Dressing the Hair of the Dead: 1888

dressing the hair The manual on Barbering 1906

DRESSING THE HAIR OF THE DEAD.

A Professional Talks About Her Uncanny Occupation.

‘I was only 12 years old,’ said a prominent lady hair-dresser of this city, ‘when I was called on by the friends of an old lady who had died to come and dress her hair.’

‘And did you go?’

‘No; I ran and hid myself under a bed and stayed there a whole afternoon. Although I loved her and had often dressed her hair when she was alive, I could not bear the idea of doing it after death. But I have done many heads since for dead persons, and, while I do not like it, I have a professional pride in making them look well for the last time.’

‘It must be very distasteful to you.’ ‘

‘Not always. It comes in the way of my business, and naturally my employees shrink from going. Sometimes we have a call through the telephone to come to such a number and dress a lady’s hair. One of the young ladies will be sent with curling irons, pomades, hair-pins and other things, only to find that the lady is a corpse. The girl will not nor cannot undertake it, and I go myself. There is only the front hair to crimp and arrange becomingly. One day last week I dressed Mrs __’s hair for the last time. She was young and very pretty, and looked as if asleep. The hair does not die, so that it is easily arranged. When it is a wig or crimped I have it sent to the store, and when it is dressed, take it to the house and put it on. Let me tell you something that happened lately. A lady died in this city who wore a grey wig. I dressed it and put it on. You can just think how surprised I was when, a couple of weeks later, a member of the family came in here and tried to sell it to me. She said they had taken it off just before the casket was closed for the last time.’

‘And did you buy it?’

‘Buy it? Certainly not. It is not very long since a man came in and offered me a number of switches of different shades and colour. I would not buy them, and sent for a policeman, as I thought he had probably stolen them. But as it turned out, they came from an undertaker’s and were the unclaimed property of strangers who had been given pauper burial.’

‘Is it customary to dress the hair of the dead?’

‘It is. I have some customers who have exacted a solemn promise from me that I will dress their hair when they die and make it look natural and becoming. I have even been sent for by those who had only a few hours to live and taken my instructions from their dying lips.’

‘Is the process the same as with the living?’

‘Just the same, except that I do not arrange the back hair in all cases. But sometimes the hair is dressed entirely, just as it would be for an evening party. And I frequently furnish new switches, crimps, or bangs, at the request of relatives who want no pains spared.’

‘And are you not afraid?’

Madame shrugged her handsome shoulders.

‘It is a lonesome task,’ she said, ‘and it certainly does make me nervous. Once the corpse opened her eyes and looked at me as a lady who was holding a lamp went out of the room in a moment, leaving me with a lock of hair in the crimping-pins. A gust of wind blew the door after her, and I was in the dark alone with the dead women. I think if she had not opened the door just at the moment she did I should have fallen insensible,’—

Detroit [MI] Free Press 1 January 1888: p. 4

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil does not have a high opinion of either the intelligence or the moral scruples of the repellent relatives who offered to sell the dead lady’s wig to the hairdresser. They might at least have dyed it so that it was less recognizable, or, more sensibly, taken it to a different coiffeuse, if they needed to offset funeral expenses.

Wigs and chignons for the living were, however, often made of what was termed “dead hair,” or hair cut from corpses. These corpses might be unfortunates from the Workhouse or paupers destined for Potter’s Field; working girls of the streets, murderers or their victims.  If not a black market, it was certainly sub-fusc.  Medical men issued stern warnings about the diseases and insects that might be found in “dead hair,” and argued for prohibiting any hair except that from the living in hair-pieces. These warnings were widely ignored. In 1911, for example, hair from Chinese who died in the Manchurian plague, was being imported by Germany and England without so much as a murmur from the trade authorities.

For more mortuary professions for ladies, please see this link, and this, about a lady undertaker. You will find more information on the popular and material culture of Victorian mourning in The Victorian Book of the Dead, by Chris Woodyard and under the “Mourning” tab on this blog.

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.

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A Stiff Drink

death with drinkers

Inspired by the story of a woman taking her dead husband on a “rolling wake” Alaskan road-trip, preserved in ice from the local fisheries, I present some vintage fizz about stiff iced drinks.

Took the Ice Off a Corpse.

Charlotte, N.C., June 13. The guests of the Phoenix hotel at Winston, rose in revolt against George W. Kittelle, the proprietor of the hotel, a few evenings ago, because they learned that the ice used in their iced tea and other cool drinks had been first utilized in cooling a corpse. The result is that Kittelle’s troubles multiplied, and the news has just come of his assignment. It was claimed that a rubber sheet was between the ice and the body, and that the cooling material was not therefore injured in any way, but was as pure as ever. The guests could not see it that way, however. The corpse in question was known in life as Charles Johnson. Daily Illinois State Journal [Springfield, IL] 14 June 1895: p. 1.

We might assume that this was just a tasteless joke (although the hotel and the man are real) but there was apparently a certain amount of laxness in this area. I’ve seen several references in the medical literature to the following practice:

As an illustration are cited cases in which the ice used to preserve bodies dead from contagious disease was emptied out on the public street…. Medical Record 1891: p. 263 

No doubt for the children playing in the streets to pick up and suck.

And here’s a poem with a twist. Memorize it! recite it at parties! I guarantee you’ll have your audience shaken and stirred.

A Stiff Drink.

One reason I stopped drinking.

Said the man from Lafayette,

Is no matter what you call for

You can’t tell what you get.

It was in July of ninety-four.

While traveling in the West,

I witnessed what I’ll not forget

‘Till I am laid to rest.

 

The run was long and tiresome,

The scenery not sublime.

So a game of cards was started,

Just to pass away the time.

The players, four in number.

Were traveling men, I think;

Two sold liquor, one cigars,

And one sold printers’ ink.

 

Across the aisle a stranger sat

Who hadn’t much to say.

He smoked when the cigars were passed

And calmly watched the play.

“Tell you what,” said the liquor man:

“In my case I’ve something nice.

We’d have a most delicious drink

If I only had some ice.”

 

“I’ll get the ice,” the stranger said

And he started for the door.

He soon returned with a basketful

And placed it on the floor;

The drummer then mixed up a drink,

And I tell you it was fine.

It made us all quite sociable

And the stranger was right in line.

 

Several trips the stranger made

And of as many drinks had a share.

He finally came with a basket full

And said it was all he could spare.

“It’s just like this” the stranger said,

And his voice was low and deep;

“I’ve got a corpse in the baggage car.

And I’m afraid the thing won’t keep.”

H. W. Sparks.

The Globe-Republican [Dodge City, KS] 5 March 1896: p. 3

Can anybody top these stories of stiff drinks? Pour it on: chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Thanks to Michael Robinson for the Alaskan story.

For chilling stories of the perils of undertakers with ice-boxes, see this post.

Brian C. sent some variants of the “corpse on ice” theme and a cautionary tale for travellers.

Here are some variants of “The Corpse in The Cask/Tapping the Admiral” that are related to “A Stiff Drink.”

Graham Seal, Great Australian Urban Myths, rev. ed. (Sydney: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 72.

One hot day in the desert the passengers on the Meekatharra Mail were relieved by the kindness of the guard bringing everyone a drink of ice water. As the day got hotter and the air drier, the passengers continued to quench their thirst with glasses of ice water provided by the guard. But after a few hours, the welcome chilled fluid stopped coming. As the guard passed along the passageway on his duties, a thirsty passenger inquired why the ice water had dried up.

‘Sorry,’ replied the guard, ‘I thought we’d better not drink any more – the body’s beginning to show through the ice.’

The Railroad Gazette. New York, 8 Sept 1882, p. 555. Quoted in B.A. Botkin & Alvin F. Harlow, eds., A Treasury of Railroad Folklore (New York: Bonanza Books, 1953), p. 431.

Where He Got the Ice

There was a party of gentlemen the other day on a train on one of the roads coming into Nashville, and none of the party being strictly temperance men, one of the crowd suggested a drink. Another wanted to know where to get it. All seemed willing, but the day was warm, very warm. At last the fourth man in the party said he had a bottle of fine “cock-tail,” which he would furnish if anybody could get ice. A fellow passenger remarked that he would do that if they would share with him. He left the car and came back with plenty, which was duly used. As a matter of course, in a short time another drink was proposed and the ice man kindly requested to furnish that necessary article to a cocktail, but with his mouth watering for a drink and every look one of longing, he said: “Gentlemen, I want the drink, and I could furnish the ice, but I am afraid if I take any more off the corpse it will spoil.”

Bennett Cerf, Try and Stop Me (1944). In Bennett Cerf’s Bumper Crop, vol. 1 (Garden City: Garden City Books, n.d.), p. 536.

