In this heart-rending story, a father’s grief drove him to literally join his lost child in the tomb.
Extraordinary Suicide in New Orleans.
A MAN BURIES HIMSELF ALIVE
HE TAKES POISON IN A TOMB
The New Orleans Crescent of the 24th gives the following remarkable story of a suicide
Sylvester Rupert, 37 years of age, an Englishman by birth, and by trade a ship carpenter, lived with his wife and two children in a house on Perdido street. In October last the yellow fever, then prevailing, counted among its victims the youngest child of the Ruperts—their little girl Lizzie, about four years old, and the particular pet of the father. This was a blow from which the father never recovered. Not able to buy a tomb, he had the child buried in the ground in Greenwood Cemetery. The grief preyed heavily upon him. It was his only thought; and, being out of his regular employment, he found employment in his grief.
He bought a burial lot and some bricks and other material, and with his own hands, and all alone in the Cemetery, built him a brick tomb. He had not the means to make the tomb a stylish one; so in its mouth or entrance he fitted a wooden frame, and on this frame he fitted a piece of board and secured it with screws in its four corners. On this board, with which he enclosed the vault, (in lieu of the usual brick and mortar or marble slab) he had carved nicely with his knife the burial inscription of his child. The tomb finished, he disinterred the child’s body and placed it there. He fastened the board with screws, in order that he might afterward have no trouble in removing it when he felt like gazing upon the decaying remains of his child.
This employment finished, it was his habit to visit the Cemetery, open the tomb, and look at the corpse of his pet. He always carried a screw-driver in his pocket with which to remove and replace the board and also to remove and replace the lid of the coffin. Neither the haggard aspect of the shrinking little corpse, nor the foul odor of its decay could repel him, and his morbid grief. His visits were frequent, and sometimes his wife went with him. He frequently complained to her that he could not get work; and this inability doubtless fostered the despondency which was drawing him to death. He frequently spoke of having no faith in the future, and of death as a desirable thing.
On Wednesday he went to the Cemetery with two shrubs which he had purchased and planted them in front of the tomb. On Thursday, when he left home, he told his wife that if he had no better luck in finding work she would never see him again. He also said something about having a place in which to rest.
That evening, or that night—for no one saw him in his gloomy proceedings—he visited the cemetery; taking with him his screw-driver, an iron trunk-handle, a small rod of iron, a piece of wire, some new screws, and a large vial of laudanum. Unscrewing the board of the tomb, he threw away the screws and filled the screw-holes in the board with clay.
With his new screws he then secured the trunk-handle to the inside of the board. This work, of course, had to be done outside the tomb. Pushing his child’s coffin aside, he got in by its side, taking with him his poison and the other articles with which he had provided himself. His hat he placed upon the coffin; his coat which he had taken off, he wrapped around a brick for a pillow. He shut himself in with the board, by means of the handle he had screwed to it; the board fitting outside the wooden frame. The iron bar, which was of the proper length, he placed across the frame inside. The thickness of the frame would not allow the bar to pass through the trunk-handle on the inside of the board; so he secured the handle and the bar by means of his wire, coiling it through the one end around the other. He did not succeed in fitting the board squarely upon the frame. One corner of it caught upon the brickwork outside the frame; this he did not discover, probably owing to the darkness of the night; and but for this little circumstance his fate would probably have never been discovered, or not at least for many years. Having thus hid himself away, as he fancied, beyond mortal discovery, he drained off the contents of his laudanum bottle, composed himself on his back, placed the brick and coat beneath his head, and went to sleep, and on into the unknown region of the suicides.
As he did not return home on Thursday night, his wife feared the worst, remembering well the tendency of his late conduct and the tenor of his parting words. On Friday morning she rose early and went out to the cemetery. She looked all around, and failed to find her husband. She went and looked at their tomb, and was about to leave, when she happened to notice that the board did not fit snugly into the frame as usual. Looking closer, she discovered the mud in the screw-holes; and putting her hand on the board, found it was standing loosely. She pulled it out a little, and the first thing she saw was the dead face of her husband. She fainted away, and laid in the grass she could not tell how long. She recovered at last, got up and went and informed the sexton, Mr. Merritt, of her discovery. The latter went and looked at things, and sent word to the coroner; and the inquest was held, as we have stated, on Saturday.
