A strange wedding tragedy was the subject of investigation by the Plymouth, England, coroner yesterday.
On Wednesday Mary Dicker, the wife of a laborer, set out with her husband and daughter for the church where the latter was to be married to a young man named Menhennitt. On their way the wedding party met a funeral procession, and Mrs. Dicker was so much affected by this evil omen that she trembled violently all the way to the church, and declared that some calamity was bound to follow.
In the evening the bridegroom’s father gave a wedding party, and Mrs. Dicker, who seemed by that time to have recovered form her fright and to be in the best of spirits, was asked to sing a song. She did so, while still sitting in her chair.
In the middle of the song she fell forward and it was thought that she had fainted. She was carried into an adjoining bedroom, and a doctor was sent for, but before he arrived the morning’s ill omen had been fulfilled and she was dead.
It appeared that she had suffered a good deal from heart trouble, though the symptoms had disappeared during the last 12 months. Dr. Croft Symons stated that death was due to syncope brought on by the excitement of the morning.
A verdict of “death from natural causes” was recorded.
Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 18 February 1904: p. 5
It was a popular superstition that seeing a hearse or a mourning coach on one’s wedding day was a deadly omen for the marriage. There was also a belief that a bride who saw a hearse on her wedding day would lose all of her children.
On a foggy morning last week…a bridal party consisting of two young women with enormous bouquets, and two very nervous looking young men, drew up in a four-wheeler at the entrance to a registry-office, situated in one of the meanest of the mean streets off Islington. Just as they were all alighting, a hearse, meandering along in the fog, collided with the cab, and for the moment the wheels became interlocked. Bridegroom, bridesmaid, and the best man were in no way disconcerted. But, alas! For the poor little bride the harmony of the day was broken. Bursting into tears she declared that nothing would induce her to get married “with a hearse for an omen.” And neither laughter, chidings, nor entreaties served to shake her resolve. Back into the cab she got, bouquet and all, and in a few minutes the very woe-begone quartet drove off. Inangahua Times, 7 April 1897: p. 4
The Islington bride sensibly postponed the festivities, while the following bride did not. A word to the wise…
BRIDE’S FATAL SUPERSTITION
Portsmouth, Eng. While a Portsmouth woman was going to church on her wedding day her taxicab overtook a funeral procession. She regarded it as an ill omen and was disposed to postpone the ceremony, but was dissuaded by friends. The bride, however, was depressed. A fortnight after she became ill and died. Wilkes-Barre [PA] Times 16 September 1920: p. 16
“Come out through the back way and see my daisy!” he chuckled as he rubbed his hands together.
“What! gone into the funeral flowers business on your own account? Yet, after all, why not? An undertaker might as well furnish the flowers as the coffin.”
“Come on. There–how does that strike you?”
“That’s a hearse–a new one.”
“But it’s the daisy I was speaking of. Isn’t she spic-span and shiny?”
“I should smile. It lays over anything of the sort in this town, and don’t you forget it! Get in and lie down and let me bob the springs to show how easy it rides.”
“No. thank you.”
“You go on! There’s points about a hearse the public ought to know. Get up on the driver’s seat.”
“Excuse me, but I prefer a family carriage.”
“Oh, pshaw! But you are too thin-skinned. Just notice these springs. I tell you it will be a positive pleasure to ride above ’em. The dish of those wheels is absolutely perfect, and such a finish!”
“Yes, very nice hearse.”
“You bet! Say, it will be a proud hour in my life when I hitch a span of white horses to that vehicle and prance around to the house of the late deceased. Lands! But won’t the other undertakers look blue! Say, feel of these curtains–pure silk.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“Go on, now! Hang it, but when an undertaker puts up his cash for a regular daisy like this you newspaper fellows ought to encourage him. Just remember that the old-fashioned way of carrying a body around in a lumber wagon and then gaze on this! Just notice how these rear doors open to admit the coffin.”
“Handy? Why, man, it’s superb! Have you noticed the glass in the sides?”
“Seems to be very good.”
“Good! Why, it’s the finest in the world–the very finest! I wanted something to show off the coffin, and here it is. I tell you, the late deceased ought to feel proud to ride in such a vehicle! You can say in your paper that it knocks ’em all out. Say, how are you on styles?”
“Coffins and shrouds, of course. Come in a minute. I’ve got a new thing in shrouds—something you are bound to appreciate, and I’m after a patent on a coffin with an air-receiver in it. Say! do me a favor. Let me enclose you in my new coffin and see how long the supply of air will last you. I’ll bet a dol–”
If we were to examine the standard-issue prank repertory of the vintage April Fool’s day, it would include old chestnuts like the hat-covering-a-brick trick or the wallet-on-a-string. Epicures would be tempted by chocolate covered soaps, cotton-stuffed doughnuts, or peppered candy. “KICK/KISS ME” signs would be attached to coat-tails. Possibly exploding cigars would be offered to unsuspecting acquaintances. Unpleasant, but mostly benign stuff.
But since I am known for being a Little Ray of Sunshine, we will bypass these harmless japes in favor of more ghoulish fooleries, the ones involving fake corpses, staged murders and suicides. All in good fun, of course.
April Fool’s Day must have been hell for trainsmen and drivers of street-cars.
A ghastly April Fool joke was played on the Wilmington train yesterday as it was coming up to the city. Some party or parties had stuffed an effigy looking very much like the average bummer and laid it across the track. As soon as the object was sighted by the engineer he whistled down brakes, and the train was brought to a stop, but not until it had passed over the prostrate body and sent the mangled head rolling into the ditch at the side. There was a general scrambling out of the train and some excited people for a few moments. When the state of the case was ascertained, it would not have been healthy for the perpetrator of the joke to show himself in that crowd.
Los Angeles [CA] Daily Herald 2 April 1876: p. 3
It must have been an equally fraught holiday for the coroners.
The Coroner, His Assistants, and Newspaper Reporters Neatly Sold.
A ghastly, but unique “April Fool” joke was sprung on the Coroner yesterday. A party of fellows, thinking to have a little fun at his expense, arranged a “dummy” corpse so as to resemble a man, whose exit from life had been caused by railway car wheels. The “dummy” was located at the crossing of the transfer track and Pennsylvania street, a call issued, and in due time the coroner, his assistant, a number of reporters and quite a crowd of other people had assembled at the spot. There laid the “corpse.” A blood-stained handkerchief covered the face, and the misshapen trunk, cut and scarred by the marks of wheels, made a sight that filled the hearts of all present with horror.
Cautiously raising the ‘kerchief to take a preliminary squint at the remains, the Coroner fell back and muttered an imprecation that was far from being gentle or pious. The rag soaked with red ink covered a pile of straw, and the “corpse” was a made up “April Fool” joke that “worked to a charm” at the expense of an august Court, clerk and spectators.
