her death, had passed into the room of her mother and kissed her good night. The younger woman then apparently was in her usual health. It is thought, however, she was suffering secretly through her fear of the owl, which at that moment was screeching dismally from the limb of a tree near the house, and that she concealed her fear for her mother’s sake.

Mrs. O’Neill was in the railroad station in Babylon at 5.40 o’clock Tuesday afternoon, when her husband arrived from Brooklyn, and together, as usual they walked to Argyle park. The owl was not then in evidence, for it was still daylight. After dinner, however, when O’Neill went out to rake a flower bed he had been preparing for his wife, the owl began to screech nearby. The flower bed is in front of the house and only 50 feet from the front porch where Mrs. O’Neill sat watching her husband. Suddenly she uttered an exclamation and her husband looked up to catch a glimpse of the owl that swiftly passed within a foot of his face, crying as it passed.

Three times the bird made the passage in front of him until, in exasperation; he threw his hoe at it. The hoe went over a fence and the owl perched again in a tree, letting out a succession of raucous screeches. To O’Neill it seemed as if the bird mocked him, and he tried to hit it with a stone, but the owl only flew away unharmed.

Mrs. O’Neill was much disturbed by the actions of the bird, which the night before had pursued her and her husband in their walk to the village. O’Neill hardly could persuade her to go out for their usual walk, but at last she went, though expressing a fear the owl would give them no rest. She said the persistence of the bird was an omen. Her husband treated the subject lightly, saying he would get a gun the next day, and end the bird and the omen too.

But Mrs. O’Neill’s fears of being pursued quickly were verified. Scarcely had they gained the street when the owl, out of the darkness, darted past their faces, uttering its hoarse scream. The bird, O’Neill observed, waited until it was passing before it screeched. Once it went so close to them its wings fanned their faces, and Mrs. O’Neill stopped, trembling, and grasped her husband’s arm, saying she could go no further. They had walked no more than 300 yards from home. They just had turned back when the owl again passed them, screeching. All the way to the house the owl passed and repassed, and at last Mrs. O’Neill’s terror became so great she released her husband’s arm when they almost had reached the steps and ran into the house, where she sank trembling into a chair. Her husband reassured her and afterward they sat on the porch and watched for the appearance of the bird, which at intervals flew close to the steps. By that time Mrs. O’Neill seemed to have recovered her courage, and laughed and chatted with animation. Afterward they went into the house where O’Neill wrote letters and Mrs. O’Neill read and commented on some of the articles she looked at. She still maintained the air of cheerfulness. It was almost midnight when they thought of retiring. Mrs. O’Neill’s last act was to kiss her mother.

Just after the wife entered their room, which is on the second floor, O’Neill left it for five minutes. It was in his absence the owl is thought to have struck the screen of the window. When O’Neill returned his wife apparently was asleep. Believing she merely was feigning sleep the husband pinched her earl slightly but she made no response. Then, becoming alarmed, he looked closely at his wife and observed her pallor. He called her mother and the maid and telephoned to Dr. Harold E. Hewlett of Babylon, who on arriving, said Mrs. O’Neill had died from apoplexy.

At dawn yesterday, the owl again flew near the room where lay the body of Mrs. O’Neill. In a second flight the bird flew against a screen door which gives egress from the room to a balcony.

The nurse who had been summoned and several others in the room saw the bird hurl itself against the screen as if to break its way into the room. It uttered its cry, fluttered to the floor of the balcony and then again flew to its favorite perch in a tree nearby. O’Neill, when asked last night about the owl, said it had persisted in following his wife and himself. The Argyle park home has been owned by the O’Neill family for 20 years, but Mr. O’Neill said he never had seen the owl until two days ago. O’Neill said the owl was not larger than an ordinary pigeon, but had a great spread of wings. Springfield [MA] Union 15 June 1911: p. 2

Now, I’m sure a naturalist would hoot at the idea that the owl had anything supernatural about it, and perhaps rightly so. Owls are intensely territorial. The “favorite perch” could have been its nest and it might have been defending its eggs or owlets. Owls are well known for attacking people who come too close. They sometimes hurl themselves against windows, believing the reflection is an intruder. One owl even attacked a window of a room where a stuffed owl was kept. But it does seem a little odd that the bird only showed up two days before Mrs. O’Neill’s death and that it attacked the room where her body was laid out.

Rational explanations aside, the owl is, of course, a token of death.  The unfortunate Mrs. O’Neill believed it had come for her and that she was doomed. Other headlines for this story also emphasized a belief that Mrs. O’Neill was scared to death. “Dies from Fear of Owl,” “Dread of Owl Causes Death.” “Bride of Three Months Scared to Death by Owl.” Even the New York Times’ headline read: “Hears Owl Screech; Dies,” although the Times article mentions that Mrs. O’Neill was also grieving for her father, who had died five weeks previously and that she had had a “nervous breakdown” over his death. In a post on people who died of fear, I cited “broken-heart syndrome,” which is triggered by a sudden loss or shock.

The “superstition” of believing that owls hooted of death was supposed by all educated and right-thinking people to have been wiped out by 1911 (except in isolated pockets of rural or ethnic ignorance).  A 1912 article rather scornfully stated that the barn owl was the source of more ghost stories than any other living creature, with its uncanny cry and ghastly face. Owls trapped in chimneys and furnaces were exposed as the source of haunted house rumors; eerie moans in burial vaults were revealed to be roosting owls. Such things really took all the fun out of folklore. But despite ridicule, there was a deeply-rooted belief in the malignity of owls.

A gravedigger had this to say:

“It seems like the graveyard is their natural element, especially when there’s lots of big trees and ivy-grown vaults. To hear an owl hoot in the night here, as I do sometimes, when everything is still, would make your blood run cold. They don’t keep it up right along through the night, so you can get used to it; but it will be quiet for a long time–so still that you get almost afraid to breathe, and the falling of the leaves startles you–then all of a sudden you’ll hear the long hoot-too-toot and a dull rushing in the air, as a big owl sails by and drops down upon a vault beneath the hill…

“I can always tell when there’s going to be a busy time here,” he continued. “When the owls are particularly plenty and keep up an awful hooting during the night I look for the funerals next day. They always come. When the owls hoot, it means funerals.”

“I don’t like owls,” the old man went on, scraping the red clay from his spade with the toe of his boot. “I don’t like ’em; they don’t mean good. Dead people are good enough in their way, I get used to them. But owls are a kind of half-dead and half-alive bird, and if t’warnt that I knew they couldn’t get at ’em, I’d believe they lived on dead people.” The Independent Record [Helena, MT] 9 December 1883: p. 9

A half-dead and half-alive bird. A perfect description of the skull-faced barn owl, silent and deadly one moment; screaming as if knifed the next. You’ll find a selection of owl calls here. Even knowing what is coming, they are unnerving.  A screeching owl dive-bombing out of the dusk; hitting window screens; screaming like a banshee–it is like something out of The Birds and it is no wonder that, in her weakened state, Mrs. O’Neill felt that a taloned angel of death had come for her. Death is the thing with feathers…

Other fatal owl attacks? 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.

My Fatal Valentine

My Fatal Valentine The Fatal Letter.