The coroner’s verdict was in accordance with the facts so plainly apparent—suicide by laudanum.
Albany [NY] Evening Journal 2 February 1859: p. 2 LOUISIANA
This story was so detailed, yet so bizarre in its unique details of self-immurement, that I thought it might have been a journalist’s invention. Grave records show that Sylvester Rupert, who died 20 January 1859, is buried in Greenwood Cemetery.
Often the 19th-century press focused on brutal, drunken, or absent fathers, yet there are a distressing number of stories of fathers pining themselves to death or committing suicide to follow a dead child or being visited by the prophetic ghost of a lost darling. A Cincinnati man who said that his daughter came and stood by his bed at night, begging him to come to her, cried, “There’s the wraith of my child—she’s winking at me—I shall, shall go.” He eluded his terrified family, ran upstairs, and cut his throat. In another sad case, a railroad engineer whose child had died set a place for her at the dinner table and spoke to her as if she was still there. He told his wife that the little girl accompanied him on the locomotive and assured him that he would be with her soon. Shortly afterwards, he was killed in a train wreck.
MAY DAY QUEEN CROWNED IN COFFIN
SAD DEATH YESTERDAY OF MISS ISABEL PORTER
Frock Made for Celebration of Tuesday is Her Shroud and Crown a Wreath in Memory.
Miss Isabel Porter, eldest daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Tom Porter, of Biltmore, died yesterday morning at 9 o’clock at her home, the old Cheesborough place, on the Swannanoa river.
The circumstances surrounding the little girl’s death make it one of particular sadness. Tennyson’s lines, “The May Queen,” are applicable, for sweet-faced, popular Isabel Porter had been chosen from her schoolmates for “Queen” at the May Day celebration to be given by the pupils of the Biltmore Parish school on next Tuesday, and now, by the death angel’s visit, her funeral will take place on today, May Day. As the chosen queen in Tennyson’s poem, she died before the honor bestowed by her schoolmates could be completed by the crowning.
Miss Porter had been ill for a week or two with pneumonia, but until a few days ago it was thought she would recover sufficiently to take her place at the May pole, when the festivities should take place. During the last few days and nights her mind had wandered constantly to the May Day celebration and she talked of the dress in which she was to be crowned and of her mates and teachers and their preparation for the celebration.
The funeral will take place this afternoon from the late residence. The honors of the May Queen will be given her by a large coterie of her school mates. The dainty white frock she was to have danced in as Queen is a burial robe and the fingers of her little friends have woven a crown of flowers that will rest upon her head just as it would have crowned her in the glad celebration.
Rev. Mr. Crutchfield will have charge of the ceremony.
The May Day celebration will be held on Tuesday, because of circumstances which make it almost impossible to postpone it, but out of the love for the dead queen and respect for her memory, the part of the celebration pertaining to the queen, will be omitted.
Asheville [NC] Citizen-Times 1 May 1904: p. 8
It is a pity that Dickens died in 1870. What a death-bed he could have conjured from this poignant story….
The ritual of crowning the May Queen has been said to go back to the Middle Ages (earlier, if you believe James George “Golden Bough” Frazer.) The folk-holiday continues in England and Canada. I remember it being a religious holiday at Catholic schools, where a statue of the Virgin Mary would be crowned with a wreath of flowers.
This parody is based on the old chestnut, “The May Queen,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, which was quoted in the press and recited ad nauseam in drawing-rooms until one wanted to scream. The anonymous Punch contributor has captured perfectly the thumpety-bumpety scansion of the original, which ill-accords with the lingering death-bed and morally uplifting sentiments found in the last two sections of the poem.
