Ashes à la carte

 

coffee can urn
Ashes a la carte Coffee Can Urn https://mcphee.com/products/modest-urn

Recently I noted some startling tabloid-fodder in the British press;  an article about a daughter grieving her late mother, who decided to eat her Mum’s ashes with her Christmas dinner. She was quoted as saying sadly, “I feel like she can live on by being inside of me.” Comments on the story ranged from sympathy for her loss to harsh words about her mental state.

It is such a strange and unpalatable story (is there a medical term for this curious taste–parental pica, perhaps?), but if you can’t trust the Mirror, who can you trust?

Just yesterday a report about cookies supposedly baked with human ashes was being circulated, although there is a possibility that it is merely a sensational story.

Since this blog is nothing if not topical, here is a similar story from 1901. At that date, cremation was a relatively new idea (The first modern crematorium in the United States was built in 1876; the first in England in 1878.) and its proponents were sometimes seen as eccentric or even mad. In this story, an excerpt from The Victorian Book of the Dead, we meet Mrs Matilda Francefort, who took to heart the sentiment: “bone of my bone; flesh of my flesh.”

Cremation’s Odd Phases

One Widow Reported to Have Eaten the Ashes of Her Husband

Complications That Happen

A good many queer things have happened in connection with cremation, but perhaps the strangest of them all was the case of Mrs. Matilda

Francefort. Matilda ate her husband, which sounds cannibalistic, but isn’t.

In 1896 Mr. Francefort left his sphere of usefulness in Brooklyn and his soul, it is to be hoped soared to a better world. As for his body, they took it to Fresh Pond and cremated it. Then his widow went after the ashes and took them carefully home with her. All widows do not. Some don’t even buy a niche for them at the crematory or pay storage for them in the cellar.

But Mrs. Francefort was different. She got the ashes of the late Mr. F. and carried them home in a japanned tin box, like a tea canister or a spice box. Perhaps that was suggested to the sorrowing widow the disposition she should next make of them.

At any rate she decided to eat them. There was much to be said in favor of this plan. It was economical. She would save the expense of an urn and niche and a monument by being all that herself. Then, too, she and the dear cremated had lived together for 31 years and she was lonesome without him. She was informed that the ashes would enter permanently into her system and it seemed to be a clear case of eating your cake and having it too. Anybody could see that under the circumstances it was the only way of keeping the family together.

Having decided to eat her husband, the next question was the manner in which he should be served. Mrs. Francefort went over his qualities with a sorrowful heart. He had been a witty man; there was always a spicy flavor in his conversation. Mrs. Francefort made a note: “Spice.”

Then she defied anybody to say that he had not been the salt of the earth. Another note: “Salt.” Still she had to admit that he had a bit of a temper. Note number three: “Pepper.” But then, he was always sweet to her. Final note: “Sugar.” Clearly Mr. Francefort’s post-mortem specialty should be in the condiment line. Mrs. F. determined to take him as seasoning.

So she put a pinch of him in her coffee at breakfast and sprinkled him lightly over the boiled shad. At luncheon he went into the tea, and contributed distinction to the lamb stew. At dinner—well, at dinner the supply of Mr. Francefort’s ashes went down in more ways than one. And whatever the gentleman may have done in life, there is one thing sure, he never disagreed with his widow when he was dead, though a little of him did perhaps go a long way.

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 16 March 1901: p. 12

Was this just a whimsical flight of fancy by the author?  Mrs. Francefort is found in several other newspaper stories when she was involved in a lawsuit over timber rights. The tongue-in-cheek flavor is often found in news stories about human remains. Perhaps a little gallows humor was required for audiences to swallow such a grim tale.

Here is story of a similar piquancy, although I cannot find this “ludicrous mistake” in any of Twain’s published works. It is likely that the celebrity’s name was added to a well-known anecdote. There was a variant of the tale where the tooth-brusher was a servant girl.

A LUDICROUS MISTAKE

Mark Twain Uses Human Ashes for Toothpowder.

New York Letter Kansas City Journal

I was told yesterday a rather amusing story at the expense of Mark Twain—and the same story is already a standing joke in society. Not long ago the humorist was traveling in the country and stopped one evening at a house presided over by an elderly woman. He was shown to a room somewhat bare of ornament and furniture, yet slept peacefully until morning. When morning came and he arose, he became mindful of the fact that although he had provided himself with a toothbrush, he had forgotten his toothpowder. He consoled himself with the thought that there must be tooth powder lying somewhere about. After a brief search he discovered something in a small box on the mantel, which certainly resembled tooth powder. At any rate, he used it vigorously on his teeth and found it satisfactory. When he got down stairs he apologized to his hostess for using her tooth powder. She appeared surprised. “What tooth powder?” she inquired, blandly. “It was on the mantel,” Mark replied. “On the mantel?” she repeated. “Yes, in a small box. It was excellent,” he declared. “Good gracious!” she ejaculated. “That wasn’t tooth powder!” “What was it?” asked Mark, now slightly alarmed. “Why, that was auntie,” said she. (It seems that “auntie” had been cremated.)

San Francisco [CA] Chronicle 14 December 1886: p. 2

Similar mix-ups involving human ashes are found in a previous post on stolen cremains.

I’ve speculated before about the possibility of a hoarding disorder involving a loved one’s remains. If the stories about eating Mum or Mr. Francefort are not urban legends, they, too, might fall into this rare category.

In 2011 a widow who said that she was addicted to eating her husband’s ashes was profiled on a show called My Strange Addiction. Other historic cases of dining on the detritus of the dead?  (Other than the well-known ritual to prevent a vampiric relative from preying on surviving family members….) 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.

 

Advertisements

Tombstone Madness: A 19th Century Occupational Disease

Gothic entrance to Elmwood Cemetery 1886

Ghouls prowled the cemeteries of the 19th century, seeking corpses to unearth, sack, and sell to the anatomist. While our Victorian ancestors were terrified that they might be buried alive, they had an equally deep fear that their dead bodies would be resurrected, not on the Day of Judgment, but in the dead of night by the body snatchers.

To prevent this, graves were salted with explosives like the “coffin torpedo,” or bodies were held in vaults until they were too decayed for dissection. Sometimes heavy weights or cages (mortsafes) were placed over graves to discourage diggers. Family members took turns standing vigil over graves and many cemeteries had watchmen.

It was a thankless job. The ghouls at the head of their profession could open a grave, extract the corpse, and refill the soil in under an hour. A watchman had to be vigilant, walking the grounds of a cemetery in the dark, and in all weathers, for rain softened the ground and allowed for a quicker opening of a grave. Body snatchers might be armed and more than one watchman was murdered or exchanged gunfire among the tombstones. It was no wonder that, in the 1880s, a new occupational disease emerged.

TOMBSTONE MADNESS

A New Form of Mania that Affects People Who Guard Cemeteries.

[Philadelphia Times]

The men who patrol the cemeteries after the sun has gone down are armed with pistols and clubs, and are generally accompanied by trained and savage bloodhounds. In addition to these external and tangible means of defense they must be gifted with rare and peculiar mental organization. So many men have lost their reason through watching graves at night that person in that position have come to believe that they risk lapsing into a state of melancholia perfectly distinct form any other form of insanity. Sextons and grave-diggers call this affliction “tombstone madness.”

A startling realization of this fact was telegraphed throughout the country yesterday. It was announced that several of the soldiers who do sentry duty day and night at the tomb of Garfield, amid the dreary solitude of Lakeview Cemetery, near Cleveland, have become insane. Anything or any device is used by the men to get away from the ghostly muster of tombstones or the dark array of mounds.

An old watchman at Glenwood Cemetery explained this to a Times reporter yesterday by saying that in all probability the soldiers detailed at the grave were not picked.

Take half a dozen men from any walk of life,” he continued, “and place them at night to watch graveyards, and the chances are that in a short time five of the six will feel like retiring permanently to a lunatic asylum.

