The Bad Boy Arranges a Funeral: 1883

Holl, Frank; ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ (The Village Funeral); Leeds Museums and Galleries; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/i-am-the-resurrection-and-the-life-the-village-funeral-37870

THE BAD BOY.

Peck’s Sun.

“Well, you don’t look very kitteny this morning,” said the grocery man to the bad boy, as he stood up behind the stove to get warm, and looked as though life was not one continued picnic, as heretofore. “What’s the matter with you? Your father has not been tampering with you with his boot, has he?”  

“No, sir,” said the boy, as he brightened up. “Pa and me are good friends now. He has discovered that my heart is in the right place, and that I am going to amount to something, and he has forgiven every foolish thing I ever did to him. and says for me to come to him any time when I want advice or money to do good with. Why, when pa found I had pawned my watch to get money to buy medicine for the old woman, he went and redeemed it, and offered to whip the pawnbroker for charging me too much for the money. Oh, pa is a darling now. He went to the funeral with us.”

“What funeral?” said the groceryman, with a look of surprise. “You crazy? I haven’t heard of any funeral at your house. Don’t come no joke on me.”  

“O, there is no joke about it,” said the boy. “You see, the little apple-girl’s grandmother lost her grip on this earth, soon after she got the medicine and the doctor, and died. I was down there, and it was the solemnist scene I ever witnessed. I looked around, and seen that somebody had got to act, and I braced up and told the girl that I was all wool, a yard wide, and for her to just let me run things. She was going to the poormaster, and have the city bury the old lady, but I couldn’t bear to see that little girl play solitaire as mourner, and ride in an express wagon with the remains and not have any minister, and go to the pauper burying ground where they don’t say grace over the coffin, but two shovelers smoke black pipes and shovel the earth in too quick and talk Bohemian all the time. It did not seem right for a poor little girl that never committed a crime except to be poor and sell wormy apples, to have no style about her grandma’s funeral, so I told her to brace up and wipe her eyes on one of my handkerchiefs and wait for Hennery. Well, sir, I didn’t know as I had so much gall. You have got to be put in a tight place before you know the kind of baled hay there is in you. I rushed out and found a motherly old lady that used to do our washing, and give me bread and butter with brown sugar on it, when I went after the clothes. I knew a woman that would give a bad boy bread and butter with brown sugar on it, and cut the slices thick, had a warm heart, and I got her to go down the alley and stay with the little girl, and be a sort of mother to her for a couple of days. Then I got my bicycle and took it down to the pawnshop and got twenty dollars on it, and with that money in my pocket I felt as though I owned a brewery, and I went to a feller that runs an excursion hearse and told him I wanted a hearse and one good carriage, at two o’clock, and the mourners would be ready. He thought I was fooling, but I showed my roll of bills and that settled him. He would have turned out six horses for me, when he see I had the wealth to put up. I went down and told the little girl how I had arranged things, and she said she wasn’t fixed for no such turnout as that. She hadn’t any clothes, and the toes of one foot were all out of the shoe, and the heel was off the other one, so she walked sort of italic like. I told her not to borrow any trouble, and I would rig her out so she would do credit to a regular avenue funeral, with plumes on the hearse, and I went home and hunted through the closets and got a lot of clothes ma wore years ago, when my little brother died, and a pair of shoes, and a long veil, and everything complete. I was going to jump over the back fence with the bundle when pa got sight of me and called me back. I felt guilty, and didn’t want to explain, and pa opened the bundle, and when he saw the mourning clothes that he had not seen since we buried our little baby, great tears came into pa’s eyes, and he broke down and wept like a child, and it made me weaken some, too. Then pa wanted to know what it all meant, why I was stealing them clothes out the back way, and I told him all, how I had pawned my things to see that little girl through her trouble, and had taken the black clothes, ’cause I thought pa would go back on it, and tell me to let people run their own funerals. I expected pa would thump me, but he said he would go his bottom dollar on me, and, do you know the old daisy went with me to the house, and patted the little girl on the head, and said for her to keep a stiff upper lip, and when the funeral came off, pa and three other old duffers that are pa’s chums, they acted as pall-bearers. I had tried a couple of ministers to get them to go along to say grace, but guess they couldn’t see any money or glory in it, for they turned me away with a soft answer, and I had about closed a contract with a sort of amateur preacher that goes around to country school houses preaching for his board, but pa he kicked on that, and said we should have the best there was, and he sent word to our minister that he had got use for him, and he was on deck, and did his duty just as well as though a millionaire was dead. Well, I rode with the little girl as assistant mourner, and tried to keep her from crying, but when we passed the house of correction, where her father working out a sentence for being drunk and disorderly, she broke down, and I told her I would be her father and mother and grandmother, and the whole family, and she put her hand on mine and said how good l was, and that broke me up and I had to beller. I don’t want to be called good. If people will keep on considering me bad, and let me do what good I want to on the sly, it is all right. But when she put that little hand on  mine, and it was so clean and plump, something went all over me, like when you step on a carpet tack, or hit your funny bone against a gas bracket, and I felt as though I would stay by that girl till she got big enough to wear long dresses. Everything passed off splendid, and as a pauper funeral passed us on the road, the driver smoking a clay pipe, and the coffin jumping around, I couldn’t help noticing the difference, and I was proud that I pawned my bicycle and got up a funeral that nobody need be ashamed of, and when I arranged with the wash woman to take the girl home with her and be her mother till I could make different arrangements, I felt what a great responsibility rested on a family boy, and when I dismissed the hearse and carriage and went home, and pa took me in his arms and said he wouldn’t take a million dollars for me, and that this day’s experience had shown him that I was worth my weight in solid gold, and that he had stopped at the pawn shop and got my watch and bicycle, I never felt so happy in my life. Say, don’t you think there is a heap of solid comfort in doing something kind of unexpected, to make other people happy, or didn’t you ever try it?”

“Of course there is,” said the grocery man, as he passed the boy a glass of cider. “I remember once I gave a poor woman a mackerel, and the look of gratitude she gave me, as she asked me to trust her to a peck of potatoes, kept me awake two nights just thinking how much happiness a man can cause through one rusty mackerel. But she never came back to pay for the potatoes. I suppose you will be marrying that apple-peddler, won’t you?”

“Well, I hadn’t thought of that,’ said the boy, as he looked red in the face, “but if it would make her feel half as contented as it did for me to fix her up for the funeral, and go along with her, I would marry her quicker than scat, when we get big. But I must go and pay the undertaker. He stuck me for two dollars extra on the driver’s wearing a black suit, but I guess I can stand it,”‘ and the boy went out whistling. As he passed out the door without taking any fruit, the grocery man said to a man who was shaving off some plug tobacco to smoke, ‘That boy is going to turn out all right, if he doesn’t have any pull back.”