It was something of a joke that May-day weather in England was always inclement. In 1876 and 1877, records show that the day was either snowy or very wet. It was no wonder that May Queens died from chills, consumption, or pneumonia. Mrs Daffodil has previously posted an amusing cartoon sequence on the Ideal vs. the Actual May-Day, dating from 1878, when the weather continued perfectly foul.
Other tragic May Queens? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Willow coffins are now the rage in England. They are more comfortable in hot weather, it is claimed. Dallas [TX] Weekly Herald 10 July 1875: p. 2
“Bury me,” said a ruddy and strong man, with whom I was discussing the subject of wicker coffins, — “when I am dead, bury me in an earth-to-earth wicker coffin, so that I may get out again into God’s pure air just as soon as possible.” England as Seen by an American Banker: Notes of a Pedestrian Tour, Claudius Buchanan Patten, 1885
In the summer of 1875 some residents of London received a novel invitation reading:
THE DUKE OF SUTHERLAND
Requests the honor of the company of
At Stafford House,
On Thursday, the 17th, and Saturday, the 19th of June, to see a collection of models of basket and other perishable coffins constructed on the principles advocated by Mr. Seymour Haden.
Garden entrance. Four to six o’clock
A strange summer garden-party—with perishable coffins?–and to what end? Why, to solve the problem of London’s graveyards bulging with bones, stenches, and partially decomposed corpses, of course. This is not an issue we think of today, but for urban Victorians, it was a real concern.
The author of the following piece paints a hideous picture of the horrors of conventional burials:
The objection against vaults and hermetically sealed coffins are great; if their purpose is to prevent dissolution of the compages of the flesh, they do not accomplish it, and the horrible scenes witnessed when old vaults are opened—where water has come through or the bodies are found in a loathsome deliquescence in which they float—are infamous if they can be prevented, as they can be by the use of the wicker coffin. Daily Graphic [New York, NY] 31 July 1875: p. 2
Wicker/perishable coffins also had the advantage of being cheaper than “the extortions of the undertakers” and “it affords of the body being restored quietly and lovingly to mother earth, and to head off the cremation fever now attacking many Britons.” Cleveland [OH] Leader 19 July 1875: p. 4.
But back to that invitation issued by the Duke of Sutherland.
THE COFFIN RECEPTION
After a description of American window displays of funerary necessities, the author writes…
While all this may seem incongruous, and while less of ‘commercial’ obtrusiveness about the necessary work of funerals might be less offensive to good taste, even the American undertaker does draw the line somewhere. We never heard, for example, of his imitating the milliners and dressmakers by holding a mortuary “opening” or giving a coffin reception.
The last-named bit of enterprise was reserved for the ingenious Duke of Sutherland. That alert nobleman discovered a reformatory speciality to which his attention had never before been turned, and he proceeded at once to make the most of it. After cremation, as a method of getting the remains of human beings out of the way expeditiously and thoroughly, had been discussed, and after a vast majority of the British public had come to the conclusion that they did not care to burn themselves or their friends, Mr. Seymour Haden proposed a compromise with convention. The idea of destroying a body before the very eyes of the mourners was, he admitted, not altogether pleasing, but he, he argued, there could be no reasonable objection to permitting the remains to assimilate with their mother earth as rapidly as possible after they should be hidden from sight. Such a disposition, he contended, was preferable to cremation, because, while the latter process would leave nothing but a few worthless ashes, the other would give to the soil much which would enrich it and make it fruitful. To Mr. Haden, thus contemplating the bodies of himself and his kindred and the great army of the coming dead as fertilizers, nothing seemed lacking but a method of interment which would the most facilitate decomposition, or which would obstruct it the least… Like many reformers, Mr. Haden has to pull down as well as build up. He is obliged to overcome the preservative prejudices of the people before he can persuade them to inter their friends in such a way as to promote dissolution. He is convinced himself that the most important appliance of a fertilizing funeral is a basket. He is willing to be buried in one, but to induce other persons to follow his example is a difficult matter…. If he could succeed in introducing his death-basket into “high life,” he reasoned, he would be enriched, and so in time would be the soil of England. He approached the Duke of Sutherland, who just then happened to have no other extravagant undertaking on his hands, and who readily fell in with the scheme. Invitations “to see a collection of models of basket and other perishable coffins” at Stafford House were issued, and a large company was assembled accordingly.