“If a man wants to enter this profession and be a success at it, he must be about as impressible as brick and mortar. If he has the least bit of imagination he had better abandon the business, for when the moon is obscured by clouds and he is walking about a cemetery, shivering from his heels upward, he will mistake tombstones for ghosts. He will think that the owls, as they whiz past his ears with their mournful hoots, are unquiet spirits come to haunt the receptacles of the bodies which they once permeated. When the noise of his footsteps makes the rats disappear with rustling sound into little thickets of evergreens he will start and grasp his weapon. The very whine of his dog will make him feel nervous, and bit by bit his reason would become impaired.”

“I could give you some sad reminiscences of people who watch graveyards,” said one of the oldest watchmen at Laurel Hill cemetery, in a strange, solemn tone. Then, half jestingly, he added: “But they’re buried in the past, and it’s my business to let what’s buried remain so.” He did not mind telling one story, however.

“I used to work in a Brooklyn cemetery before I came to this city,” he began. “It was then that the terrible scene I shall speak of occurred. We wanted an assistant night watchman very badly, but none of the persons who presented themselves could endure staying up with the graves for more than two or three nights each. At least there came an unfortunate man whose health seemed shattered by overwork and privation. It was his last venture. He had tried to get employment everywhere without result, and his wife and children were suffering. We took him on. I don’t think I shall ever forget his face the morning after his first night in the graveyard. He said he had endured unheard of agony, but was hopeful of getting over it in time. The following night was dark and windy. Rain came down in torrents, and there were flashes of lightning every few minutes. At about one o’clock the head watchman heard a loud cry; there was a sound of running feet, followed by the report of a pistol. A search was made, and the unfortunate man found lying on his back across a grave, dead. There was a small hole in his temple, and his own revolver, one barrel of which was empty, lay three feet away where he had flung it, imbedded in the ground. It was certain that some fearful creation of the imagination had so terrified him that he took his life to escape from it.”

When the old man had finished this narrative he was silent, with a vacant look, and allowed bright tears to chase each other down his cheek. Suddenly he made a brisk motion and forcibly forgot the subject of his narrative. “There are amusing things sometimes,” he said, speaking at first with an effort. “A short time ago a man was put to work at night in a cemetery not far from here. He strolled around in an affected, indifferent way, whistling tunes dear to his countrymen. In the course of his rambling he tumbled bodily into a newly-made grave and a lot of loose earth fell on him when he reached the bottom. He struggled wildly, and in about an hour and three-quarters managed to get out, screaming lustily that the devil had dug a grave and tried to bury him in it. With a single bound he cleared a four-foot fence, rolled down a forty-foot hill, and that’s the last of him, for no one about here ever set eyes on him again, dead or alive. He must have gone back to Ireland, for he wasn’t hurt at all. Some practical jokers once tried to scare a watchman, a friend of mine. It was immense fun—for the watchman. They got into the cemetery disguised as body-snatchers, and pretended to be opening graves. There were three individuals. One got seven buckshot in him, the second received five in his leg, and I forget what happened to the third. The only thing that is more dangerous than watching graves is robbing them.”

“What is it produces the dreadful melancholia?” asked the reporter.

The old man looked around him mysteriously and added, as he moved away: “I’m not a doctor nor a scholar, but I have my belief that it’s the miasma from the graves that poisons the blood and warps the brain. Just see, cool as it is this evening, the vapour is rising—rising.” And the old watchman pointed toward the setting sun, against which blazing background a filmy mist could be seen ascending from the ground like the genie from the fisherman’s box in the Arabian tale.  Texas Siftings [Austin, TX] 28 April 1883: p. 3

One could also perhaps point to exposure to the heavy metals used in embalming and coffins, insect-borne disease from that miasma, or to overindulgence in the warming flask sometimes employed to ward off the cold. The post of watchman may also have been a profession of last resort for those with few prospects.

Here is the story of a soldier who apparently had a breakdown while guarding the Cleveland grave of President Garfield. This was before the immense tomb we see today was finished. I have not found any others, although there were some strange incidents at the cemetery [another post, another day]. The journalist may have exaggerated the insanity toll.

A Soldier Becomes insane While Guarding Garfield’s Tomb.

Cleveland Dispatch to Philadelphia Press.

Joseph Kashinsky, a private in Company H, Tenth U.S. Infantry, on duty at Garfield’s grave, in Lake View Cemetery, has become insane, and has been taken to Detroit for cure. The peculiar form of insanity is melancholia, and a peculiar state of affairs came to light when the case was looked up. The men on the guard dread their duty, and several cases are reported of men committing offenses for the purpose of getting punished.

Anything or any device is used to get away from the ghostly array of mounds and tombs. This is said to have driven Kashinsky insane, and his incoherent language and actions carry out the impression. One man, a veteran, said: “I dread the duty, although I am not afraid of it and do not complain, but on the younger the strain is intense. Many tricks are resorted to to escape the night watches.” Kashinsky is a young Pole, but ten months a soldier, twenty-one years of age, and, until this trouble came, a light-hearted, healthy young man. Cincinnati [OH] Commercial Tribune, 2 April 1883: p. 2

The font is badly blurred, but I believe the name is correct, although I have not found Private Kashinsky in the regimental roster. The papers had a difficult time with Eastern European names.  Any other insane guards?  Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Portions of this post appear in The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition.

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

A Grave Warning About Iron Coffins

fisk burial casket

On 14 November 1848, Almond D. Fisk patented his “air-tight coffin of cast or raised metal.” The patent contained the further suggestion that “the air may be exhaused so completely as entirely to prevent the decay of the contained body…or…the coffin may be filled with any gas or fluid having the property of preventing putrefaction.”

Retailers of Fisk Burial Cases rhapsodized over their ability to preserve the body and their aesthetic qualities:

The idea of preserving the features of the dead unchanged—of staying the execution of the sentence, “dust to dust,” is a beautiful one, and had its origin in the gentlest affections of our nature.

The hand that cherishes the flower above the low bed of the dreamless, and bedews its leaves with tears, would, if it could, preserve the form from mingling with the elements, that the share of the ploughman might not rend it—that the winds of heaven might not strew it.

We love to think that the Corinthian column sprung from the tribute of memory to the dead—that the votive basket wreathed with Acanthus, and placed upon the grave of some dear lost one, suggested to the sculptor, that most elegant of all the orders that grace the temples of the world.

But the houses that shall “last till dooms day,” aside from the associated pall, and knell and tear, and clod and silence, offend the eye from their want of all symmetry and beauty. No matter of what material composed, how richly lined or how rarely adorned, they are repulsive still. A sense of oppression comes over us, as we look at them—those windowless apartments—those cold and gloomy boxes for the dead to lie in.

Fisk’s Metallic Burial Cases are not liable to these objections. While they preserve the forms we love, in something more like a pulseless slumber than a dread decay, they have the appearance of rich and heavy folds of drapery, thrown over the form, adapted to the shape, and realizing the line of “Thanatopsis.”

“Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch

About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

Many a heart, whose kindred heart beat, but afar from home, will bless him who has thus devised and disposed a mantle beneath which that heart may be borne by ship and shore, to sleep amid the dust that once throbbed symphonious with its own.

Specimens of these Burial Cases may be seen at W.T. Woodson and Co’s, 232 Lake Street. To those who admire beauty of proportion and elegance of design, so far from there being anything chilling or repulsive, one of them might appropriately enter into the imagery of a morning dream from which we grieve to wake.

Chicago [IL] Daily Journal 29 May 1851

To my critical eye they look grotesquely like diving suits, but they obviously struck a throbbing, symphonious chord with the bereaved.  Sometimes they even did what it says on the tin:  there are reports of bodies shipped long distances arriving in excellent condition and the faces of the dead, unearthed a century after burial and seen to be incorrupt through the coffins’ plate-glass windows, testify to the Fisk’s effectiveness. Iron coffins were also advertised as a deterrent to body-snatchers:

A Ypsilanti burial case company propose to beat the resurrectionists, by means of armor plated coffins. Jackson [MI] Citizen 22 February 1876: p. 6 

Obviously a sealed iron coffin was more difficult to open and it was impossible to follow the usual protocol of the resurrectionist of digging down to the head of the wooden coffin, breaking it open, and dragging out the corpse by the neck. Their use as a kind of personal, rather than parish, mort-safe was yet another of the advantages touted for the metallic burial case, but there was a darker side to the cast-iron coffin.  Human decomposition did not always follow the predictable, desired path, particularly when a dead loved one had to be shipped a long distance. Air often needed to be pumped out of the Fisk or a corpse might need to be embalmed to ensure a better outcome. Even so, I’ve seen reports from, for example, a man called in to paint the blackened face of an iron-coffined corpse, so it would look presentable for a few hours through the little window. Ideally the cast-iron coffin would protect the body from decay and grave robbers. The reality might be rather different and horrifically inaccurate conclusions might be drawn from that reality, as we will shortly see.