The Burlington [KS] Patriot 26 October 1883: p. 1

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

Mother Made Baby’s Shroud: 1904

Child’s burial shroud, with corpse cover, sleeves, face mesh and collar. St Fagans Museum

WHITE SHROUD

That Covered Body of Her Baby made From Mother’s Wedding Garment.

Until yesterday Annie Vorwald bore her poverty uncomplainingly. When her husband was ill and unable to work she made the living. Then they were both taken down, and there was slender fare at the poor home on Liston avenue. The worst blow came, however, when their two-year-old baby John was stricken with measles and otitis media and the mother was obliged to take it to the City Hospital.

Yesterday the child died and added to her grief was the harrowing thought that having no money that tender little body would have to be laid away in potter’s field. She knew not where to turn. Those of her friends to whom she could apply were almost as poor as herself. In her heart-breaking dilemma, she came to the hospital. Her tears won sympathy, and she was promised a coffin, and the use of the ambulance as a hearse. The authorities also told her that they would furnish the linen for a shroud, but this Mrs. Vorwald refused.

Among her meager possessions was a white skirt she had worn on her wedding day. None saw her at the task of converting this garment at her lonely home into the shroud for her darling dead. None saw the tears that fell on the trembling hands that made the stitches, but after two hours she returned, and in the dead room of the hospital she clothed the dead body in the shroud she had made. That done, she fainted away. When she was brought to the ambulance was ready.

The dead body, in a rude little casket, was placed in the vehicle. The husband and wife took a seat beside the driver. The journey was made to the German Protestant Cemetery on Price Hill, where the tiny grave had been given them, and without a prayer, but with many sobs and tears from the agonized mother, the little body was consigned to earth.

Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 29 February 1904: p. 10

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 on Twitter @hauntedohiobook. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

The Pleasures of the Grave: 1886

THE PLEASURES OF THE GRAVE.

Some revelations have been made at a recent meeting of the Macclesfield Board of Guardians respecting the lavish expenditure indulged in by poor people on the occasion of their friends’ funerals. It would appear that for a period of about two years the local board of Guardians had been administering relief to an old married couple named John and Elizabeth McManus to the extent of 4s per week. On July 26th the husband died, upon which the widow made preparations for a costly funeral, having in view the sum of £15 which she was  to receive as insurance money consequent upon his death. The smartest hearse and mourning coaches were ordered, the coffin was of the most solid character, and the relatives were all supplied with new mourning attire. In addition to this quantities of beer, wine and spirits were bought. On the very day of McManus’ burial the widow died, having previously ordered that similar preparations for her burial should be made as in the case of her husband. Charlotte McManus, a daughter-in-law, who is likewise a recipient of parish relief to the amount of 5s per week, after John McManus had been interred in the cemetery, set to work to bury her mother-in-law “decently.” She drew the whole £30, and Mr Heathcote, one of the Board’s relieving officers, said she spent £22 of it on the funeral, leaving only a balance of £7 odd. 

The Board of Guardians were highly indignant at this gross extravagance on the part of persons who had been receiving parish relief, and ordered Charlotte M’Manus to produce vouchers of the expenditure. These included, among a hundred other items:—Butter and cream, 2s 9l; two weeks’ charing, 10s; plain, spice, and currant bread, 4s 11d; three dresses, 17s 6d; jacket, 3s 6d; trimmings, 6s 3d; 1lb tea, 2s 4d; bottles of pickles, 1s 6d; 4 lbs lump sugar, 10d; ¼ lb best tobacco, Is; 7lb cheese, 4s 8d; crape, 9s 8d. All this and more was for Mrs M’Manus’ funeral. For John M’Manus there was a spice loaf, Is 6d; two currant loaves, 2s;  2 ½ lb butter 1s 9d; three pairs stockings, 3s 6d; three pairs gloves, 3s 5d; collars, 3d; tie, 6 1/2d; ½-pint sherry, 1s.  July 27th—Liquor, 4s; August 3rd—Liquor, 4s; August 4th—Liquor, 8s; August 5th —Four gallons ale, 6s 8d; cashmere, 12 s; lining, 4s; crape, 5s 4d; jacket, £1 1s; cashmere, 15s 5d; tobacco and pipes, 2s; two pairs women’s kid shoes, 9s 10d; one pair lace shoes, 8s 11d; one pair slippers, 2 6d; boy’s tweed suit, 10s 9d; boy’s black suit, 19s 9d; boy’s hat, 1s 9d. For Mrs McManus, best polished oak coffin, lined with flannel and wadding bed, shroud, and furnishing funeral £2 10s 1d; best hearse and Clarence, £1 15s; driver’s money, 1s 6d; cemetery expenses, 12s 6d; fittings for hearse and coffin; total, £4 19s. The sum of £4 19s was also spent in providing a coffin and hearse for McManus. Refreshments were not forgotten. In the case of John McManus’s funeral, liquor was set down at 23s 8d; bread and butter, 6s 3d; bread and cheese, 5s 3d; and another dubious item, which is vaguely treated under the head of “nourishment,” 5s.

Daily Telegraph.

The Press Supplement [Christchurch NZ] 23 October 1886: p. 1  

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

Six Children in One Grave: 1891

HORRIBLE PRACTICE.

Revolting Charges Against an Undertaker.

SENSATION IN A CHICAGO SUBURB.

The Bodies of Pauper Infants Disposed of by Being Placed in Coffins Containing Corpses Which the Undertaker Had Been Called Upon to Attend to—Six Pauper Children Said to Have Been Buried in One Grave.

Chicago, Nov. 11. Englewood, recently a suburb of Chicago, but now embraced in the city, is greatly wrought up over the revolting charges that are being made against Undertaker Millard F. Rodgers. Citizens whose deceased relatives were buried by the undertaker are apprehensive that the graves of their loved ones have been desecrated, and a number of people have announced their intention of exhuming their friends’’ remains and satisfying themselves that they are not the victims of the repulsive practice of burying pauper infants in the coffins of deceased adults. Three weeks ago the remains of an Englewood man were exhumed shortly after being buried by Undertaker Rodgers and the body of a pauper infant was found between the feet of the corpse. Rogers claimed at the time that he was the victim of a conspiracy inspired by his assistant, C.F. Norman.

Another Revolting Discovery.