The affair was grotesque enough. In place of what at other times would have been a program of the concert or a bill of the play, guests were furnished with a printed description of the coffins, their purpose, merits and defects. There was ghastly humor in the statement, especially in the fourth direction:
“Accompanying each of them [the coffins] should be a narrow leaden band or ribbon pierced with name and date of death, to be passed round the chest and lower limbs, and through the sides and over the top of the basket: 1. For retaining the body in its position; 2. For the subsequent identification of the bones; 3. For sealing the coffin, as a guaranty that the contents have not been disturbed.”
One model was of “a nest of coffins as they will be kept in stock, from the smallest to the largest.” There were “forms of coffins for ordinary use,” with the legend, “The best are very inexpensive.”… Considering the basket coffin seriously, if it was meant to be seriously considered, the most forcible argument for it which we have seen is that it will cheapen funerals. But we are by no means sure that it would do so; the undertakers probably would contrive to make even a willow-ware burial costly. And even if it would do so, cheapness is not the only thing to be considered in living and dying. It must occur even to Mr. Haden, meditating upon his fertilizing scheme, that if the economical disposition of bodies, quick or dead, is of prime importance, it would be cheapest to die young, and cheaper still not to be born at all. Evening Post [New York] 17 July 1875: p. 2
Another eye-witness took a gallows-humor approach. (The proposal to “make a funeral very much like a festival,” has been my complaint as a church organist witness of many “celebrations of life.”)
A cold chill ran down my back. A garden party at Stafford House, at which the entertainment was to consist of coffins and “perishable coffins” at that! There is something ghastly, uncomfortable and incongruous in this. One may joke and try to be gay when surrounded with these memorials of death, but the jokes will be far-fetched and the gayety unnatural. Mr. Haden has elaborated a completely new programme for all the arrangements connected with deaths and burials, and proposes to make a funeral very much like a festival. Everything is to be light, cheerful, and pleasant; the undertaker’s people are not to enter the house; the ladies of the family are to wrap the corpse in a light shroud, lay it in a pretty basket of open willow work, lined with fragrant moss and lichens; and, when all is ready the men of the household are to carry the body away and bury it. This was certainly less shocking than cremation; but still there seemed to be much nonsense about it. Now, however, we were to have a garden party in order to the look at the new coffins—and, perhaps, we might be treated also to a funeral got up for the occasion. Since the Duke of Sutherland had taken the matter in hand there was no reason why he might not send up to one of his Scotch estates and order a gilly or two to be killed and sent down by express train, in order to afford Mr. Haden every facility for a demonstration of the advantages of his new method of burial….
The joke about killing a gilly almost looks like Second Sight. In 1883 the Duke accidentally killed a man, said to be his gamekeeper, during a hunting expedition.
The day was lovely; the grounds were in all their beauty; the toilets of the ladies were brilliant; the Duke, smoking a cigar, his hands in his pockets and a white hat set jauntily over one side of his head, moved from group to group, laughing and jesting. But for all this the company were not gay. The coffins saddened them, although there was nothing in them. On the broad terrace which extends along the front the house the “basket and other portable coffins” were arranged in rows. There were dozens of them, from the tiny ones intended for infants up to the full size ones large enough for the Duke himself. Some were made of nothing but willows, open on all sides like a basket; others had the sides and bottoms filled in with green moss; others, intended for the bodies of those who had died of contagious disease were double, a layer of powdered charcoal being placed between the outer and inner baskets. …
The people crowded around the coffins, examined them with interest, not unmixed with anxiety, listened to Mr. Haden’s explanations, shuddered in spite of themselves as he insisted upon the fact that a body thus interred would be all “absorbed in a month,” tried to make remarks expressive of their pleasure at such a prospect, and then strolled off into the grounds. I saw more than one lady grow pale as she looked at the little coffins for children. For all that, the coffins lined with soft and fragrant moss were not unpleasant to gaze upon—not unpleasant, that is, for coffins. Augusta [GA] Chronicle 17 July 1875: p. 3
So who were these Wicker Men, the Duke and Mr. Haden?
