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

screaming

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

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

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

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

[British Medical Journal.]

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

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

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

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

DIED OF FRIGHT

Miner Sees an Apparition and the Scare Proves Fatal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MINER SCARED TO DEATH

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

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

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

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

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

A LESSON TO PONDER ON.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HIS FOES

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

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

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

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

 DIED OF FRIGHT

Caused By Her Husband’s Threat To Kill Her.

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

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

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

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

Animals could also die of fright:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FRIGHTENED TO DEATH BY A CAT

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

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

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

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

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

COW’S MOO KILLS CHILD

Baby Frightened into Convulsions When Wandering Bovine Puts Head in Window

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

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

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

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

I assumed 20th-century medical advances would wipe out “death by fear,” but the term lingered on. I was surprised to see a 1994 news story about a man who, the police said, apparently died of fright while accusing another driver of trying to run him over. Any later examples? And have any of you actually seen a death certificate where the cause of death is “fear?”  Notarize and rush to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

 

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

The Devil in a Diving Suit – Scared to Death in Toledo

The Devil in a Diving Suit -Scared to Death in Toledo   Plague Doctor in protective suit
The Devil in a Diving Suit -Scared to Death in Toledo Plague Doctor in protective suit

The images of those brave souls working among the virus-stricken in their ghostly protective suits called to mind this bizarre story from 1903.

DEVIL

She Believed the Officer

Who Came To Investigate a Report of Smallpox

Poor Woman So Scared By the Hideous Apparition

That She Died in Terror—Her Toledo Relatives Now Threaten a Damage Suit.

Toledo, Ohio, February 4. Haunted to death by a hideous apparition was the fate which befell Mrs. Joseph Smolinski, of 1207 Nebraska avenue, according to the story told by her husband and other relatives.

Mrs. Smolinski was 33 years old, well educated, pretty and the wife of a well-to-do mechanic. Her death occurred last Saturday, and it was pitiable in the extreme.

About a month ago Mrs. Smolinski became ill with pneumonia, but by careful treatment rapidly recovered. Following her recovery the outer skin on her hands began to peel off, as is invariably the case following fever attacks.

Some of the neighbor women who visited her, noticing this condition of the woman’s hands, informed the penthouse authorities that the woman had smallpox. Then began the trouble that resulted in the woman’s pathetic death. Following the report of smallpox an agent of the Health Department, clad in the outlandish though necessary apparel of the physicians who daily visit the penthouse, entered the home of the Smolinskis.

The sudden appearance of a fierce-looking object, helmet topped, clad in an oil-cloth suit, with a sponge at the mouth hole and a pair of slits for the eyes, for all the world resembling a deep sea diver, suddenly appearing before the woman startled her. She had never heard or seen such an object in her life. The only thing she could imagine this peculiarly uniformed health officer resembled was the evil one, and that belief at once took possession of her mind, and all that medical skill could do failed to remove the impression first formed.

The next day it was found that the woman had no smallpox, and the Health Department did everything possible to correct the blunder, but too late to save the woman’s life. The vision of that strangely garbed health officer haunted the poor woman night and day for two weeks, until death mercifully relieved her from her awful sufferings from fear and terror. The most powerful opiate failed to have any effect on the woman.

She either sat up or laid in bed wildly staring about the room, and at intervals trying to shrink back, as if fearful of the too near approach of the awful apparition that constantly haunted her. Friends tried to explain to her that the awful thing was harmless or had vanished, but all their efforts could not influence the mind which seemed possessed of only that one impression.

At time the woman would become so terror stricken at what seemed to be before her that she would shriek out in pain and beg those around her to protect her from the awful monster. Nature’s strength finally gave way and the woman collapsed, but even in death her last struggles were used to save herself from the apparition. The woman’s relatives, who are wealthy, have secured counsel, and say they will bring an action for heavy damages against the city of Toledo on the ground that Mrs. Smolinski’s death was caused by the blundering conduct of an agent of the Health Department. Besides a husband, the deceased leaves five small children.

Bay City [MI] Times 6 February 1903: p. 1

Certainly I’d seen the beaked Plague-doctor costumes of the Renaissance, like the illustration at the head of the post, but for some reason I didn’t think that protective clothing was being worn by public health officials in 1903. I was unable to find a 19th or early-20th century illustration of a suit such as terrified the unfortunate Mrs. Smolinski.

Note the “well-educated” and “well-to-do” in practically the first paragraph. An Eastern European name usually led to an assumption of ignorance and superstition. There had been a flood of Russian and Eastern European immigration to the United States after 1870 and fears were rife about anarchists and foreigners with unpronounceable names, odd customs, and smelly foods overrunning decent peoples’ neighborhoods. It is no accident that the “Devil Baby” legend grew up about this time.

In the 1910 census Joseph Smolinski was listed as age 46, widowed, living with seven children: five daughters and two sons in Toledo in. I have not found any record of a lawsuit filed against the Health Department.

Previously I wrote about people who were supposedly scared to death. Any other examples? Send to Chriswoodyard8 AT mail.com, being careful not to sneak up on her and tap her on the shoulder unexpectedly.

 

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.

Hart Island: 1900

hart's island open trench jacob riis
Laborers loading coffins into an open trench at the city burial ground on Hart’s Island, c. 1890, Jacob A. Riis https://collections.mcny.org/Explore/Highlights/Jacob%20A.%20Riis/?gclid=Cj0KCQjwy6T1BRDXARIsAIqCTXoo4zKXrtfdt_L9PWnQKBnuj5O1hkVxPkcOMapfHsbz8Xu9-pGirccaApeZEALw_wcB&gclid=Cj0KCQjwy6T1BRDXARIsAIqCTXoo4zKXrtfdt_L9PWnQKBnuj5O1hkVxPkcOMapfHsbz8Xu9-pGirccaApeZEALw_wcB

The unwanted, lost and unidentified dead of New York are still buried in the same Potter’s Field on Hart’s Island. Modern descriptions of burials on Hart Island are an eerie echo of the story below.

BURIED IN POTTER’S FIELD

The Grewsome Trips of the Fidelity

Her Daily Cargo of Pauper Dead

Scenes at the City Cemetery, Hart’s Island. [sic]

Among the boats that may be seen on the East River any day is a small craft bearing the name Fidelity. People to whom the various vessels are only slightly known see nothing peculiar about the boat, because she is like hundreds of little vessels on the East and North rivers used for conveying freight and passengers between points where the larger vessels do not make landings. But to the river men and to the people who spend their time near the east waterfront the little boat is known as “the deadboat.”

She belongs to the city, has a crew of four deckhands, besides a mate, an engineer and a fireman, and is commanded by Captain Edward McEvoy. This boat makes the tour of the city institutions on the East River daily and collects the bodies of the dead and takes them to the Morgue. Randall’s Island, Ward’s Island, Blackwell’s Island and the Harlem Hospital all contribute to the grewsome cargo which is landed every evening at the Morgue, where the bodies of the homeless and the friendless are also taken.

“We have dull and busy seasons,” said Captain McEvoy, “but we can usually count on about two a day from Randall’s Island, about three a day from Ward’s Island, and Blackwell’s Island gives us about ten a day. The North Brother Island dead are taken care of by the Health Department; the Harlem Hospital, at One-hundred-and-twentieth-st., is good for about three a day.”

THE FIDELITY’S CARGO

All the bodies as they come aboard are handled by the deckhands and are piled on the after deck, covered with tarpaulins, and when the Fidelity steams down the river with her load for the Morgue, passengers on passing vessels would never suspect the character of her cargo.

Twice a week in the winter months and three times a week during the warm season the Fidelity makes a trip to Hart’s Island, where the bodies from the Morgue which have not been claimed or identified are buried in Potter’s Field, or, as it is officially, the City Cemetery.

“It’s all the same after you are dead,” said a man who had made the trip, “but if you want to know the advantage of passing away among friends make a trip to Hart’s Island on a burying day.”

The boat’s load, which varies in size from thirty to one hundred boxes, stands on the dock and in the hallways of the Morgue, ready to be taken away early in the morning. Every box is furnished with a card which contains the name, age, sex, cause of death, etc., of the subject, or, where the name is unknown, a number corresponding with the one on the Morgue records, by which everything that is known on the body may be ascertained. The marks on the box also show whether the person was a Catholic or a Protestant, when that fact may be ascertained.

“How many ye got to-day?” the deckhand asked one of the Morgue helpers who assist the regular attendants for their board and what they can pick up from undertakers in the way of tips for helping with the claimed bodies.

“Oh, it’s a small day. Ten big and twenty-seven little ones.” That meant that there were ten large coffins and twenty-seven coffins with children’s bodies to be taken away. The cargo was taken on board with less care and ceremony than would have been devoted to a like number of boxes in the hands of a transportation concern marked “Handle with care,” the boat moved away from the dock, which was littered with old and broken coffins, and the trip to Potters Field began.

AT HART’S ISLAND.