Evansville [IN] Courier and Press 2 April 1890: p. 5
A GHASTLY HOAX
A “Floater” Turns Out to Be a Man of Straw
An idiotic April Fool joke possessing some elements of maliciousness was perpetrated on the Coroner last night by a lot of wharf hoodlums. A telephone message was received at 7:30 o’clock telling the Coroner to send the wagon to the foot of Third street, and conveying the information that a “floater” had been found in the bay at that point. Deputy Coroner Charles Johnston accepted the notice in good faith, and with an assistant drove down to the place where the alleged “floater” was found to be a man of straw.
The dummy was in the water and was fished out with much trouble before Johnston learned that he had been made the victim of a very feeble joke. A crowd of men and boys stood around the spot and guyed the officials and when remonstrated with stoned them. They drove away without having been hurt.
First Deputy Coroner Murphy investigated the matter and learned that the telephone message came in from Pope & Talbot’s lumber yard at Third and Berry streets. The telephone is in the private office of the firm, to which the night watchman has the key, and as this individual could not be found around the place when Murphy tried to hunt him up, it is supposed that he is the witless booby who conceived and perpetrated the hoax.
San Francisco [CA] Chronicle 2 April 1888: p. 3
Straw dummies were a popular April Fool’s Day accessory:
A GHASTLY APRIL FOOL JOKE
Dummy Thrown from Building and Several Women Fainted.
New York, April. 1. Hundreds of pedestrians crowded in narrow Nassau Street, in the financial district, shrank back in terror this afternoon when the form of a man came hurtling down form the twenty-fourth story of the Liberty Tower building. Several stenographers in windows on the opposite side of the street fainted and someone turned in an ambulance call. Police officers rushed to the spot where the figure fell and found it to be a dummy stuffed with hay, with a broomstick for a backbone and a false face to make it realistic. The ambulance surgeon did not appreciate the April Fool’s day comedy and drove away, leaving a street cleaner to gather up the debris.
Times-Picayune [New Orleans LA] 2 April 1912: p. 1
Woe to the unfortunates who had accidents on the wrong day.
PLUNGE TO HIS DEATH
Friends Thought Young Man Was Hanging for Fun.
In view of several hundred persons, who thought he was playing an April fool prank, Luther Williams, aged 22, a painter, dangled for a few minutes at the end of a rope attached to the smokestack of the Georgia Railway and Electric Light company plant at Atlanta and then plunged 150 feet to earth. He was still breathing when picked up, but died ten minutes after arriving at a hospital. In its descent the body of Williams crashed through the roof of the boiler shop.
The Manning [SC] Times 10 April, 1912: p. 6
Some April foolers went entirely too far. This one deserved to be named and shamed, although it appears that the young lady survived.
A Fool April Fool Joke
As the result of an April fool joke, Edith Walrach, of Camden, N.J., who is visiting friends at Binghampton, N.Y., is said to be dying. Miss Walrach is 19 years old and of a very nervous temperament. In the family she is visiting is a young practical joker. He procured a small live mouse which he put in an egg shell, covering the opening with plaster of Paris. This was brought in with the breakfast Sunday, and when Miss Walrach broke the shell and the liberated mouse jumped out she screamed and fainted away. During the day she had three nervous fits, and her physician pronounces her condition critical. The young man is nearly wild with grief, as he and Miss Walrach were shortly to be married.
Jackson [MI] Citizen 6 April 1900: p. 6
April Fool’s prank letters caused as much havoc as vinegar valentines.
AN APRIL FOOL MURDER
A Sumter County Girl’s Joke Causes Death
Americus, April 14. Jack Tyner, a young man 18 years old, was stabbed to death yesterday afternoon by Henry Weaver, a companion about the same age. Your correspondent has obtained the following particulars of the tragedy:
Young Weaver received an April fool letter that made him very mad. It was signed by Tyner. Yesterday Weaver met Tyner and the matter was referred to. Tyner denied writing the letter or knowing anything about it. Weaver did not believe him and assaulted him with the result above stated.
Since the killing a young lady admits that she wrote the letter and signed Tyner’s name to it. The killing occurred in the country a few miles from Ellaville. Weaver fled and at last accounts had not been captured.
Macon [GA] Telegraph 15 April 1889: p. 1
We may seriously doubt that this wife would have described her husband as “delightful” and “a great humorist.”
A Nashville, Kansas, farmer, who is a great humorist, planned a delightful April Fool joke on his wife. He disguised himself as a tramp, appeared before his wife, and scared her into a faint from which death relieved her within an hour. Thus is again illustrated the fact that the breed of fools is perennial; it blooms forever. And the fool who thinks it funny to scare somebody usually is particularly evident. If only the homes for the feeble minded were large enough to contain everybody who should be in them, ow many of us would cease going at large.
Fresno [CA] Morning Republican 5 April 1896: p. 2
Even the dead were not safe from the April Fool’s prankster.
That was a ghastly April fool joke of some Eastern correspondent, who telegraphed to the Associated Press that the tomb of George Peabody had been entered by burglars, and the coffin robbed of silver plate and handles. [on March 31st] The telegraph to-day exposes the canard. What will April Fool do next?
Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 2 April 1870: p. 2
LOST THE CORPSE
Might Have Been an April Fool’s Joke But Undertaker Couldn’t See It.
Boston, April 1. Visions of the dead arisen floated before the eyes of Undertaker Jas. A. Coudey today when a body in his charge disappeared. Mr. Coudey had driven his hearse containing the body of a man, to the old court house, and entered the municipal offices to secure a burial permit. When he came out, body, hearse and horse were gone. A search revealed the vehicle around the corner, with another man on the box. A policeman, whose suspicions had been aroused, was talking to the man and, after he had heard Coudey’s story, he placed the stranger under arrest. The man, Donald Beauslack, explained that another man had asked him to drive the hearse around the corner.
Evening Times [Grand Forks, ND] 1 April 1910: p. 1
In this article there is an obvious subtext of admiration for the joker who so effectively faked a suicide. The coroner must have thrown his hands up in despair.
GHASTLY APRIL FOOL HOAX
A Man Puts Up a Suicide Fake at Chattanooga, Tenn., with Much Success.
Chattanooga, Tenn., April 1, 1892. Some one went to some expense to play a joke to-day, but the success of his efforts must gratify him. Chattanooga evening papers are full to-day of graphic description of the suicide of Thomas W. Johnson, of Brooklyn, and special correspondents have burdened the wires with accounts of the suicide. Two butchers coming into the city at daybreak this morning were startled by finding a handsome overcoat and derby hat lying upon the Tennessee River bridge. Investigation followed by the Coroner, who was awakened by the police. In a pocket of the satin lined coat was found a well written letter of farewell, finishing up with a plaintive lament in rhyme. The letter was addressed to Miss Stella Woolbridge, Brooklyn, N.Y., who was addressed as “My Darling.”
Despite the fact that it was April 1, the Coroner, after careful investigation, determined that the find was genuine, and for hours the river was dragged and river men cautioned to look out for the corpse. In the letter was a lock of golden hair tied with blue ribbon. In a pocketbook were found coins, newspaper clippings, sleeping car receipts and a request that the remains be sent to Brooklyn if recovered. By a curious coincidence the name signed to the letters corresponded with one registered at the Shiff Hotel four days ago.