My friend swears that he is the hero of the story of the four chance acquaintances who launched a bridge game on a mid-summer run of the Empire State Limited. They ordered frequent rounds of drinks, but finally the steward reported that the ice had run out. “I think I know where I can get some,” volunteered my friend, and supplied the party until the train was well past Schenectady. “I’m afraid this is the last pitcherful,” he said then. “If I take one more cube of ice, the body won’t keep till Buffalo.”

http://expressbuzz.com/news/deleterious-temptations/162152.html [URL no longer valid]

Express Buzz [India] | 3 April 2010

 Deleterious temptations?

Lisa Mahaptra

[…] Says Poonam Bachhav, microbiologist and chief of the water testing lab at the Institute of Health Systems, “We have tested a lot of samples of water taken from various street food vendors from around the city, and 80% of the time we discover that the water is unsuitable for drinking.” And then there’s ice. Stories that the ice used by street food vendors comes from the morgue might be more urban legend than fact, but the reality isn’t all that much of a step up. Ice is usually manufactured in locations many of which are at quite a distance from the city. So even if one ignores that few ice manufacturers follow all the rules and regulations set by the health ministry, the fact remains that the ice is transported in filthy conditions only to arrive at a store where it is just lying on the grimy floor, covered in rice husk, what appears to be sawdust, and what not. “We haven’t received many samples of ice for testing, but of those that we have received, most are unwholesome”, says Poonam Bachhav. “I think it is very unadvisable to eat or drink anything served by street vendors.” […]

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.

 

Corpses on Ice: The Dangers of the Undertaker’s Ice-Box

corpse cooler 1885
1885 corpse cooler and “Fresh-ever.” https://www.google.com/patents/US311764?dq=%22corpse+cooler%22&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi575ev2PzUAhUGHT4KHXXFDY0Q6AEIMjAC

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I do not mince words when writing about the perils of 19th-century corpse disposal. You may have read about the grim German waiting mortuaries, the dark side of those popular Fisk cast-iron burial caskets, people who asked to be stabbed to the heart after death to make sure they were really most sincerely dead, and about the Victorian fear—actually more like an obsession—with being buried alive. It was sometimes difficult for 19th-century physicians to tell when a body was a lifeless corpse, given diseases like cholera that mimicked death and an apparent epidemic of catalepsy. Yet beyond dubious diagnoses of death leading to premature burial, there was another, lesser-known mortuary danger: the undertaker’s ice-box.

While arterial embalming had been popular since the Civil War, some undertakers, either conservative or cautious about the toxic chemicals involved, shunned embalming, feeling that they got more satisfactory outcomes using the tried-and-true method of icing the corpse. For example, this undertaker was delighted with a tub of ice so effective there was doubt about the death:

“Before the patent ice boxes were in use,” continued Mr. William, “I was called on to bury a young man whose death was caused by drowning. It was in warm weather, and the family desired that the funeral should be put off a few days. The bath tub was used, and he was laid in it, covered with ice, and kept splendidly. In fact, he looked so much better in death than he did in life that his mother could not be made to believe that life was extinct, and for this reason the hour of the funeral services was twice postponed until her family physician arrived and made an examination. Arkansas City [KS] Daily Traveler 12 July 1888: p. 6

I’d always imagined that Victorian undertakers iced their corpses by putting them on beds of ice like fish in the seafood case. But, in fact, the goal was to freeze the corpse solid, letting it thaw gradually before burial would be necessary. The illustration at the head of this post shows one such device, with a handy hose to hang out the window. The sound and smell of the water running off the corpse is one of the lost sensory landscapes of the 19th-century…. There are numerous 19th-century patents for “corpse coolers” and improvements thereof. Some were essentially immense ice-chests; several were meant to fit only over the abdomen and breast of the corpse. And, according to some physicians, these devices were a menace to the public wheal.

Dangers Of Prematurely Placing Corpses On Ice.

Dr. E. Vanderpoel, of this city is strongly opposed, and for very good reasons, to the practice of hastening to place a body on ice almost as soon as the patient appears to be dead. Some of his experiences in his own professional life have made so deep an impression on him, that he has more than once, publicly and privately, protested against the modern custom introduced by the undertakers, of putting bodies on ice before there were official proof of death. He considers it a scandal to the undertaking profession, an outrage to society, and an insult to the patient’s family that for the sake of collecting exorbitant fees, undertakers do not await the arrival of a doctor’s certificate of death before they freeze the remains.

The case lately reported from Canada, of a smallpox patient who had apparently died and was about to be buried when he came to life again, suggests to Dr. Vanderpoel the following reflections: “If that Canadian had been taken ill in this city his life would never have returned at the cemetery, for it would have been frozen out of him long before he reached the grave. In reading about this case I thought of a certain Brooklyn patient of mine who died in 1872. She was forty-five years old, and the widow of a well-known reverend doctor of divinity. She had an attack of dysentery, and had been lying ill for four or five days with a low fever but her condition was not dangerous, although it was assuming a typhoid form. I called in to see her one day at one o’clock, and returned again at five o’clock on the same day, when, to my profound surprise and indignation, she was lying in an icebox down stairs partially frozen. The undertaker had committed this atrocity without any medical certificate of her death, and he had no official knowledge that she had died at all I found that after I had left she arose from her bed and fainted while walking across the floor from sheer weakness, and because she lay there motionless the children thought she was dead; so, instead of sending for me to come and make an examination, they ran for the undertaker. He responded with like promptitude, bringing in his mortuary box full of pounded ice, and in a short time she was frozen stiff. Every part of her body, except her face was covered with the ice. I believed then and I always shall believe, that she might have revived had proper means been employed for her resuscitation.”

The following is still more tragic: In 1874 I attended a wealthy lady about fifty years old, and her house was but five doors from my own. She was perfectly well at six o’clock in the evening. She went to bed as usual. In the night she was taken ill, and I was called over to the house by another doctor, for consultation, at six o’clock in the morning. After doing what we could I left at seven to finish my toilet and to get some breakfast. The other doctor also retired soon afterward, as he found he could not be of any immediate service. I returned at half-past nine o’clock and found her, not in bed, but in the back parlor enclosed in an undertaker’s ice chest. From what I knew of the character of her case, it was one in which returning consciousness would be almost certain to follow a period of apparent sinking away of life. If there ever was a case of restoration after suspended animation that should have been one. The undertaker’s excuse was that mortification might set in when he ought to have known that it takes twelve hours for animal life to leave the body after death and before decomposition can set in.

“After death there are three stages in the processes of decomposition. On the first day the features and the flesh are sunken in and the pallid shade of death is very ghastly. On the second day there is an improved look in every respect and the remains lose a part of the pallor of the first day. On the third day the flesh becomes full again, the skin clears up, and the natural hue of life returns to a degree that in some cases is almost startling. At the end of this period discoloration sets in and decomposition does its work with great rapidity if the weather be warm. But these changes can be postponed without difficulty by the proper use of a very little ice on the stomach, and some diluted carbolic acid sprayed into the nostrils. In 1848, when the modern iceboxes were unknown, I kept the body of my mother four days in the hottest summer weather of July. My son dropped dead in the street from kidney disease. He was in full health, and I kept the remains in fine condition for five days with a simple pan of ice. I was attending on a poor little girl in Thompson street. Her mother was so poor that I did not charge her anything. When the little sufferer passed away I told the mother that an undertaker would come and order the remains to be put on ice, but I would show her how to keep the body until time for burial. It would keep without trouble, for there was no flesh to decay. I left the mother to go to my office for a certificate of death. When I returned the body was on ice as usual, and the mother told me that the undertaker had come and told her that she must have the remains put into an icebox without delay. She thought it must be some kind of an official utterance, so she borrowed $10 and gave it to the undertaker before I could return.”

In conclusion, Dr. Vanderpoel thinks that physicians, the Board of Health, and the law, should take measures to put a stop to such indecencies. There is no necessity for the practice, no excuse for it, except the sordid anxiety of the undertaker to make an exorbitant fee. He strongly favors the Neurological Society, which, he understands, is making efforts to have a medical expert especially detailed to investigate each case of reported death, and to make a scientific examination as to whether the doctors themselves might not have erred and issued certificates before the vital spark of life had really fled. The Medical Advance, Volumes 9-10 1881

Dr. S. Oakley Vanderpoel, had been Health Officer of the Port of New York and also Surgeon General of that state.

This next article’s headline is even more candid.

SENT TO UNTIMELY GRAVES

The Perils of Undertakers’ Ice-Boxes

Inanimate People Frozen to Death

[New York News.]