By way of introduction to the article issuing a grave warning about iron coffins, here is the back-story of the burial alive in New Orleans mentioned in that article’s first paragraph. This particular, heart-rending article had a huge circulation over several years and the way it spread and changed, suggests an urban legend. True or not, it is a reflection of the horrified fascination that premature burial held for the public.

I have just heard of one of the most horrible, heart-rending, and yet, perhaps, unavoidable affairs which it has ever been my lot, as a newspaper correspondent, to record. It is nothing more nor less than the frightful reality of being buried alive. A most estimable lady, named Mrs. Crane, whose husband is a book-keeper in Flemming & Co.’s drug store, on Magazine Street, in this city [New Orleans, LA], died very suddenly last July, of what was pronounced sun-stroke. She was a school teacher in one of our most popular public schools, and resided, if I am not mistaken, on Dryades Street. It was in the afternoon, after school was out, that she went to visit a neighbor on Felicity Street and just as she entered her friend’s house, she fell insensible to the floor and expired, to all appearance, in about two minutes, a doctor pronouncing it sun-stroke. Her body was interred the next day, at ten o’clock, and her mother, an old lady about fifty years of age, and her husband and one little son, went home almost broken-hearted and have since been nearly distracted, being at times unable to sleep, and, in fact, leading a most miserable and disconsolate life; and well they might, as the sequel will show, had they known what they had done. Well, one night last week the mother, after passing a most distressing day, fell asleep late at night and dreamed that her daughter had been buried alive. She jumped up in a frantic state and rushed to her son-in-law’s chamber crying, “My daughter is buried alive! Oh, my daughter is buried alive! What shall I do!” To sleep any more that night was out of the question; she still crying that her daughter was buried alive, whenever her son-in-law would try to quiet her. At length the proposition was made to have the body disinterred just to satisfy her. So, early the next morning the grave was opened and the coffin raised. Oh, what a horrible sight met their view. Pen is powerless to portray the scene which followed. The body, which had been placed in a metallic coffin, was turned over, the glass covering the face was broken to atoms, the ends of her fingers being beaten and battered all to pieces; her hair torn out in handfuls and her shroud torn in many places—all presenting the appearance of one of the most desperate struggles to free herself from her terrible misfortune.

If any of your readers could have seen the relatives of this unfortunate lady, when the condition of what they supposed was the perpetually silent tomb had been brought to light, it would have forced  a tear from the most stolid and adamantine heart. It was one of the most distressing affairs ever recorded in this State and I sincerely hope it will be the last I am ever called upon to record.

I have not seen this affair mentioned in any of our city papers, but as far as the truth of the matter is concerned, I can vouch for it having occurred, as I have it from parties intimately connected with the unfortunate family and whose veracity I cannot doubt. The husband and mother, it is now said, are almost entirely bereft of their reason, and it is feared they will go permanently deranged; and, indeed, they have sufficient reason.

This should be another warning to all who read this of the uncertainty of death until the body begins to decay. It is generally conceded by physicians that as long as there is a possibility of returning life the body will not show any signs of decomposition. Therefore, in warm weather, when a body does not commence to decompose immediately it is a sure sign that the life has not left it, and the body should not be buried. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 3 December 1868: p. 2

The motif of the glass window being broken outward, as well as the distortion and damage to the body appear in many stories of premature burial. Given the clearance in the form-fitting Fisk, there does not seem room for a revived corpse to break out a window, which also was made of quite thick glass. But is there a logical explanation?

IRON COFFINS

Their Effect Upon Dead Bodies

Correspondence of the Cincinnati Commercial

Washington, D.C., January 11. I read in the Intelligencer—it will be in the Chronicle next week—a frightful statement of burying alive that is said to have occurred in New Orleans, and is now going the rounds of the press, to the intense horror of all sensitive people.

The mother of the unfortunate, it is claimed, was informed of the horrible event, through a dream, and insisted upon having the body disinterred, for investigation. On opening the grave the horrible fact was manifested. The glass over the face was broken, the face was mutilated, and the fingers wounded.

Now, it would be well to let this pass as a warning to the thoughtless who hurry dead bodies into their graves, before positive assurance that life is extinct. But the case is so horrible that it is better to know the truth. The corpse had been encased in an iron coffin—called casket—made iron-tight. The consequent is that the gases generated by the decaying body produce the most frightful disfiguration, and in some instances shiver the glass over the face.

I know all about this, for I had a case come under my immediate observation—the death of a friend, in the country, caused by an accident, so sudden and unexpected that few of the friends and relatives could be called to the funeral within the ordinary time incident to such occasions. An iron coffin was procured, the body placed in it, and the lid sealed and screwed down in the usual manner with a thick glass plate over the head. To those who watched the loved face through tears, there soon appeared a singular change; the veins of the forehead began to swell, and soon stood out like cords. Then the face began to swell and soon the eyes partly opened and the lips fell apart, giving to the face a wrathful, horrifying expression that was painful to look upon. These changes continued until the dead seemed to be striving to breathe and speak, and strange noises were heard inside. Women shrieked and fainted, and at last a cloth was thrown over the glass, and persons were forbid looking in. During the night of the second day (if I remember correctly), an explosion occurred, accompanied by the sound of broken glass, and it was found that the plate, over the face, was shivered, and the room filled with the most sickening stench. The dead body was horrible to look at, and it required no active stretch of the imagination to believe that life had returned and a struggle ensued.

I doubt whether one could return to life from the counterfeit condition that had been mistaken for death, while sealed up in one of these iron cases. Such return must, of course, be slow, uncertain, and feeble. How long the air of the coffin would continue pure enough to strengthen the lungs, so as to start the circulation, I am not prepared to say, but I should think not long—certainly not a sufficient length of time to enable the subject buried alive to make much of a struggle.

Memphis [TN] Daily Appeal 20 January 1869:  p. 1

One doesn’t know whether to be reassured or appalled at the idea that burial alive was unlikely if interred in a cast-iron coffin. The author makes a convincing case for the sealed case producing all the dreadful signs of premature burial. Similar stories that I’ve collected contain many of the same details as above; this was a far from isolated incident. It was said that sextons who noticed a swelling lead coffin would tap it and burn off the gases.

Do you have a personal favorite exploding coffin/corpse story? Break the glass window to relieve the pressure and notify Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

For more stories of coffins, both eccentric and exploding, see The Victorian Book of the Dead.

fisk Chicago City Directory and Business Advertiser 1877.JPG

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 Baby in the Train: 1895

mother with dead child 1850
Woman holding her deceased child, c. 1850 http://collections.eastman.org/objects/90285/woman-holding-a-dead-child?ctx=be558582-cbb9-4fce-8f5a-cbf1ce8ad549&idx=53

In the Train.

(From the Bulletin.)

The train stopped at some God-forgotten flag-station, and she came in carrying a muffled-up baby. She took the corner seat opposite me, next to the gushing girl who was beguiling the journey with pea-nuts and a policeman. But policemen and even pea-nuts were forgotten when this whitefaced, faded, pretty girl-mother came in, her great eyes heaving with grief, and her weary arms holding her child to her breast. She wore some dark dress that suggested crape, fitting close to her girlish curves. A widow, probably; perhaps an unmarried one? She sank wearily into the corner, huddling the bundle of baby closer, while a curious half-defiance looked out of her wide, wet-lashed eyes, seeking no sympathy, even dreading it.