The joker, frightened at the proportions his joke was assuming, confided to me to-night that the whole thing was a fake. At three o’clock this morning he left coat and hat, with its carefully prepared contents, on the bridge. He took the name of Thomas Johnson at random, and had no idea that a Thomas Johnson, of Brooklyn, had really registered here a few days ago.
New York [NY] Herald 2 April 1892: p. 5
And finally, some April foolers just did not understand why their victims failed to appreciate their carefully arranged pranks.
But Then It Did Not Seem to be Duly Appreciated
“Can I stay here and sleep on a lounge to-night?” asked a sad-faced young man as he walked into the Press club last evening and joined a group of reporters. “I’ve got to, anyway, whether I can or not. I’m a victim of the boomerang April-fool joke. It started in like this: I was just getting my comfortable second nap this morning when a call came on my door and the voice of the landlady notified me that the postman was below with a registered letter for which I must give a receipt in person. Had I been good and awake I would not have been caught by such a transparent joke, but I was just stupid enough to hustle into a portion of my clothes and tramp downstairs, where everybody hailed me with that old chestnut about ‘April fool.’
“I went back to my room, sore in spirit, and kept thinking of a plan to get even all through the day. By afternoon I had the thing all fixed up and proceeded to work out my plan. I went home between five and six and took occasion to mope about for a little while, making all the folks see me and notice my glumness. I was the very embodiment of woe and would only respond in monosyllables. Then I went to my room, took off my coat and vest and put a streak of red ghastly grease paint across my neck resembling a slash with a razor. In addition to this I put a red spot on my shirt front, and then, grasping a razor in my left hand—the blade clotted with imitation blood—and a revolver in my right, I fired two blank cartridges, let a wail out of me, staggered and fell with a thud to the floor. There I lay, with the revolver firmly grasped in my right hand and the razor in my left.
“In a second I heard feminine screams and pattering footsteps on the stairs. Then the landlady and two or three married women and the servants broke into my room, saw my blood-stained corpse stretched out on the floor, and set up an assortment of shrieks, which made the pictures turn face to the wall. Then I heard some moans and a woman flopped to the floor in a faint. More moans and another flopped. The landlady and her sister came to me and bent over me with horrified exclamations, and the first thing I knew the sister let loose a little wail and fell across my stomach. In about a second the landlady herself sunk in a heap with an arm thrown across my neck, whereupon the servant girls turned and fled with shrieks.
“I dragged myself from beneath the forms of my sympathizers and sat up. It was a beautiful sight. Four women dumped down on the floor regardless of appearances, some of them with their noses puncturing the carpet and some tied in knots. I threw a glassful of water in each woman’s face, and lit a cigarette and watched ‘em come to. They opened their eyes about the same time, and pretty soon sat up and looked about ‘em. I watched their faces, and when I saw that they had about got their bearings, I blithely remarked: ‘April fool’ and rubbed the red grease paint off my neck with a towel. Just then the servant girls returned with a policeman and came charging upstairs. I happened to know him and gave him a wink, and told him it was a mistake; that one of the boys had worked a little April-fool joke on the folks, and he went away. But the women turned on me and abused me scandalously, and the landlady ordered me out of the house at once. To escape their wrath I fled, and when I sneaked back after supper found my trunk on the doorstep with a note tacked to it ordering me not to try to enter on pain of being murdered in my bed.
“That’s why I’m here. When will the American people learn to appreciate real humor? That’s what I want to know.”
[Originally published 1 November 2016 at HauntedOhiobooks.com]
Dia de los Muertos begins today. I hope you have your ofrendas decorated and have laid in a good supply of sugar skulls and marigolds. Although I’ve previously told ghost stories about dead nuns and sinister ravens and corpse-confessors to celebrate, this year I’d like to visit the fascinating world of Hispanic street-car hearses. They are perhaps, not strictly speaking hell-wains, the common carrier for the souls of the damned, but rather vehicles for Purgatorial passage. (Incidentally, I had thought about calling this post “A Streetcar Named ‘The Crier.’” There was a funeral street car in Baltimore christened “Dolores.”)
While trolley hearses were used in the United States, there did not seem to be as much enthusiasm about the idea as there was in Mexico and South America where they were seen as a modern innovation and a symbol of progressive government policies towards the poor, offering various levels of service and conveying the bodies of paupers to the grave without charge.
Despite the egalitarian public’s fondness for private funeral trains and carriages in the United States, the press seemed fascinated by this “class system” of Mexican funerals. The trolley funerals were often the subject of “curious customs from our neighbors to the south” articles, complete with the casual racism of the time. I’ll caution you that there will be a bit of overlap with the articles here because I’m a completist when it comes to documenting mortuary history.
Here we see how the trolley hearses did not start out as a program of government beneficence, but as a capitalist venture.
FUNERALS ON STREET CARS
When the street-car line was first opened in [the City of] Mexico an enterprising stockholder, Senor Gayosso, bought up all the hearses in the city. He then had funeral cars built for the tracks and procured the sole right to prepare passengers and haul them to their last resting-place. He is to-day one of the wealthiest men in Mexico. The first-class funeral cars for adults are built of fine black wood. A raised part is in the center of the car on which the coffin is placed. A canopy, exquisitely finished, covers the entire car, the sides being artistically draped. From four to eight beautiful black horses, with long, black plumes in their heads, haul this strange car.
The two drivers are dressed in fine black suits, gloves and high silk hats, bound with wide crepe bands. The coffin is placed on the rest prepared for it, and all around and over flowers are placed. Following this comes a train of cars with the friends. The windows are draped with white crepe and the doors with black. A funeral train will average twenty cars and more, if it is a person of wealth who has died. But in the hundreds who follow a body to the grave cannot be found one woman or child.
I have asked the reason why no women ever attend funerals in Mexico. It is against the rules of society. Mr. Gayosso says women are not allowed to go to funerals because they cry too much. However, a wife cannot go to her husband’s funeral, nor can a mother follow her babe to its grave.
There is a similarity in all the funeral cars. Those for children are white, drawn by white horses. Those for the poor are, like other things in this world for the poor, cheap and shabby. The poor Indian can have a funeral-car and two passage tickets for fifty cents by applying to the police. He can even hire a plain, unpainted coffin to carry the dead to the grave. Once there, the body is wrapped in a serape and consigned to a grave which has been rented for from two to five years. At the end of that time the grave is opened and the bleaching bones are cast into a corner kept for that purpose, where they lay bleaching in the hot Southern sun, exposed to the gaze of the public.
Funerals cost from fifty cents to $2,000. One of the prettiest customs in Mexico is the universal respect which greets a passing funeral. Every man, from the millionaire to the poor, half-clad peon, takes off his hat until the sad train is passed. Well-dressed senoras bow their head and silently cross themselves, while the Indian women kneel in prayer. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 21 May 1887: p. 15
Even today “Agencias Funerarias Gayosso” appears to be one of the most prominent funeral directors in Mexico.