The distance to Hart’s Island is about fifteen miles, past the City Hospital, Penitentiary, Almshouse, Maternity Hospital, Insane Asylum, House of Refuge, Idiots’ Asylum, Infants’ Hospital, North Brother Island and about six miles beyond Fort Schuyler, on Throg’s Neck and Willets Point. At the landing there were several officials in the uniform of the Department of Correction and three men in convict’s stripes.

“Didn’t expect you to-day,” one of the officers called in greeting to the captain, “you had such a big load yesterday.”

The boat was made fast and the bodies, which had been transported by the Charities Department, were transferred to the custody of the Department of Correction. The three convicts loaded the boxes into a wagon and it started on its first trip to a trench about one hundred yards from the landing.

John Bopp, the Superintendent of Potter’s Field, who has been in charge of the place for thirty years, and in spite of the nature of his work and the surroundings, retains a cheerful disposition, said:

“We have about fifty convicts here, who are detailed from the Workhouse, but some of them object to handling the coffins, so we select three men who are willing to take the job and give them a ration of whiskey after every load has been disposed of. These men have to do no other work, and, while they think they have ‘a graft,’ the other convicts, although they envy them the whiskey, call them ghouls.”

The wagon brings the bodies to the open trench, which is 45 feet long, 15 feet wide and 7 feet deep, and into this the boxes are placed after Frederick Bartels, the assistant superintendent, who is serving his seventeenth year at the Field, has scratched the number on the box with an instrument called a scriber. The long ends of the trenches run east and west, and the bodies are placed in them facing north and south, heads to the edge. A row of twenty-five is placed at each side of the trench, and on this layer of fifty a thin covering of earth is placed until more bodies are received, when the trench is “tripped” by the convicts. This is the term for the process of taking the earth off the boxes before the next layer is put down. This is repeated until the trench holds three layers, or 150 bodies, when it is covered with earth, and built up about a foot. When this has been done a new plot for 150 bodies is laid out and numbered. A record is kept of the place occupied by every box, and the books which are kept by Mr. Bartels show all particulars necessary for identification in case a body should be claimed by friends or relatives.

All the coffins marked with a cross are buried in the Catholic plot, on the north end, and separate trenches are devoted to nameless children, unidentified bodies and boxes from the colleges, of which latter there are nine or ten every week.

The records show that since the City Cemetery was founded, in 1869, 110,751 bodies have been buried there. Last year’s contribution was 4,377, of which 1,829 were credited to the “Outdoor Poor,” 362 to Bellevue Hospital and 435 to the Foundlings. There is a special plot for soldiers’ graves, in which about forty bodies are buried, the last being two victims of yellow fever, who contracted the disease in Cuba and died at North Brother Island. This plot is marked by a handsome monument and is decorated every Memorial Day. Several attendants who died on the island are also buried in separate graves.

One enclosure contains the bodies of two little children whose mother asked that they might be kept separate from the others so that she might know where the little ones were laid away, and near the south end of the field is another child’s grave, the existence of which is unknown to the little one’s parents or friends. Some years ago, so goes the story, a man was going abroad with his family, and as they boarded the ship an attendant noticed the deathly pallor of the infant in the mother’s arms. Examination showed that the child was ill, and before the vessel sailed the child was dead, and the body was left for burial. The story reached Potter’s Field before the body arrived there, and in the hope that the names of the parents might be learned a separate grave was made of the body, but all efforts in that direction have failed….

“The men who work in the trenches where the bodies are laid away have a grewsome job,” said an officer of the Department, “and one for which the ‘drunk and disorderly’ on the island don’t envy them; in fact, being put in this gang is by no means a mark of distinction, and yet they see less mourning than the men who work in a private cemetery. There relatives and friends stand about the open graves and weep for those who have passed away. Here the bodies come, are carted to the trench, lowered and covered with earth, and that is all. No one knows, no one cares; a hundred and fifty make a trench full, and then a new hole is dug. Men grow accustomed to all kinds of work, and there’s probably no convict gang in the New-York institutions where there is less of the blues than among the helpers at Potter’s Field.”

New York Tribune 1 April 1900: p. 6

Note: This is an excerpt from The Victorian Book of the Dead. In the book it is preceded by a look at the New York Morgue in 1868.

 

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.

April Fool’s Day Horrors: 1870-1912

April Fool Post Card
Source: https://shop.creepyhollows.com/Greeting-Cards/?switch_view=common

If we were to examine the standard-issue prank repertory of the vintage April Fool’s day, it would include old chestnuts like the hat-covering-a-brick trick or the wallet-on-a-string. Epicures would be tempted by chocolate covered soaps, cotton-stuffed doughnuts, or peppered candy. “KICK/KISS ME” signs would be attached to coat-tails.  Possibly exploding cigars would be offered to unsuspecting acquaintances. Unpleasant, but mostly benign stuff.

But since I am known for being a Little Ray of Sunshine, we will bypass these harmless japes in favor of more ghoulish fooleries, the ones involving fake corpses, staged murders and suicides. All in good fun, of course.

April Fool’s Day must have been hell for trainsmen and drivers of street-cars.

A ghastly April Fool joke was played on the Wilmington train yesterday as it was coming up to the city. Some party or parties had stuffed an effigy looking very much like the average bummer and laid it across the track. As soon as the object was sighted by the engineer he whistled down brakes, and the train was brought to a stop, but not until it had passed over the prostrate body and sent the mangled head rolling into the ditch at the side. There was a general scrambling out of the train and some excited people for a few moments. When the state of the case was ascertained, it would not have been healthy for the perpetrator of the joke to show himself in that crowd.

Los Angeles [CA] Daily Herald 2 April 1876: p. 3

It must have been an equally fraught holiday for the coroners.

APRIL FOOL

The Coroner, His Assistants, and Newspaper Reporters Neatly Sold.

A ghastly, but unique “April Fool” joke was sprung on the Coroner yesterday. A party of fellows, thinking to have a little fun at his expense, arranged a “dummy” corpse so as to resemble a man, whose exit from life had been caused by railway car wheels. The “dummy” was located at the crossing of the transfer track and Pennsylvania street, a call issued, and in due time the coroner, his assistant, a number of reporters and quite a crowd of other people had assembled at the spot. There laid the “corpse.” A blood-stained handkerchief covered the face, and the misshapen trunk, cut and scarred by the marks of wheels, made a sight that filled the hearts of all present with horror.

Cautiously raising the ‘kerchief to take a preliminary squint at the remains, the Coroner fell back and muttered an imprecation that was far from being gentle or pious. The rag soaked with red ink covered a pile of straw, and the “corpse” was a made up “April Fool” joke that “worked to a charm” at the expense of an august Court, clerk and spectators.

Evansville [IN] Courier and Press 2 April 1890: p. 5

A GHASTLY HOAX

A “Floater” Turns Out to Be a Man of Straw

An idiotic April Fool joke possessing some elements of maliciousness was perpetrated on the Coroner last night by a lot of wharf hoodlums. A telephone message was received at 7:30 o’clock telling the Coroner to send the wagon to the foot of Third street, and conveying the information that a “floater” had been found in the bay at that point. Deputy Coroner Charles Johnston accepted the notice in good faith, and with an assistant drove down to the place where the alleged “floater” was found to be a man of straw.

The dummy was in the water and was fished out with much trouble before Johnston learned that he had been made the victim of a very feeble joke. A crowd of men and boys stood around the spot and guyed the officials and when remonstrated with stoned them. They drove away without having been hurt.

First Deputy Coroner Murphy investigated the matter and learned that the telephone message came in from Pope & Talbot’s lumber yard at Third and Berry streets. The telephone is in the private office of the firm, to which the night watchman has the key, and as this individual could not be found around the place when Murphy tried to hunt him up, it is supposed that he is the witless booby who conceived and perpetrated the hoax.

San Francisco [CA] Chronicle 2 April 1888: p. 3

Straw dummies were a popular April Fool’s Day accessory:

A GHASTLY APRIL FOOL JOKE

Dummy Thrown from Building and Several Women Fainted.

New York, April. 1. Hundreds of pedestrians crowded in narrow Nassau Street, in the financial district, shrank back in terror this afternoon when the form of a man came hurtling down form the twenty-fourth story of the Liberty Tower building. Several stenographers in windows on the opposite side of the street fainted and someone turned in an ambulance call. Police officers rushed to the spot where the figure fell and found it to be a dummy stuffed with hay, with a broomstick for a backbone and a false face to make it realistic. The ambulance surgeon did not appreciate the April Fool’s day comedy and drove away, leaving a street cleaner to gather up the debris.

Times-Picayune [New Orleans LA] 2 April 1912: p. 1

Woe to the unfortunates who had accidents on the wrong day.

PLUNGE TO HIS DEATH
Friends Thought Young Man Was Hanging for Fun.

In view of several hundred persons, who thought he was playing an April fool prank, Luther Williams, aged 22, a painter, dangled for a few minutes at the end of a rope attached to the smokestack of the Georgia Railway and Electric Light company plant at Atlanta and then plunged 150 feet to earth. He was still breathing when picked up, but died ten minutes after arriving at a hospital. In its descent the body of Williams crashed through the roof of the boiler shop.