By-and-bye the gushing girl sidled up lo the new-comer and cooed coyly at the muffled child. With a gesture of disgust, the mother turned from her, as if to shield her child, bending back into her corner. But the gusher was not easily baulked. How old was the ickle darling. Mightn’t she see its pretty wee face. Did it like pea-nuts didn’t it, then? And the hopeless weariness showed in every line of the mother’s white face. At last the gushing girl left her in peace, and returned to her pea-nuts and her policeman.

The train slouched on, slowly and sullenly as only narrow-gauge Maoriland trains dare; and silence settled down in the carriage. The girl-mother had sunk limply to sleep–the drugged sleep of weariness and misery. Her child had slipped slowly from her weak arms and was precariously resting on her lap sleeping, too. A sudden jolt of the train almost threw the baby to the floor but the mother did not stir. In an instant the gushing girl was a woman. Without waking the sleeper she clutched the tired little heap of clothes, and took it to her breast with an involuntary choking whisper in her voice, soothing it softly and lovingly She slipped back the shawl to look at it–such a little white face–!

There was a shriek that filled the carriage, and the girl stared at the child, holding it at arm’s length, her horror almost thrusting it from her. A moment later the mother leaped at her angrily and snatched the child from her stiffened arms.

The girl sank back. “Why, it’s dead!” she gasped.

Then the only smile that had lit the mother’s face flickered slowly across it. ‘Yes,’ she said, she died yesterday, and I am taking her to be buried.’ And the rest was buried in a flood of tears.

In Maoriland the conveyance of a corpse is charged for at a shilling a mile.

Observer, 11 May 1895: p. 23

 

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

 

Inventive Deaths – How to Die in a Better Mousetrap

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

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

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

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

KILLED

By the Invention He Had Spent 25 Years Perfecting

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

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

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

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

Singular Suicide – Horace Wells, the Discoverer of Ether.

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

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

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

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

Killed by His Own Invention

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

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

Others in the death roll of American ingenuity:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GUILLOTINED HIMSELF.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Kiss the Corpse and Then You Die

edvard munch kiss of death 1899
Kiss of Death / Todeskuss, Edvard Munch, 1899

 

“The Unquiet Grave”

[The corpse speaks to her mourning lover]

‘You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips;

But my breath smells earthy strong;

If you have one kiss of my clay-cold lips,

Your time will not be long.

(Child 78A)

Yesterday was, among other things, “National Kissing Day.” I hope you all came through unscathed. I’ve written before about the dangers of kissing:  poisons lurking in the mouth, nasty microbes, and the possibility of sepsis—and that’s just while canoodling with the corporeal. But what about kissing the sick and the dead? Beware! There’s death in the pout….

I have not yet discovered all the origins and meanings of the nineteenth-century custom of kissing the corpse. [another day, another post.] Making contact with the corpse meant different things in different cultures and at different times: it might mean respect, love, farewell, good luck, bad luck, a charm against hauntings, or, sometimes, accusations of murder.

Whether the body was viewed at a wake where it lay in as much state as a kitchen table could supply, or at a church, where friends were invited to file by the coffin to take a final look before the lid was screwed down, the face of the corpse was within lip-smacking distance of the mourners. Yet while the custom of kissing the corpse was exceptionally pervasive, the medical profession recoiled in horror.

Let us hear from some medical men who denounced “carelessly conducted funerals” and thundered, “to allow a ‘last kiss’ is morally criminal.”

The public character of funerals to the extent of exposing the body of a child dead from diphtheria to public visitation of friends and neighbors, they not only viewing the body themselves but permitting their children to come in immediate contact and even kiss the dead child’s face; nor was this all, but the bodies of children who had died from malignant diphtheria have been taken into churches for public services, and their little playmates have acted as pallbearers without the least effort to even cleanse or protect the mouth or nostrils of the corpse. The Medical News, Volume 68, 22 February 1896: p. 217

To those who have seen a tenement-house “wake,” there is no mystery about the spread of contagious diseases; and the difficulties in the way of enforcing the law requiring private funerals in such cases can be easily imagined. The health inspectors have met with violent opposition in endeavoring to perform this duty; and he would, indeed, be rash who would venture, single-handed and unprotected, upon such a mission. Some of your readers may remember the experience of a poor man who, in his anxiety to avoid carrying diphtheria to his own home, dared to refuse “to kiss the corpse.” He was seized by the excited people at the “wake,” and but for timely aid would have been thrown out of a window. Medical News, Volume 56, 19 April 1890: p. 433

Killing Children.

“I want to set the seal of my condemnation on a practice that is much in vogue,” said a physician recently. “A few days ago I attended a funeral. The deceased was an estimable woman, well known and had lots of friends present. The services were held in the church, and after the sermon the people passed the coffin to take a final look at the corpse. About one in every ten and perhaps more, stooped over and kissed the lips of the dead. It was a mark of affection, and a common custom, but much more appropriately honored in the breach than in the observance. That woman died of contagious malady, and every woman who kissed the corpse assisted in scattering the germs of disease and death. They may not have known it, but they should. Some of those people went home to little children, and the kiss of greeting as they entered was the seal of death for some of them. A child’s system is receptive and amenable to any sickness that comes in its way, and if any of these children thus poisoned, should die, it would all be charged to Providence, when it was their own criminal carelessness that wrought the mischief.” The Columbian [Bloomsburg PA] 3 July 1885: p. 4

And, finally, this physician did not mince words:

The Death Kiss.

This means, for the purpose for which we wish to use it, “Kissing the dead.” This revolting custom, to which too many yield in their affectionate devotion to the deceased loved one, possesses danger to which every physician should called the attention of the public. The body of a person who has died of disease—whether of a distinctly contagious disease or not—is not a wholesome object. How often have we seen an entire family lingering around the coffin and repeatedly kissing the beloved features still in death and already beginning nature’s process of slow dissolution; and how many subsequent cases of sickness have we thought might be traced to that as, at least, a contributory cause. On this subject the London correspondent of the American Lancet gives the following information:

“It is reported that the Servians have a curious custom of giving a parting kiss to their deceased friends before final burial, and the observance of it has caused a serious epidemic of diphtheria. The Police Prefect of Belgrade has accordingly issued stringent orders against the custom; prohibiting it for the present, however, only in the cases of those persons who have died from that malady.”

A special request of each person in serious illness should be “Let no one kiss me after I am dead.” This need not require that a corpse be regarded with a sense of horror, with which many seem to regard it, but merely as a tenement which the former occupant has left and which no longer represents him.

The custom of kissing sick people is also very dangerous and should be discountenanced as strongly as possible. The Medical World, Volume 10, 1892: p. 42

The linked themes of corpse-kissing and diphtheria run like a pocket of infection through the newspapers and medical journals of the nineteenth century.

DIPHTHERIA IN NEOLA

Carelessness of Relatives and Physician Causes an Epidemic.

A short time ago a child belonging to a family named Jungfirman, in Neola [Iowa], was taken sick and died. It was attended by a physician of that place who, although the disease had the symptoms of diphtheria, declared that it was not in fact that disease and permitted the funeral to be public. The funeral was largely attended, and a number of the comrades of the dead child, as well as its relatives, viewed the body and many of them kissed the lips of the corpse.

The result is an epidemic of diphtheria. Twelve persons belonging to five families have been taken with the disease and two deaths have occurred. When the epidemic began other physicians were called in, and they pronounced the disease diphtheria and since then the precautions prescribed by law have been observed to prevent the spread of the scourge, and it is believed that it is now under control. Omaha [NE] World-Herald 8 August 1896: p. 3

Even royalty was not exempt from the terrible scourge.

THE KISS OF DEATH.

The Princess Alice, of England, Grand Duchess of Hesse, died September I4, I878, on the anniversary of her father’s death, and also on that of the recovery of her brother, the Prince of Wales, from a dangerous illness, 1871. The Prime Minister, in the House of Lords, said: “The physician enjoined her not to kiss her children, she obeyed; but it became her lot to break to her son, quite a youth, the news of the death of his youngest sister, and the boy was so overcome with misery, that the agitated mother clasped him in her arms and received the kiss of death.” [It was also suggested that she had kissed her dead daughter.]