Among the poor, there was a custom of carrying the coffin to the cemetery by hand or on the head.
The Mexicans have a queer way of burying the dead. The corpse is tightly wrapped in century plant matting, and placed in a coffin rented for about twenty-five cents. One or two natives, as the case may be, place the coffin on their heads and go in a trot to the grave, where the body is interred, and the coffin is then returned. The wealthy class use the street cars as hearses, and the friends follow behind the cars on foot. Evening News [San Jose, CA] 23 February 1889: p. 3
The funeral trolleys were quite the lucrative business.
The story of the splendid street car service given the city of Mexico would hardly be complete without giving a short description of the funeral service. There is a special department for this service, which is very much used, and which earns, I am told, about $400 per day. For this service the old horse cars are used to a good advantage. The company controls the funeral service of the city, whether it be by electric car, horse car or carriage, and it is prepared to furnish any kind of service upon short notice given at their office.
With few exceptions the funerals from the city to the cemeteries are conducted by the street railway company, either first-class, second-class or free, the cost varying with the amount of decoration used on the cars. It is not an uncommon sight to see five or six funerals leaving the public square, following one another on the street railway tracks, each with from one to three cars. Some have great quantities of beautiful flowers and ornamentation and others have none.
The funeral car is generally a motor car, but sometimes it is pulled by mules. It is painted and trimmed in black or white. All are single-truck cars, with four square posts supporting the roof at the corners of the car body, forming a parallelogram, say 12 feet long by the usual width of the car. Between the posts on the floor of the car is a raised portion upon which the casket and many of the flowers are placed. The friends of the dead are carried in one, two or three trailers or horse cars. I have seen as many as two trailers filled with floral decorations.
There are also two magnificently furnished and fitted cars called “Carrozas” for extraordinarily fine funerals. These cars cost upward of $10,000 each and have a place in front for the casket, with seats behind for the people. Women never attend funerals in this country. They also have 20 electric and 8 horse “Carrozas,” which are used for first and second class funerals, according as may be required and are decorated to suit for extra expense. The original cost of such a car is $3.75 silver, trailers being paid for at the same rate,
This service saves the people many thousands of dollars annually and at the same time is worthwhile to the railway company.
The free car for funerals when people are unknown or die absolutely destitute is quite another thing; instead of being entirely open it is entirely closed, with doors on one side opening from top to bottom. There are four doors, with three compartments to each (like pigeonholes), there being 12 places in each car. In each one of these places a body is placed, either in a common board coffin or sewed up in a blanket. The latter cars are furnished at the exact cost of running, twice per day. The service is paid for by the government. Electric Railway Review, Volume 19, 14 March 1908: p. 326
The trolleys were even mentioned in the papers and in guidebooks as one of the not-to-be-missed tourist attractions of Mexico City. I was interested to note that the information on trolley-hearses from an 1899 guide to Mexico was copied practically word-for-word by a 1911 travel book—a long run of popularity.
MEXICO’S TROLLEY FUNERALS
Train of Electric Hearses and Mourners’ Cars One of the Sights.
City of Mexico, June 27.
The elaborate funeral processions which, winding gay-colored through the streets, are a feature of most Spanish-American countries, are unknown here. The electric trains are used for all funerals and the procession following the dead to the place of burial is as modern and up to date as it can be. The electric trains of Mexico are well built and run, their direction being in the hands of Americans and Englishmen. One of the main lines runs to the principal cemetery of the city and along this all the funerals go.
The company has a contract with the city under the terms of which a special burial car, containing coffins for twelve bodies, calls daily at the hospitals and public institutions to take the city charges who have died to the city cemetery. Under the contract with the city the trolley company furnishes the hearse and the car crew, and the undertakers are city employes. The funeral car is a plain black car with little ornamentation.
The company has for private use several cars ranging in elaborateness from a plain style, for which a small charge is made, to a very elaborate one, the price of which puts it beyond the reach of all but the well-to-do.
All the cars are so constructed that they can be run off the tracks and over the pavements to the house from which the body is to be taken. When the coffin is secured the car is drawn by horses back to the nearest track, where it make the necessary electric connection.
Of late the government has been repaving the streets with asphalt. It has been found that dragging the heavy funeral cars over this is ruinous to the pavement and soon another arrangement will be necessary. The trolley company intends to have a central funeral station designated, into which the electric hearses can run on spurs and to which the dead will be taken in vehicles provided for that purpose. A familiar sight on the trolley line to the cemetery is a funeral train made up of an electric hearse, with a trailer for the mourners; another hearse, with another body, another trailer, with another party of mourners, and so on. The trains run at the same speed as other electric vehicles.
Many of the hearses are elaborately embellished with statuettes, carved work, plumes, torches and similar emblems of mourning. The trolley company finds the business profitable and it is growing all the time. Grand Rapids [MI] Press 27 June 1903: p. 10
This pretty picture of funereal efficiency was rather marred by darker reports of ill-maintained tramways, which caused derailments and the spilling of corpses into the street. The admirable plan to collect pauper corpses from the hospitals with Prussian precision was tempered by the reality that the trolley did not always run on time and there were both backlogs of rotting bodies at the cemeteries and complaints by the dismayed populace of naked and decomposing bodies and body parts being run through the middle of Mexico City during the day. In addition, in 1904 there were complaints that a pulqueria across the street from the Panteon Civil de Dolores was patronized by mourners and trolley drivers, who then drove recklessly through the cemetery.
The Mexican Civil War caused the destruction of many trolley lines. The article below suggests that the Mexican trolley-hearse was on the wane. Note that the headquarters of the Mexico Tramways Company was in Canada, perhaps a remnant of those “Englishmen” who were said to have built and run it in 1903.
FUNERAL TRAINS IDLE
Toronto, Ont., Jan. 24. At his desk in Toronto, an official of the Mexico Tramways Company recently noted statistics showing that the street car hearse business in Mexico City had been dropping off gradually during recent years. Hence, an order has gone forth from the Toronto headquarters of the Mexican city’s street car system that its “funeral trains” no longer are to be operated. Times-Picayune [New Orleans LA] 25 January 1931: p. 20
It seems as though trolley-hearses still ran in San Francisco through the late 1920s. Does anyone know the date of the latest use of a trolley hearse either in Mexico or the United States? Bier-heads welcome. Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
In looking at the popular culture of funerals and death for The Victorian Book of the Dead, I’ve noticed a minor trend in reporting on über-extravagant burials. The Gilded Age was a golden age for the conspicuous consumption of coffins and other funerary goods. Undertakers were quizzed about (and did not hesitate to volunteer) sumptuary details, such as Mrs Van Gilding had a genuine mahogany casket, rather than rosewood veneer, the coffin fittings were real silver, rather than plate, and that the lining fabric cost $12 a yard. This inspired a sort of arms-race, except with funeral trappings as opposed to deadly weapons. Keeping up with the Boneses….