The Manning [SC] Times 10 April, 1912: p.  6

Some April foolers went entirely too far. This one deserved to be named and shamed, although it appears that the young lady survived.

A Fool April Fool Joke

As the result of an April fool joke, Edith Walrach, of Camden, N.J., who is visiting friends at Binghampton, N.Y., is said to be dying. Miss Walrach is 19 years old and of a very nervous temperament. In the family she is visiting is a young practical joker. He procured a small live mouse which he put in an egg shell, covering the opening with plaster of Paris. This was brought in with the breakfast Sunday, and when Miss Walrach broke the shell and the liberated mouse jumped out she screamed and fainted away. During the day she had three nervous fits, and her physician pronounces her condition critical. The young man is nearly wild with grief, as he and Miss Walrach were shortly to be married.

Jackson [MI] Citizen 6 April 1900: p. 6

April Fool’s prank letters caused as much havoc as vinegar valentines.

AN APRIL FOOL MURDER

A Sumter County Girl’s Joke Causes Death

Americus, April 14. Jack Tyner, a young man 18 years old, was stabbed to death yesterday afternoon by Henry Weaver, a companion about the same age. Your correspondent has obtained the following particulars of the tragedy:

Young Weaver received an April fool letter that made him very mad. It was signed by Tyner. Yesterday Weaver met Tyner and the matter was referred to. Tyner denied writing the letter or knowing anything about it. Weaver did not believe him and assaulted him with the result above stated.

Since the killing a young lady admits that she wrote the letter and signed Tyner’s name to it. The killing occurred in the country a few miles from Ellaville. Weaver fled and at last accounts had not been captured.

Macon [GA] Telegraph 15 April 1889: p. 1

We may seriously doubt that this wife would have described her husband as “delightful” and “a great humorist.”

A Nashville, Kansas, farmer, who is a great humorist, planned a delightful April Fool joke on his wife. He disguised himself as a tramp, appeared before his wife, and scared her into a faint from which death relieved her within an hour. Thus is again illustrated the fact that the breed of fools is perennial; it blooms forever. And the fool who thinks it funny to scare somebody usually is particularly evident. If only the homes for the feeble minded were large enough to contain everybody who should be in them, ow many of us would cease going at large.

Fresno [CA] Morning Republican 5 April 1896: p. 2

Even the dead were not safe from the April Fool’s prankster.

That was a ghastly April fool joke of some Eastern correspondent, who telegraphed to the Associated Press that the tomb of George Peabody had been entered by burglars, and the coffin robbed of silver plate and handles. [on March 31st] The telegraph to-day exposes the canard. What will April Fool do next?

Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 2 April 1870: p. 2

 LOST THE CORPSE

Might Have Been an April Fool’s Joke But Undertaker Couldn’t See It.

Boston, April 1. Visions of the dead arisen floated before the eyes of Undertaker Jas. A. Coudey today when a body in his charge disappeared. Mr. Coudey had driven his hearse containing the body of a man, to the old court house, and entered the municipal offices to secure a burial permit. When he came out, body, hearse and horse were gone. A search revealed the vehicle around the corner, with another man on the box. A policeman, whose suspicions had been aroused, was talking to the man and, after he had heard Coudey’s story, he placed the stranger under arrest. The man, Donald Beauslack, explained that another man had asked him to drive the hearse around the corner.

Evening Times [Grand Forks, ND] 1 April 1910: p. 1

In this article there is an obvious subtext of admiration for the joker who so effectively faked a suicide. The coroner must have thrown his hands up in despair.

GHASTLY APRIL FOOL HOAX

A Man Puts Up a Suicide Fake at Chattanooga, Tenn., with Much Success.

Chattanooga, Tenn., April 1, 1892. Some one went to some expense to play a joke to-day, but the success of his efforts must gratify him. Chattanooga evening papers are full to-day of graphic description of the suicide of Thomas W. Johnson, of Brooklyn, and special correspondents have burdened the wires with accounts of the suicide. Two butchers coming into the city at daybreak this morning were startled by finding a handsome overcoat and derby hat lying upon the Tennessee River bridge. Investigation followed by the Coroner, who was awakened by the police. In a pocket of the satin lined coat was found a well written letter of farewell, finishing up with a plaintive lament in rhyme. The letter was addressed to Miss Stella Woolbridge, Brooklyn, N.Y., who was addressed as “My Darling.”

Despite the fact that it was April 1, the Coroner, after careful investigation, determined that the find was genuine, and for hours the river was dragged and river men cautioned to look out for the corpse. In the letter was a lock of golden hair tied with blue ribbon. In a pocketbook were found coins, newspaper clippings, sleeping car receipts and a request that the remains be sent to Brooklyn if recovered. By a curious coincidence the name signed to the letters corresponded with one registered at the Shiff Hotel four days ago.

The joker, frightened at the proportions his joke was assuming, confided to me to-night that the whole thing was a fake. At three o’clock this morning he left coat and hat, with its carefully prepared contents, on the bridge. He took the name of Thomas Johnson at random, and had no idea that a Thomas Johnson, of Brooklyn, had really registered here a few days ago.

New York [NY] Herald 2 April 1892: p. 5

And finally, some April foolers just did not understand why their victims failed to appreciate their carefully arranged pranks.

“REAL HUMOR.”
But Then It Did Not Seem to be Duly Appreciated

“Can I stay here and sleep on a lounge to-night?” asked a sad-faced young man as he walked into the Press club last evening and joined a group of reporters. “I’ve got to, anyway, whether I can or not. I’m a victim of the boomerang April-fool joke. It started in like this: I was just getting my comfortable second nap this morning when a call came on my door and the voice of the landlady notified me that the postman was below with a registered letter for which I must give a receipt in person. Had I been good and awake I would not have been caught by such a transparent joke, but I was just stupid enough to hustle into a portion of my clothes and tramp downstairs, where everybody hailed me with that old chestnut about ‘April fool.’

“I went back to my room, sore in spirit, and kept thinking of a plan to get even all through the day. By afternoon I had the thing all fixed up and proceeded to work out my plan. I went home between five and six and took occasion to mope about for a little while, making all the folks see me and notice my glumness. I was the very embodiment of woe and would only respond in monosyllables. Then I went to my room, took off my coat and vest and put a streak of red ghastly grease paint across my neck resembling a slash with a razor. In addition to this I put a red spot on my shirt front, and then, grasping a razor in my left hand—the blade clotted with imitation blood—and a revolver in my right, I fired two blank cartridges, let a wail out of me, staggered and fell with a thud to the floor. There I lay, with the revolver firmly grasped in my right hand and the razor in my left.

“In a second I heard feminine screams and pattering footsteps on the stairs. Then the landlady and two or three married women and the servants broke into my room, saw my blood-stained corpse stretched out on the floor, and set up an assortment of shrieks, which made the pictures turn face to the wall. Then I heard some moans and a woman flopped to the floor in a faint. More moans and another flopped. The landlady and her sister came to me and bent over me with horrified exclamations, and the first thing I knew the sister let loose a little wail and fell across my stomach. In about a second the landlady herself sunk in a heap with an arm thrown across my neck, whereupon the servant girls turned and fled with shrieks.

“I dragged myself from beneath the forms of my sympathizers and sat up. It was a beautiful sight. Four women dumped down on the floor regardless of appearances, some of them with their noses puncturing the carpet and some tied in knots. I threw a glassful of water in each woman’s face, and lit a cigarette and watched ‘em come to. They opened their eyes about the same time, and pretty soon sat up and looked about ‘em. I watched their faces, and when I saw that they had about got their bearings, I blithely remarked: ‘April fool’ and rubbed the red grease paint off my neck with a towel. Just then the servant girls returned with a policeman and came charging upstairs. I happened to know him and gave him a wink, and told him it was a mistake; that one of the boys had worked a little April-fool joke on the folks, and he went away. But the women turned on me and abused me scandalously, and the landlady ordered me out of the house at once. To escape their wrath I fled, and when I sneaked back after supper found my trunk on the doorstep with a note tacked to it ordering me not to try to enter on pain of being murdered in my bed.

“That’s why I’m here. When will the American people learn to appreciate real humor? That’s what I want to know.”

The Hope [ND] Pioneer 25 March 1892: p. 3

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 Druggist and the Dagger: 1890

The Druggist and the Dagger pearl handled dagger. http://www.sharppointythings.com/gallery.html
The Druggist and the Dagger pearl handled dagger. http://www.sharppointythings.com/gallery.html

The shocking story reported from Greece about a woman thought to have died of cancer, screaming from the grave, brought to mind the many stories of burial alive from the 19th- century press. This was something of an obsession for many people. Some even requested that their throat or veins be cut or that their heart be pierced or removed to ensure that they would not be buried alive. Today we look at one man’s fears and pitiful ante-mortem request: to have his sisters stab him to the heart.

INTO HIS HEART

The Remarkable Ante-mortem Request of a New York Druggist.

He Dreamed That He Would Be Buried Alive, and His Sisters Were Asked to Pierce His Heart With a Dagger After Death

How the Request Was Carried Out in Every Particular.