The medical profession and embalmers are soon to wage war against the undertakers on the subject of preparing the dead for burial. The physicians nearly all claim that persons still alive are frequently taken by undertakers and placed on ice, thereby making death certain, whereas, if the body was kept until the first signs of decomposition set in, all uncertainty would be dispelled. The late occurrence in this city, where a prominent physician attending a lady left the patient after prescribing for her, and returned the following morning only to find her body packed up in an undertaker’s ice-box has given rise to severe indignation among medical men. The doctor who attended the lady expressed the belief that the patient’s blood could not have been cold in so short a space of time, and he considered that the undertaker iced her while she was yet alive, lest in delaying he might lose the job.

The embalmers charge that many bodies are rapidly hustled into the grave through the undertaker and his ice-box, and they are endeavoring to get the physicians to cooperate with them, so that in a short time the use of ice will be entirely put out of practice. It is claimed that the process of embalming will not cost any more than icing, and through its use, nobody can be placed in a coffin before life is undoubtedly known to be extinct. One of the embalmers, when spoken to on the subject, said: “I have been in the business for at least twenty-five years, and can say I never knew bodies to be packed and placed completely in ice until I came to this city. Of course I have seen ice used a little, but not to such an extent as to entirely envelope every portion of the form. In my opinion, bodies are certainly put on ice too soon after death; they should be kept for some time, so that signs of positive death would make their appearance. If the breath ceases, or the pulse stops beating, and the lips become blue, while the face is livid, you have no positive indications of death, for there have been cases where all these symptoms were perceptible and yet life returned.”

“What would be the result if a person so attacked would be seized and crowded into a box of ice?” “Why, they would have been frozen to death, and their morbid or temporarily-stilled blood-vessels made dead forever. No body should ever be placed on ice unless it is rigid in the extreme….

“Another occurrence like this took place over on Seventh avenue not long ago. A woman lived with her husband and two grown children in a tenement house. The husband, son and daughter all worked in a theater. One evening the woman, while walking about the room, was seized with apoplexy, and dropped powerless upon the floor. Some of the neighbors in the house heard the fall and went to the room, and, finding the woman speechless, immediately sent to the theater for her son. The young fellow immediately went for a physician, who pronounced the woman dead. The body was then lifted into bed and left there until the return of the husband and daughter and when they came an undertaker was sent for. He was assisted by two old women, neighbors of the deceased, in laying out of the dead body preparatory to placing it on ice. While the body was being disrobed one of the women suddenly cried, ‘Oh, my God! She’s warm! She’s not dead yet!’

”At this the husband rushed to the corpse, and sure enough it was warm, but the undertaker hastened the body to the ice-box, saying that the body was made warm by being left in bed so long without being undressed. This was received as probable, and the body was put on the ice without further comment. But two old women sent the story all over the neighborhood that the woman was buried alive. This created no little excitement at the time, and a crowd gathered around the house to see the funeral, while the poor husband and son and daughter were nearly distracted with shame. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 16 February 1881: p. 2

I can see how the embalmers might go to war over corpse coolers. Obviously icing cut into their profits. Yet, it seems a bit disingenuous. Though I’ve collected a few anecdotes on the subject, I have not yet investigated in any detail how many of the dead awoke during embalming before it was too late. Dead men tell no tales…

On the bright side, you will be relieved to know that being packed in ice had one important benefit to recommend it:

The morbid dread of being buried alive that is entertained by some nervous people, is entirely groundless. Such a thing is practically impossible, for the simple reason that a person supposed to be a corpse, but not really such, would inevitably be frozen to death in the ice box long before the funeral. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 21 June 1896: p. 25

Other stories of corpses on ice? Check carefully for signs of life before sending to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

See this post, A Stiff Drink for more iced corpse contretemps.

 

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.

A Casket 300 Feet Long

A casket 300 feet long Purple Cross story

A CASKET 300 FEET LONG

The Distressing Truth Revealed Why It Is Not Possible to Properly Bring Back Our Soldier Dead from the Torn Battlefields and how the Undertakers Are Pressing the Scheme for Business Reasons

By Rene Bache.

Any American mother whose soldier boy lost his life in France, or any wife whose husband died in the war “over there,” has a right to demand that the body be brought back and given to her for burial in this country. The Government promised as much, and the War Department will do its best to make the promise good.

But there are difficulties which by most people are not understood at all.

The principal agent of destruction used in the great conflict was high explosives, in shells, in bombs, and in other instruments for killing. It is estimated that 3 percent of the 77,000 American dead were literally blown to pieces. How in such cases could the fragments be collected and identified?

In numerous instances where our fighting men were killed by high explosive shells their fate was shared by French comrades-in-arms. Burying parties picked up such remains as they could find and interred them, marking part of the ground as the grave of an American soldier and another part as the grave of a French soldier. There were many cases where bodies of horses or other animals killed at the same time were buried with the bodies of men.

There are 18,000 Americans who died in hospitals, of wounds or disease, outside the war zone. Eleven thousand of these are to be brought back immediately; the rest will remain, by the expressed wish of their families, where they are.

With those who lost their lives in the war-zone the situation is entirely different. Already they have been buried twice, the first interment being usually by the regimental chaplain, without a coffin—just a covering of the body with earth, to get it out of sight and for sanitation’s sake.

This was always practicable when our troops were advancing. When they retreated, the American dead were often of necessity left unburied. The Germans interred them higgledy-piggledy in trenches dug for the purpose. Indeed, in many instances the Yaks were obliged to bury their own dead in this wretched fashion.

When the fighting lines were long stationary, bodies sometimes lay unburied for weeks before it was possible to reach them without undue risk.

Many small temporary cemeteries were established, in which thousands of uncoffined bodies were laid to rest. The sites chosen were usually on low ground, because in such places the burial parties were relatively safe from shell-fire.  But there came four months of continuous rain, and the cemeteries were flooded. One there was which for a long time was under four feet of water, which washed some of the corpses out of the shallow graves, so that they floated to the surface.

This is distressing, but it is the truth. Everything was done that could be done in the circumstances. A concrete dam was built around this particular cemetery, and attempts were made to get the water out with gasoline pumps.

But the water seeped in beneath the concrete as fast as it could be pumped out; and finally, as a last resort, men equipped with long rubber boots and gas masks were sent in to grub literally for the bodies. It was a dreadful task, but they got them.

The possibilities of mistake in returning to American families the bodies of dead soldier boys are many and dreadful to contemplate. Recently 200 were brought back from Russia, and out of that small number no fewer than twelve were sent to the wrong homes.

After the Spanish war and subsequent fighting in the Philippines, the bodies of many dead American soldiers were brought back to the United States. Several of the coffins were found to contain the corpses of Chinese coolies.

Frequently it happened in France that American soldiers and German soldiers perished together and were buried together. Nothing is more certain than that efforts to fetch our dead boys from the war zone will result In the incidental importation of German remains. One can easily see how many an American mother or widow might thus weep over German bones, or even put flowers on the grave of the very man who slew the mourned son or husband.

For it must be remembered that the bodies shipped to this country from the war zone will be impossible of identification after their arrival.

They will be saturated with disinfectants, and inclosed in metal-lined caskets, hermetically sealed. It will be clearly explained in every instance that they are on no account to be opened.

There are now in the war zone, in France, 52.200 American fighting men, interred in proper cemeteries. Much clamor has arisen for the return of their bodies to the Union States. But the French Ambassador, M. Jusserand, says that it is “an artificially stimulated movement.” Cardinal Gibbons says: “The experiment of exhuming the bodies would be a useless one, to say nothing of the distress and pain caused to relatives.”

The American Legion, at its recent convention in Minneapolis, passed a resolution to the effect that “the bodies of American dead be not returned from France, except in cases where parents or next of kin so desire.”

The “movement” to which Mr. Jusserand refers, however, is to press for the immediate return, at Government expense, of all the American dead now in Europe. It is being very strongly pushed in Congress.

If it be “artificially stimulated,” who is giving it stimulation? The answer is that the real force behind the movement is the self-styled “Purple Cross,” which is another word for the Undertakers’ Trust. They see big money in it for them.

If proof of this be demanded, it is furnished by an editorial printed in The Casket

(September 1, 1919), which is the official organ of the Funeral Directors’ Association. It reads:

“Suppose, Mr. Funeral Director, that some one were to come into your office and tell you that he had a scheme for increasing the number of funerals this year by more than fifty thousand.

“What would you do?

“Most likely you would rush out wildly into the street and shout.

“But. Mr. Funeral Director, with your neatly appointed office and your not-entirely-paid-for motor equipment, this offer is being made to you in all seriousness,

“In alien soil there lie more than 50,000 American men who died in battle or of disease during their tour of duty abroad.

“For nearly every American soldier returned some funeral director will be called  upon to perform the necessary duties of reception and burial.

“Extra business, gentlemen, legitimate, patriotic; kindly, sympathetic, remunerative extra business. No additional number of widows and orphans. Only the final laying away of America’s sons in the bosom of their dear motherland.”