Valentine’s Day always brings out the best in mankind: the delightful box of chocolates, the gay flowers, the heart-warming sentiments, the vicious valentines…. Today we flip through a rack of gruesome, horrid, insulting and threatening valentines, and discover some missives to die for.

Several years ago, in a piece called “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacres,” I wrote about the scourge of “Vinegar Valentines” and the violence they inspired in their recipients. That post included  several stories of greeting-card-induced murder, murder/suicide, and the sad story of a young servant, Margaret Cray, who killed herself when her beloved apparently sent her a cruel valentine. I was surprised to learn that this was not a unique incident.

A FATAL VALENTINE

Mrs. Bowers Commits Suicide Because a Valentine Insults Her.

[N.Y. Tribune.]

Just at dark Thursday evening a woman was seen leaning over the coping at 401 West Nineteenth street. Then she seemingly pitched forward, hung for a moment with failing grasp upon the coping and then fell into the area in Nineteenth street, a distance of fifty feet. The neighbors, who hastened to her side, recognized her as Mrs. Delia C. Bowers. She was borne, still alive, to her apartments at 151 Ninth avenue. She died an hour later. She and her husband, Mr. Daniel H. Bowers, attended the Sixteenth Street Church, of which she was a devoted member. Their home life was unruffled until on St. Valentine’s Day Mrs. Bowers received two valentines and a letter. One was entitled, “A Seamstress,” the other, “In Love with Every Preacher,” and the letter left no doubt that the sender intended a scandalous charge against Mrs. Bowers. She handed the three missives to her husband, and he laughed at them; but a neighbour talked about them among Mrs. Bowers’ acquaintance, and despite her husband’s confidence in her, the groundless scandal dethroned her reason. The New Orleans [LA] Daily Democrat 28 February 1877: p. 8

Valentines were often used to intimidate their recipients, much like the crape and coffin threats I’ve mentioned before.

STRANGE VALENTINE Joseph Taylor Has Placed the Matter in Government Hands

Hagerstown, Md., Feb. 18. Joseph Taylor, of Washington county, received a valentine on which were drawn pictures of a hearse, skull and cross bones and the word “Beware.”

He brought it to Hagerstown and showed it to Deputy United States Marshall Oliver, who will make an investigation, as the missive passed through the mails. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 19 February 1898: p. 6

A similar valentine threat, which included some grave allegations about a “respectable man with a family,” had been sent a year earlier, in Colorado.

A GRINNING SKULL.

UNDERNEATH THE VALENTINE BORE THE WORD “BEWARE”

Chief Post office Inspector McMechen’s office is investigating a thrilling case of using the mails to intimidate. On the chief’s desk lies a hideous valentine depicting a pearly human skull staring with a stony, forbidding smile from a gory background. Beneath in letters evidently intended as a piratical black is printed, “Beware!”

In this morning’s mail came a letter from a prominent citizen of Hooper, Colo., who states that he has received the valentine and the accompanying letter from whom he has no idea, as the letter and valentine bear no names. “I am a respectable man with a family and am guiltless of the charges made. I ask you to help me. This is the second letter of this nature I have received through the Hooper post office.

The letter is written in an uneducated hand in blue pencil. It says: “Beware! You have ruined my sister’s reputation and robbed her of her virtue. You said you would go to Mosca, but did not. I have warned you before! Clear out and never let me see you again. If you remain, some of these dark nights you will turn up missing. Remember, stay and DIE!”

Prompt action will be taken on this most gruesome valentine and its skull. Denver [CO] Post 15 February 1897: p. 2

Mystifyingly, flesh-and-blood hearts were thought to be an acceptable token of esteem. Sometimes they were sent as a joke:

RECEIVES REAL HEART FOR VALENTINE TOKEN

T.F. Wilson, a Retired Ranchman, Remembered in Unique Way by His Old Friends.

Thomas F. Wilson, a retired ranchman living on South Conejos street, has received what is perhaps the most unique valentine of any residenet of this city. The token consisted of a sheep’s heart in a small tin box, and was sent by some of his friends in the vicinity of Falcon. On opening the package, Mr. Wilson read the inscription, “Take my heart and give me yours,” and was much surprised to see an organ resembling that of a human being. His fears were not allayed until a friend who had been in on the joke explained it to him. Colorado Springs [CO] Gazette 16 February 1911: p. 5

And sometimes not.

A Strange Valentine

A Troy young lady received on Saturday last the most wonderful valentine on record. Neatly encased in a box she found a beef’s heart pierced with a golden arrow of elegant manufacture, set with jewels and estimated to be worth at least $75. It is probably intended to be used as a neck pin or as an ornament for the pair. There was not the least intimation who is the giver, nor can the lady or her family imagine who sent it. For the donor of so munificent a gift he shows a strange taste in sending such a remarkable valentine to a lady. A pet dog had the heart for his dinner, but what do to with the pin the lady can hardly determine. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 20 February 1875: p. 1

At least the dog appreciated it. And she could sell the pin.

Then there were the other body parts, reminiscent, in this case, of Van Gogh.

LEILA’S STRANGE VALENTINE

Human Ear Was Enclosed in a Box and Sent to a Woman.

St. Louis, Mo., Feb. 14. There was wild excitement at Miss Norma Langdon’s mansion, at 1311 Pine st., about noon today.

The cause was a valentine received by Leila Powers, one of her guests.

The valentine was a pretty fabrication of lace and pink celluloid, and within the box that contained it there was a human ear, only recently severed from the head and still bloody.

The box and its contents had lain undisturbed in Miss Langdon’s sleeping apartments about 12 hours, for Leila Powers had a short time before disappeared from the house.

No one at the house knew its contents, but the office authorities had opened the parcel to make sure there was no writing in it, and that it was entitled to third-class postal rates. They were horrified to find the bloody ear, evidently that of a delicate woman, close to the pretty valentine. The carrier hastily rewrapped the gruesome bundle, separated it cautiously from the rest of his mail, and breathed a sigh of relief when he had safely delivered it. The Boston [MA] Daily Globe 15 February 1893: p. 6

I wondered about that “mansion” and its guests. Norma Langdon seems to have run an “improper house” for “soiled doves,” if we go by various court reports and an article about Nora Way “an inmate of the house on Tenth street kept by Norma,” who attempted to stab Norma in 1886. St Louis [MO] Post-Dispatch 10 August 1886: p. 7. I could find no further word on the fate of Miss Powers or the ear’s owner.

Another ear was sent as a valentine to a Virginia man in 1903, noted with the casual racism of the day.

Mr. E.D. Foster, of Clifton Forge, received a very peculiar valentine, which caused much comment. A human ear, taken from a grown negro (supposed by some college friend), was sent him nicely decorated with ribbon and securely packed in a box padded with cotton. Mr. Foster takes great pride in exhibiting the oddity, which is indeed a peculiar valentine. Richmond [VA] Times Dispatch 22 February 1903: p. 15

 

“My Buxom Widow” vinegar valentine. http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/533291.html
Widow “to be let” Vinegar Valentine http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/534700.html

It seems incredible, but a particular class of “vinegar valentines” was directed at tormenting widows, suggesting that they were “man eaters” or “merry widows” eager to snag a man or that they were glad their husband was dead. In a heartless case in Chicago, a newly-bereaved and deeply grieving widow was the victim of one of these valentines.

Mrs. Sarah Sweeney Tries to Die Because of a Comic.