To Hold Safe Her Gems
Mrs. “Diamond” Johnson Will Be Buried With Her Jewels.
An Impregnable Grave Built to Baffle Any Attempt at Robbery.
[Norwich (Conn.) Cor. New York Herald.]
Mrs. Mary Tuttle (“Diamond”) Johnson, formerly a resident of this city, now of Chicago, for whom a conservator was recently appointed by request of her husband and sons, has had a remarkable grave constructed in her lot in Yantic Cemetery, destined to receive her body. It is the most costly, massive, unique and elaborate one in this state.
Mrs. Johnson purchased her cemetery lot some time ago and had her grave made. She is haunted by an overmastering dread of graveyard ghouls and robbers and she had barely completed her grave when she decided that it was not strong enough to baffle a possible assault after her body had been committed to it.
With a corps of skilled professional workmen she went to work at once to reconstruct and immensely strengthen it, carrying on the work clandestinely in order to forestall opposition on the part of her conservator and her watchful husband and sons. The result of her craftiness and the dispatch and dexterity of her workmen was that she not only accomplished her project without betraying her design, but so neatly that there is not an outward token to indicate to a casual observer that the old grave had ever been disturbed.
GRAVE SEEMS IMPREGNABLE.
The grave is in many respects the most remarkable and wonderfully contrived one probably in New England. Apparently it is impregnable to assault.
Its floor is a huge smoothly chiseled slab of Rhode Island granite, weighing more than a ton, while a similar gigantic slab of stone, which weighs 2,700 pounds and can be handled only with the aid of a derrick, forms its cover.
The walls of the grave are of cemented pressed brick, solid as adamant, and as thick and enduring seemingly as those of a modern fort.
Mrs. John is greatly pleased with the remodeled tomb, and convinced that after her body is placed between this two ponderous granite slabs it will be absolutely secure.
Not long ago Mrs. Johnson had a magnificent granite monument erected on her cemetery lot at a cost of $18,000, which is said to be the most ornate, unique and expensive private mortuary memorial in New England. It is a lofty, shapely shaft, handsomely polished and carved, bearing the allegorical figures, also superbly sculptured, of Faith, Hope and Charity. The monument was erected by famous granite cutters of Westerly, R.I.
Mrs. John’s ruling passion is an immoderate fondness for diamonds, on account of which the title of Mrs. “Diamond” Johnson
WAS POPULARLY BESTOWED
On her more than a quarter of a century ago. At all times she is a-glitter with the gems from head to foot, and she rarely appears in public with less than $25,000 to $50,000 worth of them displayed on her person.
It is said to be her intention to have her fabulous store of jewels buried with her body, a fancy that may account, in part, for her determination to make her tomb absolutely impregnable to grave robbers….The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 26 December 1896: p. 8
The tomb, which is pictured at the head of this post, seems to be a different one than currently stands in Yantic Cemetery, and the vault built so secretly seems to have disappeared altogether, but the rich and eccentric (or their heirs) often changed their minds about monuments.
Mrs. Henry Hiller also changed her mind and had a second set of wildly expensive caskets made for her husband and herself. You can’t take it with you, but Mrs. Hiller really did give it her best try.
A CONNOISSEUR IN COFFINS
Mrs. Hiller Spends Twenty Thousand Dollars For Her Own Burial Robe
[Boston Special to New York World.]
The eccentricities of the late Dr. Henry Hiller and wife, of Wilmington, Mass., whose fad was magnificently carved and luxuriously upholstered burial caskets, have been described in the World already. The doctor’s funeral took place a year ago to-day and the corpse was carried to its last resting place in a silk-lined, gold-plated, elaborately carved casket of solid mahogany, enclosed by another casket no less extravagantly appointed. Six richly caparisoned coal-black Percherons in gold-mounted harness, each attended by a colored groom, carried the casket to the temporary vault. There the doctor’s body has been guarded night and day by a grim old watchman. A $500 lamp standing in front has shed its bright rays in the path of possible body-snatchers or grave desecrators, and every morning the faithful widow has gone to see that everything about the place was all right.
Not satisfied with the ghostly magnificence of a year ago, the widow has been at work on the construction of new caskets, one for her husband, the other for herself, which easily surpass in magnificence and grotesqueness of ornamentation any thing of the kind the world has ever seen. Each casket is in two parts—the casket proper and the sarcophagus. The material in all four is solid mahogany, imported specially from South America. The upholstering inside is as elaborate as money could make it. Corded silk of the value of $10 a yard is the material used. The lids are made of separate panels, highly polished, richly carved and fastened by solid gold hinges with knobs of solid gold for opening them. The doctor’s new casket is fastened by a heavy brass door of Gothic design, having a knob made of six pounds of solid gold. On the panels are solid gold tablets, inscribed with the doctor’s favorite passages of Scripture, such as “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” “Blessed are they that die in the Lord.”
Standing at the head of the coffin is a figure of the doctor built out of solid mahogany and reduced to a height of eighteen inches. About him are the figures of four angels welcoming him to Paradise. Mrs. Hiller’s coffin, on the other hand, has her figure recumbent on the lid, with three angels ministering to her and the doctor kneeling beside her with his right arm supporting her head. But the most remarkable feature of this remarkable burial casket is the carving on one of the side panels. The sculptor has drawn a sketch of a landscape, showing at intervals a meadow, a river, a hill, a forest, a valley, and, last of all, a mountain, at the apex of which is a white cross. Clinging to the cross is a naked cherub, and behind another cherub, and then another, until twenty-three are counted climbing toward the cross. During the twenty-four years of her married life, Mrs. Hiller says she bore her husband twenty-three children, none of whom lived. The procession up the mountain, she says, perpetuates the memory of her little ones.
Mrs. Hiller has also had made for herself a burial robe, of which it may be truly said that it beggars description. The dress-maker completed it after four months’ labor and an outlay of $20,000. The robe is made of white ottoman silk, corded heavily. There is also a wilderness of white silk lace running in perpendicular panels and tucked and gathered and fluted until it stands out to a distance of five inches. There are other panels of white surah of the most expensive manufacture. Between the panels of silk and lace are intermediate panels constructed solely of daisies made in France of pure silk after a design bought in Boston for $40. It is estimated that 5,000 of these daisies are sewed into this gown. The robe opens in front and is fastened by upward of 200 solid silver hooks designed like a serpent’s head.
The total outlay by Mrs. Hiller will be not far short of $500,000. The mausoleum will be of hammered granite. In the four walls will be gilt windows, through which it is planned to have rays of colored light enter, a different light to each window, which, blending, will fall upon the caskets resting side by side within. The caskets will stand each on four huge brass legs and chairs of magnificent design will be in the mausoleum for the accommodation of sight-seers. Mrs. Hiller will soon hold a reception for the exhibition of the caskets, the invitation to which is a picture of a coffin with “Admit one,” written beneath.