With which whole-souled exordium “The Casket” urges all undertakers to get busy and bring the requisite pressure on Congress to put through the scheme so promising of big profits for them,

The undertakers are pushing propaganda designed to cause uneasiness among people whose boys died in the war and to persuade them to write to their Congressmen and bring other influence to bear.

Listen to the testimony of one bereaved mother, Mrs. Mabel Fonda Gareissen, of No. 619 West One Hundred and Fourteenth street, New York City. She writes:

“I am a Gold Star mother and vitally interested in what is to be done with the bodies of our soldiers who lie in France. Therefore I decided to discover for myself the truth of persistent rumors that the Purple Cross (American Undertakers’ Association) is back of the movement to bring to America the bodies of our heroes.

“I asked Miss Jane O’Ryan, sister of General O’Ryan, to go with me to Mr. Blank, a leading undertaker. We saw there a tall, pale-faced man, with horn-rimmed glasses, who spoke with authority as one of the proprietors or managers.

“‘Yes,’ he said, ‘the dead in France are to be returned. Every pressure is being brought to bear. We have powerful representatives at Washington–not only our own, but Congressmen. We have been after the Congressmen for a long time.’

“‘Are you sending embalmers over?’

“‘No, the dead are in no condition for embalming. We shall use strong disinfectants, place the bodies in hermetically sealed caskets, and they will not be reopened.’

“‘Shall you ship all the caskets from America?’

“‘Yes, we shall use our own caskets, made in America.’

‘”After our dead arrive, can we be certain they are our own?’

“He hesitated and cleared his throat. ‘Well,’ he said, with very evident doubt, ‘we are going to be as careful as possible.”

“As we left he gave each of us a beautiful pink rose. We dropped them on the sidewalk when out of sight.

“Is it possible that the undertakers of this country would profiteer and use to that end the bodies of our American boys, one of whom is my own son?”

An answer to Mrs. Gareissen’s question is furnished by the editorial above quoted from “The Casket.” “Extra business, gentlemen–remunerative extra business.”

Big money in the scheme from beginning to end if it goes through. Fifty thousand caskets to start with! If all the American dead were put in one casket it would require a coffin 300 feet long, about sixty feet high and would cover a block and a half of Fifth avenue and stretch from sidewalk to sidewalk.

There is no article of merchandise on which the profit is larger than on coffins.

Each coffin must be inclosed in a box. It is an ordinary wooden box, costing perhaps $2.50, but the price the undertaker usually asks for it is $50. Then the funerals on arrival at destination, with carriages, incidentals and “service.” Did you over see an undertaker’s bill, and note the way in which it was “built up” out of a variety of items? Only a plumber’s bill can compare with it in this respect.

And then there are the tombstones, to wind up. The tombstone maker usually stand in with the “funeral directors,” and tombstones, like everything else, have gone up in price. The cost of them has doubled and trebled recently. When a monument is in question, you cannot buy the smallest and simplest pattern for less than $500.

H. S. Eckels, Director General of the Purple Cross (No. 1922 Arch street. Philadelphia) offers the following estimate for bringing a soldier’s body from France—a private job:

Average cost of disinterment and transportation to New York $605.00

The above total itemized as follows:

Zinc-lined oak coffin and outside box (cheapest) $115.00

Labor, legal fees, etc $120.00

Own transportation and expense of journey $112.00

Transport from French port to New York $100.00

Transport of body in France $48.00

Personal supervision and service  $50.00

It will be noted that this fetches the body only as far as New York. One may safely surmise that “extras” would double the bill. And, of course, the undertaker would not be making such an expedition for the bringing back of one body. There would be many, and for each one the charges for “personal services” and “own transportation, ” etc., would be duplicated.

Never was there such a chance for ghoulish graft.

Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt’s father and mother asked the War Department to permit his body to remain in France. They felt that the American soldiers who fell there should lie in the soil they died defending.

A great many parents and widows have been led by the Roosevelts’ example to relinquish their desire that the bodies of their soldier sons and husbands be brought back. Already letters to this effect have been received by the War Department from 19,000 families. In two recent weeks 500 such letters came from families who wished to reverse a previous request that their dead be returned.

Congressmen have made excited speeches to the effect that the French were anxious to prevent the removal of our dead, in order that money-spending Americans might come over in flocks. But, as a matter of fact, the French, in relation to all this sad business, have conducted themselves in the most sympathetic way imaginable. Their women, peasant and cultured alike, have tended with loving care the graves of the khaki-clad American dead. They are doing it to-day, esteeming it an honor and a privilege. They plant flowers on the graves, one or more being assigned to each volunteer for the purpose.

It was the voice of France that spoke when Clemenceau said “We look upon the Americans who died in France as sons of France!”

At the close of hostilities, with the ready cooperation of the French, convenient sites for burying grounds were chosen as centers into which the American dead were gathered from the temporary war cemeteries. There they now rest, awaiting the decision as to their final disposition.

Meanwhile there has been organized in this country an American Field of Honor Association, which, when sentiment on the subject has crystallized, expects to send to France a commission for the purpose of choosing a site for a great central soldiers’ cemetery. It is thought that France will give the site. There will be erected a magnificent memorial—possibly a duplicate of the Washington Monument. Also there  is in contemplation a memorial hall, to be there located, with a room for each State of the Union, on the walls of which will be placed bronze tablets bearing the names of the gallant dead.

According to present plans, the cemetery is to be made as much unlike a typical burying ground as possible. There will be no dismal rows of tombstones, but groupings of graves about rocks and under trees. And always will be maintained there a guard of honor, composed of honor men of the army, who, with fine quarters and extra pay, will service for one year, being thus rewarded for distinguished and meritorious services.

The great memorial cemetery will enjoy the special and extraordinary right of intra-territoriality. In other words, though in France, it will be a part of the United States—as much so as the Island of Manhattan. And above its sacred precincts will forever float the sheltering folds of the Stars and Stripes.

France has pledged herself to care for the American dead. In the belief of the Field of Honor Association, it is a mistaken scheme to attempt to disinter the bodies in the war zones, to haul them hundreds of miles to a seaport, to load them on ships, to bring them to this country and to forward them by railroad and truck to all parts of the United States.

It would take years to complete the job. During that time homes that have endured the first pangs of sorrow and have become in a measure reconciled would be plunged into renewed grief.

“Extra business, gentlemen! This is a matter of dollars.” So says their official organ, “The Casket.”

The Oregon Daily Journal [Portland OR] 15 February 1920: p. 61

Funeral Men In Denial.

Elmwood, Ill. –To the Editor:

The article written by Rene Bache which appeared in The Register Feb. 8, in which the statement is made that the undertakers are urging for the return of the dead American soldier boys from France, because it will help business, does a gross injustice to the legitimate members of our profession.

We desire to correct the article in two instances. First, The Casket, quoted in the article, which is edited by William Mill Butler of New York City, is not the official organ of the National Funeral Directors’ association.

Second, the National Funeral Directors’ association is not in any way connected with the American Purple Cross association, neither does it approve of the aims and objects of said Purple Cross association, as evidenced by the fact that at our last annual convention in Atlantic City, N.J. Sept. 10, 11 and 12, the National Funeral Directors’ association emphatically refused to affiliate in any way or to approve of the methods of the American Purple Cross association, whose request for such action was at that time presented to our association.

We believe the publication of this communication will in a measure explain to the people that the legitimate undertakers, of which the National Funeral Directors’ Association of the United States is composed, are not in any way connected with the American Purple Cross association.

H.M. Kilpatrick, Secretary.

The Des Moines [IA] Register 17 February 1920: p. 8

REMOVAL OF SOLDIERS DEAD FROM FRANCE

Mr. THOMAS. Mr. President, I have no doubt that every Senator has received a communication from Mabel Fonda Gareissen, of New York City, bearing date the 1st of January, relating to the desire, very naturally entertained by relatives of those sacrificed during the recent war and whose bodies are reposing in French soil, to have them transported to America for permanent interment. That is a sentiment with which every man must deeply sympathize and in his official action as well as his personal conduct accede to as far as possible. If, consistently with the policy of the French Government and its ultimate consent, the bodies of those whose relatives desire their transportation across the ocean can be brought back, it should be done. But the situation seems to have developed a commercial enterprise known to the world as The Purple Cross, said by this lady to include the American Undertakers’ Association, whose purpose, seemingly, is to commercialize the grief and affliction of parents and widows and children of those who have offered up their lives for their country across the sea.