Tuesday, however, another case came to light. Disturbed by rumors the friends of the late James P. Tansy, who died eighteen months ago, had him exhumed and the remains of an infant were found under the satin trimmings at the foot of the coffin. The remains of Mr. Tansy were interred Mount Olivet long before Norman went to work for Rodgers, and this fact has convinced most of the friends who believed the undertaker’s tale that there is more in the charges than they supposed. Among the staunchest friends were the Masons and Odd Fellows, of which organizations Rodgers is a member. He proclaimed that they would stand by him, but Tuesday evening it was decided in the Englewood lodges of both orders to make a full investigation and a member of the Masonic fraternity admitted that if the charges were substantiated Rodgers would be expelled.

Six Children in One Grave.

The citizens have thoroughly organised for an investigation of the charges and the attorney for the prosecution stated Tuesday evening that he had satisfied himself that Rogers had buried In one grave at Oakwoods cemetery the bodies of six pauper children. As none of the children had relatives able to stand the expense of exhuming the remains and as there Is nothing In the statutes pronouncing such action criminal the matter will not be pushed further in this direction. But other cases will be pushed. Some time ago the father of Mr. Sylvester, an Eaglewood expressman, died and the remains, after being prepared by Rodgers, were shipped to Wisconsin (or burial. Soon after some alarming rumors were spread, but were not credited, and until the recent charges were made Mr. Sylvester did not trouble himself about them.

Will Make an Investigation.

Lately he commenced an investigation, and the other day induced the man who assisted Rodgers at the time of the burial to make a confession. This man, whose name is Foskett, pretended to know but little, but admitted that on the day the remains were prepared for burial a woman connected with Rodgers’ establishment left the undertaker’s shop with the body of a child in a shawl which she carried. She went to the Sylvester residence and when she left, it is alleged, she failed to bring the infant’s body with her. Mr. Sylvester will at once have his father’s remains exhumed by the Wisconsin relatives. Foskett further admitted that while he was with Rodgers the body of an Infant was placed In the coffin of a woman who lived near the corner of Sixty-first street and Stewart avenue. He declares he cannot remember the name.

A Remunerative Practice.

Still another suspicions case now being investigated is that of the infant child of Officer W. H. Harris of the Englewood Police station. It was remarked that the casket furnished by Rodgers was very large for an Infant’s remains. The coffin will probably be exhumed.

“The practice of burying Infants in adults’ coffins could be made very remunerative to one who did Rodgers’ large business,” said an Englewood physician Wednesday. “The interment fee of $6 is charged in each case, and if the undertaker has but one grave dug Instead of two he can make a pretty penny in the course of a year, especially when he does business for a couple. of foundlings’ homes and orphan asylums.”

Alton [IL] Evening Telegraph 12 November 1891: p. 1

It was a common practice to bury still-born children into the gap at the foot of an adult grave.

IN CIGAR BOXES

Many Little Bodies Find Nameless Graves.

 “We have many people bring us little babes in boxes, ranging in size from a cigar box to a coffin a foot or so long,” said a sexton. “They hardly ever leave instructions, so we just put the boxes at the bottom of some grave we dig for a grown person.” 

Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 31 January 1892: p. 9

The practice of “filling in” a gap at the foot of an adult grave with a child’s coffin, was a source of much pain to bereaved pauper parents. They much preferred that their babies be buried in a plot with other children.

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.

This Baby Had Hard Luck: 1890

hart's island open trench jacob riis
Laborers placing coffins in an open trench at Hart Island, Jacob Riis https://collections.mcny.org

THIS BABY HAD HARD LUCK

From The New-York Evening Sun.

The funeral of Baby Call-Him-Anything-You-Please took place yesterday, and it was not in the least an ostentatious affair. There were no ceremonies worth mentioning. The casket was a raisin-box, and on it was stamped a great purple bunch of grapes and the word “Malaga.” But it was second-hand when it came to Baby What-Do-You-Call-Him, and was banged up and seedy even for an old raisin-box. But that was the way from the beginning with Baby; he never had even the very smallest chance from the time he came into the world until he left it. If ever there was a case of a start in life with no earthly show whatever it was the case of Baby. Yet he was not a bad baby. In the face of circumstances which would have made the general run of babies protest until they were black in the face, this baby never made it a point to yell.

He even smiled as amiably as he could whenever the remotest chance offered. He never knew exactly how he got here, but he was healthy, and from the very limited glimpses he saw of life and the world he was disposed to like them both. He would have taken a pleasant, humorous view of things if he had not been so unmercifully sat down upon. At times he became desperate and squared off at all humankind with his very small red fists clinched, while he expressed his opinion of the way the world used strangers with all the baby bad language at his command. But they gave him a slug of diluted laudanum on those occasion, and that soon settled the matter. It was no use. He couldn’t propitiate anybody by being amiable, and if he kicked he got stuffed with laudanum. Most babies of his age boss an entire household. If they sneeze there is a panic. If they condescend to smile there is a family festival. If they yell, able-bodied men grovel before them and hardened nurses are flustered. They have flannels and fine linen and millinery, and skilled physicians superintend their diet.

But this Baby didn’t have anything. He hadn’t a name. Nobody bothered enough about him to give him so much as a nickname. He hadn’t even a birthplace that was in any way official. There were some hazy rumors about Newburg, but you couldn’t prove it. When he was three weeks old he came to New-York and started in life. He came in an old valise and in response to an advertisement of somebody who wanted babies.

That was the queerest thing that anybody ever heard of—a person who actually wanted babies. The impression this Baby had got was that the one thing that this world didn’t want was babies. The way he had not been wanted amounted to enthusiasm. But here was a preposterous person who yearned for babies, who doted on them—for a reasonable consideration, of course. The thing struck the people who had Baby in charge as the greatest piece of luck they had had in their lives, and they packed Baby up in the valise and started off by the first train to catch this queer person before the authorities found out she was out of her head on babies and locked her up.

That was the way Baby came to new-York and tackled the world at the age of three weeks. But his guardians were not lavish with him. They didn’t believe in pampering a young man with his way to make in the world. When they left him with Mrs. Roggenthine, up in Eldridge-st., his entire personal property consisted of a piece of calico and a bottle of water.

“He eats water,” they told Mrs. Roggenthine, “and his name is—oh, call him what you please.”

They were lively, pleasant people, Mrs. Roggenthine told the newspaper reports, just bubbling over with humor. They laughed all the time they were with her, and Baby’s solemn dark eyes as he looked at them after the handsome send-off they had given him seemed to strike them as very funny. Of course it did look ridiculous to see a young man with only three weeks’ experience in the world and unable to speak the language, come down to tackle the big metropolis with a piece of calico and a recommendation to a water diet—the big metropolis which many strong men have tussled with only to be floored. And then, of course, there was the comic figure Mrs. Roggenthine cut, as a person, who for a consideration wanted babies and would have them around. It certainly was an absurd situation, and the last Mrs. Roggenthine saw of these pleasant, merry people they were laughing heartily over it as they went away.