Sir Francis Seymour Haden (1818-1910) was an English surgeon as well as a noted etcher. He was also an expert on the etchings of the old masters, particularly Rembrandt. He married a half-sister of the artist James Whistler and for a time he and Whistler printed their etchings together in a home workshop. He also testified in the Tichborne Claimant trial and invented a papier-mache coffin.
I have not been able to find out what triggered his life-long near-mania for earth-to-earth burial, although any doctor in London would have realized that the burial grounds were a breeding ground for pestilence.
Other than his interest in burial reform, he seemed to have led a fairly conventional, Royal College of Surgeons/Royal Academician sort of life, (although he had married into the family of the relentlessly unconventional James McNeill Whistler.) The founder of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers, he was revered world-wide for his artwork and was dubbed The Great Master of Etching; The Apostle of the Burin; The Foremost of Living Etchers. He was knighted in 1894.
Dr. Haden was back in the news briefly in the summer of 1896 with his comments on “shallow burial”—one foot under rather than the statutory 4 ½ feet—to encourage rapid decomposition. He came to this conclusion by studying dead animals he buried at various depths on his estate—a proto-Body Farm. I have been unable to discover if he received an earth-to-earth burial. [Source: “Disposing of the Dead” New York Herald-Tribune 3 July 1896: p. 6]
The Duke of Sutherland was Sir George Granville William Sutherland – Leveson-Gower, K. G., Third Duke of Sutherland, 1828-1892. [I will not weary you with his string of other titles.] As you might expect from the greatest landowner in Great Britain, he did as he pleased. He was frequently dubbed “eccentric” and “a queer old fellow” in the press. One of his pranks was to send a wildcat trapped in Sutherlandshire to the first Crystal Palace Cat Show in July 1871. He was intrigued by invention and loved driving locomotives. (It was said that he was the only man in the world who could drive his own engines, fired with coal from his own mines, over his own private railroad tracks, throughout his own extensive properties.) He also invented a fire engine and worked as an amateur firefighter in London.
His personal life was equally unconventional. In November of 1888, his wife, Duchess Anne, gravely ill, saw him off on a voyage to the United States, then died of a cold contracted from the exertion. The Duke caused a scandal by refusing to travel from Florida for her funeral. Less than four months later, the Ducal widower married his “traveling companion” Mary Caroline Blair. Mrs. Blair’s first husband, Arthur Kindersley Blair, had been an employee of the Duke—some say gamekeeper; others estate Superintendent–whom the Duke accidentally shot and killed in 1883 (the date and the circumstances are also murky). The married Duke became fascinated by the lady, who was described as 6-feet tall and “raw-boned,” causing a rift with Duchess Anne. “He was best known on account of his immoralities, which he took no pains to conceal.” [Elkhart [IN] Daily Review 28 September 1892: p. 4 ]
The Duke made several visits to the United States where he met Thomas Edison while viewing electric lights Edison had installed for a New York client. In the course of their conversations, the inventor mentioned the excellent tarpon fishing at Ft Meyers. Intrigued, the Duke visited Edison at Seminole Lodge and then built himself a home near St Petersburg at Tarpon Springs where he lived with Mrs. Blair.
At his death in 1892 the Duke left his vast fortune to his second wife who was found guilty of contempt of court for destroying documents related to the estate and served six weeks in Holloway Jail. The Duke’s children by Duchess Anne contested the will and paid the lady off handsomely. She later married her legal advisor.
Other than the Duke’s interest in innovation and invention, I am not sure why he decided to patronize Mr. Haden’s wicker coffins. I also do not know if the Duke was buried in a wicker coffin, but I have seen a note that his coffin was put into the ground rather than the family vault, at his request.