DRINKS A CUP OF ETHER

Missive Laid at Her Door at 150 Gladys Avenue.

CRUEL VERSES TO A WIDOW

Grief and mortification at finding a hideous valentine underneath her door on her return from viewing the body of her husband in the receiving vault at Calvary impelled Mrs. Sarah Sweeney, 150 Gladys avenue, a widow of one month, to swallow a cupful of ether in an effort to end her life. The valentine, on which were a picture and some unkind verses inscribed to “A Widow,” is supposed to have been sent by mischievous boys of the neighbourhood.

Mrs. Sweeney was discovered a few minutes after she had swallowed the ether by her sister, Mrs. E.L. Seaton, and a physician was summoned in time to save her life. She is still in a precarious state, however, and the prank played on her, together with her own troubles, threatens to seriously affect her mind.

Mrs. Sweeney’s husband, Philip Sweeney, was the proprietor of a prosperous plumbing business at 1025 West Lake street up to the time of his death, one month ago. The family, including two young children, was known to the neighbourhood as an unusually happy one, and when Mr. Sweeney died suddenly his wife was prostrated by the shock, and for a time her life also was almost despaired of.

The grief of the widow was so great that she was reluctant to have her husband’s body buried at once, and to please her it was placed in a receiving vault at Calvary, where she made regular visits, often looking at the remains. Her friends were unable to persuade her to stay away, although it was found that the visits only aggravated her grief.

Two weeks ago Mrs. Sweeney and her two children left the house at 1025 West Lake street, where the family had lived for almost ten years, and moved to 150 Gladys avenue. Once away from her old surroundings and partly lost sight of by her friends, grief took possession of the widow to such an extent that her relatives feared she would try to end her life. Mrs. Seaton went to live with Mrs. Sweeney and her children. The latter still continued her visits to the cemetery.

Finds the Cruel Valentine.

On St. Valentine’s day Mrs. Sweeney went early to Calvary and took what she said was to be a final glance at her husband’s remains. She reached home a short time before noon, almost hysterical. The valentine was lying underneath the door and Mrs. Sweeney found it. It contained a cruel picture, supposed to represent a widow, and verses that were even more unkind than the picture. The sight of it threw Mrs. Sweeney into hysterics, as she thought it a reflection upon her grief for her husband.

Although the neighbors, who had deep sympathy for her sorrow, assured her that the work was only a boyish prank, Mrs. Sweeney was inconsolable. She threatened to end her life, also, and for three days it was necessary to keep her partly under the influence of opiates.

On Friday morning she appeared to have forgotten all about the valentine, and her relatives rejoiced to think that she had finally gotten control of her grief.

There was a quantity of ether in the house which had been used by Mr. Sweeney in his plumbing business. Just before noon Mrs. Sweeney poured out a quantity of this, and, telling her sister she was going to end her “headache,” swallowed the drug before anyone could prevent her. The cries of Mrs. Sweeney’s sister aroused the neighbourhood and Dr. Richard H. Brown, California avenue and Jackson boulevard, was hurriedly brought. A half hour’s hard work brought the woman back to consciousness, though she was still hysterical over the memory of the valentine.

No effort has been made to discover who the senders of the offending paper were. Chicago [IL] Daily Tribune 20 February 1898: p. 12

Why the hell not? If children had left the valentine, at the very least strong words seemed in order. If an adult, charges of reckless endangerment or depraved indifference might have fit the case; involuntary manslaughter if the widow died.

And that is the big question. While I was able to find Dr. Brown in the medical rosters, Mr. and Mrs. Sweeney seem to be missing from the online record. Did she survive?

chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com, who will not be opening any mail today.

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.

Cremated Alive

Bradford Crematorium retort with doors open 1889
Cremated Alive Bradford Crematorium retort with the doors opened, 1889 Always room for one more….

It is the stuff of nightmares and horror movies. A woman in India was declared dead of a lung infection, taken quickly to the ghats, and cremated a few hours after death. But bystanders, believing she was still alive, dragged her off the pyre and an autopsy showed soot in her windpipe and lungs that could not have gotten there if she had been dead. Yet the doctors at the hospital where she died who certified her death were certain she was dead. The case is complicated by allegations of rape, murder, and property disputes; DNA and other forensic testing has been ordered, but it is unlikely the truth will come out any time soon.

If, indeed, the poor woman was burned alive on her funeral pyre, it was not the first time for such a horror. I have previously written about burial alive, something dreaded by the Victorians perhaps even more than they feared the Resurrection Men. Today we fire up the retort as we look at the third of a terrifying triumvirate of Victorian death-fears:  being embalmed alive, dissected alive, or cremated alive. We have some surprise witnesses to share their stories.

The three fears were often mentioned—and cautionary statistics cited–in the warning screeds published by the various branches of the Society for the Prevention of Premature Burial.

STARTLING FIGURES SUPPLIED BY A DOCTOR.

Some very disconcerting figures were supplied to the meeting of the London Society for the Prevention of Premature Burial at Bloomsbury Town Hall by Dr Hadwen, of Gloucester, as arguments in favour of speedy legislation in. burial reform. The following cases, he said, had been certified by medical men:

Persons buried alive 149

Narrow escapes from burial alive 319

Dissected alive 10

Narrow escapes from dissection alive 2

Embalmed alive 2

Cremated alive 1

Star, 7 July 1906: p. 4

Obviously the odds were vastly against cremation alive, but that reflects the lower instance of cremations in this period. There was still religious prejudice (and some social hostility) towards the practice.

It would seem impossible that we should ever know about most cases of premature cremation: ash tells no tales, unlike the corpses of the buried alive, with their fingers bitten or battered to the bone, their hair and grave clothes rent. But we are fortunate that Spiritualism was on hand to bring us first-hand, beyond-the-grave testimonials from those who met their end in the flames.

How It Feels to be Cremated.

Mrs. Althea Romeyn-Roberts is a Spiritualistic medium at No 36 Cottage Place. She is one of the many who give séances in which forms emerge from a cabinet and present themselves to be re-embodied spirits. There are twenty to thirty such establishments in town, and they have not had any essential differences. In her parlor a cabinet stands against the wall, and from this, after some preliminary speaking and singing, white-robed forms come out into the very dimly-lighted room.

Accepting the theory of unbelievers that these apparitions are either the medium herself or her assistants, there is nothing puzzling about the exhibition. They could be easily introduced into the cabinet through a secret panel, or might sneak into it under cover of what at times becomes total darkness. But of late Mrs. Romeyn-Roberts has bettered the doings of her rivals by introducing a spirit character who tells a sensational story. He purports to be the late James Allen, and he relates to each successive audience that he was cremated alive.