I do not, Mr. President, indorse this recital or affirm that it is true, but it is in line with a number of circumstances that have developed since the close of the war, indicating that The Purple Cross is an organization designed to profit from this Sentiment and secure appropriate legislation to enable them to effectuate their purpose. However that may be, the public is entitled to know what the views of this lady upon the subject may be, particularly as she assumes to give an interview that occurred between a representative of The Purple Cross and a lady speaking in behalf of what is called a “gold-star mother.” If The Purple Cross is not the sort of organization that is here disclosed, then it is as much concerned in having the truth known as the country can be. If, on the other hand, it is true, then certainly it should be known and the facts considered in any legislation that we may undertake regarding this very important subject. I ask unanimous consent, therefore, for the insertion of this letter in the RECORD.

Mr. LODGE. Mr. President

Mr. THOMAS. I yield.

Mr. LODGE. If the Senator from Colorado will permit me, I merely wish to say that I have received a letter similar to that just presented by him. I believe it to be written in good faith, and I think the subject ought to be referred to some appropriate committee to inquire into it. If there is any truth in the statement, it is a scandal.

Mr. THOMAS. I think the Senator’s suggestion is a very pertinent one, and instead of merely asking that the letter be inserted in the RECORD–

 

Mr. LODGE. I think the letter had better be inserted in the RECORD.

Mr. THOMAS. I will supplement that request, and I ask that the letter be also referred to the Committee on Military Affairs, with a request that the committee investigate the subject and make report to the Senate.

Mr. LODGE. That is the committee to which it should be referred.

Mr. WARREN. Perhaps the Senator from Colorado will remember that legislation in reference to this matter has been heretofore considered, and that even at the commencement of the war, before there was any use for such a service, mothers of soldiers came before the Military Committee in regard to the matter. It seemed then, with the slight information which we had upon the subject—and we were not impressed that it was then necessary to go further—that there was a sort of trust that proposed to take over the entire situation.

Mr. THOMAS. The Purple Cross?

Mr. WARREN. Yes; The Purple Cross.

Mr. THOMAS. Yes; I think its adjective description might well be amended. There being no objection, the letter was referred to the Committee on Military Affairs and ordered to be printed in the RECORD, as follows:

JANUARY 1, 1920–8 P. M.

MY DEAR SENATOR: I am a gold-star mother and vitally interested in what is to be done with the bodies of our soldiers who lie in France. Therefore I decided to discover for myself the truth of the persistent rumors that “The Purple Cross” (American Undertakers’ Association) is back of the movement to bring to America the bodies of our heroes. After some thought, I asked Miss Jane O’Ryan, sister of Gen. O’Ryan, if she would go with me to Campbell’s, 1970 Broadway, New York City—the leading undertaker of America. She consented, and at about 5.1.5 p. m., January 1, we entered, Miss O’Ryan preceding me.

A man Came forward to meet us. The following is the gist of the conversation that ensued :

“Miss O’RYAN. My friend is a gold-star mother, and I hope you can tell us something definite concerning the return from France of our dead soldiers. “

MAN (politely, but with hesitation). I don’t know. I can’t say, but I’ll see. Won’t you be seated : ”

Very soon a tall, pale-faced, youngish man with a kindly expression entered. He wore horn-rimmed glasses and a well-made cutaway suit. He spoke with authority, as one of the proprietors or managers.

Miss O’Ryan repeated the statement she made upon entering.

After observing us closely, the man said :

“MAN. Yes; the dead in France are to be returned.  We are now working in England.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. Are all the bodies to be brought over from England? “MAN. Yes; and from Italy; from all the countries but France.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. But when will you begin in France?

“MAN. It’s a little hard to say, for the French Government has not yet given permission.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. But the papers have announced that France had given permission.

“MAN. It’s a mistake. We have definite news from Washington. France is, as you know, in a terrible condition since the war. Think of the ruined cities, and labor is hard to get. We were even willing to supply the labor, but without result. If we asked to have our dead returned now, England and the other countries would also.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. But when do you think you can get France’s permission?

“MAN. Her own people have to be thought of first, naturally, and the transportation is very difficult. You can see France’s viewpoint. Everything can’t be done at once. But I think we can begin by Spring.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. Spring is a long time. Are you doing everything in your power to hasten this?

“MAN. Every pressure is being brought to bear.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. What, for instance?

“MAN. We have powerful representatives at Washington.

“Mrs. GAREIssEN. Do you mean your own representatives?

“MAN. Yes; and not only our own but Congressmen.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. That is interesting. Have you been trying to persuade Congressmen for any length of time?

“MAN. Indeed we have. We have been after them from the very beginning. Every pressure has been brought to bear.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. Are you sending embalmers over?

“MAN. No; the dead are in no condition for embalming. We will use strong disinfectants, place the bodies in hermetically sealed caskets, and they will not be reopened.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. Where will you get these caskets?

“MAN. We will take them to France from America.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. You mean you will ship all these caskets from America : “MAN. Yes; we will use our own caskets, made in America.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. How much is it going to cost to do all this?

“MAN. It isn’t going to cost you people anything. The Government is going to pay us.”

A repetition of the question as to what the cost would be brought no response.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. After our dead arrive, can we be certain they are our own?”

The man hesitated and cleared his throat, “Well,” he said (with very evident doubt as to the result), “we are going to be as careful as possible.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. You are very honest.

“MAN. I mean to be honest.”

As we left he gave us each a beautiful pink rose and bade me stop in from time to time and he would keep me posted. We dropped the roses on the sidewalk when out of sight.

I send you this as a gold-star mother who protests against such activities as are described above.

Is it possible that the undertakers of this country would profiteer and use to that end the bodies of our American boys, one of whom is my own son?

I appeal to you for an answer.

Respect fully, MABEL FONDA GAREISSEN

Congressional Record – Senate 13 January 1920: pp. 1471-2

Dead Man Standing

Dead Man Standing. Le Transi de Rene de Chalon
Dead Man Standing. Le Transi de Rene de Chalon

While I am a huge fan of Le Transi de René de Chalon, at the Church of St. Étienne, Bar-Leduc, France, seen above, the sad reality is that a corpse is a limp pile of meat. “Dead weight” is no mere expression. The dead cannot stand by themselves.

Naturally there are a few exceptions such as persons struck by lightning or electrocuted and the mummified, frozen, or heavily embalmed (see below). Rigor might occasionally occur in a way to temporarily allow a corpse to remain freakishly upright. But there are many vintage anecdotes about Resurrection men baffling the law by smuggling corpses sitting upright in a carriage—the corpse of Baroness Marie Vetsera was said to have been removed from Mayerling in this manner–or inconveniently dead men being “walked” as if they were drunk as in this story:

 

GRIM RUSE TO REMOVE A DEAD BODY.

The New York police are investigating a ghastly incident, which is alleged to have occurred in connection with the death of Mr Goodale, of Watertown, New York State, a well-known millionaire. While visiting New- York last month Mr Goodale died suddenly in an apartment in Forty-seventh Street, where he was dining with a friend and two women. The landlady refused to allow the undertaker’s hearse to take away the body, asserting that it would injure the reputation of the house. Mr Goodale’ s physician and. the coroner were summoned, and the latter, it is said, agreed to keep the matter secret to prevent a possible scandal. Mr Goodale’s companion is said to have then sent for another friend, and late at night the two men, arm-in-arm with the corpse, walked to the nearest cab-stand. During their grim journey they pretended that the dead man was only intoxicated. They staggered about the pavement and addressed jocular remarks to the corpse. Although the streets were crowded with people coming from the theatres, the deception was never noticed, When the cab was reached, the body was placed in it and conveyed to the undertaker’s, a generous gift sealing the driver’s lips. Star 6 April 1905: p. 2

Fair enough. But even with exceptions, it is nearly impossible to get the dead to stand on their own two feet without considerable assistance from the living. Which brings me to a point of considerable annoyance.

Recently this article on post-mortem photographs was published by the BBC. Now, rightly or not, I still have this nostalgic vision of the BBC as home of quality journalism, received pronunciation, and gravitas. But the BBC should be ashamed of itself for printing a piece that looks like it had been researched on Buzzfeed or its ilk. The article claims as post-mortems photographs of persons who are patently not dead, states that an obvious pre-mortem of a dying woman has had its eyes painted open, does not cite sources except a single mention of an Australian library, and, most damningly, repeats a canard that has been refuted again and again, about the dead being propped in a standing position for a post-mortem photo. [This site covers the question so well, I’m not sure why I’m bothering…] But indulge me while I rail against this beloved Victorian mortuary falsehood,  with little hope that it will make the slightest difference to those who Believe.

I will warn those of you with sensitive stomachs or advanced degrees, that I am all about the primary source.

Here’s the gist: Somewhere the fanciful idea got started that some dead Victorians were photographed in a standing position, supported by metal propper-uppers. If you can see the base of a metal stand behind a Victorian photographic subject, it means the subject is really and truly dead.