Mrs. Hiller says Queen Victoria sent to her for all the American papers that contained notices of the doctor’s funeral. When she had read them she said that Mrs. Hiller was the only woman who had surpassed Her Majesty in doing honor to a dead consort. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 21 December 1889: p. 11
A little more detail on the coffins, which sound like an artistic nightmare with their jumble of figures and mythologies.
The Hillers have spent $10,000 on their new coffins, which are beauties of mechanical and artistic skill. Each casket consists of two parts, or, in other words, each body will have two coffins. The inner coffin is composed of mahogany, made air-tight by being completely enveloped in copper. It rests within the outside casket on two elegant brass supports which represent the big paws of a lion.
It is on the outside casket, however, that the most lavish expenditure has been made. This is of mahogany also, the interior being lined with copper, the mountings of the latter being noticeably fine. Every panel contains a group of figures, and it is here the beauties of the carver’s art are made apparent.
Every figure is carefully and accurately made, and stands out in bold and striking relief. Each panel and its figures must have provided weeks of labor. To enumerate the symbols and figures which the artist has imparted with a living flourish to the receptacle of the dead would be to rehearse the names of all the familiar reproductions of the animate and inanimate in decorative art. A lion rampant here, a fierce-fanged griffin, birds of every species, fishes, flowers, plants, trees, the bow and arrow, &c., while in central positions are seen Flora and Ceres, cherubs blowing trumpets, angels tuning harps, Apollo with his lyre, Jupiter with thunderbolts, Neptune with his trident, &c., The caskets have been constructed at Dr. Hiller’s house. He says he has been offered $50,000 by a prominent showman to exhibit them. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 20 November 1887: p. 12
Dr. Hiller died in 1888 and was interred with much pomp. Mrs. Frances Hiller died in May of 1900. She had married her coachman, Peter Surrette, who, at her request, changed his name to Henry Hiller. He waived all rights to her estate, which was said to be worth $500,000. The funeral was a spectacle, with over 2,000 people turning out to stare at the much-vaunted casket, which rode on what looked like a crape-draped float from a morbid parade.
The pageant quickly degenerated into a fantasist’s farce: In truth, Mrs. Hiller had borne not 23, but three children—one of whom survived. The $50,000 casket turned out to have cost $2,000 and the $500,000 mausoleum with solid-gold knockers was never actually built, leaving only the original stone receiving vault, where Dr. Hiller slept, to receive the remains. The cast couchant lion pedestals (the “brass legs” mentioned above) that were to have held the caskets, proved too tall for the small vault and were discarded in a corner. Mrs. Hiller’s casket and the new one for her husband had been stored in an outbuilding and were not in the best of condition. But eventually Dr. and Mrs. Hiller were wrestled into their new sarcophagi, and the door, which had fallen into the tomb when the workmen uncovered it, was permanently bricked up. Several years later, cemetery authorities decided that the Hiller vault spoiled the look of the cemetery entrance. They demolished the vault and had the mahogany caskets, still in good condition, buried in the ground. Sic transit gloria mundi…
Other examples of funerary excess? Detailed photos of the Hiller coffins? Send engraved on a silver (solid, not plate, mind…) coffin plaque to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
It is the week-end of the Royal Windsor Horse-show and Mrs Daffodil has been persuaded by a box of really excellent chocolate cremes to allow Chris Woodyard, the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, to post a guest article on the theme of “hearse horses,” a class which Mrs Daffodil can confidently assert will not be on the programme at Windsor. In view of Prince Phillip’s impending retirement, a Hearse Four-in-Hand event might be seen as lacking in tact.
But enough persiflage. Chris Woodyard is champing at the bit….
In the United States, until the advent of the automobile hearse, hearse horses were a cherished commodity, well-known and sometimes beloved by the communities they served. The acquisition of a new pair of hearse horses was, like the purchase of a new hearse, an important event—something to be puffed in the papers. A smart team of plumed hearse horses was a selling point for any undertaker.
As late as 1911, E.F. Parks, an undertaker in Bryan, Texas, announced the arrival of “our fine team of hearse horses” rhapsodizing: “They are simply beautiful. White with a touch of red about the ears, back and hip. They are full brothers 5 and 6 years old.” Undertaker Parks even ran a contest for several weeks in the local newspaper to name the horses, selecting “Prince” and “Pilot” as the winning names. The Bryan [TX] Eagle 16 March 1911: p. 1
Articles about the acquisition of hearse horses often stressed the animals’ training (which seems to have been primarily about gait and speed), yet there were hundreds of accounts in contemporary newspapers of hearse horses running away or colliding with trees, trains, or telegraph poles, often with grave consequences.
FUNERAL HORROR FRIGHTENED HORSES
The Corpse of a Man Pulled After the Demolished Hearse in a Runaway
Rochester, N.Y., Feb. 24. A ghastly accident occurred at the double funeral of Mr. and Mrs. John Hackett, held near Lyons yesterday afternoon that has deeply shocked that community.
While the first hearse, drawn by a spirited team of blacks, was passing through a deep snow drift the horses became frightened, and, unseating the driver, ran away. The hearse containing the coffin and the remains of Mr. Hackett tipped over and the casket was demolished, throwing out the corpse, which, becoming entangled in the wrecked hearse, was dragged a considerable distance over the bare road and through deep snow drifts. When the terrified team finally broke loose from the wrecked vehicle and its ghastly occupant, the corpse was so badly mangled as to be almost unrecognizable. A driver was sent to look up another casket, which was procured several hours later, after which the funeral procession proceeded to the cemetery, where both bodies were interred in one grave. Tucson [AZ] Daily Citizen 24 February 1902: p. 4
One undertaker, when he discovered that the hearse horse he had trained could not keep to the required solemn gait, made the best of a bad job and released the horse to a racing career:
There is a son of Del Sur in California that they call “The Los Angeles Del Sur Wonder,” but known, for short, as the “hearse horse.” He was bred by an undertaker, and used for a while hauling the hearse. He was found to be rather faster than was needed to keep at the head of the procession, and being trained, trotted a 2.20 gait and paced in 2.18. Otago Witness, 28 April 1892: p. 27
An essential part of funeral pageantry, black horses were used for many adult funerals; white horses—or sometimes white ponies—drew the white hearse of the maiden, the child, or the infant. White horses were also used at state funerals:
Last of the Lincoln Hearse Horses.