“Folks thought I died at Binghamton about three years ago,’’ he said, on the occasion of the Times correspondent’s visit to the séance, “but I didn’t. I was taken singularly ill and fell into a condition that resembled death. It was a cataleptic attack, I presume, and after a brief spell of unconsciousness I came to myself, so far as my mind was concerned, but could not move a muscle. I soon discovered that I was regarded as a corpse, and a horror of being buried alive took possession of me. But soon I learned that I was not to be buried—I was to be sent to the crematory at Washington, Penn. I then remembered very well that I had expressed a preference for cremation over interment, and that my family were also converts to that new method. I think that I lost consciousness several times, but only for short periods, and nearly all the while I was fully aware of all that was going on. But I could not make the slightest motion or the faintest sound. They put a shroud on me, laid me in a coffin, shut me up and shipped me to Washington. At that place is the first furnace ever built for cremation I suppose in the country. I had read descriptions of the process, and I knew what was coming to me unless I could regain vitality enough to show that I was alive. Struggle as I would I could not get myself at all out of the condition of seeming death. The preparations for burning me went on—enough of them in my presence, too, to keep me aware of them. I was mentally wide awake when they took me out of the coffin and laid me on the iron carrier, which, when all is ready is run into the superheated furnace.”

At this point the alleged ghost launched into a flighty and oratorical description of the horror which he felt at his impending fate. Then he concluded: “The white-hot doors of the furnace were at length opened, and the glare of the intense heat drove the attendant for an instant away from the opening. Four attaches of the crematory were doing the work. My relatives, who had accompanied me to the place, were withdrawn from the room. I made a last frantic exertion to stir and to give utterance to my terror. But I was relentlessly held by the trance, and probably the most careful examination would not have developed evidence of life. The iron carriage run on iron tracks that led directly into the fiery furnace. Then men laid hold of it and moved it nearer. A hot blast almost compelled them to let go, and as for me I seemed to be actually melted in the indescribable temperature. Then they shoved the apparatus suddenly clear into the furnace and shut the door. The clang of the metal was the last thing of which I was conscious. Death came instantly and painlessly. Within a few hours my mortal form was reduced to a few pounds of ashes which was delivered to my relatives, encased in a tin box, to be conveyed to my home and there reverently inurned.”

[Philadelphia Times.

The Better Way 22 September 1888: p. 1

Allen is practically a poster-boy for the benefits of cremation: “instantly and painlessly” must have reassured his audience, brought up on stories of cataleptics who met terrible deaths after being put living in the tomb.

On the other hand, our old friend Dr Franz Hartmann brought news from a Spiritualist medium that was not quite so sanguine.

REMARKABLE OCCURRENCES AND PRESUMABLE EXPLANATIONS

By FRANZ HARTMANN, M.D.

Perhaps many of the readers of the OCCULT REVIEW residing in Switzerland will remember the death of Mr. H__, a well-known and prominent member of the Federal Council, who suddenly died at his office in the federal palace at Bern, about three years ago, and whose body was brought to Zurich to be cremated. Everybody at Zurich went to see the funeral procession on its way to the crematory. It took place with great pomp; the streets were crowded, musicians played solemn airs, and speeches were delivered. Among the spectators there was present a lady of a very sensitive nature, and in possession of certain mediumistic gifts, and as the coffin containing the corpse passed near her she felt a very curious sensation, and claimed that she had come in contact with the spirit (or aura) of the deceased. The procession went on, and the lady went to her lodging, where she was occupied with other things, and thinking no more of the funeral; but about an hour afterwards, presumably when the preliminary ceremonies at the crematory were ended, she began to suffer terribly from a burning heat overspreading all the left side of her body and face; the skin grew red, and cold water applications had to be applied for relieving the pain. After about a half-an-hour’s intense suffering, the pain left her entirely.

Some time afterwards there was held a spiritualistic séance at the house of Mr. S__, a judge of the Court of Appeal, at which this lady was present. It may here be remarked, in parenthesis, that this Judge S__ was one of the witnesses for defence in the well-known trial of the medium Rothe, at Berlin, where he testified in favour of the actuality of so-called spiritualistic phenomena; but his experience and testimony availed nothing against the ignorance of the Court.

At this séance there manifested an entity claiming to be the personality of Mr. H__. He said that he was unable to see anyone of the persons present in the room, except that lady; and, among other things, he informed the company that his body had been cremated too soon, and before his soul had become fully separated from it, and that in consequence he had suffered intensely at the left side of his body. It then only occurred to that lady to bring the burning sensation which she had experienced into connexion [sic] with the cremation.

Now, as concerns the identity of the” spirit” of Mr. H__, he was asked whether, during his life, he had known anything about the possibility of communicating with the spirits of the departed, and he answered that he had paid no attention to such matters, but had heard of it indirectly through Dr. A. P__. Nobody in the circle knew who this Dr. A. P__ was; but after some research in the register he was found to be a member of the National Council, residing at L__. Mr. S__ thereupon wrote to him, and Dr. A. P__ answered that he had spoken of such things to a friend of Mr. H__, and upon further inquiry it was found that this friend had a conversation with Mr. H__ about it.

Now, in this case, any theory of collusion, telepathy, etc., is to be excluded, because none of the members of that circle knew anything about Dr. A. P__’s existence, nor of his conversation with the friend of Mr. H__; and it seems reasonable to believe that the explanation given by the “spirit” of Mr. H__ is the correct one, and that the ethereal body actually may suffer from injuries inflicted upon the physical body after its apparent death, as long as the soul has not entirely separated from it.

It seems that a similar occurrence took place in the case of H. P. Blavatsky, whose body was burned. It is claimed that before the cremation took place her “spirit” manifested itself in two places: at Paris with the Duchess de P__, and at Hamburg at Professor S__’s, asking in each case that urgent telegrams should be sent to London to request a delay of the cremation, as she had not yet become free from her physical form. The telegrams were sent, but no notice was taken of these warnings by her friends, and the cremation took place at the previously appointed time.

Moreover, at least three cases have come to my notice in which similar communications were received from “spirits” of persons prematurely dissected. One was a case of suicide by poisoning, another by shooting, and the third one that of a young lady who killed herself on account of a love affair, and whose body was exhumed three days after her burial, some suspicion having arisen as to her having been murdered. She was submitted to post-mortem examination and dissected, and the “spirit” claimed that she had felt every cut of the dissecting knife the same as if it had cut her living nerves. Whatever may be thought of such communications, it stands to reason to suppose that the ethereal form of a person dying prematurely a forcible death will find it more difficult to separate itself from the rest of the elementary body, than if the death occurs in a natural way in old age or after a sickness. We find a corresponding law in other departments of nature, for the shell of a ripe orange may easily be detached from the pulp, while from an unripe one it separates with difficulty. Cases of premature burial, cremation, dissection and suffering after forcible death will probably continue to occur until the world at large recognizes the fact that death is not, as public opinion goes, a cessation of the perceptible functions of life; but it takes place only at the final separation of the soul from the physical form.

The Occult Review November 1906: pp 242-3

This is a rather eerie precursor of the recent discovery that brain activity continues some little time after death.

The question of cremation was a hot-button issue throughout the late-19th century. In a lengthy story titled “Ghosts Among Coffins,” about a violent, poltergeist-like haunting at the undertaking establishment of the appropriately-named Valentine Geist in Detroit, the story concludes with a theory that

Yesterday the superstitious came to the settled belief that none other than a ghost haunts the building. Moreover, that it is the ghost of Louis Dohmstreich, a wealthy brewer, who was killed by being thrown from his sleigh about the time the weird rappings and rackets began. His body was taken to Buffalo and cremated there. Geist had charge of the funeral and accompanied the body to the crematory, returning with the ashes. This grounds the belief in the minds of many that the spirit of the dead man has come back to protest against cremation and make it exceedingly warm for the undertaker.