New York, Dec. 11 One of the most weird and tragic scenes ever witnessed in a chamber of death was the one which was enacted yesterday in the room where Druggist George W. Fay died. It took the form of the execution of a dying request, which called for a keen pointed poniard being thrust into his heart, so that all doubts as to his burial alive should be removed. This precaution was also taken with the full acquiescence of the deceased’s three sisters, who up to the last moment could hardly realize that their brother was dead, so life like did he appear as he lay in his casket. They were, therefore, fully determined to allay their apprehensions and resorted to the heroic method of an application of a steel blade.

Mr. Fay died thirteen days ago. He was a well-known druggist in the ton of Hammonton, N.J., and was proprietor of one of the largest pharmacies in that place. He was taken sick Nov. 12. He was a widower, his wife having died several years before, leaving him a child, a little girl, who is at present in a convent.

Two nights before his death Mr. Fay suddenly sat upright in bed. He glared wildly about him and clutched the bedclothing. Large beads of perspiration stood out on his brow, and his breathing came thick and fast. His elder sister, who had dozed off in a chair near the bedside of her sick brother, was startled at the loud and rapid gasps for life. She was terrified at his appearance for an instant, but recovered from her fright when he beckoned to her to approach. She asked him what was the matter. It was several minutes before he could speak, and then in a disjointed way the patient told her that he had just had a terrible dream. He said that the dream pictured him as having fallen into a trance. He remained in this condition he said, for days, and his friends and sisters thought he was dead.

He described how in his dream he was laid in his coffin, and he heard the preparations made for his funeral. “O, Matilda,” said the dying man to his sister. “It was a most dreadful dream. I was conscious of all that was going on about me. I could hear your sobs as you bent over my dead body, when taking a last farewell. I realized everything that was going on around me, and that was what made it more terrible. I distinctly heard every word that was said, and yet I was powerless to help myself or move a muscle to betray the fact that life still remained in my poor, wasted form. I heard the minister’s words when the services for the dead were read the day of my funeral. I seemed to experience a choking sensation when the undertaker screwed down the lid upon the coffin. At that moment I made an almost superhuman effort to cry out, but could not utter a sound. I felt the coffin raised and borne away. I fairly shuddered as I was lowered into the grave prepared for me, and again I tried to make known the fact that I as alive, but I could not do so. I was like an image of marble. I could not even give vent to a wink or a nod.

“When the grave diggers began to throw down the sods of earth upon the coffin I again tried to cry out. I felt myself growing weaker, while my mental faculties began to fail me. At that moment a sudden desperate impulse possessed me, and with an effort that I had not been able before to summon to my aid, I burst open the top of the coffin and sat bolt upright in my funeral shrouds. I heard the shouts from the above, and then I fainted away.”

After reciting his awful dream the dying man sank back in his bed. He asked his sisters to satisfy themselves that he was dead before they buried him. He was fearful lest the dream was a premonition of his approaching fate. The following night he had a similar dream, which he recounted to his sisters, and it proved to be even a more thrilling experience than his former one. Then it was that he called them to his bedside and begged them to thrust a dagger into his heart before they buried him.

“My death is to be a hard one, I believe,” said he. “Those horrible dreams are full of meaning, and I have always had a horror that I would go into a trance, and be buried alive. It is not at all improbable that these terrible dreams were superinduced by these thoughts, but I cannot throw off the feeling that I will be buried alive if some precaution is not taken to guard against it.

“Now, dear sisters, I feel I am about to die. I feel that I will go into a trance from which I shall never awaken, so as my dying and last request promise me that you will faithfully carry out what I am about to request of you. It is this: Do not bury me if you have the slightest doubts as to my death. Keep my body until signs of dissolution are apparent. Keep me for weeks if necessary. If then you have reason to believe that I am still among the living, end my terrible sufferings by thrusting this dagger through my heart and leave it there.”

The dying man held up a keen, pointed, new pearl handled dagger, which he passed to his sisters and then sank back to the bed. In a few minutes he apparently died, but not before his sisters had promised him that they would carry out his last wish.

The body was kept until yesterday in order that Druggist Fay’s dying request might be observed to the letter. Ever since his death the body has rested in a rich casket in the front room. The sisters watched it day and night. In his coffin Fay looked like a man in robust health. His cheeks were full of color and his whole appearance was that of a person calmly sleeping. His sisters refused to permit his body to be buried. At the end of a week the life-lie appearance of the body had not changed, and even the physicians who examined it had doubts as to the presence of death. Great interest was manifested in the case by the residents of Hammonton, and it came to be regarded as one of the strangest phenomena of its kind that had ever occurred in the country. As the days went by and the body was kept above ground interest increased. The body still preserved all the appearance of life and the sisters resorted to electricity with a view of bringing about some kind of action in the body. At the earnest solicitations of relatives, the sisters agree last Saturday that if more distinct signs of life did not appear by the morrow they would carry out to the letter the dying wish of their brother. For the first time faint signs of dissolution began yesterday to manifest themselves and the sisters appeared to be reconciled. They also notified their friends of their intention of carrying out their brother’s wish, and would have the dagger he had handed them plunged into his heart.

Preparations were accordingly made for the tragic event. The physician who granted the death certificates signified his willingness to officiate. Word was sent to the immediate relatives and they came as witnesses. The dead man’s little daughter arrived from the convent in the custody of an aunt—and took a last farewell of her father. The body was lying in a front room between the windows. The top of the casket had been removed and the shroud had been thrown on one side so as to make the region of the heart accessible. An aperture was made in the under garments with a pair of scissors, and the severed flaps held back by pins, exposing the surface of the skin directly above the heart. The skin was of a faint red color. After all the friends and neighbors had taken a last leave of the deceased, only the immediate relatives and the physician remained, and the others left the room.

The street outside the house was lined with hundreds of persons who had assembled out of curiosity. Their gaze alternated between the windows of the room in which the body lay and the piece of black crape which had fluttered form the handle of the doorbell for thirteen days.

In the meantime the sisters and relatives congregated around the casket and wept. The bright dagger, which was to allay their doubt lay upon the dead man’s breast. The physician came forward and unhesitatingly picked it up, and placing the point directly in the center of the exposed space of the skin, with a quick thrust the keen point was plunged downward into the dead druggists’ heart. The physician said that not a drop of blood came from the wound made by the dagger.

The little dagger was left in the body, the pearl handle protruding. The sisters breathed a long drawn sign of relief when their brother’s last wish had been executed. The undertaker then stepped forward and closed down the lid. The relatives and friends retired to the carriages, which followed the body to the cemetery. Here services were read, and all that was mortal of Druggist Fay was laid away to rest.

Kansas City [MO] Times 12 December 1890: p. 9

What a thoroughly melodramatic tale! So much so that I wondered if Mr. Fay existed at all.  Additional news items confirm that the events above are likely to have taken place very much as they are related.

 THEY THINK HE’S IN A TRANCE

A Very Lifelike Appearance Returns After Death to Mr. Fay’s Face.

May’s Landing, Nov. 23. About ten or twelve days ago George W. Fay, who is a druggist of Hammonton, about twelve miles from here, was confined to his bed with an abscess of the brain. Later dropsy appeared, and on Tuesday evening last he undoubtedly died. He was pronounced dead by the attending physicians. His limbs were then much swollen and his face much discolored. On Thursday morning members of his family were much surprised to find that the swellings had almost entirely disappeared and a lifelike look had come back into his face. His cheeks became red and under his left ear a small bright red spot appeared. The family concluded to postpone the funeral until Friday. On that day, as no other signs of life had appeared, the body was taken to the cemetery for interment. The funeral sermon was preached and the coffin was opened for the friends and relatives to view the remains. At this time the face appeared so lifelike that the family refused to allow the burial to take place, and insisted on the body being taken back to the house again. This was done, and now the family anxiously await further developments. Many are of the opinion that Mr. Fay is in a trance.

Mr. Fay kept a large rug store in Hammonton. Once he had to serve a term in the county jail for illegal liquor selling. He was so popular that on his release the Court House bell was rung and hundreds flocked to escort him to his home. The Sun [New York, NY] 24 November 1890: p. 2

Spirits Didn’t Work.

Mays Landing, N.J., Dec. 4. The body of George W. Fay, a prominent druggist of this place, was buried in Green Mount cemetery about two miles from Hammonton, this afternoon. Fay died 16 days ago, but his three sisters, who are spiritualists, would not consent to his burial, believing that he would return to life. The corpse still retained its life-like appearance, the cheeks being as red as roses. Not for one moment during the past 16 days have the sisters left the corpse They took turns in watching the lifeless form of their brother, and have not doubted or lost faith in the spirits. The other spiritualists of the place had long ago given up the idea that Fay was alive and were anxious for the burial to take place. Vancouver [BC] Daily World 4 December 1890: p. 1

According to Findagrave.com, Fay is buried in Greenmount Cemetery, Hammonton, NJ.