This is patently absurd and there are many sites out there that will patiently explain why it is absurd. Here’s one of the best. As that site points out, the metal stands pictured were headrests to keep the head of a subject still for a long photographic exposure—lightweight articles that could not physically support the dead-weight of a corpse. But, of course, the notion of the standing dead is a fun fact that many people just love and Ebay sellers, who may be ignorant or exploitive, repeat the old lie in listing after listing of “post-mortems,” no matter how blatantly lively the actual subject.

Would actual contemporary sources help to dispel this fantasy?

Looking at nineteenth-century medical/forensic texts, we see much excitement that post-mortem photographs will aid in identifying the unknown dead. Those commercial photographers who specialized in “securing the shadow ere the substance fade,” generally wanted to show a corpse in repose; “not dead, but sleeping.” The recumbent position, in coffin or on a chaise longue, was essential to the illusion.

Forensic photographers had no such illusions. It was obvious that a) dead people can look remarkably dead and b) a positive ID was much more likely if the person was posed like a living person.

One of the most famous pioneers in post-mortem photography for the identification of the unknown dead was Dr. Nicolas Minovici, who used a variety of special techniques to bring les inconnues back to life.

 

Photographing the Dead for Identification.

The London Lancet states that the coroner has on two recent occasions commented on the unsatisfactory character of the photographs of the unidentified dead taken by the police authorities. It adds that Doctor Miniovichi [Minovichi] has contributed a valuable report on this subject from his experience as director of a Medicolegal Institute of Bucharest. He describes his method in the Archives d’Anthropologic Criminelle. He substitutes artificial eyes and gives a natural appearance to the lids by means of lead foil or by pinning them to the eyeball with small pins. The jaws are drawn together with threads, and the face drawn to a natural expression by means of pins, evacuating accumulations of gas by means of incisions in the scalp or mouth. He gives photographs of the various steps in photographing the dead and states that he was able in one case to fully establish the identity by means of the photograph, the body having been in the water for six weeks. Physician and Surgeon: A Professional Medical Journal, Volume 28, 1906

You can read about Dr. Minovici’s artifices and see before and after photographs of some shockingly decayed and disfigured corpses in the Archives. It is not for the faint-of-heart, but our weeper-trimmed hats must be off to Dr. Minovici—he worked astonishing transformations on bodies that seemed beyond humanity.

Minovici describes and illustrates the chairs and supports he used to photograph corpses. Here, for example is a corpse in a special posing chair.photographing cadavers 2

photographing chair

The table [fig. 5] was also used—it tipped over; the body was fastened at neck and crotch; then the table was set upright.

Here is another table to hold the body upright, used in the morgue at Geneva:

This table and its accompanying text really ought to put paid to the notion that a corpse could be stood on its feet for a photograph.

table for photographing cadavers

An illustration of a table/litter used for photographing corpses. It could be laid flat, or adjusted to hold the body upright. The inventor recommended clamping the head of the corpse “otherwise a slow sinking of the body occurs which renders photography very difficult, especially if a long exposure is required….

“The author [Dr. H.T. Gosse] has obtained excellent results with this apparatus, which is cheap and easily put together. He has employed it especially in the identification of unknown bodies deposited in the Morgue at Geneva, and since the introduction of this method the mean of the corpses classified as unknown has fallen from forty to five or six per cent.” The Photogram, Volume 5, 1898

What did commercial photographers have to say about their post-mortem subjects’ poses? Looking at interviews with photographers who did such work, we find statements like “The photographer lifted the little corpse out of the coffin and stood it up in a chair. The nurse held it in position and a flashlight picture was made.” And when a photographer was called to take a photo of a dead coachman whose widow insisted he be photographed on the box: “So we carried him out to the stable, tied him on the box in full livery, with the lines and whip in his hands, and photographed him.” The Topeka [KS] Daily Capital 18 July 1885: p. 3

This particular artist also mentions that he has taken photographs of persons in coffins and on beds, while children were placed in parents’ arms or set up in chairs. But there is no mention of standing poses for the dead or of using a headrest to support them, as, indeed, there is no mention in any of the photographic journals or photographers’ accounts I’ve seen.

Rube Burrow, notorious train-robber, post-mortem
Rube Burrow, notorious train-robber, post-mortem

 

A popular sub-genre in post-mortem photography was images of the corpses of notables or outlaws photographed out of doors, usually in a coffin set on its end. The corpse of Manuel Morales, who threw a bomb at King Alfonso of Spain and his wife, and shot himself while trying to escape, was photographed “in a standing position, the body held up by two men.” British Journal of Photography, Vol. 53, 1906

I’ve run across two references to photographing the standing dead, one this frozen body:

An Irish family, living in the southern part of the city, called on me about two years ago to take a picture of their dead son—a young man—with his high hat on. It was necessary to take the stiffened corpse out of the ice-box and prop him up against the wall. The effect was ghastly, but the family were delighted, and thought the hat lent a life-like effect. Photographic Times and American Photographer, Volume 12, J. Traill Taylor, Editor, 1882 [The “ice-box,” as I’ve written about in these pages, was meant to freeze the corpse solid.]

A western “tent photographer” noted a cultural difference:

I was tenting in an Arizona town and quite a number of Mexican children died. These people are quite fond of pictures, and seem to like corpse ones if they have none taken in life. Most of them in the town I was in preferred having them standing, so I ordered them to place the corpse against the back of a chair and tie it thus outside of their doby house in the sun; and I will say that a standing corpse picture looks much better than one lying down. “Nine Years a Tent Photographer,” E.A. Bonine, Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin, 1898.

There are also photographs of show mummies, like Elmer McCurdy or “John Wilkes Booth,” embalmed with tissue-stiffening potions, such as this one:

 

MODERN EMBALMING

“How do you embalm now; what chemicals are used?” “Oh, there are a number of processes. Dr. Chaussier had the body thoroughly emptied and washed in water and kept it saturated in corrosive sublimate. The salt gradually combines with the flesh, gives it firmness and prevents decay, and in process of time the flesh becomes as hard as wood. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 3 August 1885: p. 8

An Ohio undertaker named Pearce kept an embalmed corpse as a specimen of his work:

The “subject” has now done service for a period of three years and the proprietor confidently expects that it will last as long as he remains in business.

The body in question has been in the very warmest workroom of his establishment all this while and the leatherlike flesh of the corpse is totally free from odor or putrefaction…Formaldehyde, a product of wood alcohol and a comparatively recent product, is the fluid ..used for the desiccation of the body in question. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 17 October 1897: p. 19

An Atlanta doctor went the leathery corpse preparers one better:

 

SECRET

Taken From Nature

Atlanta Doctor Discovers a Certain Method

Of Transmuting Human Bodies Into Stone.

Placed in a Case That is Made Air-Tight

And Treated With Chemicals, the Principal one Being Silicon Dioxide in a Liquid Form

Atlanta, Ga., July 18. A process of preserving human bodies, known to the ancient Egyptians, lost, sought for in vain by chemists and alchemists for more than 2,000 years, has been discovered by Dr. Arnold Rosett, of Atlanta.

Unlike the method practice by the priests who laid the Pharaohs in their sculptured sarcophagi, the process of Dr. Rosett is not one of mummification, but turns human flesh into heavy white stone… Dr. Rosett can change, and has changed in his laboratory, human bodies and parts of human bodies into glistening silicon in from four to six months. The length of time varies with the condition for the subject at the time of death, the character of the drugs given in the last illness having much to do with determining the length of time necessary for the chemicals used to work upon the flesh. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 19 July 1903: p. 9

Perhaps it was stories of petrified corpses or articles on embalming that suggested that a body could be stiffened enough to stand with only the negligible support of a headrest. But it is obvious from accounts by forensic post-mortem photographers, doing work where a standing portrait was most desirable, that an apparatus more substantial than a simple headrest was necessary to put the dead back on their feet.

And yet…. There is this poignant woodcut, taken from a photograph which accompanies a report on the autopsy of a toddler with Pott’s Disease.

child corpse suspended from head rest

After death, a photograph, from which the accompanying woodcut was obtained, was taken by Mr. Mason, of Bellevue Hospital, by simply suspending her in a head rest. Transactions of the International Medical Congress, Seventh Session, 1881

Theories as to why, in the face of so little evidence, the myth of the standing corpse persists? Or proof (Buzzfeed doesn’t count) that it isn’t a myth. chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.

This conclusive, meticulously-researched article on several Victorian post-mortem photography myths was just sent to me by the author, Edward Clint. Do read and share it!

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.