Omaha [NE] World Herald 19 February 1887: p. 1

In other cases, the ghost protested because he or she had not been cremated as requested. While cremation was regarded by burial reformers as a hygienic alternative to over-filled churchyards, it was still seen by many as the choice of the crank or the infidel. While we may wonder why the “spook” was so adamant, this is not the only story I have seen of a ghost returning when its wish for cremation was ignored.

SPOOK INSISTS ON CREMATION

Ghost of Ernest Heinig Upbraids His Sister for Burying his Body

Fort Wayne, Ind.; March 7. The body of Ernest Heinig was cremated Saturday evening at the Lindenwood crematory, under peculiar circumstances. Heinig committed suicide on Jan. 30, because of despondency, owing to having been thrown out of employment. Two weeks before he died he expressed to his sister, Mrs. Leuchner, the wish that in the event of his demise his remains might be cremated. Mrs. Leuchner, however, had a horror of cremation, and had his body buried. One night last week, Mrs. Leuchner says, her brother appeared to her in a dream and demanded why her promise had not been fulfilled, and insisted that she, even then, should cause the body to be exhumed and burned. So impressed was Mrs. Leuchner by the dream that she ordered the corpse taken up and cremated.

Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 7 March 1899: p. 1

Returning to the initial story of the young Indian woman, we find this similar tale from 1889. Cholera was a great dissembler of death and fearful communities hastily bundled its victims into the grave without much thought.

I am here reminded of an incident told me by the Residency surgeon. The young wife of a well-to-do Hindoo was struck down by cholera. Our friend the doctor was called, and under his care she rallied, and bade fair to recover. What was his surprise to be told, two or three days after, that the woman was being carried at that very moment to the Pashupati burning ghat! He mounted his horse and rushed down to the place. Here he found his poor patient still alive, but laid out so that her feet touched the flowing stream, while beside her the wood was being arranged, and the cremation ceremonies were under way. The doctor expostulated with the husband and relatives, and urged them to desist at once from their murderous intentions. They were finally prevailed upon to stay proceedings, and to take the poor woman home. She survived only three days. But for her rough exposure to premature cremation she might have entirely recovered.

Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1889: p. 479

And finally, this is the only story I have found of premature cremation being both discovered and prosecuted. As we might expect, it is reported from a land far, far away.

CREMATED ALIVE

The police at Hiroshima, Japan, have arrested a man named Jinsuke Ikeda and his wife, says the ‘Japan Times,’ on a charge of wilfully cremating a live man. The prisoners were in charge of a crematorium, and while at work a faint voice coming out of the coffin begged for fresh air. The couple took no notice, however, and proceeded to apply fire, roasting the man alive.

Mataura Ensign, 1 September 1911, Page 5

Other horrors of premature cremation? Fire them over 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 illeand 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.

O tödliche Baum! O tödliche Baum!

santa claus with doll by tree kind of creepy

Well, the Christmas tree is up and encrusted in an effect some critics have likened to standing on a stepladder and emptying a ornament storage box onto a bare tree. I look pityingly at the skeletal and skimpily trimmed trees in antique photographs. Yet there was method in this minimalism: wider spacing between branches and fewer ornaments reduced the risk of fire. Christmas trees as the agent of death are a common theme in the papers of the past. Candles for lights, paper ornaments, and cotton batting to simulate snow were a lethal combination. Each year at least several score of people–some of them playing Santa Claus–burned to death in the Season of Light–killed by their Christmas trees.

Perhaps, then, it was appropriate that evergreens were a staple landscaping choice in the 19th-century graveyard. Cedars were sanctified by their mention in the Bible; evergreens of all kinds represented the perpetually green soul. One would think that a graveyard tree would be sacrosanct or the subject of superstition, yet tree thefts at Christmas were occasionally reported with much indignation. Even when an evergreen was legitimately removed from a cemetery, there might be trouble—fatal or not—with the “hoodoo” tree.  

MYSTERY OF “HOODOO” CHRISTMAS TREE SOLVED

Change From Its Graveyard Environment Is Too Much; Falls from Dignity.

Kendalville, Ind., Dec. 20 The mystery of Kendallville’s “Hoodoo” Christmas tree is explained by the revelation that the tree was taken from a cemetery. Little wonder that the poor thing acted up when brought from its graveyard environment of peace and quiet into the city’s Christmas whirl of rush, hurry and hubbub, and was placed right in town at the intersection of Main and Williams streets. Human frailties are oft revealed when the tenderfoot from the rural district encounters the glare of the lights and lure of the city, and plunges into riotous living. After being roughly hewn from its comfortable surroundings and dragged into an atmosphere quite the reverse, it would naturally follow as a matter of course that among everything so new and strange the tree would lose its self possession in a few instances and fall from its pedestal of dignity. Who wouldn’t?

Trees suitable to answer for a community Christmas tree are very scarce hereabouts and just when the outlook was darkest for procuring one to answer the purpose, Ex-Mayor Case learned that the Cemetery association had a surplus supply and would be glad if a few were removed. The tree was secured with their consent.

Wednesday afternoon while trying to place the tree, which being forty feet in height and frozen, was very heavy, the guy wires holding it broke and it crashed to the ground. Mayer Brouse narrowly escaped seriously injury and two other men who were assisting in raising it, Ben Smith and Glen Milks, were somewhat scratched up by the branches striking them as the tree fell. Thursday morning while driving his car at the corner of Main and Williams street, George Bloomfield struck a guy wire used in erecting the tree, which broke the windshield on his machine. He was it on the head and rendered unconscious, the machine smashed into a tree and Mr. Bloomfield was thrown violently out of the auto to the pavement. His condition was thought to be very serious, but latest reports are to the effect that he is recovering nicely at the hospital and is expected to be out soon. Fort Wayne[IN] Sentinel 20 December 1919: p. 18

CHRISTMAS TREE A HOODOO

[Waterbury (Conn.) Cor. New York Herald.]

Chopping the butt of a Christmas tree in Prospect this afternoon, William Smith, a farm hand, nearly cut off his great toe.

Angered, he threw the ax and it broke a window and struck a child, Mabel Scoville, in the face, inflicting a severe cut. Trimming the tree later, Mrs. William Scoville fell and broke an ankle.
Indignant over the chain of accidents, Howard Scoville, a son of the woman, insisted on doing the rest of the work himself, and while testing the candles set the tree afire and nearly burned the farmhouse.
Believing the tree bewitched, the father, Ambrose Scoville, threw it into the hog pen, where it fell on and killed a chicken.

“Four of July is good enough for me. Let’s celebrate at the church festival this year,” was Mr. Scoville’s comment. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 4 January 1908: p. 12

For many years Christmas trees were shipped from Northern Michigan in risky, late-season runs by Great Lakes schooners, known as Christmas Tree Ships.  Despite multiple deaths, it was a highly lucrative trade. One of the most famous fatalities of the Christmas Tree ships was a man known as “Captain Santa.”

Crepe on Christmas Tree Recalls Death of Captain Schuenemann

Chicago, Dec. 25. Crepe on a Christmas tree was the unusual sight gazed upon yesterday by thousands of persons who rode on street cars in North Clark street.

The tree stood on the prow of a boat at the Clark street bridge, where for years Captain Herman Schuenemann of the ill-fated Rouse Simmons, sold Christmas trees.