I wrote about the horrors of premature interment in last October’s “Things That Scare Us” series.  Mrs Daffodil had several posts on the topic: here and here. There are also stories of burial alive in The Victorian Book of the Dead. 

It is rather unusual to ask family members to do the dire deed; more often the family doctor was called in. One can only shudder at the thought of a loved one coming to life too late at the point of a knife. Other stories of coups de grâce gone wrong? Sharpen well before sending to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

 

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

The Twelve Deaths of Christmas

skeleton with Santa Mask Christian Century 1921.JPG

It’s that hap-hapless-est time of the year! which means that it is time for another compendium of vintage fatalities peculiar to the holidays.  Today, let’s sing of the Twelve Deaths of Christmas.

You better watch out;

you better not cry;

I’m making a list

Of how people die…

  1. Death by Pre-holiday Excitement

Remember those days when you simply couldn’t wait for Santa?  You didn’t suffer the fate of these children or you wouldn’t be reading this.

Curiosity is Fatal

Chicago, Ill., Dec. 24. Unable to wait until tonight little Tony Fragino, 5 years old, lifted the lid in the kitchen stove to see if Santy was starting down the chimney. A spark fell on his clothes. He burned to death.

Omaha [NE] World Herald 25 December 1912: p. 7

The eight-year-old daughter of a laborer named Garth, in Blackburn, Lancashire, died from severe burns received at Christmas. The mother found her daughter in flames in a bedroom, and on questioning her, the little one replied, “Oh, mamma, I’ve been putting my hand up the chimney for Father Christmas.”

Poverty Bay Herald, 14 February 1896: p. 2

2. Death by Fear of Father Christmas

Last year a photo went the rounds of social media showing a distressed-looking young child signing “HELP ME” as he sat on Santa’s lap. This lad was sadly unable to articulate his Santa-phobia.

CHILD’S STRANGE FEAR

FLEES FROM SANTA CLAUS

KILLED BY MOTOR-CAR.

The strange fear of a child of Father Christmas was described at the Melbourne morgue on the last day of the sad Old Year, when the city Coroner, Mr. D. Grant; held an inquest into the death of Jack Plummer, aged four years, of Raleigh street, Northcote, Melbourne. Robert Leslie Alexander Blower, tanner, of Raleigh street, Northcote, said that about half-past 8 o’clock on the evening of 24th December he was driving his motor-car behind another car along High street, Northcote, near its intersection with Martin street. Suddenly a child ran from the footpath in front of his car and was struck by the front mudguard. Witness took the child to a doctor and then to the Children’s Hospital, where he died soon after. Stanley R. R. Plummer, father of the dead boy, said that he was present when the accident happened. A man dressed as Father Christmas was near by, and a child took Jack Plummer by the hand and tried to lead him to Father Christmas. Jack was always afraid of Father Christmas, and broke away from his friend and ran madly across the road. Witness could not say why the child feared Father Christmas, but he was of a nervous temperament.

Evening Post, 9 January 1931: p. 9

3. Death by Tree

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

Killed by a Christmas Tree.

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

Mrs. Babbington, who is to undergo two operations, one for blood poisoning and another for tumor, is awaiting her husband’s funeral before going to the hospital.

The Salina [KS] Evening Journal 22 February 1909: p. 5

To be Relentlessly Informative, a felon is a painful abscess of the deep tissues of the palmar surface of the fingertip that is typically caused by infection of a bacterium.  This seems an odd sort of injury from a tree and it is possible that something else caused the blood-poisoning.  Or perhaps the trees were sprayed with some arsenical green solution to keep them fresh-looking?

Tragically, a more typical report from the era of clip-on candles was this one:

BURNING CHRISTMAS TREE IS BABE’S PYRE

Trying to Light Candles Child Sets Itself Ablaze

New York, Dec. 29. Three-year-old Percival Dolan was burned to death this afternoon, his clothes having been set afire by a blazing Christmas tree at his home. The child’s mother left him locked alone in her rooms. A tenant heard the child scream and saw smoke coming from the rooms.

She forced the door and found the boy enveloped in flames and rolling in agony on the floor. The mother by this time had been attracted by the screams. The women threw a blanket over the child, extinguishing the flames. The boy was carried to a hospital, where he died within two hours. The boy had set the tree afire while trying to light the candles.

Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 30 December 1900: p. 16

4. Death by Christmas Ornament

Victorian holiday décor was often made from toxic materials like lead and asbestos, but this Christmas bauble was designed to kill.

Christmas Tree Bobble [sic]

A Deadly Booby Trap.

Pittsburgh, Dec. 23 What looked like a little copper tube with wires attached when 14-year-old Ronald Berich hung it on his Christmas tree, turned out to be a detonator which exploded with savage force critically injuring the youth.

The blast blew off thumbs and forefingers on both hands and inflicted serious internal injuries. The boy’s father, Clarence, was only slightly injured. The elder Berich said the device had been knocking about the house for years and that no one knew what it was.

Atchison [KS] Daily Globe 23 December 1946: p. 1

5. Death by Holiday Shopping

Every year we hear reports of fisticuffs over sale goods, stampedes, and sometimes even deaths during the Christmas shopping rush. It was ever thus.

CHRISTMAS RUSH WAS FATAL
Floorwalker in Crowded Store Accidentally Killed in Scuffle With Shopper

Omaha, Nebraska. David Stettsy, floorwalker at the store of J.G. McCrorey & Co., was almost instantly killed in the presence of a throng of Christmas shoppers at 6 o’clock. The killing was done in a scuffle with a shopper and is believed by the police to have been the result of an accident.

Two young men, Ed McGrath and F.J. Riley, were shopping in the store, and McGrath accidentally knocked some goods from the counter. Stettsy seized him by the arm. A brief scuffle ensued, and Stettsy was thrown to the floor. He failed to rise, and bystanders who rushed to his assistance found that he was dead. His neck was broken. McGrath was taken into custody.

Morgan County Republican [Versailles MO] 28 December 1911: p. 7

6.  Death by Inadequate Gifts

Then there is the despondency that comes from disappointing a loved one at the holidays.

NOTHING FOR HIS SWEETHEART

Therefore This Young Man Deliberately Hanged Himself.

Charles Schellenberg, thirty-seven years old, a cabinet-maker, committed suicide in his lodging room, No. 641 East Fifth street, yesterday. He had been out of work and was despondent; besides, he was engaged to be married and had promised to buy his sweetheart a Christmas present. He got work two or three days ago but found he would not get paid in time to purchase the present.

Yesterday morning his boarding-mistress called him in time to go to his work, but he said he would not go out. She was arranging bedclothes in the adjoining room during the afternoon, and, glancing through the door cracks, she saw the figure of a man in Schellenberg’s room. She though he had gone out, and imagined the figure to be that of a burglar. She ran downstairs and told two boarders that there was a burglar in the house. They ran upstairs, burst open the door and found Schellenberg hanging to a rope which was thrown over a poker laid on two shelves. The ceiling of the room was so low that the suicide had to draw up his legs so as to hang himself. He had been dead two hours.

The Evening World [New York NY] 25 December 1889: p. 4

7. Death by Too Much Holiday Company

For some unfortunates, the thought of entertaining at the holidays was simply unbearable.

HERE’S A WARNING

Denver, Col. Dec. 23 Wives who would not be Christmas widows, heed the warning in the act of Kenneth K. Kane, a railway mail clerk. Do not invite all your relatives for Christmas dinner.

“I want to get along with everybody, and I want everybody to like me. But it makes me mighty sore when I think of the big crowd my wife has invited to our house for Christmas dinner,” wailed Kane.

He then arranged all the Christmas gifts he had received in the shape of a coffin, lay down inside the casket of gifts and put a bullet through his brain. He died instantly.

The Day Book [Chicago IL] 23 December 1912: p 21

Other accounts say that Mr. Kane was found gripping a letter from his mother-in-law, announcing her intention of visiting and that the packages next to his body were the gifts he had purchased for the family.  A neighbor had heard him complain, “I don’t see why we can’t have this Christmas to ourselves.”

8. Death by Fruitcake

Yes, I know—if you are not a fruitcake aficionado, even eating the stuff is a kind of a death, but that is not the issue. The roster of persons poisoned by holiday fruitcake would fill a whole series of posts—that is because (and don’t try this at home) arsenical insecticides look so very much like flour.

Poisoned Christmas Cake Fatal For Five

Newport, Ark., Dec. 26

Whether poison was used accidentally in a Christmas cake that brought death to five persons was being investigated today by authorities.

Mr. and Mrs. Walter Ballew and three of their sons, ranging in age from 15 to 23, died of poisoning as the result of eating the cake. Mrs. Ballew baked the cake early last week for her Christmas dinner. After one of the smaller cakes was served for dinner Thursday, members of the family became ill, and died later.

Sheriff A.C. Albright said he learned Ballew, a farmer, used arsenic last summer for poisoning of insects on cotton. Eight pounds of the poison were found in a barrel in the Ballew attic. The officer is investigating to determine whether Mrs. Ballew used some of the arsenic in the cake mixture by mistake or if someone had placed the poison in the flour intentionally.