The Curiosities of Kissing: Wit and Humor, Story and Anecdote on Kisses, edited by Alfred Fowler 1905: p. 39

In 1905 some local health officials responded furiously when a boy died of meningitis in Breslau, Hanover Township, Pennsylvania.

SPOTTED FEVER MAY SOON BE EPIDEMIC AT BRESLAU

Sixty School Children Were Allowed to Kiss Remains of One of the Recent Victims.

School Board Knew of the Disease, But Took No Action in the Premises.

Condition such as would bring the blush of shame to even the most heathenish race, exist at Breslau in Hanover township where at the present time there are five cases of cerebro-spinal meningitis. Mrs. Wincinski Dyobszinsky and four children all in the same family are now afflicted the other infant having died and was buried yesterday.

The funeral of the little boy who died was held yesterday and was public, everybody, including the school children, being admitted. Out of ninety school children attending the public schools of that town a fair estimate made from a canvass of the pupils shows that about sixty-five of them entered the home of the dead boy, viewed the body and then planted a kiss upon the cold lips of the victim.

Entering a room in which the atmosphere was permeated with the germs of this terrible malady was bad enough in itself, but to permit a large number of little children just starting to school to go in and kiss the victim was something that demands the most urgent investigation on the part of the health authorities of Pennsylvania.

FUNERAL VERY LARGELY ATTENDED.

The funeral was one of the most largely attended in many months and it seemed that everybody in the town was anxious to get a view of the dead form of the little one. The disease appears to be something new to the populace of that village and they do not realize for a moment the danger about them. The people outside of the English speaking classes go into the house at the present time as though nothing out of the ordinary had taken place.

Dr. Whitney, of Plymouth, as soon as he discovered that the children were suffering from the awful disease immediately notified the school board of the township, but nothing was done on the question. Everything has been left go by default, and if something is not done at once one of the worst epidemics in the history of Pennsylvania may be recorded in that township.

Cerebro spinal meningitis, a disease from which only about one out of a hundred recover is the worst malady known to medical science. On the house where the people are afflicted in Breslau, there is not even a sign to indicate that it is unsafe to enter. A Leader representative visited the scene this morning and saw fully one dozen young people enter the house and leave again. How long this state of affairs will exist remains to be seen but some action must be taken at once.

CHILDREN SAID THEY KISSED VICTIMS

At the Breslau school this morning many of the pupils openly stated to the teachers that they had kissed the corpse. These were sent home at once and even then the parents of those dismissed appeared at the school house and objected to the dismissal. One woman said that there was no danger of her children catching it and added that even if they did it was not such a terrible thing.

When a Leader representative visited the scene and inquired about the condition, the people did not seem to think there was anything unusual about a person passing away from the disease and appeared to be under the impression that it was a minor ailment. Ignorance on their part has led to carelessness on the part of everybody whose duty it is to remedy the existing evil. The Union Leader [Wilkes-Barre PA] 28 April 1905: p. 1

Kissing the corpse was also believed to be behind cases of blood-poisoning:

YOUNG GIRL KILLED BY KISSING CORPSE

Blood Poisoning Sets in and She Dies in Most Terrible Agony.

Vienna, August 27. Passionately devoted to her father, who died recently at Budapest, a girl of 17, named Anna Boros, threw herself upon his body and kissed him on the mouth, forehead and cheeks. Next day her lips became painful, her face swelled, and she died soon after in terrible agony from blood poisoning.

Her sweetheart was greatly affected at her death, and having bought some ground beside her grave, arranged that he should be buried there when his time came. Then, as he was about to visit the cemetery with his dead fiancé’s mother, he suddenly went into a neighboring room and shot himself dead. The Times Dispatch [Richmond VA] 28 August 1904: p. 27

Death in a Kiss

Marion, O., June 5. One week ago last Sunday Thomas Search was buried here. Before the funeral Tommie Porter, his grandson, was allowed to kiss the remains and shortly afterward was taken ill. Monday night he grew much worse, and the physicians state that he is suffering from a severe attack of blood poisoning. It is not believed that he can survive much longer. It is the general supposition that the blood poisoning was contracted at the time of the kiss. Akron [OH] Daily Democrat 5 June 1895: p. 2

Grandfathers could be deadly:

Death in a Kiss.

The sad death of little Georgie Cutter in Brooklyn a few days ago from the effects of a kiss given to a dying grandfather, who was suffering from blood poisoning, should call the public attention to the extreme peril of the practice of kissing the dying and dead. The little boy’s sister [Essie] had kissed her grandfather when his system was thoroughly impregnated with poison, and she was almost immediately stricken with diphtheria. She and her brother were constant companions in her illness, and she communicated her disease to him by kisses. He died and the girl now lies between life and death.

These facts are the most potent argument against the indulgence of the particular sentimentalism that sanctions as eminently proper kissing the pale lips of the dead and dying. When the life is departing out of its clay tenement is no time for this emotional display. And the above recorded case shows how a giving away to the feelings that dictate this line of action may bring in its train quick death to the living. Lancaster [PA] Daily Intelligencer 27 May 1886: p. 2

A more detailed version of the case is related in The Atlanta [GA] Constitution 29 May 1886: p. 2.

I am not sure whether Essie survived or not. Her parents, Dr. George Cutter and Esther Cutter, are buried at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn with Georgie, but she does not seem to be with them.

There are descriptions of infectious diseases leaving the corpse in such a revolting condition that it is hard to imagine anyone wanting to be in the same room with the cadaver, let alone kiss it.

There’s this:

In one instance, known in this city, and probably there are others, the friends of the deceased were found at a wake kissing the swollen lips of the corpse of a person who had died of confluent small-pox. Cyclopædia of the Practice of Medicine, Volume 19, Hugo Ziemssen, 1879: p. 520

Or this:

A lady of about forty-five years of age, of sound constitution, and in the enjoyment of excellent health, was suddenly called, about a year ago, to the death-bed of one who was very dear to her. That death-bed was fearfully sudden and unexpected, and that poor lady could not be persuaded, long after death had indubitably taken place, that the spirit of the beloved one had really fled. She would not leave the corpse; she threw herself on it, and kissed it over and over again, and could not be induced to leave it, even when the discoloration of the skin and the offensive smell of rapidly-advancing decomposition gave ample testimony of the reality of death. The burial was performed two days after death, owing to the rapid decomposition of the body; and, soon after the funeral, I was hastily summoned to the bedside of this lady, whom I found in the following condition. [description of what seems to be cholera omitted.] The Chicago Medical Examiner January 1865: p. 40-41

And this:

Case I.—On the evening of July 20th, 1829, I was requested to visit Miss P., a young lady about twenty-two years of age…

On Saturday, the 18th, the father of the patient died of a lingering consumption, accompanied, toward its close, with extensive disease of the intestinal canal, producing diarrhoea and bloody mucous discharges, alternating with a copious expectoration of a depraved purulent matter from the lungs. The daughter, as is common on such occasions, was observed to kiss the corpse, having at the time a sore lip deprived of its cuticle. On Sunday, the 19th, the lip became inflamed and painful, and commenced swelling. On the evening of the 20th, the swelling extended from the right corner of the mouth, involving one half of the upper lip. It was hard, painful, of a deep red color, and had on its most prominent part a small festered surface.

[I omit the detailed case report of treatments and symptoms until the patient’s death on the 28th.]

Is it not reasonable to suppose that, independent of the local affection, there had been absorbed into the system a poison from the dead body, with which the lips of the patient came in contact, and which was the cause of the obstinacy and malignancy of the symptoms? The mouth of the deceased father was filled with apthous ulcers, and the stumps of decayed teeth. It is a common thing for a quantity of frothy mucus to ooze from the mouth after death, which may have inoculated the lip of the patient; or, if this was not the case, the moisture on any part of the surface of a corpse as ill-conditioned as this was, coming in contact with a raw surface would, perhaps, be sufficient to produce the effect. This is more likely to be concluded, when, from the preceding history, we find that although at times there appeared to be a remission, evidently produced by the treatment, which, in ordinary circumstances, would have been sufficient to check the disease, yet, in this case, there appeared to exist an irritation which soon renewed the violence of the symptoms only to be mitigated by the measures resorted to. The New York Medical and Physical Journal, Volume 9, John Brodhead Beck, 1830: p. 42-44

Death from illness triggered by the stress of a bereavement is suggested by these two stories:

Kissed a Corpse and Died.