There were three people in the party—a man, an elderly woman in black, and a fine, dashing young woman in navy blue. Doubtless they went off and had a jolly little dinner and drank success to Baby and his water bottle. It was very funny. Perhaps they laid a few bets with one another as to Baby’s chances, for they left an address to send to “if anything happened.” Something did happen, as a matter of course. Baby made a game fight of it and tried to rise superior to circumstances and live. But he wasn’t fairly treated: there isn’t a doubt about that. Handicapping is all very well, but there ought to be some ghost of a show for winning left. Baby didn’t even have a ghost’s shadow of a show. Mrs. Roggenthine even took off the bar against everything but water in the way of nourishment, and allowed good milk. But it was no use. The weather was so hot, and Baby had had rather a stuffy ride down here in the valise, and he never got himself together again. He stuck it out until last Saturday night, and then, with a very slight sigh, he gave up his short fight with a world which had been dead against him from the start. He might as well have given in at the beginning, when it was such a settled thing that he was to have no show whatever.

The funeral was from the Morgue yesterday, and the burial was quietly performed in the Potter’s Field. There were sixteen other dead people who had played a losing game in the world buried with him, and as there were not enough services to go around, Baby got left again, as usual. But he got into the one place in all the wide world where he was not in the way, when they dropped him in his raisin box in a little corner of the Potter’s Field trench.

Some people are born lucky and some art not. Baby was not. Yet ether are rumors of some respectable people up in virtuous Massachusetts who might properly have taken charge of Baby. It is even said that an elderly man and a pillar in the church, who lives near Pittsfield, might with justice, if not with propriety, have taken a fatherly interest in him. But Baby’s luck was against it. His mistake in ever coming into the world at all. But to be sure, he wasn’t consulted.

New York [NY] Tribune 16 July 1890: p. 5

The Potter’s Field trench would have been on Hart Island, as it is still today. Pauper infants were often buried in whatever container was available.

IN CIGAR BOXES

Many Little Bodies Find Nameless Graves.

            “We have many people bring us little babes in boxes, ranging in size from a cigar box to a coffin a foot or so long,” said a sexton. “They hardly ever leave instructions, so we just put the boxes at the bottom of some grave we dig for a grown person.”

Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 31 January 1892: p. 9

NOTE: The practice of “filling in” a gap at the foot of an adult grave with a child’s coffin, was a source of much pain to bereaved pauper parents. They much preferred that their babies be buried in a plot with other children.

 

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.

She Paid the Bill: 1900

white hearse with ponies

She Paid the Bill.

“No, I haven’t any news of importance for you,” said M. J. Cullen, the undertaker, “but I can tell you a mighty nice little story, the truth of which my books will verify. It is about the noble action of a little girl who came to me about fifteen years ago. She was then about twelve years of age, and despite the fact that her outward appearance suggested parental negligence, she appeared to have a noble and honest heart. It was about seven o’clock of a cold July evening when she walked into my office almost frozen and crying bitterly. She asked to see me, and when I made myself known she stopped crying and told me a very pitiful story, that would soften the heart in the coldest of persons.

She said she lived near my stable; that her father was a drunkard and her mother was dead. She and a little brother seven years of age, of whom she thought the world, were cared for by the neighbours when the father was on a spree, and despite the father’s misconduct the little girl could not be induced to leave him. She kept the house and prepared the meals. She bore her lot philosophically and tried to be happy, but her whole peace of mind was almost wrecked when after about two weeks’ sickness her little brother died. He was her pet, and the two were much attached to one another.

She again burst into tears, and between heavy sobs she said that on account of her father’s evil ways there was no money in the house, and she did not know how her little brother could be buried. She had been told that the city would bury the remains, but when she looked into the manner in which such a burial would be performed—that the coffin would be a plain pine box and that instead of a hearse a waggon would take him to the cemetery she became almost frantic, and would not allow it. She then pleaded with me to bury her brother. She wanted him to have a white coffin, a white hearse, with white horses, and his remains to be taken to the cemetery. Crying bitterly, she said, ‘I will give you my word of honor to pay you as soon as I get the money.’

I was much touched by the story, and went to the home of the child and there learned the truth of her statement. The dead boy was laid on the bed, which was neatly made up by the little girl. I immediately took charge of the funeral, and complied with the every wish of the child; I never expected pay, and, although I thought of the story for some time after, I never expected to see the child again.

Not long since, while seated in my office, a handsome, well-dressed young lady entered, and, addressing me by name, called me aside. She asked me if I remembered her, and I was compelled to acknowledge my ignorance. Imagine my surprise when she told me of a little ragged child of fifteen years ago. ‘I am that little girl,’ she said, ‘and I have come, according to promise, on my word of honor to pay you the bill.’ ‘I looked over the books and found the account, and she paid it. She was married well, and her husband is a prominent and prosperous business man.”

Pauper burials and the interment of the dead in large cities, Frederick Ludwig Hoffman, 1919

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: For the poor, a pauper’s burial in Potter’s Field was as much to be shunned as going to the Workhouse. We have seen how unfortunates beggared themselves providing “decent” funerals for their loved ones and paid sums they could ill-afford into burial clubs, the resulting insurance money covering perhaps only part of the costs of a proper burial.

Here is what Mr. Wild, an undertaker, testifying about conditions in the London slums, says about the disbursement of those funds:

In benefit societies and burial clubs there is generally a certain sum set aside for the burial, which sum is, I consider, frequently most extravagantly expended. This arises from the secretary, or some other officer of the club being an undertaker. When a death takes place the club money is not paid directly: it is usually paid on the club or quarterly night following. The member dying seldom leaves any money beyond the provision in his club to bury him, consequently the widow or nominee makes application to the secretary, who tells her that he cannot give any money to purchase mourning for herself and family until the committee meets; this may be three months after the death; but, says the secretary, “give me the funeral, I will advance you a few pounds upon my own account;” so that the widow is obliged to submit to any charge he may think fit to make. I do not mean to be understood that this is always the case—I am sorry to say it is of frequent occurrence.

Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Classes, Edwin Chadwick, 1843

Decades later, the fleecing of the bereaved poor continued:

The following is typical of what happens almost every day. A father of four children, who was insured for £7 died. The widow informed an undertaker who called at the house that she was unable to make the funeral arrangements until she had received the money. ‘Do not let that trouble you,’ said the man. You can pay when convenient.’