The crepe recalled to the minds of those who saw it the death of Captain Schuenemann and his crew of sixteen a few weeks ago in Lake Michigan when the Simmons was lost. She had sailed from Michigan with a cargo of Christmas trees for Chicago.

Incidentally it was recalled that Captain Schuenemann and his crew were saved a few years ago when another ship, the Mary Cullen, of which he was in charge, sank of Grosse Point. She, too, was loaded with trees for the Yuletide season. It was recalled, too, that August Schuenemann, a brother of the captain, lost his life fourteen years ago in Lake Michigan when the schooner Thal, of which he was in charge, sank. This boat also was laden with Christmas trees, and carried a crew of five men. Grand Forks [ND] Daily Herald 26 December 1912; p. 6

Even if the trees the Schuenemanns carried were not cut from a graveyard, they seemed to have been something of a hoodoo for the family.

We may take as read the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of deaths from fire caused by candle-lit trees. Safety authorities for years tried to discourage some of the more dangerous decorating practices like the use of cotton batting for “snow,” advocating “less harmful” materials like asbestos, lead, and mica.  

Cotton, candles, children and matches make a very dangerous Christmas combination. Every year this combination casts a gloom over many American households and in addition is responsible for a considerable loss of property by fire. All cotton is needed, this year, in clothing and ammunition factories; so let us use metallic tinsel [some was made from lead] asbestos fibre, and powdered mica for decorations and imitation snow, instead of the highly combustible cotton. Fox Lake [WI] Representative 20 December 1917: p. 3

Sadly, all the safety warnings in the world could not stop children eager for Christmas morning.

9 ARE DEAD IN CHRISTMAS TREE BLAZE

Children in DeGerbo Family at Hillsville, Pa., Illuminate Decoration With Horrifying Result

ALL ARE INCINERATED

Five Children, Their Parents and Two Boarders, Die in Home Burned at Early morning Hour.

Newcastle, Pa., Dec. 24 Guitana DeGerbo [Guipana Gerbo, Guitana De Gerbo] and wife, five children and two boarders, were burned to death at 1 o’clock this morning when their home burned at Hillsville, the fire starting from a lighted Christmas tree.

It is thought the children got up during the night and lighted the Christmas tree. Telephone reports say the bodies are still in the smouldering ruins. Elkhart [IN] Truth 24 December 1909: p. 1

While fire was the most common reason for evergreen lethality, there is a startling variety in other fir fatalities. Some were merely peripherally associated with the tree preparation, as in this story of the wrong tool for the job:

MOTHER KILLED AS SHE PREPARED CHRISTMAS TREE

Detroit, Mich. Dec. 22. Mrs. Thomas E. Barnes was killed today at her home by the explosion of a “one pounder” rapid fire gun cartridge, which it is supposed she was using for a hammer in the Christmas preparations for her two baby girls.

How the explosion occurred is not definitely known, as she was alone with the children, but it is said by friends of Mrs. Barnes that she had used the cartridge for a hammer at other times. The cartridge had been in the possession of the Barnes family for some time, and is said to have been given to Mrs. Barnes by her brother, William Mayhew, a gunner in the United States Navy, who is thought to be attached to the United States torpedo station at Newport News.

The woman’s right hand was torn off at the wrist, her left hand was mutilated, part of the cartridge penetrated her breast and cut her heart and lungs, and her back also was cut by parts of the shell. Mrs. Barnes had left the children in the kitchen so that they would not see her prepare the Christmas tree, which was to be set up in the archway between parlor and sitting room. Evidently she had been re-arranging the curtains of the archway so that the candles on the tree would not set the curtains on fire. Using the cartridge for a tack hammer, she was instantly killed by the explosion that resulted. Montgomery [AL] Advertiser 23 December 1904: p. 10

Or in this sad story of Christmas greed run amok:

Boy Trampled to Death in Rush at Christmas Tree

Hastings, Mich., Dec. 25. Russell Smith, 6, son of Ralph Smith, was trampled to death by a crowd of children in their mad rush to receive gifts and candy during a ceremony at the community Christmas tree in the heart of the business district.

The boy was dead before it was discovered that he had fallen beneath the feet of his schoolmates. His cries apparently were drowned out in the shouting of the children.

Russell had been taken down town only after he pleaded all during the day, the father said. The tragedy cast a pall over the Christmas celebration. Fort Worth [TX] Star-Telegram 26 December 1922: p. 2

In others, the tree was clearly to blame;

FATAL CHRISTMAS TREE

Harrisburg, Pa., Dec. 22 A Christmas tree that Michael Mahorcic, of Steelton, was carrying home, prevented him from seeing a train as he was crossing the Pennsylvania tracks today and he was struck and instantly killed. Macon [GA] Telegraph 23 December 1913: p. 12

But while the headline places the blame squarely on the tree, this story has always seemed a little mysterious–what kind of an insect emerges from a Christmas tree?

A Deadly Christmas Tree

Nyack, N.Y., Dec. 20. A singular death occurred at Sparkill. While Miss Josie Reichling, a popular young artist and musician of Sparkill, was assisting in trimming the Episcopal church last Saturday for Christmas she was bitten on the cheek by some insect. The sore gradually grew worse. Its nature puzzled the most skilful doctors and after great suffering the young lady died yesterday. The News [Frederick, MD’ 30 December 1893: p. 1

Similar questions arise from this story, where blood-poisoning resulted from decorating a tree. Was there some toxic substance on the needles? Did unscrupulous dealers spray their wares with arsenical green to make the trees look fresher?

Killed by a Christmas Tree.

New York, Feb. 22. William W. Babbington, a bookkeeper, decorated a tree Christmas eve, assisted by his wife. Both were slightly pricked by pine needles. Both developed felons and later blood poisoning. Babbington died in St. John’s hospital, Long Island City, on Monday.

Mrs. Babbington, who is to undergo two operations, one for blood poisoning and another for tumor, is awaiting her husband’s funeral before going to the hospital. The Salina [KS] Evening Journal 22 February 1909: p. 5

A felon, to be Relentlessly Informative, is “a painful abscess of the deep tissues of the palmar surface of the fingertip that is typically caused by infection of a bacterium.”

Christmas tree candles were the primary agent of holiday deaths, but fire was not their only hazard: 

We find arsenic in green wax candles and green tapers. Mr. T. Bolas of Charing Cross Hospital having noticed the arsenical odour which was present during the burning of green wax tapers, Christmas candles, and similar articles, was induced to examine several samples, with the following results: Of thirteen samples, one only contained arsenic, the majority being coloured with verdigris, and two samples were tinted with ultramarine green. The arsenical tapers were of the kind usually employed in houses for lighting gas; and one taper, weighing 17’69 grains, was found to contain 0’276 grains of arsenious acid. When we consider how extremely sensitive some people are to the action of this poison, especially when it enters the system through the respiratory organs, it will be sufficiently apparent that it is highly reprehensible to use a volatile poison like arsenic, even though the amount employed may be small, for colouring tapers or other similar articles intended for burning in houses. A Christmas tree brilliantly illuminated with arsenical candles may be taken as an extreme instance of the danger likely to arise from this source. A Dictionary of Hygiene and Public Health, Alexander Wynter Blyth, Ambroise Tardieu, 1876 p. 65

In photographs of vintage Christmas trees, the candles appear to be white;  it was startling to realize that they were colored and toxic. This makes me rethink using the box of antique  red candles for the Swedish angel chimes.