Despite his letters to the Times, Mr. Haden’s wicker coffins proved only a summer sensation. Although at the time of the “Coffin Reception,” his name was on everyone’s lips, after 1875 Dr. Haden’s press notices focus solely on his art, lectures, exhibitions, and art criticism. Neither man’s obituary notice mentions death-baskets or earth-to-earth burial.
Wicker coffins never really caught on over in the States except as temporary/transport coffins. They were unusual enough that they were mentioned as a curiosity in death notices. You sometimes see such coffins for sale, possibly because undertakers found that they were not popular with the public.
There is nothing new under the sun, of course. Seymour Haden and the Duke were early proponents–138 years too early—of what today we call the green-burial or eco-funeral movements.
Bury me beneath the willow
Under the weeping willow tree
Where she will know where I’m sleeping
And perhaps she’ll weep for me.
“Bury Me Beneath the Willow”
-Trad. Folk song-
Thanks to Michael Robinson for the free-trade basketwork article, which inspired this post.
Cremation: a Pamphlet, Seymour Haden (London, 1875)
The Disposal of the Dead, a Plea for Legislation, Seymour Haden (London, 1888).
Earth to earth: a plea for a change of system in our burial of the dead, Seymour Haden (London, 1875)
Cremation: an Incentive to Crime, Seymour Haden (London, 1892)
The Corpse in the Garden: Burial, Health and the Environment in Nineteenth-Century London by Peter Thorsheim is an excellent article giving much of the background about issues that inspired burial reformers like Dr. Haden: questions of sanitation, earth-to-earth burials, cremation, and the transformation of some of London’s cemeteries into public parks.
Mourning and Khaki Worn on Parisian Promenades in Rain Storm
PALL HOVERS OVER CAPITAL
BY MARGARET MASON,
Written for the United Press.
Paris, April 5. France’s sublime patriotism—the noble self-sacrifice of her women—was weirdly and wonderfully demonstrated by the strangest Easter recorded since Paris became the world’s fashion center.
The heavens, moved to pity, wept throughout the day. The clouds cooperated with the colorless feminine attire and the absentee of flowers to produce a Black Easter sharply in contrast to the gaiety and the colorful scenes of normal years.
There was no fashion parade in the boulevards. Bois Boulogne was deserted. The scene of the fashionable Madeleine and of the poorer quarters of Sacre Coeur and Notre Dame were virtually duplicated. The usual contrast between the wealthy and the poorer dressers was lost in the black pall.
The only relieving colors were occasional splotches of blue gray coats, red trousers and the white bandages of wounded soldiers. The only young men in sight were those in uniforms, the other males were old men and little children.
Ninety-five per cent of the women were gowned in black. The only new women’s attire shown as in mourning bonnets and dresses. Hundreds self- sacrificing were wearing last year’s creations, even the fashionable Madeleine failing to show a single new chic creation. The only relief from black, which has become intentionally the women’s khaki, was an occasional white wing or flower hat or less frequently, a purple.
In the taper-lighted Notre Dame the vast audience seemed composed entirely of swaying shadows. Sex was undeterminable because of the absence of colors until a wave of sobs from the feminine worshippers mingling with the soprano carols revealed the actual sufferers of the war’s cruelties.
At the dismissal of the services the women were dry-eyed again. Their buoyancy not only offset the black pall but also revealed the inspiration for the noble deeds of France’s sons.
Valentine’s Day always brings out the best in mankind: the delightful box of chocolates, the gay flowers, the heart-warming sentiments, the vicious valentines…. Today we flip through a rack of gruesome, horrid, insulting and threatening valentines, and discover some missives to die for.
Several years ago, in a piece called “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacres,” I wrote about the scourge of “Vinegar Valentines” and the violence they inspired in their recipients. That post included several stories of greeting-card-induced murder, murder/suicide, and the sad story of a young servant, Margaret Cray, who killed herself when her beloved apparently sent her a cruel valentine. I was surprised to learn that this was not a unique incident.