“The widow is still wondering how the cost of the funeral amounted to exactly £7. The secret is that the insurance agent communicated the news of the death and the amount of the policy to the undertaker, at the same time drawing the usual commission for his trouble.

“When the woman returned from the ceremony she had not a penny left in the world, and for long her children have been pinched with the want of food. How long shall these men be allowed to fleece the poor in life and rob them in death?”

Star 28 October 1905: p. 4

The young lady who found a kindly undertaker to trust her for his fees was fortunate indeed!

For other stories of undertakers and mortuary mishaps, Mrs Daffodil is pleased to recommend The Victorian Book of the Dead.  See also this previous post on the funeral arrangements for the son of a poor widow.

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.

 

Hell-wain Spotting:

white hearse Street Railway Review 1891
Child’s trolley hearse, 1891 Mexico

[Originally published 1 November 2016 at HauntedOhiobooks.com]

Dia de los Muertos begins today. I hope you have your ofrendas decorated and have laid in a good supply of sugar skulls and marigolds. Although I’ve previously told ghost stories about dead nuns and sinister ravens and corpse-confessors to celebrate, this year I’d like to visit the fascinating world of Hispanic street-car hearses. They are perhaps, not strictly speaking hell-wains, the common carrier for the souls of the damned, but rather vehicles for Purgatorial passage. (Incidentally, I had thought about calling this post “A Streetcar Named ‘The Crier.’” There was a funeral street car in Baltimore christened “Dolores.”)

While trolley hearses were used in the United States, there did not seem to be as much enthusiasm about the idea as there was in Mexico and South America where they were seen as a modern innovation and a symbol of progressive government policies towards the poor, offering various levels of service and conveying the bodies of paupers to the grave without charge.

Despite the egalitarian public’s fondness for private funeral trains and carriages in the United States, the press seemed fascinated by this “class system” of Mexican funerals.  The trolley funerals were often the subject of “curious customs from our neighbors to the south” articles, complete with the casual racism of the time.  I’ll caution you that there will be a bit of overlap with the articles here because I’m a completist when it comes to documenting mortuary history.

Here we see how the trolley hearses did not start out as a program of government beneficence, but as a capitalist venture.

first class funeral car
First-class funeral car, 1884

FUNERALS ON STREET CARS

When the street-car line was first opened in [the City of] Mexico an enterprising stockholder, Senor Gayosso, bought up all the hearses in the city. He then had funeral cars built for the tracks and procured the sole right to prepare passengers and haul them to their last resting-place. He is to-day one of the wealthiest men in Mexico. The first-class funeral cars for adults are built of fine black wood. A raised part is in the center of the car on which the coffin is placed. A canopy, exquisitely finished, covers the entire car, the sides being artistically draped. From four to eight beautiful black horses, with long, black plumes in their heads, haul this strange car.

The two drivers are dressed in fine black suits, gloves and high silk hats, bound with wide crepe bands. The coffin is placed on the rest prepared for it, and all around and over flowers are placed. Following this comes a train of cars with the friends. The windows are draped with white crepe and the doors with black. A funeral train will average twenty cars and more, if it is a person of wealth who has died. But in the hundreds who follow a body to the grave cannot be found one woman or child.

I have asked the reason why no women ever attend funerals in Mexico. It is against the rules of society. Mr. Gayosso says women are not allowed to go to funerals because they cry too much. However, a wife cannot go to her husband’s funeral, nor can a mother follow her babe to its grave.

There is a similarity in all the funeral cars. Those for children are white, drawn by white horses. Those for the poor are, like other things in this world for the poor, cheap and shabby. The poor Indian can have a funeral-car and two passage tickets for fifty cents by applying to the police. He can even hire a plain, unpainted coffin to carry the dead to the grave. Once there, the body is wrapped in a serape and consigned to a grave which has been rented for from two to five years. At the end of that time the grave is opened and the bleaching bones are cast into a corner kept for that purpose, where they lay bleaching in the hot Southern sun, exposed to the gaze of the public.

Funerals cost from fifty cents to $2,000. One of the prettiest customs in Mexico is the universal respect which greets a passing funeral. Every man, from the millionaire to the poor, half-clad peon, takes off his hat until the sad train is passed. Well-dressed senoras bow their head and silently cross themselves, while the Indian women kneel in prayer. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 21 May 1887: p. 15

Even today “Agencias Funerarias Gayosso” appears to be one of the most prominent funeral directors in Mexico.

cheap funeral car, Mexico Street Railway Review 1891
The cheapest class of funeral car, except for the multi-compartmented one for pauper funerals. 1891

Among the poor, there was a custom of carrying the coffin to the cemetery by hand or on the head.

The Mexicans have a queer way of burying the dead. The corpse is tightly wrapped in century plant matting, and placed in a coffin rented for about twenty-five cents. One or two natives, as the case may be, place the coffin on their heads and go in a trot to the grave, where the body is interred, and the coffin is then returned. The wealthy class use the street cars as hearses, and the friends follow behind the cars on foot. Evening News [San Jose, CA] 23 February 1889: p. 3

elaborate street car hearse mexico city 1923
1923 street car hearse in Mexico City

The funeral trolleys were quite the lucrative business.

FUNERAL SERVICE.

The story of the splendid street car service given the city of Mexico would hardly be complete without giving a short description of the funeral service. There is a special department for this service, which is very much used, and which earns, I am told, about $400 per day. For this service the old horse cars are used to a good advantage. The company controls the funeral service of the city, whether it be by electric car, horse car or carriage, and it is prepared to furnish any kind of service upon short notice given at their office.

With few exceptions the funerals from the city to the cemeteries are conducted by the street railway company, either first-class, second-class or free, the cost varying with the amount of decoration used on the cars. It is not an uncommon sight to see five or six funerals leaving the public square, following one another on the street railway tracks, each with from one to three cars. Some have great quantities of beautiful flowers and ornamentation and others have none.

The funeral car is generally a motor car, but sometimes it is pulled by mules. It is painted and trimmed in black or white. All are single-truck cars, with four square posts supporting the roof at the corners of the car body, forming a parallelogram, say 12 feet long by the usual width of the car. Between the posts on the floor of the car is a raised portion upon which the casket and many of the flowers are placed. The friends of the dead are carried in one, two or three trailers or horse cars. I have seen as many as two trailers filled with floral decorations.

There are also two magnificently furnished and fitted cars called “Carrozas” for extraordinarily fine funerals. These cars cost upward of $10,000 each and have a place in front for the casket, with seats behind for the people. Women never attend funerals in this country. They also have 20 electric and 8 horse “Carrozas,” which are used for first and second class funerals, according as may be required and are decorated to suit for extra expense. The original cost of such a car is $3.75 silver, trailers being paid for at the same rate,

This service saves the people many thousands of dollars annually and at the same time is worthwhile to the railway company.