New York, Feb. 20. Mrs. Kate Hartney, a sister of Undertaker Edward Hope, died at her home, in Third street, Jersey City, Monday. Mrs. Isaac Kaylor, widow of Isaac Kaylor, a prominent Democratic politician, was in the house Monday night. She had been a life-long friend of Mrs. Hartney. At midnight Mrs. Kaylor told the relative that she was going home. “I will take a last look at my dear friend,” she said and she bowed over the casket and kissed the lips of the corpse. The next moment Mrs. Kaylor gasped and fell to the floor dead. A physician said death resulted from heart disease. Daily Illinois State Register [Springfield, IL] 21 February 1892: p. 2

AT A FUNERAL

The Brother of the Deceased Suddenly Stricken With an Epileptic Attack.

Millville, N.J., Jan. 21. The mourners who were gathered Saturday afternoon at the funeral of Mrs. Elizabeth White were thrown into consternation by the sudden attack of illness which overtook James Robinson, a brother of the dead woman. Just as he kissed the corpse, he was seen to reel and fall backward. He was attacked with epilepsy and lingered until 9:30 o’clock Sunday morning, when he died.

The utmost excitement prevailed among the mourners when Mr. Robinson was stricken, and the funeral was abruptly halted while a physician worked over the stricken man.

As he grew no better in an hour, the corpse was carried out and the funeral procession wended its way to the cemetery, where the interment took place. Cincinnati [OH] Post 21 January 1895: p. 3

But does that explain the death of this infant?

A Maine newspaper says that Mrs. Esther Potter of Long Ridge, who has just died after a long illness from consumption, was the mother of four children, the youngest a babe. She could not bear to think of leaving the little one, and constantly prayed that it might go with her when she died. A few days ago, when it was plain that she was about to die, she called her family around her and bade them good-bye, and then, clinging to the baby, prayed that it might die too. It had been perfectly well, apparently, but, after a kiss from its dying mother, closed its eyes, and in five minutes was dead.—Banner of Light. Religio-Philosophical Journal 5 May 1888: p. 5

Let us hope that it was simply a case of tubercular contagion between mother and child.

One can understand an illness caught from a putrefying and contagious corpse, but this death is completely beyond the pale.

A Victim to Her Love for the Dead.

Erie, Pa., Dec. 9. Mrs. William Savory, of Northeast, lies dying, a sacrifice to her love for a dead friend. Her dearest young lady friend, Miss Stella Stinson, had died of consumption, and when Mrs. Savory heard of her death she entered the room where the corpse lay and kissed the lifeless lips of her dead friend passionately. The undertaker, who was temporarily absent from the room, had just saturated the face and lips of the dead girl with a poisonous liquid. Mrs. Savory, having absorbed the deadly poison was stricken a few hours later, and her sufferings are excruciating. The Daily City News [New Castle PA] 10 December 1888: p. 1

In a story headed “The Peril of Kissing the Dead,” the liquid was described as “a poisonous compound for preserving a life-like color.” Miss Stinson’s name is given as “Lucy.” The Charlotte [NC] Democrat 14 December 1888.

I’ve seen other reports of jars of embalming fluid or preservative liquid being kept by the coffin; the undertaker either doused the corpse himself or, for the night vigil, directed the watchers to apply it at regular intervals.

To sum up, a final moral flourish from a story about Mrs. Savory’s shocking death:

While to kiss the lips of a dear one whose face has hardly lost the indescribable stamp of life is suggested by the tenderest feeling in the world, common sense asserts that it were better not to do so. The Erie lady is not the first person to suffer from an outpouring of affection for a departed one. Many diseases not generally regarded as particularly infectious, leave poison on the lips of those who have died from them, and yet, how hard it is to take a last farewell without bending down to touch the dear face that the undertaker is waiting to cover forever. Thus death imparts death, even without the assistance of embalming fluid. The Pittsburgh [PA] Press 10 December 1888: p. 4

Other stories of diseases communicated by kissing the dead? 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.

Pickled to Death

Old Croak embalming fluid
Pickled to Death   Joke bottle for Old Croak Kentucky Straight Embalming Fluid https://www.ebay.com/itm/Old-Croak-Vintage-Whiskey-Bottle-Kentucky-Straight-Embalming-Fluid-Empty/112958042818?hash=item1a4cd2f2c2:g:txgAAOSwfQxaoGpg

While researching my recent post on the young woman labelled “embalmed alive” by the tabloids, I was stunned to discover a large corpus, as it were, of stories of people poisoned, not by having formalin or formaldehyde injected into their veins, but by ingesting embalming fluid in various ways, either by chance or by choice.

As we saw in the previous post on this subject, embalming fluid was frequently mistaken for something drinkable like whiskey or beer, or even plain water. I find this a bit baffling.  I admit I do not know how vintage embalming fluid smelled, but I would assume that there was enough of a smell to alert the drinker that it wasn’t whiskey.  But given the copious amounts of alcohol served to mourners at wakes, were there any alert drinkers? The overflowing cup of cheer (along with an apparent shortage of cups) lies behind many of these tales. “Dead drunk” was no mere figure of speech.

EMBALMING FLUID IN THEIR BEER.

Mourners at a “Wake” Poisoned, One of Them Fatally.

Racine, Wis. Oc. 5. Special Telegram.

While attending an Irish wake last night James Payton, James Callahan and Mrs. George Diven were poisoned by drinking embalming fluid. During the night refreshments were served, and beer was poured into a tumbler which contained embalming fluid left by the undertaker. Payton is not expected to recover. Daily Inter Ocean [Chicago IL] 6 October 1888: p. 9

FUNERAL DRUNK FATAL

Centralia, Wash., April. 2. William Maginniss’ wife died a few days ago. The undertaker neglected to remove from the house a bottle of embalming fluid. Last night Maginniss came home drunk. He mistook the fluid for liquor and drank it. Then he died. The Spokane [WA] Press 2 April 1908: p. 4

This story of a practical joke is both horrifying and puzzling.

NOT EMBALMING FLUID.

Moran Drank Whiskey at the Wake and Was Not Poisoned.

Dr. A.J. Downey of 350 Union street, Brooklyn, this morning sent a certificate to Justice Tighe, in the Butler Street Police Court, stating that Patrick Moran, of 162 Walcott street, who, it was supposed, would die from the effects of drinking an embalming fluid for whiskey at a wake, was suffering from alcoholism.

Thomas Ryan and James White, who gave Moran a solution used to wash the face of the corpse as a joke, will now be released.

They had been held until the doctor could determine if Moran had been poisoned. The Evening World [New York NY] 5 October 1894: p. 1

Did the pranksters think they were actually giving Moran embalming fluid? Or did they just give him whiskey they claimed was the poisonous liquid?  If the former, what did they think was going to happen? If the latter, why the hell did he drink it?

Aside from mistaking it for whiskey and ingesting it from the lips of a corpse, there were a variety of ways to be poisoned by embalming fluid. Here are two of the more unusual:

Miss Emma Conrad, of Nevinsville, narrowly escaped death from poisoning. She is the daughter of the late Rev. Mr. Conrad. In preparing the body for burial the undertaker spilled embalming fluid on the carpet and bed clothing. When washing these articles Miss Conrad inhaled the poison in the steam arising from the tub. Estherville [IA] Daily News 2 May 1895: p. 2

Poisoned by Embalming Fluid

Iowa Falls, Oct. 10. Mrs. E.W. Stewart and Mrs. S.B. Couenhoven, two women living just west of this city, are suffering from a severe case of poisoning of the hands and they have been under medical care for several days in hopes of alleviating the suffering the poisoning entails. The accident occurred from the women washing their hands in some embalming fluid which the undertaker had left at the home of a neighbour where a death had just occurred and where the women were assisting at the time. Ottumwa [IA] Semi-weekly Courier 12 October 1899: p. 1

Even undertakers were not immune to its malign effects.