Bellingham [WA] Herald 26 1932: p. 10

I can’t resist adding this incident, which sounds like something written by Edward Gorey, even though technically there were no fatalities.

Ate Poisoned Fruit Cake

Terrell, Tex., May 7. Eighteen patients and two attendants of the North Texas Insane Asylum were poisoned yesterday by eating fruit cake. The victims were attacked with vomiting and violent passages from the bowels, accompanied by deathly sickness. All the physicians were brought into service and the victims purged. The latter are now thought to be out of danger. The cake was distributed by Miss Bertie White, a kleptomaniac, but no suspicion rests upon her. The poison is thought to have been contained in the ingredients.

St Louis [MO] Republic 8 May 1892: p. 24

9. Death in a Santa Suit

Those jolly old elves of the past took their lives in their hands. Scores, if not hundreds of Santa-impersonators went up in flames in their cotton beards and suits. You will note the casual use of “another” in the sub-head.

SANTA BURNED ALIVE
Another of Him Reported Fatally Burned

Coshocton, O., Dec. 26. Having impersonated Santa Claus for the benefit of a number of children near his home at Tunnell Hill, George Reed, aged 22, was burned so badly he cannot recover. After the celebration Reed went to his room and in lighting a lamp ignited the long cotton whiskers he wore for the disguise.

Rockford [IL] Republic 27 December 1905: p. 2

Another hazard was the anonymity of the Santa Claus suit.

SANTA CLAUS KILLED

Mistaken for a Burglar at Jackson, Miss.

Jackson, Miss., December 25. Charles R. Young tonight shot and killed his uncle, Prof. Lawrence Saunders, mistaking him for a burglar. Prof. Saunders, who for many years has been teacher in the State Deaf and Dumb Institute, was disguised as Santa Claus, and visiting his sister’s home, knocked for admittance. Young asked who was at the door, and receiving no reply, he fired the ball passing through the door and killing Saunders instantly. Prof. Saunders is a brother of World’s Fair Commissioner Saunders, from Mississippi, and is well known throughout the entire country.

Arkansas Gazette [Little Rock, AR] 26 December 1895: p .6

10. Death by Christmas Card

Peril even lurked in the holiday post….

DEADLY CHRISTMAS CARD.

(Special to Herald.)

DUNEDIN. this day The Health Officer states that a case of diphtheria in Dunedin has been tracked almost with certainty to infection carried by a Christmas card sent from a locality in Invercargill where the disease is prevailing. There are at present a considerable number of cases of diphtheria reported from a comparatively small area in that town.

Poverty Bay Herald, 4 January 1905: p. 2

11. Death by Holiday Fun

So many holiday amusements of the past sound like introductions for the winners of the Darwin Awards…

CHRISTMAS AMUSEMENT,

Which Proved a Very Serious Matter to John McClelland’s Family.

Jeffersonville, Ind., Dec. 26. Last night John McClelland, an employe of the car works, went to his home, and, in order to amuse his wife and children, fired off a lot of shooting crackers. Not satisfied with this he procured a pound of powder and put it into three ale bottles and fastened the bottles up tightly, after he had inserted a fuse to each bottle.

He attempted to fire them off in his yard, but, being unsuccessful, took them into the house and set them upon a table where his wife and baby and a little girl named Berry were sitting, and Mrs. McClelland desired to fire off a shooting cracker, and in order to get a light removed the chimney from a coal oil lamp on the table.

The firecracker went off suddenly and the lamp exploded. The burning oil was communicated to the infernal machines in the three bottles and all three went off with a terrible effect, scattering glass all over the room. The oil set fire to the house and the clothing of the three unfortunate people, Mr. and Mrs. McClelland and Miss Berry.

McClelland succeeded in extinguishing the fire, but not, however, until he was severely burned.  His wife was also dangerously burned about the head and face. Mrs. McClelland’s clothing was burned from her body. The powder and glass from the bottles did terrible work. Miss Berry was probably fatally injured by a piece striking her in the side. She was also cut and burned in several places. The explosion tore out window panes, and pieces of bottles were found fastened in nearly every part of the house.

Cincinnati [OH] Daily Gazette 27 December 1881: p. 2

12. Death by Christmas Presents

By far the most common category of Christmas gift casualties arose from “toy” guns–either via gunshot wounds or something like tetanus caused by wadding shot into the skin. “You’ll shoot your eye out,” was no idle threat.

DEATH FROM LOCKJAW

Walter Bejano Dies from Effects of Toy Pistol Shot

Walter Bejano, the 9-year-old son of J. J. Bejano, 234 South Ervay street, died at the home of his parents yesterday morning as the result of a wound from a toy pistol. On Christmas night the little fellow shot himself in the hand with the dangerous toy, the wad almost piercing the left hand, its results causing his death.

Dallas [TX] Morning News 2 January 1904: p. 3

The second tragedy was the loss of an eye to a 5 year old boy who paid an unexpected visit to the decorated Christmas tree and found an air rifle intended for him on the morrow.  It is hard to imagine the carelessness that would allow a child of that age to have such a dangerous toy, to say nothing of loading it beforehand.

Springfield [MA] Union 12 January 1914: p. 17

‘SHOOT ME JUST FOR FUN, BRUDDER’

Seven-Year-Old Lad Kills His Younger Brother With Christmas Rifle.

Colorado Springs, Colo., Dec. 26. “Shoot me, brudder, just for fun,” said 5-year-old Henry Johnson, as he lay on a sick bed at his home here yesterday afternoon, to his 7-year-old brother, Clarence, who had been given a 22-caliber target rifle for a Christmas present. Henry had been too ill to be out of bed to celebrate the day, but he watched his brother playing with the new and dangerous toy with all a boy’s deep interest he could summon.

Clarence playfully pointed the weapon at Henry’s breast and pulled the trigger. The bullet entered the sick boy’s body and the lad died an hour later. Clarence is heartbroken and his parents are prostrated at the sad and tragic ending of a day that began with so much joy, happiness and hope in the little home. Christian Johnson, the father of the boys, is a Colorado Midland section foreman.

Denver [CO] Post 26 December 1907: p. 4

But even innocent-looking presents could be lethal:

New York. Very proud of a football he had won in a Christmas raffle, Richard Batterby, ten years old, of Jersey City, was made captain of a football team and was killed in the first rush with the new ball.

A crowd of enthusiastic boys met in a vacant lot at Sixteenth and Grove streets. Richard was the liveliest of them all.

“All together, now! Show them what we can do!” he shouted, when the team was lined up.
There was a rush, and Richard went down under the great pile of struggling boys. Then all except Richard got up for the next play. He lay still, clinging tightly to the ball. His playmates rolled him over and began to scream when they saw his pale face.

A doctor hurried to the scene. He made a short examination, and then said the boy was dead.

Albuquerque [NM] Evening Citizen 1 January 1907: p. 2

There are other reports of children with new skates or sleds who slid under trams, and a very sad story of an infant with a new Christmas doll. The doll fell into a bucket of water; the child drowned trying to reach it.

I’ve written before about poisoned stockings. Mordants and dyes often contained dangerous poisons like picric acid and arsenic. Most of the time the wearer merely sickened; this is one of the few reported fatalities.

YULE STOCKINGS FATAL

Christmas Gift Causes Blood Infection, Killing Woman

Dell Rapids, Jan. 9 A new pair of highly colored “Christmas stockings” worn by Mrs. O. Caldwell of Dell Rapids caused blood infection which resulted in her death.

Aberdeen [SD] American 9 January 1917: p. 7

And, finally, be careful what you wish for.

DIED OF JOY

A Lad Overcome on Receiving His Christmas Present

South Bend, Ind., Dec. 27 Paul Gearhart, 14, was so delighted at receiving a pair of skates that he uttered a cry of joy and fell to the floor dead from heart failure.

Cincinnati [OH] Post 27 December 1892: p. 4

 

Death sees you when you’re sleeping.

He knows your home floor plan.

He knows when you’ve been bad or good

So evade him if you can….

 

Other deaths of Christmas?  chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

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

Tales of Terrible Turkeys: A Thanksgiving Post

Turkey Horror 1895

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

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

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

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

Turkeys on a Rampage.

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

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

TURKEY ATTACKS ARTIST;

SERIOUSLY INJURES HIM

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

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

GOBBLER ATTACKS AUTO

Wins Fight With Bird Mirrored in Varnish of Car.

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

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

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

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

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

“Bubbly Jock, your wife is a witch,

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

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

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

Attacked by a Turkey

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

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

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

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

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

This was the more usual outcome.

A Gobbler Attacks a Child

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

Or this.

A Child Killed by a Turkey Cock

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

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

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

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

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

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

POISONED TURKEY SENT TO KILL WHOLE FAMILY

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

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

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

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

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

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

Know When to Hold ’em: Waiting Mortuaries in Connecticut

buried alive in seattle A

Continuing our grewsome theme of burial alive is this proposal from Bridgeport, Connecticut, for an organization that would hold the bodies of the dead until they showed unmistakable signs of decomposition. In short, German waiting mortuaries: the Leichenhaus or Totenhaus.  For whatever reason, these never caught on in America. I’m not sure if it was some inherent squeamishness in the American character, a reluctance to commit to the expense or the real estate, or a practical realization that while there were plenty of false alarm bells rung by the gases of decay in the Leichenhauser of Germany, no one ever got out alive.