A local celebrity recently died after a kind, useful life of thirty-eight years, says the Indianapolis Journal. His name was Jesse, and the one act which entitled him to mention was participation in the funeral cortege of the martyred Lincoln. He was the last of the six white horses which drew the hearse containing the honored body along the streets of Indianapolis. His mate in the proud but sorrowful lead of the team died eight years ago. The McCook [NE] Tribune 3 July 1891: p. 8
Since they were so much in the public eye, certain traits made for the most desirable hearse horses. In the United States, this was a suggested standard:
A more popular hearse-horse is coal-black with no white markings, and he must also have a long, flowing tail. Occasionally they are accepted when slightly marked with white, which is less objectionable on the hind feet than in the face or on the front feet….A hearse requires a horse from 15-3 to 16-1 hands high and weighing 1200 to 1250 pounds. Quarterly Report of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture, Volume 21, 1909 p. 490 and 512
In England, a matched set of black Drenthe horses from Hanover were employed at royal funerals. For the fashionable society funeral, black Belgian stallions were the ne plus ultra. Some of the cheaper imported stallions lacked the all-important tail-weepers and were provided with false tails:
A queer English custom is that of decorating the black hearse horses with long false black tails. They attract no more notice on a street in Liverpool than do the black nets used in this country to cover the horses. Pierre [SD] Weekly Free Press 16 November 1905: p. 1
The use of nets, as seen in several of the illustrations, seem to have been confined to the Americas. If draped, a European funeral horse would wear a blanket, as we see in these pictures of Russian and Roumanian hearse horses.
Rich in detail is this account of the “Black Brigade” of funeral horses in London. I’m particularly amused by the horses being named for current celebrities. It is also fascinating that an influenza epidemic put pressure on the supply of desirable hearse horses.
THE BLACK BRIGADE
A good many of the coal horses are blacks and dark bays, and by some people they are known as ‘the black brigade ‘; but the real black brigade of London’s trade are the horses used for funerals. This funeral business is a strange one in many respects, but, just as the jobmaster is in the background of the every-day working world, so the jobmaster is at the back of the burying world. The ‘funeral furnisher’ is equal to all emergencies on account of the facilities he possesses for hiring to an almost unlimited extent, so long as the death rate is normal. The [funeral] wholesale men, the ‘black masters,’ are always ready to cope with a rate of twenty per thousand —London’s normal is seventeen—but when it rises above that, as it did in the influenza time, the pressure is so great that the ‘blacks’ have to get help from the ‘coloured,’ and the ‘horse of pleasure’ becomes familiar with the cemetery roads.
A hundred years ago there was but one black master in London. He owned all the horses; and there are wonderful stories of the funerals in those days when railways were unknown. The burying of a duke or even a country squire, in the family vault, was then a serious matter, for the body had to be taken the whole distance by road, and the horses were sometimes away for a week or more, and were often worked in relays, much on the same plan as the coach-horses, only that rapid progress through the towns and villages was impossible, for the same reason that no living undertaker dare trot with a tradesman within the limits of the district in which the deceased happens to have been known and respected….
Altogether there are about 700 of these black horses in London. They are all Flemish, and come to us from the flats of Holland and Belgium by way of Rotterdam and Harwich. They are the youngest horses we import, for they reach us when they are rising three years old, and take a year or so before they get into full swing; in fact, they begin work as what we may call the ‘half-timers’ of the London horse-world. When young they cost rather under than over a hundred guineas a pair, but sometimes they get astray among the carriage folk, who pay for them, by mistake of course, about double the money. In about a year or more, when they have got over their sea-sickness and other ailments, and have been trained and acclimatised, they fetch 65£. each; if they do not turn out quite good enough for first-class -work they are cleared out to the second-class men at about twenty-five guineas; if they go to the repository they average 10£; if they go to the knacker’s they average thirty-five shillings, and they generally go there after six years’ work. Most of them are stallions, for Flemish geldings go shabby and brown. They are cheaper now than they were a year or two back, for the ubiquitous American took to buying them in their native land for importation to the States, and thereby sent up the price; but the law of supply and demand came in to check the rise, and some enterprising individual actually took to importing black horses here from the States, and so spoilt the corner.
Here, in the East Road, are about eighty genuine Flemings, housed in capital stables, well built, lofty, light, and well ventilated, all on the ground floor. Over every horse is his name, every horse being named from the celebrity, ancient or modern, most talked about at the time of his purchase, a system which has a somewhat comical side when the horses come to be worked together. Some curious traits of character are revealed among these celebrities as we pay our call at their several stalls. General Booth [founder of the Salvation Army], for instance, is ‘most amiable, and will work with any horse in the stud’; all the Salvationists ‘are doing well,’ except [George Scott] Railton, ‘who is showing too much blood and fire. Last week he had a plume put on his head for the first time, and that upset him.’ [Journalist W.T.]Stead, according to his keeper, is ‘a good horse, a capital horse—showy perhaps, but some people like the showy; he does a lot of work, and fancies he does more than he does. We are trying him with General Booth, but he will soon tire him out, as he has done others. He wouldn’t work with [biologist Thomas Henry] Huxley at any price!’ Curiously enough, Huxley ‘will not work with [physicist John] Tyndall, but gets on capitally with Dr. [philanthropist Thomas John] Barnardo.’ Tyndall, on the other hand, goes well with Dickens,’ but has a decided aversion to Henry Ward Beecher. [Liberal statesman John] Morley works ‘comfortably’ with [Conservative politician & PM Arthur] Balfour, but [Liberal statesman William Vernon] Harcourt and [Irish political leader Michael] Davitt ‘won’t do as a pair anyhow.’ An ideal team seems to consist of [political activist and atheist Charles] Bradlaugh, John Knox, Dr. [Alfred] Adler, and Cardinal [Henry Edward] Manning. But the practice of naming horses after church and chapel dignitaries is being dropped owing to a superstition of the stable. ‘All the horses,’ the horsekeeper says, ‘named after that kind of person go wrong somehow!’ And so we leave Canon [Frederic] Farrar, and Canon [Henry] Liddon, and Dr.[William Morley] Punshon, and John Wesley and other lesser lights, to glance at the empty stalls of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, now ‘out on a job,’ and meet in turn with [celebrity quack doctor] Sequah and [Louis] Pasteur, [hypnotist Franz Anton] Mesmer and [Electrohomeopathy inventor Cesare] Mattei. Then we find ourselves amid a bewildering mixture of poets, politicians, artists, actors, and musicians.
‘Why don’t you sort them out into stables, and have a poet stable, an artist stable, and so on?’
‘They never would stand quiet. The poets would never agree; and as to the politicians—well, you know what politicians are, and these namesakes of theirs are as like them as two peas!’ And so the horses after they are named have to be changed about until they find fit companions, and then everything goes harmoniously. The stud is worked in sections of four; every man has four horses which he looks after and drives; under him being another man, who drives when the horses go out in pairs instead of in the team.
One would think these horses were big, black retriever dogs, to judge by the liking and understanding which spring up between them and their masters. It is astonishing what a lovable, intelligent animal a horse is when he finds he is understood. According to popular report these Flemish stallions are the most vicious and ill-tempered of brutes; but those who keep them and know them are of the very opposite opinion….
There is an old joke about the costermonger’s donkey who looked so miserable because he had been standing for a week between two hearse horses, and had not got over the depression. The reply to this is that the depression is mutual. The ‘black family’ has always to be alone; if a coloured horse is stood in one of the stalls, the rest of the horses in the stable will at once become miserable and fretful. The experiment has been tried over and over again, and always with the same result; and thus it has come – about that in the black master’s yards, the coloured horses used for ordinary draught work are always in a stable by themselves.