It has been known that many children have been victims from colored Christmas candles, yes, adults were seized with curious and inexplicable symptoms, which could not be traced to the ingestion of any particular food or liquid of which they had partaken. Attention was then drawn to the candles on the Christmas tree, many of which were green, and these when submitted to analysis, proved to contain Scheile’s green, the red candles, moreover, being colored with vermillion [a mercury compound.] The Dental Review 1912: p. 647

One of the most shocking stories about green candles came from Vienna:

While the Princess Frederica was arranging a Christmas tree for some poor children at Vienna, for the Christmas of 1869, a burning green wax taper fell upon her arm, and so poisoned her that she is dying a painful death, at the residence of her father, the ex-King of Hanover. Albany [NY] Evening Journal 4 May 1871: p. 2

This is such a great story–those deadly green dyes!—but Princess Frederica actually lived until 1926. Possibly she was conflated with her dear friend, Archduchess Mathilde, who burned to death in 1867 when she set fire to her muslin dress while trying to hide a cigarette from her father.  Mathilde’s father Prince Albert and the King of Hanover lived almost next door to one another in a suburb of Vienna and the two young aristocrats were great friends. Still, it is such a cautionary tale that it ought to have been true.

The advent of electric lights was hailed as a holiday life-saver, never mind the mica, asbestos, spun glass, and lead tinsel still in use.  Today everything is UL approved, but I still wash my hands after handling antique ornaments of fabric or tinsel.  Like the voiceover says on those PSAs that show how quickly a tree can go up in flames, no one wants to become yet another holiday statistic. It would be just too embarrassing to die of an ornament overdose. The tree has that already.

Other balsamic bereavements? 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.

The Groaning Thanksgiving Board

plucked turkeys revenge
The Groaning Thanksgiving Board The plucked turkey’s revenge.

Mmmm, the groaning Thanksgiving table! What could be tastier or more wholesome than the traditional cranberries, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, turkey roasted to a golden turn, and pumpkin pies?

Well, to be perfectly frank, actually just about any other foodstuffs, if you heed the warnings of the papers of the past. Cranberries, for example, have a blameless and even medicinal reputation, but not in this case.

A Family Poisoned by Cranberries.

Trenton, N.J., April 7. Mrs. Ritter and her three children, residing at No. 122 Allen street, in this city, were taken violently ill yesterday with symptoms of poisoning. A physician was summoned, who declared that the family had been poisoned by cranberries that had been eaten for dinner. The woman and children have suffered greatly, but are believed to be out of danger to-day. Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 8 April 1886: p. 1

A fictional tale called “Poisoned Cranberries” by Claire Wesson told of a woman who was tired of having the family cranberries stolen by the neighbors. She pointedly announced that the cranberries were poisoned, and had her children help her sprinkle flour on them, after displaying a pail marked “Poison, Arsenate of Lead.” Daily Nonpareil[Council Bluffs IA] 3 July 1926: p. 2

Green beans, which were often canned in deadly ways, had other dangers:

Green Bean Proves Fatal.

Washington, Ind., June 28. Ralph McKinney, while eating green beans, lodged a bean in his throat, finally causing death. The Daily Palladium [Richmond IN] 28 June 1904: p. 6

Poisoned by Green Beans.

Three weeks ago, Mr. Willis Brown received a slight cut in his left thumb, while cutting some meat. He paid only little attention to the cut, which seemed to be healed. A week later, he handled some green beans in pods, and was poisoned so that he suffered most excruciating pain, not only in the injured hand but in all parts of the body. Poultices were applied to the hand and antidotes administered until now, as we stated, Saturday, the gentleman is getting much better.

We make mention of the case because of its peculiar nature, that others may take warning in handling green beans. The Ogden [UT] Standard 1 September 1884: p. 3

Then there’s the humble and wholesome potato.

POISONED POTATOES

An entire family was poisoned at Reading a few days ago by eating new potatoes, which are supposed to have been impregnated with Paris green sprinkled on the stalks to destroy the Colorado bug. If this is the effect of Paris green the popular potato bug remedy will be given a very wide berth. Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 26 June 1874: p. 1

 

POISONED POTATOES.

Came Near Causing Death of a Whole Family.

Columbus, O., Dec. 30. A special to the Dispatch from Zanesville, O., says:

“Hon. F.A. Durban, Mrs. Durban, Marie Maillot, a French maid, and Mary Tyinger, a servant, narrowly escaped death by poisoning last night. At dinner last evening mashed potatoes were served. All felt slightly indisposed when retiring last night, and early this morning Mr. Durban awoke very weak and ill. He called a physician by telephone, who at once pronounced arsenical poisoning. Six hours’ work were required to get the patients past the danger point. Physicians think the poison got into the potatoes through spraying them with bug poison during their growth. Daily Illinois State Register[Springfield, IL] 31 December 1899: p. 5

While these appear to be genuine cases, the notion that potatoes would absorb the poison meant for the destructive potato bugs was usually scoffed at by farm columnists or it was suggested that the bugs were worse than the poison.

What could be more palatable than a “gravy-poisoner” sentenced for attempted murder?

The Gravy-Poisoner Sentenced. Los Angeles, Cal., Nov. 30. E.W. Jones, aged sixty-seven, was sentenced to-day to four years at San Quentin for attempting to poison his family with poisoned gravy. San Francisco [CA] Bulletin 30 November 1886: p. 3

Jones poisoned the flour used to make gravy for the family’s meat and potatoes dinner, with “Rough on Rats,” then refused the gravy. He apparently had been arrested before, charged with murdering his wife, but “got off on a theory of a doctor that she died of a bursting blood-vessel.” Four years, even at San Quentin, seems a bit lenient.

Books on domestic economy often recommended setting out toxic foodstuffs for vermin in what seems to us an almost criminally casual way. You would think that it might have been considered prudent to carefully mark a saucer of poisoned flour so as to alert the household, but ingesting lethal flour by mistake was a common cause of tragedy.

FIVE ARE POISONED

Gravy Blamed for Illness of Wooster (O.) Family.

Wooster, O., May 6. Five members of the family of Frank Snell, living near Canaan, are recovering from poisoning.

Snell mixed poison with flour to kill rats. One of the women used the flour by mistake for making gravy. Cincinnati [OH] Post 6 May 1921: p. 1

And

Made Gravy with Poisoned Flour.

Harvard, Ill., Dec. 2 William and Patrick Barry, farmers, residing six miles south of this city, in the absence of their mother yesterday decided to cook flour gravy. They found a saucer that contained flour and used it, not knowing that strychnine had been mixed with it to kill rats. Two hired men and a nephew joined them at dinner. Shortly after dinner all were taken violently ill and it is probable that three of the five will die. Hutchinson [KS] Gazette 3 December 1896: p. 1

Even today, turkeys come with warnings about thawing, salmonella, e coli, and deep-fat fryers. Things were not much simpler when the turkey came straight from the farm or the butcher’s shop.