For Earth Day: Wicker Man: Victorian Basket-work Coffins

 Wicker Man: Victorian Basket-work Coffins Wicker coffin for green burial
Wicker Man: Victorian Basket-work Coffins A modern wicker coffin in Victorian style from a company in Australia: http://www.handwovencaskets.com.au

 Willow coffins are now the rage in England. They are more comfortable in hot weather, it is claimed. Dallas [TX] Weekly Herald 10 July 1875: p. 2

“Bury me,” said a ruddy and strong man, with whom I was discussing the subject of wicker coffins, — “when I am dead, bury me in an earth-to-earth wicker coffin, so that I may get out again into God’s pure air just as soon as possible.” England as Seen by an American Banker: Notes of a Pedestrian Tour, Claudius Buchanan Patten, 1885

In the summer of 1875 some residents of London received a novel invitation reading:

THE DUKE OF SUTHERLAND

Requests the honor of the company of

__________

At Stafford House,

On Thursday, the 17th, and Saturday, the 19th of June, to see a collection of models of basket and other perishable coffins constructed on the principles advocated by Mr. Seymour Haden.

Garden entrance. Four to six o’clock

A strange summer garden-party—with perishable coffins?–and to what end?  Why, to solve the problem of London’s graveyards bulging with bones, stenches, and partially decomposed corpses, of course. This is not an issue we think of today, but for urban Victorians, it was a real concern.

The author of the following piece paints a hideous picture of the horrors of conventional burials:

The objection against vaults and hermetically sealed coffins are great; if their purpose is to prevent dissolution of the compages of the flesh, they do not accomplish it, and the horrible scenes witnessed when old vaults are opened—where water has come through or the bodies are found in a loathsome deliquescence in which they float—are infamous if they can be prevented, as they can be by the use of the wicker coffin. Daily Graphic [New York, NY] 31 July 1875: p. 2

Wicker/perishable coffins also had the advantage of being cheaper than “the extortions of the undertakers” and “it affords of the body being restored quietly and lovingly to mother earth, and to head off the cremation fever now attacking many Britons.” Cleveland [OH] Leader 19 July 1875: p. 4.

But back to that invitation issued by the Duke of Sutherland.

THE COFFIN RECEPTION

After a description of American window displays of funerary necessities, the author writes…

 While all this may seem incongruous, and while less of ‘commercial’ obtrusiveness about the necessary work of funerals might be less offensive to good taste, even the American undertaker does draw the line somewhere. We never heard, for example, of his imitating the milliners and dressmakers by holding a mortuary “opening” or giving a coffin reception.

The last-named bit of enterprise was reserved for the ingenious Duke of Sutherland. That alert nobleman discovered a reformatory speciality to which his attention had never before been turned, and he proceeded at once to make the most of it. After cremation, as a method of getting the remains of human beings out of the way expeditiously and thoroughly, had been discussed, and after a vast majority of the British public had come to the conclusion that they did not care to burn themselves or their friends, Mr. Seymour Haden proposed a compromise with convention. The idea of destroying a body before the very eyes of the mourners was, he admitted, not altogether pleasing, but he, he argued, there could be no reasonable objection to permitting the remains to assimilate with their mother earth as rapidly as possible after they should be hidden from sight. Such a disposition, he contended, was preferable to cremation, because, while the latter process would leave nothing but a few worthless ashes, the other would give to the soil much which would enrich it and make it fruitful. To Mr. Haden, thus contemplating the bodies of himself and his kindred and the great army of the coming dead as fertilizers, nothing seemed lacking but a method of interment which would the most facilitate decomposition, or which would obstruct it the least… Like many reformers, Mr. Haden has to pull down as well as build up. He is obliged to overcome the preservative prejudices of the people before he can persuade them to inter their friends in such a way as to promote dissolution. He is convinced himself that the most important appliance of a fertilizing funeral is a basket. He is willing to be buried in one, but to induce other persons to follow his example is a difficult matter…. If he could succeed in introducing his death-basket into “high life,” he reasoned, he would be enriched, and so in time would be the soil of England. He approached the Duke of Sutherland, who just then happened to have no other extravagant undertaking on his hands, and who readily fell in with the scheme. Invitations “to see a collection of models of basket and other perishable coffins” at Stafford House were issued, and a large company was assembled accordingly.

The affair was grotesque enough. In place of what at other times would have been a program of the concert or a bill of the play, guests were furnished with a printed description of the coffins, their purpose, merits and defects. There was ghastly humor in the statement, especially in the fourth direction:

“Accompanying each of them [the coffins] should be a narrow leaden band or ribbon pierced with name and date of death, to be passed round the chest and lower limbs, and through the sides and over the top of the basket: 1. For retaining the body in its position; 2. For the subsequent identification of the bones; 3. For sealing the coffin, as a guaranty that the contents have not been disturbed.”

One model was of “a nest of coffins as they will be kept in stock, from the smallest to the largest.” There were “forms of coffins for ordinary use,” with the legend, “The best are very inexpensive.”… Considering the basket coffin seriously, if it was meant to be seriously considered, the most forcible argument for it which we have seen is that it will cheapen funerals. But we are by no means sure that it would do so; the undertakers probably would contrive to make even a willow-ware burial costly. And even if it would do so, cheapness is not the only thing to be considered in living and dying. It must occur even to Mr. Haden, meditating upon his fertilizing scheme, that if the economical disposition of bodies, quick or dead, is of prime importance, it would be cheapest to die young, and cheaper still not to be born at all. Evening Post [New York] 17 July 1875: p. 2

Another eye-witness took a gallows-humor approach. (The proposal to “make a funeral very much like a festival,” has been my complaint as a church organist witness of many “celebrations of life.”)

 A cold chill ran down my back. A garden party at Stafford House, at which the entertainment was to consist of coffins and “perishable coffins” at that! There is something ghastly, uncomfortable and incongruous in this. One may joke and try to be gay when surrounded with these memorials of death, but the jokes will be far-fetched and the gayety unnatural. Mr. Haden has elaborated a completely new programme for all the arrangements connected with deaths and burials, and proposes to make a funeral very much like a festival. Everything is to be light, cheerful, and pleasant; the undertaker’s people are not to enter the house; the ladies of the family are to wrap the corpse in a light shroud, lay it in a pretty basket of open willow work, lined with fragrant moss and lichens; and, when all is ready the men of the household are to carry the body away and bury it. This was certainly less shocking than cremation; but still there seemed to be much nonsense about it. Now, however, we were to have a garden party in order to the look at the new coffins—and, perhaps, we might be treated also to a funeral got up for the occasion. Since the Duke of Sutherland had taken the matter in hand there was no reason why he might not send up to one of his Scotch estates and order a gilly or two to be killed and sent down by express train, in order to afford Mr. Haden every facility for a demonstration of the advantages of his new method of burial….

The joke about killing a gilly almost looks like Second Sight. In 1883 the Duke accidentally killed a man, said to be his gamekeeper, during a hunting expedition.

 The day was lovely; the grounds were in all their beauty; the toilets of the ladies were brilliant; the Duke, smoking a cigar, his hands in his pockets and a white hat set jauntily over one side of his head, moved from group to group, laughing and jesting. But for all this the company were not gay. The coffins saddened them, although there was nothing in them. On the broad terrace which extends along the front the house the “basket and other portable coffins” were arranged in rows. There were dozens of them, from the tiny ones intended for infants up to the full size ones large enough for the Duke himself. Some were made of nothing but willows, open on all sides like a basket; others had the sides and bottoms filled in with green moss; others, intended for the bodies of those who had died of contagious disease were double, a layer of powdered charcoal being placed between the outer and inner baskets. …

The people crowded around the coffins, examined them with interest, not unmixed with anxiety, listened to Mr. Haden’s explanations, shuddered in spite of themselves as he insisted upon the fact that a body thus interred would be all “absorbed in a month,” tried to make remarks expressive of their pleasure at such a prospect, and then strolled off into the grounds. I saw more than one lady grow pale as she looked at the little coffins for children. For all that, the coffins lined with soft and fragrant moss were not unpleasant to gaze upon—not unpleasant, that is, for coffins. Augusta [GA] Chronicle 17 July 1875: p. 3

So who were these Wicker Men, the Duke and Mr. Haden?

Sir Francis Seymour Haden (1818-1910) was an English surgeon as well as a noted etcher. He was also an expert on the etchings of the old masters, particularly Rembrandt. He married a half-sister of the artist James Whistler and for a time he and Whistler printed their etchings together in a home workshop. He also testified in the Tichborne Claimant trial and invented a papier-mache coffin.

I have not been able to find out what triggered his life-long near-mania for earth-to-earth burial, although any doctor in London would have realized that the burial grounds were a breeding ground for pestilence.

Other than his interest in burial reform, he seemed to have led a fairly conventional, Royal College of Surgeons/Royal Academician sort of life, (although he had married into the family of the relentlessly unconventional James McNeill Whistler.) The founder of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers, he was revered world-wide for his artwork and was dubbed The Great Master of Etching; The Apostle of the Burin; The Foremost of Living Etchers. He was knighted in 1894.