The funeral horse hardly needs description. The breed has been the same for centuries. He stands about sixteen hands, and weighs between 12 and 13 cwt. The weight behind him is not excessive, for the car does not weigh over 17 cwt., and even with a lead coffin he has the lightest load of any of our draught horses. The worst roads he travels are the hilly ones to Highgate, Finchley, and Norwood. These he knows well and does not appreciate. In a few months he gets to recognise all the cemetery roads ‘like a book,’ and after he is out of the bye streets he wants practically no driving, as he goes by himself, taking all the proper corners and making all the proper pauses. This knowledge of the road has its inconveniences, as it is often difficult to get him past the familiar corner when he is out at exercise. But of late he has had exercise enough at work, and during the influenza epidemic was doing his three and four trips a day, and the funerals had to take place not to suit the convenience of the relatives, but the available horse-power of the undertaker. Six days a week he works, for after a long agitation there are now no London funerals on Sundays, except perhaps those of the Jews, for which the horses have their day’s rest in the week.
To feed such a horse costs perhaps two shillings a day—-it is a trifle under that, over the 700—and his food differs from that of any other London horse. In his native Flanders he is fed a good deal upon slops, soups, mashes, and so forth; and as a Scotsman does best on his oatmeal, so the funeral horse, to keep in condition, must have the rye-bread of his youth. Rye-bread, oats, and hay form his mixture, with perhaps a little clover, but not much, for it would not do to heat him, and beans and such things are absolutely forbidden. Every Saturday he has a mash like other horses, but unlike them his mash consists, not of bran alone, but of bran and linseed in equal quantities. What the linseed is for we know not; it may be, as a Life Guardsman suggested to us, to make his hair glossy, that beautiful silky hair which is at once his pride and the reason of his special employment, and the sign of his delicate, sensitive constitution.
The Horse-world of London, William John Gordon, 1893, pp 139-147
We find equally telling detail in this section from an article on unusual professions. Painting over inconvenient white portions of a funeral horse was widely practiced. An 1875 article tells of undertakers “not stinting with paint or black lead.” A lady observer in 1912 wrote about “dyed horses” in Paris funeral processions.
The last curious industry deals with funeral horses. Mr. Robert Roe, of Kennington Park Road, has imported these stately animals for upwards of twenty-five years. It seems they come from Friesland and Zeeland, and cost from £40 to £70. There must be about nine hundred funeral horses in London. The average undertaker, however, keeps neither horses nor coaches, but hires these from people like Seaward, of Islington. Mr. Seaward keeps a hundred funeral horses, so that a visit to his stables is an interesting experience.
“It is dangerous,” said one of my informants, “to leave a pair of these black stallions outside public-houses, when returning from a funeral; for these animals fight with great ferocity.” Once, at a very small funeral, the coachman lent a hand with the coffin; but, in his absence, the horses ran amuck among the tombstones, which went down like ninepins in all directions.
A white spot takes a large sum off the value of a funeral horse. In the photo one of Mr. Seaward’s men is painting a horse’s white fetlock with a mixture of lampblack and oil. A white star on the forehead may be covered by the animal’s own foretop.
On the right-hand side in the photo. will be seen hanging a horse’s tail. This is sent to the country with a “composite” horse— a Dutch black, not used for the best funeral work, owing to his lack of tail. He is sold to a country jobmaster, with a separate flowing tail, bought in Holland for a shilling or two. In the daytime, the “composite” horse conducts funerals, the tail fastened on with a strap; but at night he discards it, and gaily takes people to and from the theatres.
Worn-out funeral horses, one is horrified to learn, are shipped back to Holland and Belgium, where they are eaten.
The Strand Magazine, Vol. 13, 1897: p. 202
At least, that was the practice in England; Belgian horses were prized in their native country for their tender meat. In the United States, a hearse horse often retired to green pastures, after a long and useful career. This clever hearse horse had a well-deserved tribute paid to him on his retirement.
KEPT UNDERTAKERS BUSY
Horse Always Stopped at Houses Where Crape Hung on Door.
From the New York Press.
Having reached such a degree of zealousness in behalf of his owner’s business interests that he would stop in front of any house on the front of which symbols of mourning were displayed, Dan, for twenty years a faithful horse for Thomas M. O’Brien, an undertaker of Bayonne, N.J., has been retired on a pension. The undertaker made arrangements with a farmer in Orange county to take good care of Dan for the rest of his life, and to give him decent burial when he dies. Dan was shipped away yesterday. Twice when on the way to the railroad station the horse balked, and it was noticed that each time he balked it was in front of a house with crape hanging on the door. It was not until the driver whispered in Dan’s ear that his boss already had the jobs that the intelligent animal consented to move on.
Dan knows the way to and from every cemetery within 20 miles of Bayonne. Some persons even assert that he knows most of the family plots in those cemeteries. More than once the horse placed O’Brien in an exceedingly embarrassing position by stopping with a hearse in front of houses on which mourning was displayed regardless of whether O’Brien had been retained to have charge of the burial.
One of the stipulations entered into between O’Brien and the Orange county farmer is that Dan must not be compelled to do any work. He must have good oats and timothy hay in winter and, added to that, all the grass he can eat in spring, summer, and fall.
“He’s earned his retirement by twenty years of faithful work,” O’Brien said. “If he were a man instead of a horse, he would have been a partner long before this. He was simply indefatigable in hunting for new business.” The Washington [DC] Post 17 January 1909: p. M10
The hearse horse might also serve as an equine memento mori as in this elegiac New England article:
THE OLD HEARSE HORSE
Among the long-standing fixtures of our day are the Hearse-man, the venerable Robert Bell, and his scarcely less venerable old Black Horse, which will be twenty years old next months. For fourteen years the same man and the same horse have been in attendance at almost every funeral that has taken place in our city. For nearly two thousand times have they borne to their resting places the old and the young—the rich and the poor, the learned and the unlettered. There can be seen scarcely a more grave sight than these funereal accompaniments. The old horse though lively and active on other occasions, knows the moment a corpse is put into the hearse, and he will scarcely mind the admonition of a whip to change his speed from walking. His master is growing infirm and the horse is nearly blind—a premonition that all must ere long return to the dust. Portsmouth [NH] Journal of Literature and Politics 12 May 1860: p. 2
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil is sure that we are all very grateful to the subfusc author for being so relentlessly informative and are pleased to have learned something new to-day about this department of the Victorian funeral industry.
Mrs Daffodil has noticed an unlikely resemblance between the plume-adorned hearse-horses with their dark burdens and beplumed circus horses drawing brilliantly carved and coloured circus wagons at a stately pace. One idly wonders if an aged circus horse ever retired to a career as a hearse-horse or if a black horse of too cheerful a disposition might run away with the circus.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.