A NOVEL SOCIETY

Bridgeport People Who Will Not Be Buried Alive if They Can Help It.

Bridgeport, Conn., Oct. 15. The first of next month a meeting will be held at the rooms of the Scientific Society to organize a Humane Burial society. One of the promoters of the scheme when asked as to the objects of the organization last evening said: “You may not know it perhaps, but in Bridgeport and all of the country, there are a great number of people who have a nervous dread that they may be buried alive. Probably I could name 100 of my personal acquaintances who cherish this awful fear, and there are plenty of cases to show that such an apprehension is not without foundation. What the projected society proposes to do is to take charge of the remains of deceased persons or those supposed to be deceased, and care for them for a sufficient length of time and under conditions which will make their being buried alive an impossibility. The awakening of public interest on this subject is another one of our objects. To most people the idea of establishing such a society will doubtless seem very strange, and did I not know how many people in Bridgeport feel about the matter the same as myself I should hesitate about taking any active part in the movement.” The speaker was reminded that the danger of being buried alive was thoroughly discussed by the Scientific Society a few years ago, and that the weight of medical evidence introduced went to show that the apprehensions alluded to had in reality very little foundation.

“That is true,” was the response, “but that proves nothing. In fact the medical fraternity now virtually confess that none of the old accepted tests used to determine whether the vital spark is really fled or not, can be taken as conclusive. The absence of warmth in the body, the apparent absence of circulation, the eye test, the test with the mirror held before the respiratory organs, and in fact all the other familiar tests, have been proven defective in well authenticated cases. Sometimes by a lucky accident, and sometimes through an apparent excess of caution, persons pronounced by high medical authority to be dead have emerged from the trance condition which gave the simulation of death. Most of the best medical men will tell you today that the only positive proof of death, one that cannot lead to a mistake under any circumstances is the setting in of decomposition. The aim of the society about to be organized is to apply to our members and such others as we may accept the charge of, this only and absolute test. Such an object is worth working for even if it falls to the lot of only one in 10,000, or even one in 100,000, to suffer the terrible doom of being put under ground while alive. We know that many have suffered this fate; how many such cases there have occurred not known of, nobody knows. As I have said, the number deeply interested in this subject is more than would naturally be believed.”

New Haven [CT] Register 15 October 1885: p. 1

The unnamed spokesperson makes a good point about the medical profession’s uncertainty about the certainty of death. Despite modern medical advances, the controversy continues even today. My question is, did this plan to hold the bodies of the dead of Bridgeport ever get off the ground? I can find no evidence that it did, but perhaps they purchased a holding vault somewhere and began on a modest scale rather than the palatial Leichenhauser of Germany.

If you have dug deeper than I and know whether the corpse-holding organization was ever active, let me know at chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

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

The Lost Art of the Coffin Threat


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

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

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

THREAT

CONTENTS OF NOTE

Miniature Coffins and Threat leads To Two Deaths in Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

A FATAL JOKE

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

[Boston Spec. to North American.]

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

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

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

 FINDS COFFIN MODEL IN MAIL

Military Secretary at Denver Startled by Package from Crank

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

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

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

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

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

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

AN EMBLEM OF DEATH

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

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

A Fetish Spell,

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

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

A Tiny Coffin,

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

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

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

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

Of course, such spells might backfire.

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

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

NEGRO IS WARNED BY COFFIN, NOTE

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enemies Unknown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

DOLL POPPED FROM MINIATURE COFFIN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dicing with Death

Dicing with Death gambling with death
Dicing with Death

In my recent look at superstitions, gamblers are often described as the “most superstitious” of folk.  The papers of the past took much pleasure in interviewing card-sharps and casino habitués about their pet hoodoos, which might involve, for example, a lucky elephant watch fob or a gambler’s horror of an onlooker’s foot on his chair. But, realistically, what are the odds that I would give you a post on such penny-ante gambling superstitions when there are charms and omens involving death or body parts to be had?

Omitting the well-known “Dead Man’s Hand” and the “death futures” insurance taken out on the lives of famous people like Queen Victoria and King Edward VII, we find that trinkets associated with execution or suicide were cherished by gamblers.

HANGMAN’S ROPE

Russian variant of the superstition. Reported March 27th, 1880

The hangman is permitted to trade upon the superstition still current in Russian society, respecting the luck conferred upon gamesters by the possession of a morsel of the rope with which a human being has been strangled, either by the hand of justice or by his own. Immediately after young M’Cadetzky had been hanged, only the other day, Froloff was surrounded by members of the Russian jeunesse dorée, eager to purchase scraps of the fatal noose; and he disposed of several dozen such talismans at from three to five roubles apiece, observing with cynical complacency that “he hoped the Nihilists would yet bring him in plenty of money.” The Warner Library, Vol. 17, 1917

The ladies were quite as avid as the men to acquire gruesome charms.

Some years ago Louise, Duchess of Devonshire and the late duke were walking on the seashore at Eastbourne when there was washed in at their feet the hand of a negro which apparently had been cut off at the wrist. On one of the fingers was a ring of Oriental workmanship. The duchess had this ring removed and has kept it as a talisman ever since. She has worn it at Monte Carlo when she has had on “a little bit” at the tables and also when she played bridge.

Hangmen from time to time receive letters from women of position offering them sums of money for locks of hair or buttons from the garments of their victims. They make the stipulation that these must not be removed until after the culprit is dead. It seems that in the lore of the superstitious the ghastly object has no significance if taken in life. Even more intensely appreciated is a coin which has been rubbed on the dead body of an executed. This, it is said, will bring almost fabulous wealth to the possessor. Those who gamble are ready with any price for such a memento. In England, at any rate, there are overwhelming difficulties in getting possession of such, indeed it is only the personal friends of the governors of the prisons where executions take place or the hangmen who can secure them. Columbus [GA] Daily Enquirer 27 November 1910: p. 7

One man who had a remarkable run of luck at Monte Carlo last year ascribed it all to a franc which he wore on his watch chain. This coin had a grim history, for it was the only piece of money found on the body of a gambler who committed suicide in the grounds of the Casino after losing his entire fortune at the gaming tables. The Chickasha [OK] Daily Express 14 August 1901: p. 3

It is interesting how the gamblers in the following story are shocked, shocked! that anyone would rob a grave for a lucky charm. I imagine them uneasily fingering their unsavory talismans in their pockets as they spoke to the reporter.

DEAD WOMEN’S FINGERS.

They Are Not Particularly Sought After by Gamblers.

According to a story that comes from Cincinnati, says the Chicago News, a woman’s grave there was lately desecrated by a gambler for the purpose of getting the forefinger of the woman as a guaranty of good luck.

“I never heard such a story before,” said a well-known gambler. “Gamblers are superstitious, but not in this way that I have ever heard of. They have a mortal fear of pennies, and will often throw them away, thinking that the copper brings them bad luck. In the game of faro bank coppers are generally used and pennies are considered as omens of evil if carried in the pockets.

“It is just the same with old pocket-knives or anything that may be thought unlucky. They would sooner fling half their possessions into the river than run the chance of losing a game. It is sometimes very amusing to see how these superstitious notions prevail, but I suppose they are so well established that they are taken quite seriously.

“Then gamblers make a great deal of how they take their seats at a table and whether they are accosted by anyone while they are playing. If you put our foot upon a gambler’s chair while he is playing he would call you a hoodoo and probably black your eye for your, a such a thing is counted unlucky.”…[S]aid another gambler, on reading the dispatch, “It was a pretty tough job to undertake, even for a gambler. I wonder how any man could do it. He was a tough character, I’ll bet.”

“The man must have been crazy,” chimed in a third. “Some gamblers have their superstitions, but on the whole they are pretty much like other men. They don’t, as a rule, act in such an outrageous manner as this. I fancy the man was off the square a bit.” Salina [KS] Daily Republican 23 January 1892: p. 3

Enthusiastic amateurs aside, bereaved relatives seemed to regularly get permission to dig up graves in order to locate lottery tickets. Inspiration for the 1961 film Mr. Sardonicus…?

Corpse Exhumed to Obtain Prize Lottery Ticket

Brussel, Sept. 10. A romance has just been unfolded in connection with the recent Brussels lottery. For some time the chief prize of $40,000 was unclaimed, and the identity of the winner as just been established in a remarkable manner.

