O tödliche Baum! O tödliche Baum!

santa claus with doll by tree kind of creepy

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

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

MYSTERY OF “HOODOO” CHRISTMAS TREE SOLVED

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

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

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

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

CHRISTMAS TREE A HOODOO

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

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

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

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

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

Crepe on Christmas Tree Recalls Death of Captain Schuenemann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9 ARE DEAD IN CHRISTMAS TREE BLAZE

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

ALL ARE INCINERATED

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

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

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

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

MOTHER KILLED AS SHE PREPARED CHRISTMAS TREE

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

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

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

Or in this sad story of Christmas greed run amok:

Boy Trampled to Death in Rush at Christmas Tree

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

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

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

In others, the tree was clearly to blame;

FATAL CHRISTMAS TREE

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

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

A Deadly Christmas Tree

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

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

Killed by a Christmas Tree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other balsamic bereavements? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

 

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

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The Groaning Thanksgiving Board

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

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

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

A Family Poisoned by Cranberries.

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

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

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

Green Bean Proves Fatal.

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

Poisoned by Green Beans.

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

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

Then there’s the humble and wholesome potato.

POISONED POTATOES

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

 

POISONED POTATOES.

Came Near Causing Death of a Whole Family.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FIVE ARE POISONED

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

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

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

And

Made Gravy with Poisoned Flour.

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

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

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

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

IDAHO YOUTH CAUSES ILLNESS OF HIS FAMILY

Feeds Poison to Flock of Turkeys Thanksgiving Morning

Results are Disastrous

Two of Those who Eat the Poisoned Birds in a Precarious Condition and May Die.

Boise, Idaho, Nov. 30. James Bashor, a 12-year-old boy, poisoned his entire family Thanksgiving day, and his brother and sister are so seriously ill that they may die.

The Bashers live on a farm and have a large number of turkeys. It was James’ duty to take care of the fowl and he became very fond of them.

As Thanksgiving day approached the youth heard talk of killing some of his pets. He protested against the slaughter, but his appeals were made light of. On the morning of Thanksgiving day he fed the turkeys a poisonous substance used in the preparation of seed wheat, thinking it would sicken them temporarily and their lives would be saved.

The hired man killed two plump birds and they were served at dinner. Every member of the family was taken sick shortly after the meal and an investigation was made. The boy finally made a full confession. He said that he thought the turkeys would be taken sick, and as no one wants to eat an unhealthy bird they would not be molested.

The physicians who were called in pronounced the members of the family out of danger but two—a boy and a girl. Their lives are despaired of.

All the poisoned turkeys died before nightfall, but the condition of the flock was not noticed until after the dinner had been served. The San Francisco [CA] Call 1 December 1900: p. 8

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

Two Families Feed on a Poisoned Turkey

Little Rock, (Ark.), April 10th. Advices received here to-night from Conway, a small town in the interior of Faulkner County, gives the particulars of a most singular poisoning, which happened near there last evening, of which it is feared has resulted in the death of several persons. Sixteen in all were stricken down in a single hour, and notwithstanding the attention of the best physicians to be had, at last accounts their efforts seemed unavailing to save hat least half the number.

Two families, Hayes and Crownings, gave a turkey dinner, Will Browning having killed a large wild gobbler turkey. It’s thought the bird got some strychnine just before it was killed, the farmers in the vicinity having put out poison in the woods to kill wolves. Every member of the dinner party was affected in a similar manner, and all but four were thrown into convulsions, and at last accounts eight of the number were in a very critical condition. Sacramento [CA] Daily Record-Union 11 April 1890: p. 1

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

Poisoned Pumpkin Pies

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

 

Death From Pumpkin Pie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Thanksgiving!

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

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

Death Masks

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

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

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

Mask-related accidents like these were sadly common.

Hallowe’en Mask Cause of Death

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

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

MASK CAUSED CHILD’S DEATH

Blinded, She Stepped Before Car and Was Killed.

Was Playing Halloween Games With Companions.

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

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

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

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

HALLOWEEN FESTIVITY

Two Girls Were Instantly Killed Near Elizabeth, Pa.

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

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

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

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

PEEP MAY PROVE FATAL

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

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

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

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

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

SCARED THE BABY TO DEATH

Muncy, Pa., Dispatch 26th.

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

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

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

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

FRIGHT MAY CAUSE DEATH

Hideous False Face Throws Baby Into Spasm and Spinal Disease.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or possibly some insect-borne disease of the summer.

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

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

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

This mask prank led to a lawsuit.

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

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

WORE A HIDEOUS FALSE FACE

Strange Estate Left by a Farmer’s Child.

Republic Special.

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

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

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

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

KILLED BY PAPIER MACHE MASK

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

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

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

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

Poisoned by False Face

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

***

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

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

This vintage case had a much worse outcome.

SATANIC MASK THE CAUSE OF DEATH

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

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

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

A cautionary tale, indeed.