Dr. Haden was back in the news briefly in the summer of 1896 with his comments on “shallow burial”—one foot under rather than the statutory 4 ½ feet—to encourage rapid decomposition. He came to this conclusion by studying dead animals he buried at various depths on his estate—a proto-Body Farm. I have been unable to discover if he received an earth-to-earth burial. [Source: “Disposing of the Dead” New York Herald-Tribune 3 July 1896: p. 6]

The Duke of Sutherland was Sir George Granville William Sutherland – Leveson-Gower, K. G., Third Duke of Sutherland, 1828-1892. [I will not weary you with his string of other titles.] As you might expect from the greatest landowner in Great Britain, he did as he pleased. He was frequently dubbed “eccentric” and “a queer old fellow” in the press. One of his pranks was to send a wildcat trapped in Sutherlandshire to the first Crystal Palace Cat Show in July 1871. He was intrigued by invention and loved driving locomotives. (It was said that he was the only man in the world who could drive his own engines, fired with coal from his own mines, over his own private railroad tracks, throughout his own extensive properties.) He also invented a fire engine and worked as an amateur firefighter in London.

His personal life was equally unconventional. In November of 1888, his wife, Duchess Anne, gravely ill, saw him off on a voyage to the United States, then died of a cold contracted from the exertion. The Duke caused a scandal by refusing to travel from Florida for her funeral.  Less than four months later, the Ducal widower married his “traveling companion” Mary Caroline Blair. Mrs. Blair’s first husband, Arthur Kindersley Blair, had been an employee of the Duke—some say gamekeeper; others estate Superintendent–whom the Duke accidentally shot and killed in 1883 (the date and the circumstances are also murky).  The married Duke became fascinated by the lady, who was described as 6-feet tall and “raw-boned,” causing a rift with Duchess Anne. “He was best known on account of his immoralities, which he took no pains to conceal.” [Elkhart [IN] Daily Review 28 September 1892: p. 4 ]

The Duke made several visits to the United States where he met Thomas Edison while viewing electric lights Edison had installed for a New York client. In the course of their conversations, the inventor mentioned the excellent tarpon fishing at Ft Meyers. Intrigued, the Duke visited Edison at Seminole Lodge and then built himself a home near St Petersburg at Tarpon Springs where he lived with Mrs. Blair.

At his death in 1892 the Duke left his vast fortune to his second wife who was found guilty of contempt of court for destroying documents related to the estate and served six weeks in Holloway Jail. The Duke’s children by Duchess Anne contested the will and paid the lady off handsomely. She later married her legal advisor.

Other than the Duke’s interest in innovation and invention, I am not sure why he decided to patronize Mr. Haden’s wicker coffins. I also do not know if the Duke was buried in a wicker coffin, but I have seen a note that his coffin was put into the ground rather than the family vault, at his request.

Despite his letters to the Times, Mr. Haden’s wicker coffins proved only a summer sensation. Although at the time of the “Coffin Reception,” his name was on everyone’s lips, after 1875 Dr. Haden’s press notices focus solely on his art, lectures, exhibitions, and art criticism. Neither man’s obituary notice mentions death-baskets or earth-to-earth burial.

Wicker coffins never really caught on over in the States except as temporary/transport coffins. They were unusual enough that they were mentioned as a curiosity in death notices. You sometimes see such coffins for sale, possibly because undertakers found that they were not popular with the public.

There is nothing new under the sun, of course. Seymour Haden and the Duke were early proponents–138 years too early—of what today we call the green-burial or eco-funeral movements.

A friend sent me a recent article about “free trade” basketwork coffins being made by cooperatives in Bangladesh.  You can see a pretty example here.

Bury me beneath the willow
Under the weeping willow tree
Where she will know where I’m sleeping
And perhaps she’ll weep for me.

“Bury Me Beneath the Willow”

-Trad. Folk song-

 

Thanks to Michael Robinson for the free-trade basketwork article, which inspired this post.

Further Reading:

Cremation: a Pamphlet, Seymour Haden (London, 1875)

The Disposal of the Dead, a Plea for Legislation, Seymour Haden (London, 1888).

Earth to earth: a plea for a change of system in our burial of the dead, Seymour Haden (London, 1875)

Cremation: an Incentive to Crime, Seymour Haden (London, 1892)

The Corpse in the Garden: Burial, Health and the Environment in Nineteenth-Century London by Peter Thorsheim is an excellent article giving much of the background about issues that inspired burial reformers like Dr. Haden: questions of sanitation, earth-to-earth burials, cremation, and the transformation of some of London’s cemeteries into public parks.

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. See also her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead. 

Baron de Palm’s Ashes: 1877

Baron de Palm crematory
The LeMoyne Crematory, Washington, Pennsylvania, site of the cremation of Baron de Palm. https://sites.google.com/site/bassettownparanormal/paranormal-investigations/lemoyne-crematory

A New Idea in Cremation.

[From the New York World, January 22.]

A report to the effect that Colonel H. S. Olcott carried the remains of the late Baron de Palm in his snuff-box which he kept in his vest-pocket having gained general credence, a World reporter called on him yesterday to see whether or not the report were true.

“Not wholly,” said Colonel Olcott.

“Not wholly?” repeated the reporter inquiringly.

“That is, not all of them,” said the Colonel.

“Have you it with you?” asked the reporter.

“Ah,” said the accomplished President of the Theosophical Society. “Fear not. There is no danger. No ghost could be developed from so small a quantity of ashes. Perhaps a finger, an ear or a nose that is all. Such a ghost would be a promiscuous one. A finger here, a foot there, a nose in this place and a leg in that. Look!”

Here Colonel Olcott produced from his vest-pocket a silver snuff-box of fine workmanship, and, placing it upon the table before him, stood up and repeated a macaronic prayer, partly in Choctaw, partly in Hebrew and party in Egyptian. Then he began a strange though graceful dance, and low, sweet music seemed to issue from the snuff-box, and presently the lid flew open with a click. The Colonel then resumed his natural condition and sat down.

“Now,” said he, rubbing the ashes tenderly between his fingers, “these are what I call first-class ashes. See how white they are. See how finely pulverized. Did you ever clean your teeth”—

“Certainly,” exclaimed the reporter, somewhat indignantly ; “I always”—

“I beg your pardon,” said Colonel Olcott, “you interrupted me. I was about to ask you if you ever cleaned your teeth with cigar ashes.”

“Occasionally, said the reporter, mollified, “and they work splendidly.”

“Then, sir,” said the Colonel, “think how these would work. Talk of magic! Bah! Why, sir, I could just make my fortune cremating bodies to use for tooth-powder.”

“Tooth in,” said the reporter.

“You joke,” said the Colonel. “You should banish levity in the presence of”—

“New patent tooth-powder,” suggested the reporter.

“From levity to profanity, sir. You must really stop.”

“Agreed. But where are the rest of the ashes?”

“With the exception of a few that Dr. Le Moyne used to polish up a dissecting lance with, they are in possession of the different members of the Theosophical Society.”

“Do the other members keep them as you do?”

“No. Some of them keep them in lockets that hang from their watch chains.”

“Ah,” said the reporter.

The San Francisco [CA] Examiner 5 February 1877: p. 2

Baron de Palm was a member of the Theosophical Society and appointed Col. Henry Steel Olcott his executor, leaving him the bulk of his fortune. The Baron had expressed a wish to be cremated instead of buried. Although he died in May of 1876, his body was preserved until six months later, when he became the first modern cremation in the United States.

The preservation of the Baron’s corpse gave Olcott much trouble. As he remarks in his diary:

The body of the deceased was given in charge of Mr. Buckhorst, the Society’s undertaker, to be lodged in a receiving vault until I could arrange for its cremation. I was obliged to devise a better method of preserving it than the weak process of embalming that had been employed at the Hospital, which proved its inefficacy even within the fortnight. It gave me much anxiety, and no end of enquiry and research was involved, but I solved the difficulty at last by packing the cadaver in desiccated clay impregnated with the carbolic and other vapors of distilled coal tar. Decomposition had actually begun when the antiseptic was applied in the first week of June, but when we examined the corpse in the following December before removal for cremation, it was found completely mummified, all liquids absorbed and all decay arrested. It could have been kept thus, I am convinced for many years, perhaps for a century, and I recommend the process as superior to any other cheap method of embalming that has ever come under my notice.

Old Diary Leaves: The True Story of the Theosophical SocietyHenry Steel Olcott, 1895: p. 158

See also Ashes a la carte, for the ingestion of human ashes as well as the use of ashes for cleaning teeth.

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.