AN UNDERTAKER POISONED

Undertaker Tom Hendricks of Kellerville was poisoned while embalming a corpse last Thursday, by puncturing his finger with the embalming needle. Thirty minutes after the wound was received the fingers began to tingle and the whole arm soon became numb. The pain was intense. He came to town and had temporary medical assistance and went on the evening train to Dr. Prince at Springfield. The doctor told Tom that he had about one chance in a hundred for life and that if swelling continued within thirty-six hours he would not survive. Fortunately the swelling was arrested. Tom has a very sore hand, but the feeling is returning in his arm and it is believed the effects of the poison are counteracted. The Decatur [IL] Herald 12 October 1895: p. 1

One of the most startling categories of formalde-cide was that of food or drink from a recycled embalming fluid keg or cask. Some of these were clearly marked as toxic. Apparently some people took “Name yer poison!” for guidance.

Poisoned by Embalming Fluid.

Saco, Me., October 20. Frank Wilds, of Union Falls, yesterday sold a cask of new cider to Winfield S. Dennett, of Saco. The latter’s son James, aged nineteen years, drank a third of a glass of the cider, Dennett took a teaspoonful and his wife tasted it. All of them were taken sick and the son died early this morning. Mrs. Dennett is very sick, but the physicians think she will recover. On the head of the cask was branded the word “poison.” The cask was purchased from a Biddeford undertaker and originally contained embalming fluid. The Times [Philadelphia PA] 21 October 1886: p. 1

A suit brought against undertaker Dennis O’Connor by the elder Mr. Dennett for $20,000 damages in causing the death of his son ended in a hung jury; I have not been able to find a final verdict from the retrial.  O’Connor used to sell liquor casks to a local cider maker; somehow an embalming fluid cask was included with one lot and it was this that was filled with cider and sold to Mr. Dennett. The testimony transcript describes O’Connor’s handling of the casks and it is easy to see how the jury might have had reasonable doubt about the case.

Beverages were not the only foods tainted by embalming fluid:

Poisoned by Embalmed Kraut.

At Downs the families of Willis DeLay and Orrin McAfferty were seriously poisoned. At dinner they partook of some sauerkraut which had been “put down” in a keg originally filled with embalming fluid. The Miami Republican [Paola KS] 26 December 1902: p. 1

Nineteenth- and early-20th-century health authorities frequently railed against death-dealing rogue ice-cream vendors.

FIFTY COLORADO PEOPLE POISONED BY ICECREAM

Analysis by Health Officer Shows That Embalming Fluid Was Used as Preservative.

Colorado Springs, Colo., Aug. 18. More than fifty persons, the majority of whom are tourists in this city and Manitou, have been poisoned by eating ice-cream made by local dealers from a consignment of cream received on Sunday morning from one of the largest creameries and dairies in the State situated near Denver. Analysis by the health officers of Colorado Springs reveals the fact that the cream was charged with formaldehyde, better known as embalming fluid, to keep it from souring. No deaths have resulted, although several cases are critical.

The name of the company supplying this cream has not been made public. Health Officer Hanford of this city states that arrests will be made at once. The case promises to be sensational. The San Francisco [CA] Call 19 August 1903: p. 7

When the corpse was laid out at home, extra embalming fluid was sometimes left by the undertaker with directions to sponge the face or pour on exposed flesh. Undertakers and embalmers were often remarkably careless about retrieving or storing left-over supplies, to fatal effect.

EMBALMED ALIVE.

Kansas City, Mo. Feb. 26 A special from St. Joseph, Mo. Says: A.J. Smith was buried today. During the absence of the family at the funeral, the 2 year old child of the dead man, found a bottle of embalming fluid, which the undertaker had used in preparing her father’s body for burial and drank a portion of it. The child died in great agony. Arkansas City [KS] Daily Traveler 27 February 1891: p. 1

Sadly, this was not a unique case.

Poisoned With Embalming Fluid.

Albany, N.Y., Sept. 5 While an eleven-year-old daughter of Byron Welch was carrying in her arms her infant sister, eleven months old, today, the little one cried for a drink of water. The girl picked up a bowl containing embalming fluid, which stood beside the corpse of another child of the family and allowed the babe to drink of the poisonous mixture. A physician was summoned but the child died soon afterward. The Wichita [KS] Beacon 5 September 1889: p. 1

There was a criminal lack of communication in this next story:

Poisoned on Embalming Fluid

Sabina, Ohio, December 11. Mrs. Nathan Pike died Sunday  night at the ripe old age of eighty-six. Her husband, who is a cripple and about her age, and a son, an old bachelor, composed the household. Mrs. Dunham and Mrs. Hallady, two married daughters living here, were with their mother’s corpse. There had been another death in town a few weeks ago, where the undertaker had taken a jug of embalming fluid, which he had not brought back to his office. The undertaker last evening sent a messenger to the place where the fluid had been left, and had him take it to Mr. Pikes. He carried it there, and said that here was a jugful of something that he had got at Mr. Plymire’s. The undertaker not being there the parties concluded it was hard cider that Mr. Plymire had sent them, the messenger having made no explanation of its contents. Being worn out on account of their attention to the wife and mother, they thought they would drink a little hard cider. Mr. Pike and the daughters took small quantities, but the son Dan enlarged on the quantity. The son had not more than drunk his down till the others began to vomit, and he followed in close pursuit. Doctors were soon present, examined the jug and were satisfied the fluid contained arsenic and corrosive sublimate. So they at once used the antidote for such poisons. It had the desired effect upon those who partook of it sparingly, and although Dan is in a critical condition the doctors think he will recover. Druggists are compelled to label all poisons, why not others who use them in their business? The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 12 December 1883: p. 7

And a certain lack of common sense in this one:

HARD TO KILL.

A Sensational Incident at a Wake in New York.

New York, August 1. Last night Rebecca Davis, 67 years old, was assisting at the ceremonies of “waking” the remains of a friend and neighbour who had just died. The ceremonies began early in the evening and as Rebecca endeavoured to assuage her grief and her thirst in the liquid refreshments incidental to the occasion, she gradually became exhilarated. The body was being taken charge of by a friend, who enjoys some reputation as an undertaker, and had just finished embalming the corpse preparatory to removal for burial in a distant part of the country. He carelessly left a bottle containing part of the embalming fluid on the mantelpiece. About 10 o’clock Rebecca’s glass was empty, and to join in a toast to the health of the survivors, she filled it from the first bottle that came handy. That bottle happened to be the one containing the left-over embalming liquid.

In a very short time afterward Rebecca was seized with such pains that she began to think that she was undergoing the tortures of purgatory herself, and her wails persuaded her companions to investigate. When the truth became known a policeman was called for assistance. He rang an alarm for an ambulance, which caused consternation in the neighbourhood by dashing up to the house of mourning at full speed. A surgeon and a stomach pump soon brought Rebecca around, but if she had not been under the influence of liquor at the time she certainly would have been embalmed alive from the inside, for the liquor she drank was a very powerful and penetrating preparation with poisonous ingredients. San Francisco [CA] Chronicle 2 August 1888: p. 1

But embalming fluid in a champagne bottle takes the cake.

POISON FOR CHAMPAGNE

Thomas Karns Imbibed of Fluid Intended to Embalm His Father.

Ouray, Colo., Dec. 27. Closely following the sad death of Michael Karns, who was frozen to death, occurs the tragic death of his son, Thomas at 4 a.m. today.

The remains of the elder Karns arrived from Telluride for burial at this city and were at the house of his son, Thomas.

The undertaker had left some embalming fluid, composed of corrosive sublimate and arsenious acid in dilute alcohol at the house, and in the room with the corpse. The poison fluid was in a bottle labeled “Champagne,” and although the undertaker had warned the members of the household of the dangerous character of the fluid, Karns must have forgotten the warning or failed to have heard it.

The first the family and watchers knew that he had taken poison was the query from him as to “what that stuff was,” and then he said that he had taken two swallows of it and thought it was whisky.