The free car for funerals when people are unknown or die absolutely destitute is quite another thing; instead of being entirely open it is entirely closed, with doors on one side opening from top to bottom. There are four doors, with three compartments to each (like pigeonholes), there being 12 places in each car. In each one of these places a body is placed, either in a common board coffin or sewed up in a blanket. The latter cars are furnished at the exact cost of running, twice per day. The service is paid for by the government. Electric Railway Review, Volume 19, 14 March 1908: p. 326

The trolleys were even mentioned in the papers and in guidebooks as one of the not-to-be-missed tourist attractions of Mexico City. I was interested to note that the information on trolley-hearses from an 1899 guide to Mexico was copied practically word-for-word by a 1911 travel book—a long run of popularity.

1st class funeral motor body for Brazil trolley hearse
st Class Funeral Motor Body for Guinle & Company of Bahia, Brazil (Photo #2613, Order #15901–Ordered March 16, 1907, Delivered June 15, 1907) This photo depicts an open, ornate funeral car with a platform for a casket at the center of the car, draped in black cloth. The sides of the car have heavy black drapes held open with tiebacks, and there are four black plumes on each corner of the roof.. http://www2.hsp.org/collections/manuscripts/brill/inventory.html

MEXICO’S TROLLEY FUNERALS

Train of Electric Hearses and Mourners’ Cars One of the Sights.

City of Mexico, June 27.

The elaborate funeral processions which, winding gay-colored through the streets, are a feature of most Spanish-American countries, are unknown here. The electric trains are used for all funerals and the procession following the dead to the place of burial is as modern and up to date as it can be. The electric trains of Mexico are well built and run, their direction being in the hands of Americans and Englishmen. One of the main lines runs to the principal cemetery of the city and along this all the funerals go.

The company has a contract with the city under the terms of which a special burial car, containing coffins for twelve bodies, calls daily at the hospitals and public institutions to take the city charges who have died to the city cemetery. Under the contract with the city the trolley company furnishes the hearse and the car crew, and the undertakers are city employes. The funeral car is a plain black car with little ornamentation.

The company has for private use several cars ranging in elaborateness from a plain style, for which a small charge is made, to a very elaborate one, the price of which puts it beyond the reach of all but the well-to-do.

All the cars are so constructed that they can be run off the tracks and over the pavements to the house from which the body is to be taken. When the coffin is secured the car is drawn by horses back to the nearest track, where it make the necessary electric connection.

Of late the government has been repaving the streets with asphalt. It has been found that dragging the heavy funeral cars over this is ruinous to the pavement and soon another arrangement will be necessary. The trolley company intends to have a central funeral station designated, into which the electric hearses can run on spurs and to which the dead will be taken in vehicles provided for that purpose. A familiar sight on the trolley line to the cemetery is a funeral train made up of an electric hearse, with a trailer for the mourners; another hearse, with another body, another trailer, with another party of mourners, and so on. The trains run at the same speed as other electric vehicles.

Many of the hearses are elaborately embellished with statuettes, carved work, plumes, torches and similar emblems of mourning. The trolley company finds the business profitable and it is growing all the time. Grand Rapids [MI] Press 27 June 1903: p. 10

This pretty picture of funereal efficiency was rather marred by darker reports of ill-maintained tramways, which caused derailments and the spilling of corpses into the street. The admirable plan to collect pauper corpses from the hospitals with Prussian precision was tempered by the reality that the trolley did not always run on time and there were both backlogs of rotting bodies at the cemeteries and complaints by the dismayed populace of naked and decomposing bodies and body parts being run through the middle of Mexico City during the day. In addition, in 1904 there were complaints that a pulqueria across the street from the Panteon Civil de Dolores was patronized by mourners and trolley drivers, who then drove recklessly through the cemetery.

The Mexican Civil War caused the destruction of many trolley lines. The article below suggests that the Mexican trolley-hearse was on the wane. Note that the headquarters of the Mexico Tramways Company was in Canada, perhaps a remnant of those “Englishmen” who were said to have built and run it in 1903.

FUNERAL TRAINS IDLE

Toronto, Ont., Jan. 24. At his desk in Toronto, an official of the Mexico Tramways Company recently noted statistics showing that the street car hearse business in Mexico City had been dropping off gradually during recent years. Hence, an order has gone forth from the Toronto headquarters of the Mexican city’s street car system that its “funeral trains” no longer are to be operated. Times-Picayune [New Orleans LA] 25 January 1931: p. 20

It seems as though trolley-hearses still ran in San Francisco through the late 1920s. Does anyone know the date of the latest use of a trolley hearse either in Mexico or the United States? Bier-heads welcome. Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

For a really fascinating look at the historical care of the dead in Mexico City, see “The Cadaverous City: The Everyday Life of the Dead in Mexico City: 1875-1930.”

 

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.

Such a Very Little Coffin: 1901

beautiful detail boy in coffin

“JACKY”

[Pall Mall Gazette.]

“Yes, Miss, I’m glad the Society can send me and Baby to the ‘Ome for a bit; but won’t you walk upstairs?”

So spoke Mrs Hunt, a sad-looking young woman with a quiet voice, to the girl standing beside her, and they began to toil up the many stairs of a model lodging-house. At last Mrs Hunt stopped at one of the doors, but before turning the handle she hesitated a moment and said, “You know I lost my Jacky yesterday. You won’t mind, will you?” And then she led the way into the dingy little top back room.

The girl glanced around almost nervously, for this was one of life’s realities that she had never met before; but there was nothing alarming in the sight of the little coffin resting on two chairs. Yet, somehow it made her feel strange, perhaps because it was such a very little coffin. Mrs. Hunt, however, did not seem to notice the addition to her furniture, for she asked abruptly, “Will they want me to take slippers to the “Ome, for I ‘aven’t got none,” and her voice was quite composed, though a trifle dull and hard. So the girl pulled herself together and a serious discussion followed as to the advisability of buying cheap shoes in the Edgware Road, or of getting a second-hand pair “off a friend.”

But all the while that she was speaking, the girl could not keep her eyes from wandering every now and then towards that other corner of the room, and suddenly she began to realise with astonishment that the coffin, though small, was made of polished oak with silver-plated fittings, and it rested on small black draperies. And then the girl remembered that she had seen a baby downstairs decked out in crape and black ribbons, and she knew that this must be Jacky’s baby sister. How could this mother be so very foolish? For Mrs Hunt was a widow, who supported herself and her little ones by doing mangling. If she worked all day and the greater part of the night she could not hope to earn more than eight or nine shillings a week. And yet she could afford to indulge in high-class funerals.