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

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

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

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

 

The Seven Babies in No. 77

death as baby nurse Death's Doings 1827
The Seven Babies in No. 77, Death as the Baby’s Nurse. 1827

Appalled by the recent discovery of 11 infant corpses hidden in the ceiling of a defunct Detroit funeral home and more than 60 infant bodies found in the same week at another Detroit mortuary, I bring you a grim and grewsome story about a Victorian London undertaker similarly neglectful of his duties. While meant for savage satire, the mock-jocular tone may grate on modern sensibilities.

THE SEVEN BABIES IN No. 77

It is our rule not to puff tradesmen. But to every rule there is an exception, and, therefore, if there be any baby-farmers in want of an undertaker we venture respectfully to recommend to them Mr. Henney, of No. 77, Regent’s-park-road. This gentleman’s speciality is babies. He, of course, does not refuse to “undertake” adults. But he prefers infants, and, indeed, so attached does he become to the little bodies which are committed to his charge that he cannot bring himself to part with them, till at last they melt away in obedience to those inexorable laws of nature which even undertakers cannot long withstand. Six such infants were the other day found in his stable, and one in a tin-box in his house. They were all (see how he clings to them) “in an advanced stage of decomposition.” He said they were “stillborn,” and no doubt he knows; but this is clear, they were “still unburied.”

He had, we presume, been paid to bury them, because, however fond a man may be of children, he does not like even “stillborn” ones for nothing. But he did not bury them. He could not bring himself to do it. He kept the babes, and he did not return the money. Perhaps in keeping them he may have been influenced by another motive besides that which we have suggested. He may have said to himself: “Possibly doubts may arise in some one‘s mind as to whether these children really were stillborn. So, as I am not a medical man myself, I’ll keep them by me in case inquiries should be made.” Anyway he did keep them, until one day last week a young man going into the stable was “nearly overpowered with the stench,” and searching for the cause found a partially-decomposed “stillborn” infant, and went away and told the police, who came and found six others, “stillborn,” too—all “ stillborn.” We do not know whether Mr. Henney is an admirer of Tennyson, but we daresay he is, and we can fancy him handing over to the police the last child, the one that was found in the tin box, and saying, with tears in his eyes, “ ‘He was dead before he was born,’ Mr. Policeman.” This is why we say that he is the very undertaker for baby-farmers. In baby-farms, when a child is born on the premises, it is usually stillborn, we believe.

We suppose there is something in the genius loci which occasions this, for of course the baby-farmer has nothing to do with it. Her business is with the living, not with the dead, and so when a child is “stillborn” she looks out for a good-natured undertaker like Mr. Henney to take it off her hand. Mind, we do not say, because we do not know, that Mr. Henney has any connection with baby-farmers. We are merely pointing out what an admirable baby-farmer’s undertaker he would be, if the baby-farmers would employ him. His peculiar mode of doing business enables him to “undertake” at a cheaper rate than other tradesmen; he can afford to do it at an almost nominal price, because he does not pay any burial-fees. Consequently, he ought to do a great trade, if the law would only let him alone, as, no doubt, he, up to last week, believed it would, for the law is very indulgent to the undertakers. It requires no qualification from them. It does not register them. It does not inspect their premises. It is the easiest thing in the world to become an undertaker; a man has merely got to call himself one, and there he is, duly qualified to bury. He takes a window somewhere, he puts up in it a little coat-of-arms, with a pious motto, such as “In coelo quies,” or “Resurgam,” underneath which he writes “Funerals furnished,” and then he goes out about the real business of his life,—the business to which he has been brought up, chimney sweeping, or scavenging, or stealing, or whatever it may be—and leaves his wife to attend to the corpses if any come in. Thus as we pass along the streets we see the business of undertaker combined with almost every other business under the sun, “Carpenter and Undertaker,” “Upholsterer and Undertaker,” “Coal and Com Merchant and Undertaker,” “Greengrocer and Undertaker,” and so on. We do not remember ever having seen “Confectioner and Undertaker.” But we should not be in the least degree surprised to see it, for undertaking, like oysters, is one of those things which goes well with everything else. It is the pleasantest and easiest of avocations. Anybody can follow it who has sufficient strength to walk round the corner and order a horse of the job-master, and sufficient knowledge of arithmetic to add a percentage to the price he charges.

Whether in the interests of a community which, as a rule, desires that Christian burial should follow upon death, the undertaking business ought to be so very easy, is another question. We are disposed to think it should not. We can conceive that there may be considerable danger in leaving undertakers so completely alone as they are left at present. It may be quite true that the seven infants found upon Mr. Henney’s premises were “stillborn,” and we feel sure that if any lady had offered to him a quick-born and full-grown corpse he would have buried it in the ordinary way. But can the same be said of all undertakers? This is what we do not feel so sure of. We fear that there are men in the undertaking business who would be quite capable of leaving the body of a person who had been born alive, but had subsequently died, to rot in an out-house, like Mr. Henney’s seven still-born infants If there are such men, there is, as things are at present, nothing to prevent them from so dealing with the corpses committed to their charge, provided they live in secluded neighbourhoods away from other habitations.