That was 9 p.m. and both Drs. Rowan and Ashley were hurriedly summoned, but their efforts were without benefit to Karns, who died at 4 in the morning. The Topeka [KS] State Journal 27 December 1897: p. 1

This was a particularly egregious case with no appalling detail spared by the press:

POISONED CANDY MAY KILL FOUR

Three Generations of Family Ate Sweets Saturated With Embalming Fluid

Tongues and Tonsils of Victims Eaten Out by Virulent Stuff Given Them While Attending Funeral of Twin Babies.

Special to the Philadelphia Times.

Altoona, December 29. As the result of eating candy, poisoned by embalming fluid four women of Blue Knob, Freedom township, Blair county, had their tongues and tonsil practically eaten out and are now lying in a critical condition from having swallowed some of the poison. They are:

Mrs. George J. Noffsker, 85 years old, and her daughter, Mrs. John Allison, and her granddaughters, Miss Rose and Miss Viola Ickes.

Christmas night the 3-months-old twin sons of Mrs. John Allison died. A country undertaker embalmed the bodies, using an extra strong fluid to preserve the bodies until Saturday. His assistant accidentally overturned the bottle on the board adjoining the sink in the kitchen and, dripping through the cracks, it saturated a pan of soft candy that had been placed underneath to cool. The fluid was mopped up, but it was not noticed that any had reached the candy.

MOURNERS ATE CANDY.

Yesterday afternoon after the funeral the candy was passed among the mourners. Several noticed an odd taste and did not eat it. The four women each ate freely and shortly afterward were seized with terrible pains. Mrs. Noffsker and Viola Ickes were made unconscious.

When a physician arrived it was found the poison had burned great holes in the tongues and tonsil s of the victims until they were practically eaten away. Mrs. Noffsker’s false teeth plate was disintegrated, the teeth falling out.

To-night all are under the influence of narcotics, made necessary by their terrible sufferings. It is not believed they can recover. The Times [Philadelphia PA] 30 December 1901: p. 4

The only victims’ grave I could find was that of Mrs. Viola Ickes, who apparently lived until 1934, albeit perhaps not in the best of spirits.

ATE CANDY, NOW INSANE.

Sweetmeats Had Been Poisoned by Saturation With Embalming Fluid.

Altoona, Pa., Jan. 21. Mrs. Jacob Ickes, one of the women residing at Blue Knob, this county, who ate candy on Christmas day had had been saturated with emablming fluid thorugh the careless of an undertaker, has gone crazy.

It is thought she is now incurably deranged. The Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 22 January 1902: p. 1

Like Miss Aimée Thanatogenos,  the pretty cosmetician of The Loved One, some chose embalming fluid as the horrific agent of suicide.  These make for dire reading.

DENIED SUICIDE WITH LAST BREATH

But Coroner Krause Says Almedia Bretz Swallowed Embalming Fluid

PARTIALLY FILLED BOTTLE FOUND

Pretty Seventeen-Year Old Girl Ended Her Life in Awful Agony Yesterday Morning.

Actuated by some unknown motive, Almedia Bretz, a pretty 17-year-old girl, 1420 North Fourth street, yesterday morning committed suicide by drinking embalming fluid. Although she protested to the end that she had not swallowed the poisonous stuff all the evidence seemed to contradict her statement and Coroner George C. Krause, after an investigation, decided it was a pure case of suicide.

The girl lived with her mother, Mrs. Kate Bretz, and her father lives in Steelton. She was employed at the Harrisburg Cigar Factory where she was known as an intelligent and industrious worker. She was unusually cheerful upon her return from work on Tuesday and spent the evening with some of the girls of the neighbourhood who are entirely at a loss as to what could have led her to take her life.

Became Ill Early in the Morning.

It was at 5 o’clock yesterday morning when the girl awakened her mother by her violet vomiting. As this ceased shortly nothing unusual was thought of the matter until 8 o’clock when the girl became sick again.

About this time the bottle of embalming fluid which an undertaker had forgotten was found in the girl’s room and a glass showed that some of the fluid had been taken by the sick girl. A month before the death of an infant son of John Bretz, a brother of Almedia, had occurred at the house and the undertaker had neglected to carry away a half-filled pint bottle of the fluid used in embalming.

Declared She Had Taken Nothing.

The mother accused her daughter of having taken the poison, but the girl denied this. “I took nothing,” she said, and she repeated this time and again in her agony prior to death. She remained conscious to the end and the last words on her lips were: “Mother, I didn’t take any poison.”

When it was seen that the case was a most serious one neighbors were summoned and medical aid was telephoned for, but by the time a physician arrived the girl was dead. This was about 9 o’clock.

Coroner Krause was sent for and an hour later held an investigation. He determined that an inquest was unnecessary and that all the indications pointed to suicide.

No Post-Mortem Examination.

No post-mortem examination will be made and it was learned last night that the bottle of embalming fluid and its contents had been destroyed by the family.

The mother last evening went to Steelton to see her husband and arrangements for the funeral will be made this morning. Patriot [Harrisburg PA] 24 March 1904: p. 5

Perhaps I wrong the young woman, but judging from the lack of a post mortem examination, her denials in extremis, and the fact that the family destroyed the incriminating fluid, I wonder if she thought she was taking something herbal and harmless to “bring on a miscarriage”?

This unfortunate lady managed to drink an entire half pint of the noxious liquid, while her undertaker husband tried to hush things up. Where, I wonder, did he get that certificate of death?

SWALLOWED EMBALMING FLUID.

Mrs. Ann Benson, wife of James Benson, an undertaker whose place of business is at No. 850 Fulton street, Brooklyn, committed suicide yesterday morning by swallowing embalming fluid.
The case was first brought to the attention of the authorities in the afternoon, when Benson presented a certificate of her death and requested Deputy Health Commissioner Young to keep the matter quiet, as he did not desire publicity. Dr. Young, however, referred the undertaker to Coroner Rooney.

From the statement of the husband it appears that he was attending to his duties as sexton at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Tuesday night, when he first heard that his wife was ill. After seeing her he discovered that she had taken poison. Dr. Thompson, the family physician, tried in vain for several hours to save her life.

On the floor of the shop, where the woman was found, was a pint bottle containing embalming fluid, a deadly poison, composed of chloride of zinc. About one-half of the contents of the bottle had been swallowed by Mrs. Benson. She had been subject to fits of melancholy. New York [NY] Herald 30 January 1890: p. 8

This boy’s best friend was not his mother.

Drank Embalming Fluid.

Kansas City, Nov. 4. An unusual suicide occurred here yesterday when Allen M. Bishop, an undertaker, aged 29, poisoned himself by drinking embalming fluid. Bishop had been despondent for some time, owing to the fact that his mother, with whom he had quarreled on numerous occasions, followed him about the city from place to place demanding that he give her all of his wages. Suicides among undertakers are so uncommon that no Kansas City undertaker ever heard of one. Cassville [MS] Republican 11 November 1897: p. 6

And finally, this article’s biased language about a “nervous” woman undertaker is particularly heartless.

TOO MANY BURIALS FOR HER.

Nervous Woman Undertaker at Last Succeeds in Suicide.

Siegfried, Pa., May 25. Mrs. Katie Keck, an undertaker, 43 years old, succeeded in committing suicide, this being her third attempt. A week ago she took an overdose of carbolic acid and was saved, and on Saturday slashed her wrists with a knife.

This time, when her exhausted nurse was taking a nap, Mrs. Keck managed to get embalming fluid, of which she swallowed about a pint, and death ensued in four minutes.

Mrs. Keck succeeded to the undertaking business established by her husband, on his death two years ago. It was at first thought she had become melancholy over financial difficulties, but the examination of her accounts shows that the business was very prosperous. It is thought “the business got on her nerves.” Trenton [NJ] Evening Times 25 May 1910: p. 7

 

As recently as 1982 “moonshiners” were using embalming fluid in their product to give it “bite.” It runs in my mind that the stuff was/is sprinkled on tobacco (or was it marijuana?) to give an extra buzz. And, of course, we still tell the urban legend of the girl at the prom poisoned by a dress from a corpse. But have there been any recent embalming fluid poisonings?

Have the coroner seal the bottle and send 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.