Embalmed geese, turkeys with painted legs, and diseased chickens instead of healthy, untainted poultry are sold extensively in the Paris markets. A market porter recently died from blood poisoning from the bite of an insect which was battening on some turkeys. The practice of embalming long-demised birds is comparatively of modern origin, but the painting of turkey’s legs is old. Pere Chapelleer made a fortune out of it. He found that fresh-killed turkeys had black, shiny legs, but later they would turn to a dusky brown color. He invented a peculiar varnish, and his services were requisitioned in every market. The effect of his varnish was so conclusive that it deceived experienced cooks and housekeepers, who often bought tainted fowl in preference to newly killed. The Religio-Philosophical Journal 5 May 1888: p. 5

Tainted fowl wasn’t the only problem. You may have noticed a common theme among these poisoned holiday foods: that of “indirect poisoning,” which I’ve written about previously. A sentimental, if misguided youth was the cause of this first case:

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

Farmers with a grudge against wolves did in this wild gobbler.

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

But what of pumpkin pie? Surely there could be nothing more innocuous? Au contraire….

Poisoned Pumpkin Pies

Richmond, Va., January 1. A special to The Dispatch from Louray says the family of Benjamin Sours were poisoned today by eating pumpkin pies, which were supposed to contain rat poison. Sours and one child died, and others are dangerously ill. The Atlanta [GA] Constitution 2 January 1891: p. 2

 

Death From Pumpkin Pie.

Smoot, Wyo. A post mortem examination of the remains of James H. Bruce has been made, and the result will be known in a few days. Bruce died suddenly at his ranch near here a few days ago after eating a quantity of pumpkin pie. It is alleged that death was due to strychnine poisoning. Bruce did not have an enemy in the world, and the suicide theory is scouted. The Columbus [NE] Journal 3 April 1907: p. 6

A case of poisoned pumpkin pie was the sensation of the Pennsylvania press in 1882.

On Thursday last the family of Charles H. Garber, of Norristown had pumpkin pie for dinner, of which all ate heartily. The flour with which the pie crust was baked subsequently proved to contain quantities of crystallized arsenic. When the victims of the poison were attacked with pains in the abdomen and violent vomiting Dr. Mahlon Preston, the family physician, was called in. He treated them for malarial fever. Dr. Munstead, the family physician of the visitors, also was called in. He prescribed for the same disorder. The ladies were removed to their homes after a few days. Mrs. Garber had but a slight attack. Henry B. Garber, the only son, recently admitted to the Montgomery county bar, is very weak and not expected to survive. Mr. Garber, the head of the family, died Thursday morning at half-past eleven o’clock.

Last Saturday afternoon Mrs. Garber, having an errand to do, called from the street little Ivan [also reported as Ivins] Steinbright, a four-year old son of John Steinbright. In reward for the boy’s favor Mrs. Garber kindly gave him and his little sister each a piece of pumpkin pie, which she had baked the Wednesday previous, and some of which she had set before her family and visiting friends. The little girl ate a mouthful, but, disliking the taste, gave her piece to her little brother, who ate both pieces. Later in the afternoon, Ivan was taken violently sick and died early on the following morning. A post mortem examination showed a quantity of arsenic in the stomach. A small piece of Mrs. Garber’s pumpkin pie was fed by Dr. Ellwood Corson, the boy’s attending physician, to his cat. The cat was seized with violent vomiting within twenty-five minutes and has not been seen since. Dr. Corson obtained half a pound of her family flour from Mrs. Garber for chemical analyzation, but found it was unnecessary, as he could pick from the flour crystals of the poison.

Mrs. Garber keeps her flour in a crock in her kitchen. She used some of it two weeks ago, but without bad effects. The poisoned pumpkin pie was baked from the same flour a week later. Some one probably threw the arsenic into the crock in the meantime. On Wednesday Mrs. Garber had left the house for awhile, leaving the back door ajar, and she supposes that during her absence some one had entered the house and done the mischief. Lancaster [PA] Daily Intelligencer 10 November 1882: p. 2

A singular part of the mystery is that the poison found is not what is known as common arsenius arsenic, but the pure acid, the finest kind of arsenic known to medicine….[a purer quality than that usually sold by druggists.]

On Tuesday night, Nov. 1, the Garber family went to visit a friend up town. On their return they found the back door of the kitchen which led into a stall alley had been unlocked during their absence. As nothing was missing the matter was soon forgotten. The next day Mrs. Garber baked the fatal pie from the flour which was kept in the crock in the back kitchen near the door. Now it is claimed that the person who committed the deed saw the Garbers go out of the house, and knowing that the flour was kept in the rear kitchen, the assassin opened the door by means of a false key, put the poison in the flour in the crock, and got away. Daily Globe [St. Paul, MN] 13 November 1882: p. 5

Much of the inquest testimony was printed in the paper and Mrs. Garber hinted that her father, John Boileau and her brother Albanus might have had something to do with the poisoning. There was bad blood between the Boileaus and the Garbers over her mother’s will as well as money Mrs. Garber took from the house after her mother’s death. The inquest ended with a verdict of “death by poisoning,” but the poisoner was not named or charged. Perhaps I wrong her (and what was the motive?), yet I found this detail suggestive: “For desert they had pumpkin pie, of which all but Mrs. Garber partook heartily. Mrs. Garber ate but little.” Daily Globe [St. Paul, MN] 13 November 1882: p. 5

So pull up a chair to the groaning Thanksgiving board! Cranberries are full of anti-oxidants; potatoes are full of vitamin C; turkey is low in fat and cholesterol. Pies? Well, it’s only a once-a-year indulgence. C’mon, where’s that hearty appetite? Dig in!

As for me, I’ll be enjoying a bowl of gruel and some water—in a dirty glass.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Mrs Daffodil shares a cautionary screed about the Deadly and Demoralising Thanksgiving Pie.

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.

Death Masks

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

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

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

Mask-related accidents like these were sadly common.

Hallowe’en Mask Cause of Death

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

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

MASK CAUSED CHILD’S DEATH

Blinded, She Stepped Before Car and Was Killed.

Was Playing Halloween Games With Companions.

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

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

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

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

HALLOWEEN FESTIVITY

Two Girls Were Instantly Killed Near Elizabeth, Pa.

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

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

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

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

PEEP MAY PROVE FATAL

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

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

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

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

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

SCARED THE BABY TO DEATH

Muncy, Pa., Dispatch 26th.

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

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

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

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

FRIGHT MAY CAUSE DEATH

Hideous False Face Throws Baby Into Spasm and Spinal Disease.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or possibly some insect-borne disease of the summer.

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

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

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

This mask prank led to a lawsuit.

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

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

WORE A HIDEOUS FALSE FACE

Strange Estate Left by a Farmer’s Child.

Republic Special.

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

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

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

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

KILLED BY PAPIER MACHE MASK

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

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

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

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

Poisoned by False Face

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

***

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

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

This vintage case had a much worse outcome.

SATANIC MASK THE CAUSE OF DEATH

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

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

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

A cautionary tale, indeed.

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

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

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

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

 

Inventive Deaths – How to Die in a Better Mousetrap

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

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

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

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

KILLED

By the Invention He Had Spent 25 Years Perfecting

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

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

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

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

Singular Suicide – Horace Wells, the Discoverer of Ether.

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

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

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

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

Killed by His Own Invention

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

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

Others in the death roll of American ingenuity:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GUILLOTINED HIMSELF.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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