And as the girl thought on these things her heart hardened, and she deemed it her duty to give the woman a few words of advice on the subject of her extravagance. But the words would not come. For somehow that inconvenient little lump in her throat would return when she thought of this woman’s desire to honour her dead even at the cost of starving. She could almost hear her say, “Has my little boy had so many luxuries that you grudge him a decent burial?” And the girl could not speak.

Now, when she had turned to go, and had even laid her hand on the door, Mrs Hunt said suddenly, almost harshly, “Perhaps you’d like to see ’im.” And before the girl could reply, the lid of the coffin was drawn back.

What! Was that still little form that white face, almost terrible in its loveliness—was that the noisy, dirty imp she had seen not many days before? It seemed incredible. She remembered in wonder that she had tried to bring herself to kiss the face that had been almost repulsive in its filth and ugliness; and had tried and had failed. And now she would fain have knelt and have pressed her lips to the little white hand, humbly, reverently, as to something sacred. She would not dare now to touch the face that she had turned from in disgust; it looked so white, so pure, he would have feared to defile it. “Defile!” Yes, that was the word that kept beating itself on the girl’s brain as she stood there looking down. “Undefiled, undefiled, a little child undefiled.”

And where were now her sapient remarks as to the desirability of cheap funerals for the poor? Gone, utterly gone. She was indeed stricken dumb and stood there silently gazing, her eyes wet with tears. And at last, as many before her have done when the feelings of their littleness is borne home to them, she unconsciously used the words of another: words, old indeed, but true for all time, for all men—

“For of such is the kingdom of Heaven.”

But some one heard her. There was a sudden sob, a sound as of the breaking of an ice of distrust and despair, and the mother turned away, her shoulders heaving, her face buried in her apron; and a cry rang out, an exceedingly bitter cry:

“Oh, I wants ‘im! ‘E weren’t much to nobody but me, but I loved ‘im an’ I wants ‘im!”

And this is how it came to pass that the inquiry officer of a certain society failed in her important duty of advocating thrift and economy among the London poor.

Star, 26 January 1901: p. 1

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: One likely possibility that the young inquiry officer did not consider is that many of London’s poor subscribed to Burial Societies. In the 1840s there were over one hundred Burial Societies in London alone. A small sum paid weekly–from a half-penny to a penny and three half-pence and twopence in 1844–ensured that the all-important decent funeral would be within reach.  The pauper funeral held as much horror for the Victorian poor as the Workhouse and was to be avoided at all cost.

It was found in 1907 that eighty-three per cent of all English decedents carried insurance. The authors of that study added severely, “It would seem that the insurance policy lure prompts to funeral extravagance, and that the pitiless extortions consequently exacted from the poor by a certain class of undertakers aggravates needlessly the anguish of the bereaved, and calls for indignant protest from the public upon whom, in some instances, the victims immediately thereafter become a charge.” Preventable Death in Cotton Manufacturing Industry, Arthur Reed Perry, 1919

For more information on the popular culture of Victorian mourning and death, Mrs Daffodil recommends The Victorian Book of the Dead, by Chris Woodyard, also available for something called a Kindle.  Mrs Daffodil understands the principle of paper-making using wood-pulp, but fails to see where kindling comes into it.

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.

 

Composting the Dead in Naples

Recently there has been much talk about a plan to compost the dead in urban burial towers, the Urban Death Project. You can even support it through a Kickstarter campaign. From an ecological point of view, this has many advantages: it would be cheaper for families; precious land would not be wasted on cemeteries; no embalming would be needed, reducing use of toxic chemicals;  cremation’s high energy costs could be avoided. And families would come away at the end with a nice bag of compost.

On the downside, there are still some bugs to be worked out: the heat of composting does not destroy everything–disease-causing prions, for example and the end product may not be safe to mulch your vegetable garden with. From an historian’s point of view, if this plan became the regular method of burial, cemeteries would disappear and with them, much beauty and historical information. The compost is also apparently not guaranteed to be completely free of other peoples’ relatives, which might bother some families. On a personal note, I probably wouldn’t volunteer to be composted; I’m not a joiner.

While the Urban Death Project is a hip, modern, scientific, and green take on corpse disposal, the notion of communal graves where the dead might rot in peace is not new. N.P. Willis, an American author visited some gruesome burial pits in Italy in the 1830s (during a cholera epidemic, I might add.) Then, as now, there was death tourism.

The road, after leaving the campo, runs along the edge of the range of hills enclosing the city; and just below, within a high white wall, lies the public burial-place of Naples. I had read so many harrowing descriptions of this spot, that my curiosity rose as we drove along in sight of it, and, requesting my friends to set me down, I joined an American of my acquaintance, and we started to visit it together.

An old man opened the iron door, and we entered a clean, spacious, and well-paved area, with long rows of iron rings in the heavy slabs of the pavement. Without asking a question, the old man walked across to the further corner, where stood a moveable lever, and, fastening the chain into the fixture, raised the massive stone cover of a pit. He requested us to stand back for a few minutes to give the effluvia time to escape, and then, sheltering our eyes with our hats, we looked in. You have read, of course, that there are three hundred and sixty-five pits in this place, one of which is opened every day for the dead of the city. They are thrown in without shroud or coffin, and the pit is sealed up at night for a year. They are thirty or forty feet deep, and each would contain perhaps two hundred bodies. Lime is thrown upon the daily heap, and by the end of the year the bottom of the pit is covered with dry white bones.

It was some time before we could distinguish any thing in the darkness of the abyss. Fixing my eyes on one spot, however, the outlines of a body became defined gradually, and in a few minutes, sheltering my eyes completely from the sun above, I could see all the horrors of the scene but too distinctly. Eight corpses, all of grown persons, lay in a confused heap together, as they had been thrown in one after another in the course of the day. The last was a powerfully made, grey old man, who had fallen flat on his back, with his right hand lying across and half covering the face of a woman. By his full limbs and chest, and the darker colour of his legs below the knee, he was probably one of the lazzaroni [the poorest of Naples], and had met with a sudden death. His right heel lay on the forehead of a young man, emaciated to the last degree, his chest thrown up as he lay, and his ribs showing like a skeleton covered with a skin. The close black curls of the latter, as his head rested on another body, were in such strong relief that I could have counted them. Off to the right, quite distinct from the heap, lay, in a beautiful attitude, a girl, as well as I could judge, of not more than nineteen or twenty. She had fallen on the pile and rolled or slid away. Her hair was very long and covered her left shoulder and bosom; her arm was across her body; and if her mother had laid her down to sleep, she could not have disposed her limbs more decently. The head had fallen a little way to the right, and the feet, which were small, even for a lady, were pressed one against the other, as if she were about turning on her side. The sexton said that a young man had come with the body, and was very ill for some time after it was thrown in. We asked him if respectable people were brought here. “Yes,” he said, “many. None but the rich would go to the expense of a separate grave for their relations. People were often brought in handsome grave-clothes, but they were always stripped before they were left. The shroud, whenever there was one, was the perquisite of the undertakers.” And thus are flung into this noisome pit, like beasts, the greater part of the inhabitants of this vast city—the young and the old, the vicious and the virtuous together, without the decency even of a rag to keep up the distinctions of life! Can human beings thus be thrown away!—men like ourselves —women, children, like our sisters and brothers! I never was so humiliated in my life as by this horrid spectacle. I did not think a man—a felon even, or a leper—what you will, that is guilty or debased—I did not think anything that had been human could be so recklessly abandoned. Pah! it makes one sick at heart! God grant I may never die at Naples!