It appears that a young Belgian, aged 19, had purchased a ticket for the lottery, and shortly afterwards he was killed while at work through a stone falling on him. A few days before the result of the lottery was announced he was buried, according to custom, in his Sunday clothes. Some weeks passed and no claimant came forward for the first prize. Then the young man’s friends remember that he had a lottery ticket in the waistcoat pocket of his best suit, and an application was forwarded to the authorities for permission to have the body exhumed. After the usual official delay, the request was granted, and as was expected, the winning ticket was found in the dead man’s clothes. The relatives are now claiming the money. The Oregon Daily Journal [Portland, OR] 11 September 1910: p. 49

Did the newspapers delight in these stories merely as species of urban legend? A parallel  case was reported in 2014 when a woman dug up her father’s coffin in search of his “real will.” I’m betting that at least some of these gruesome exhumations actually occurred. They accurately reflect the very real wardrobe shortages of the poor and working classes. Let us have two more.

MISSING LOTTERY TICKET.

FOUND IN A GRAVE

Madrid, January 4. A widow named Colila learned that her husband had bought a fifth share in a lottery ticket, which had won six thousand sterling. Failing to find the ticket, the widow obtained an exhumation order, and found it in the pocket of a waistcoat in which her husband was buried. Press, 6 January 1925: p. 7

Just as the undertaker’s men were about to a coffin at Paris in which lay the body of a man who, according to Continental custom, was dressed in his best clothes for burial, his widow noticed sticking out of his coat pocket a fractional lottery ticket. To her astonishment on examining the ticket she found that it had drawn the third prize in the Christmas lottery, entitling the holder to a very large sum. Auckland [NZ] Star, 10 March 1928: p. 3

Lotteries, particular those held at Christmas, were a tradition throughout Europe and many arcane methods were devised for picking the lucky numbers. In this case, the death of Emperor Napoleon III spurred wild plunges on the numbers of his life.

An English magazine not long since described some of the curious theories and superstitions which prevail among devotees of the lottery and the gaming-table, regarding “lucky numbers.” There are traditionally fortunate and unfortunate combinations, and there are also newer favorites, based very often on figures connected with the chronology of famous men. The career of Napoleon III. would seem to be considered by gamblers a specially successful one, for since his death they have been betting furiously on all numbers supposed to bear a relation to sundry pivotal events of his life. In Vienna, in Milan, in Rome, the newspapers notice this universal rage among regular patrons of the lottery for staking their fortunes on Napoleonic numbers; and, what is also curious, these numbers have in several instances turned out lucky. Thus, in a late Vienna paper we read that “the death of the Man of Sedan has brought good luck to the old women of this city who give themselves up with unquenchable passion to the lottery.” At the last drawing, as the paper goes on to say, the numbers most eagerly seized upon were 3, for Napoleon III.; 65, for his age; 20, for his birthday, it falling on the twentieth of the month; 90, as the highest number in the lottery, hence interpreted to signify “emperor;” and finally 52, the year of his accession to the throne. To the joy of all the old lottery-gossips, the luck fell on these numbers, 3, 20, and 90. At Rome the death of Napoleon III. has furnished new combinations for all the devotees of the lottery. At Milan the same infatuated class have “pointed a moral” of their own from the event—a moral quite different from the one extracted by sermonizers. They have been playing heavily on number 20 (a gold Napoleon being worth twenty francs), and on number 13, which latter, as the proverbially unlucky one, is interpreted to mean the ex-emperor’s death. On the first drawing after his death these two numbers proved to be the lucky ones of the lottery, and it was then found that there had been a great number of winners. Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Volume 11, April 1873

In Sicily, lottery numbers were chosen by dream symbolism and prayers to dead relatives, saints, and executed criminals.

The petitions of most lottery-players are addressed to the souls of executed criminals, a kind of devil-worship not easy to explain. A favourite soul is the Anima Pia (pious soul), who was executed in the seventeenth century. These souls in purgatory have need of the prayers of the living, who threaten to withhold them if no help is vouchsafed. The Anima Pia is propitiated by a lighted lamp placed on four evenings in the four different corners of a room. Lottery-numbers are then revealed in a dream, and strict secrecy imposed on the person who dreams them.

Witchcraft is also invoked by the gamblers as well as the saints. Persons believed to know of winning numbers are called subjects, and are possessed by a spirit. A certain priest and three monks, long since dead, are still famous for having made the fortunes of several individuals. The system of numbers used by the cabalists is very complicated and confusing, the figures being mixed intricately and one standing for another. A more simple way is to play the numbers attached to various events, objects, or personages. If some one plays in the lottery with the assistance of Saint Lucia, for instance, he plays twenty-four for her eyes and the date of the day on which he buys his ticket. On the Day of the Dead (November 2nd) fire is the figure of the tomb, thirteen of the wax candles, and twenty-five of the mass. There are special numbers for every saint’s day or other holiday; and there are numbers belonging to the special attributes of the saints, as for example, to Saint Anthony’s pig or Saint Joseph’s staff….Poor women pray to their dead relations before going to bed. Mommino, the writer of the articles from whom these facts are drawn, knew a woman who, only a year ago, refused to take flowers to the family tomb on All Souls’ Day, because none of her dead relations had ever revealed winning numbers to her in a dream. “They forget me,” she said, “so I will forget them.” Macmillan’s Magazine, Volume 75, 1897

Venetians had a really gruesome method for seeking lucky lottery numbers.

In Venice not long ago a lottery drawing gave rise to the opening of coffins, in order that the sign of a lucky number might be detected in the eye or on the lips of the corpse. Shrouds, dusty and covered with mould, were examined for traces of writing that might lead to the sought-for knowledge, and new-born infants were closely inspected for birthmarks that would reveal the secret, while it is said that ladies of birth and education wore their dresses with the insides turned out, in order to propitiate the god of the wheel. In Naples a begging monk was fallen on by two footpads, and, failing to tell them the lucky number, was beaten so severely that he afterwards died. Otago [NZ] Witness 14 October 1897: p. 43

And

There is a curious superstition in Venice that if a stranger dies in a hotel the number of his room will be lucky at the next lottery. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 16 January 1898: p. 17

This next article is meant to reassure readers as to the prudent character of the future Sovereign of Great Britain, unlike those common gamblers who carried skeletal hand mascots to the gaming tables.

[Edward] The Prince of Wales is quite a frequenter of Monte Carlo and one of its luckiest players in a moderate way, for my bold prince is none of your plungers. His winnings at Monte Carlo and other gaming tables have assisted him in no small degree toward keeping the family pot boiling. Some two or three years ago he made a coup which enabled him to satisfy the demands of some of his most important creditors. He possesses the gambler’s disposition par excellence, being neither too timid nor too bold, too trusting nor too credulous, too pessimistic nor too optimistic He has none of the common gambler’s superstition, and does not believe in any signs, omens, or mascots. The latter is something that all the regular habitués of Monte Carlo religiously pin their faith to. And it is amusing to see the character of the mascots on which they rely. Some of them suggest very strongly the uncanny things which the witches in “Macbeth” drop into their cauldron. Any portion of a corpse is highly esteemed as a mascot, such, for instance, as a little finger bone, or a small piece of a toe joint. One Portuguese player recently aroused much envy by carrying about with him the skeleton hand of one of his countrymen who had been murdered in a quarrel at the card table. If the mascot comes from one who has committed suicide its mascotism is supposed to be doubly powerful. The last time Sarah Bernhardt was here she had for her mascot the head of one of her favorite parrots, who had strangled himself by getting that same head between the bars of his cage, though whether accidentally or with suicidal intent no coroner’s jury ever determined. The Deseret [UT] Weekly, Volume 46, 1893

I’ll fold with one of the more gruesome stories of gambling luck. This comes from an eerie tale of Monte Carlo superstition and synchronicity called “That’s funny. Not a grain of lead,” over at Mrs Daffodil’s blog.

Crack! a sudden shot broke through the great room and everybody who was not watching a stake rushed into a corner, where some unknown plunger had just taken the last plunge into eternity by blowing out his brains. The attendants collected from every corner and formed a hedge round the dead man. Quickly and soundlessly they began moving him out by a side-door, while gamblers picking up their stakes ran to dip a finger in his blood for luck. In five minutes he had disappeared as though he had fallen off a liner into a boiling sea. Monte Carlo cannot afford to have scandals on the premises any more than any well-established and well-connected institution, and is generally more successful than others in concealing them. Blood is soon mopped up, especially if the passers believe that it is a charmed fluid. The roulette ball was soon spinning round again, and the only trace of the tragedy was the struggle of a dozen gamblers to sit where the suicide had been sitting all the afternoon. It was a superstition that the dead gambler’s spirit does not leave the rooms immediately with death, but remains to avenge his ill luck on the bank; and against the unknown forces of the underworld even the bank cannot win…. Scribner’s Magazine, Volume 72, Edward Livermore Burlingame, Robert Bridges, Harlan Logan, editors, 1922

It is an uncanny echo of crowds surging round the scaffold with their handkerchiefs to sop up the blood of martyrs, broken on the wheel.

Other corpse-related gambling superstitions? Roll them bones to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com. And see “Hunches and Hearses at the Racetrack,” for a story relevant to this subject.

After this was published, Undine of Strange Company sent me this account of a lottery superstition from the Hull [UK] Packet, 19 August, 1828. She saw my lady fingers and raised me a decomposed, severed head. We have a winnah!

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.