For the purposes of the business which he pursues, Mr. Henney’s establishment is unfortunately situated, being near an infants’ school, with the inmates of which the “stench” of the seven “stillborn” but nevertheless decomposing children in Mr. Henney’s stable, appears not to have agreed. It is, indeed, stated that “serious illness” has been produced in the school by the disagreeable odour. Owing to this cause Mr. Henney’s peculiar mode of conducting funerals would probably, sooner or later, have been discovered, even if the young man of whom we have spoken had not gone into the stable at all. But supposing this Mr. Henney to have lived a little way out in the country, or near an extensive piggery or soap-boiling establishment, or other place where a “stench” would naturally be expected, it is manifest that he might have persisted in his present course of allowing the “dead to bury their dead,” for almost any length of time without being discovered. But whether it is safe to act upon this injunction in all cases, whether it is right to leave the dead to bury themselves when somebody else has been found to bury them, are questions which we venture to propose, and which we hope some one will answer. We do not like to reiterate an assertion or an argument more than is absolutely necessary to ensure its being understood, but we cannot refrain from saying plainly what we have already implied, that since sauce for the gosling is sauce for the goose, and since seven still-born infants have been found rotting in one undertaker’s stables, it may possibly be our own destiny to be resolved into our original elements in a bed of quicklime beneath the flags of some of other undertaker’s kitchen, and that we do not at all relish the prospect.

In Cuba, as we read somewhere the other day, the bones of Chinese Coolies are sometimes used for the purpose of refining sugar. We are not aware whether human bones are so used in this country. Perhaps Mr. Henney can inform us. Will he be so kind as to tell us what he and his friends in the trade are in the habit of doing with any bones which they may chance to have over? We are very curious to know, because it seems to us that if an undertaker is paid to bury a body, and he not merely does not bury it, but sells the bones to anybody else, and pockets the price as well as the burial-fee, he is guilty of conduct which, whether he may think so or not, is in theory distinctly dishonest. Of course, we know that every business has a morality of its own; and we are quite prepared to learn that Mr. Henney is, according to his own light, as honourable a man as Brutus. But if Brutus had lived in these days, and in London, he would have been tried at the Old Bailey.

So we trust that in like manner there may be a searching inquiry into Mr. Henney’s conduct and mode of carrying on business, and that it may be clearly ascertained, if possible, whether all these seven infants really were still-born, and whether he has any more. We will also venture to express a hope that, one of these days when there is time, and the Eastern and other burning questions are settled, Parliament will take up undertakers, and examine them before Select Committees or Royal Commissions, or some way or other (we do not in the least care what) ascertain whether what is called Christian burial is the rule or the exception in this country, and then legislate accordingly.

Truth, Volume 1, 8 February 1877

In case you wish to read more about the lucrative profession of baby-farmer, see this well-researched link and this, with some dreadful details and photographs. And this, about Amelia Dyer, who stood at the peak of her loathsome profession.

The reference to Tennyson is from “The Grandmother,” where an elderly woman bewails her many losses: “But the first that ever I bare was dead before he was born.”

The additional frisson caused by the note about Chinese bones used in sugar refineries in Cuba is a reference to the use of bone-black (charcoal made from bones, usually animal) filters to remove impurities and make the finished product white sugar. While it is true that the Cubans imported Chinese laborers by the thousands when slavery was outlawed, I sincerely hope that this was an urban legend. And now I’m wondering if the bone collectors of the “rag and bone” profession got some of their supplies from the undertakers…

An undertaker in New York state got into similar trouble, but had a reasonable explanation:

For keeping dead babies in his cellar on ice for days or even weeks, a Greenpoint, N.Y., undertaker is in trouble with the authorities. His explanation is that he keeps the corpses until there enough of them to make a paying load, when he takes them to the cemetery. Macon [GA] Telegraph 22 July 1885: p. 2

And at least he kept them on ice. It was a common practice to bury still-born children into the gap at the foot of an adult grave.

IN CIGAR BOXES

Many Little Bodies Find Nameless Graves.

  “We have many people bring us little babes in boxes, ranging in size from a cigar box to a coffin a foot or so long,” said a sexton. “They hardly ever leave instructions, so we just put the boxes at the bottom of some grave we dig for a grown person.” Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 31 January 1892: p. 9

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

Does anyone have access to any of the stories of the original discovery of the bodies in Mr Henney’s stable? Or of the illnesses at the adjoining infants’ school? Ice well and send to ChrisWoodyard8 AT gmail.com.

For other stories of corpse collectors and the undertaking trade, see 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.

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.

 

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.