While we were recovering from our disgust, the old man lifted the stone from the pit destined to receive the dead of the following day. We looked in. The bottom was strewn with bones, already fleshless and dry. He wished us to see the dead of several previous days, but my stomach was already tried to its utmost. We paid our gratuity, and hurried away. A few steps from the gate, we met a man bearing a coffin on his head. Seeing that we came from the cemetery, he asked us if we wished to look into it. He set it down, and the lid opening with a hinge, we were horror-struck with the sight of seven dead infants! The youngest was at least three months old; the eldest perhaps a year; and they lay heaped together like so many puppies, one or two of them spotted with disease, and all wasted to baby-skeletons. While we were looking at them, six or seven noisy children ran out from a small house at the road-side and surrounded the coffin. One was a fine girl of twelve years of age, and, instead of being at all shocked at the sight, she lifted the whitest of the dead things, and looked at its face very earnestly, loading it with all the tenderest diminutives of the language. The others were busy in pointing to those they thought had been prettiest, and none of them betrayed fear or disgust. In answer to a question of my friend about the marks of disease, the man rudely pulled out one by the foot that lay below the rest, and, holding it up to show the marks upon it, tossed it again carelessly into the coffin. He had brought them from the hospital for infants, and they had died that morning. The coffin was worn with use. He shut down the lid, and, lifting it again upon his head, went on to the cemetery, to empty it like so much offal upon the heap we had seen.

Pencillings by the Way, Nathaniel Parker Willis, London: George Virtue, 1852

Willis, by the way, was a friend of Poe and published his poem “The Raven.” He also defended Poe’s reputation after his death. Willis’s idea of a decent burial would have been the standard Victorian one: the body washed, dressed, and coffined. A wake or watch, where the body was not left alone. A religious ceremony, then hearse and carriages to the cemetery for burial in a grave in the family plot. Eventually a monument with a touching inscription erected above the grave. Subsequent pilgrimages and picnics at the cemetery. Distinctions, shrouds, and virtue all intact.

Didn’t the pits eventually fill up? Were the whitened bones left in the pits at Naples reused in any way? Animal bones were often burnt to make pigments or ground up for fertilizer. Perhaps these bones were moved to an ossuary. Skulls disinterred from Neapolitan churches and kept in the Fontanelle charnel house eventually became the subject of a local cult.

Italian funeral procession Gaetano Dura c. 1830-40
An engraving showing a more affluent Italian funeral. Gaetano Dura, c. 1830-40 http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/25714.html?mulR=1854290710|31

A slightly earlier travel writer tells much the same story:

In humble life, no box is provided,—coffin-shape being unknown in the highest. But all here is done in a plain and palpable way; and the occasions are as numerous, where the human remains, in conveyance through the streets of the Neapolitan or Roman Capital—(and, I presume, generally) —are not protected from absolute exposure by a cloth, or a raised awning, as those where they are: the exposure or non-exposure rests in the body’s being borne forth in dress or in comparative, or, it may be, absolute nakedness. In either case it is scrupulously washed clean, and laid out to seem a wax figure: this office rests not with the relatives or domestics of the family, but constitutes the employment of a body of persons, of whom it is the livelihood, and who follow the corpse in procession, each enveloped in a white robe, that disguises the person,—even the face of the wearer being covered, with glasses in the linen, opposite the eyes, to give the train power to perform their duties in detail. The performance, to poor as well as rich, is obligatory on this fraternity ; and the shew they exhibit gives almost as much consequence to the funerals of the one as the other. In Rome the bodies are consigned—coffinless let it be—to earth: and in the exterior of Naples also, is a general cemetery, of which, in sequence through the year, one of its 365 receptacles is diurnally opened, and all who are brought on the same day, are, in utter nakedness, shot into the one pit—that pit to be re-opened on the same day in the following year. But at Naples it is also the practice to reposit corpses numerously in the Church vaults—each in such a position over a hole, that, as it putrifies and moulders, the remains drop into cellarage below, and make room for another corpse to succeed. Mr.__ was present at the stripping of the corpse of a priest—to the shoes—and the placing him in this position, amid remnants of mortality, and in a stench which must beggar description: he tells me he never witnessed a scene so odious or hideous. Minutes of Remarks on Subjects Picturesque, Moral, and Miscellaneous, William Webb, 1827

Thoughts on common graves, composting the dead, or a practical use for bones? Wait for the effluvia to clear before sending to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Other grim and grewsome stories of funerary and mourning practices may be found in

The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition.

See this link for an introduction to The Victorian Book of the Dead, a collection about the popular culture of Victorian mourning, featuring primary-source materials about corpses, crypts, and crape.

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 Little Stranger: 1878

weeping boy 1848

The Little Stranger

[Detroit Free Press.]

There was a funeral on Prospect street yesterday—if you can call two or three mourners weeping over a little dead body a funeral. There were no hacks, no crape and no display. A passer-by saw a lad of twelve sitting on the door-step weeping and he halted to learn the cause.

“My bruther’s dead!” gasped the boy—“only one I had!”’

“How old was he?”

“’Bout five!”

“And what did he die of?”

“Scarl’t fever.”

“Well, he is better off,” sighed the man, as he looked around the gloomy yard and saw evidence of poverty in every pane of glass in the old house.

“That’s what we think,” replied the boy, “but—“

“But what?”

“But I’m afraid Heaven is laid out like a city, and if ‘tis little Billy will get lost, sure, for he couldn’t even find his way down to Gratiot avenue! I hope he got there early this morning, so he can find God before night comes on!”

The Cincinnati [OH} Enquirer 15 March 1878: p. 10

 

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.