A FATAL VALENTINE
Mrs. Bowers Commits Suicide Because a Valentine Insults Her.
Just at dark Thursday evening a woman was seen leaning over the coping at 401 West Nineteenth street. Then she seemingly pitched forward, hung for a moment with failing grasp upon the coping and then fell into the area in Nineteenth street, a distance of fifty feet. The neighbors, who hastened to her side, recognized her as Mrs. Delia C. Bowers. She was borne, still alive, to her apartments at 151 Ninth avenue. She died an hour later. She and her husband, Mr. Daniel H. Bowers, attended the Sixteenth Street Church, of which she was a devoted member. Their home life was unruffled until on St. Valentine’s Day Mrs. Bowers received two valentines and a letter. One was entitled, “A Seamstress,” the other, “In Love with Every Preacher,” and the letter left no doubt that the sender intended a scandalous charge against Mrs. Bowers. She handed the three missives to her husband, and he laughed at them; but a neighbour talked about them among Mrs. Bowers’ acquaintance, and despite her husband’s confidence in her, the groundless scandal dethroned her reason. The New Orleans [LA] Daily Democrat 28 February 1877: p. 8
Valentines were often used to intimidate their recipients, much like the crape and coffin threats I’ve mentioned before.
STRANGE VALENTINE Joseph Taylor Has Placed the Matter in Government Hands
Hagerstown, Md., Feb. 18. Joseph Taylor, of Washington county, received a valentine on which were drawn pictures of a hearse, skull and cross bones and the word “Beware.”
He brought it to Hagerstown and showed it to Deputy United States Marshall Oliver, who will make an investigation, as the missive passed through the mails. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 19 February 1898: p. 6
A similar valentine threat, which included some grave allegations about a “respectable man with a family,” had been sent a year earlier, in Colorado.
A GRINNING SKULL.
UNDERNEATH THE VALENTINE BORE THE WORD “BEWARE”
Chief Post office Inspector McMechen’s office is investigating a thrilling case of using the mails to intimidate. On the chief’s desk lies a hideous valentine depicting a pearly human skull staring with a stony, forbidding smile from a gory background. Beneath in letters evidently intended as a piratical black is printed, “Beware!”
In this morning’s mail came a letter from a prominent citizen of Hooper, Colo., who states that he has received the valentine and the accompanying letter from whom he has no idea, as the letter and valentine bear no names. “I am a respectable man with a family and am guiltless of the charges made. I ask you to help me. This is the second letter of this nature I have received through the Hooper post office.
The letter is written in an uneducated hand in blue pencil. It says: “Beware! You have ruined my sister’s reputation and robbed her of her virtue. You said you would go to Mosca, but did not. I have warned you before! Clear out and never let me see you again. If you remain, some of these dark nights you will turn up missing. Remember, stay and DIE!”
Prompt action will be taken on this most gruesome valentine and its skull. Denver [CO] Post 15 February 1897: p. 2
Mystifyingly, flesh-and-blood hearts were thought to be an acceptable token of esteem. Sometimes they were sent as a joke:
RECEIVES REAL HEART FOR VALENTINE TOKEN
T.F. Wilson, a Retired Ranchman, Remembered in Unique Way by His Old Friends.
Thomas F. Wilson, a retired ranchman living on South Conejos street, has received what is perhaps the most unique valentine of any residenet of this city. The token consisted of a sheep’s heart in a small tin box, and was sent by some of his friends in the vicinity of Falcon. On opening the package, Mr. Wilson read the inscription, “Take my heart and give me yours,” and was much surprised to see an organ resembling that of a human being. His fears were not allayed until a friend who had been in on the joke explained it to him. Colorado Springs [CO] Gazette 16 February 1911: p. 5
And sometimes not.
A Strange Valentine
A Troy young lady received on Saturday last the most wonderful valentine on record. Neatly encased in a box she found a beef’s heart pierced with a golden arrow of elegant manufacture, set with jewels and estimated to be worth at least $75. It is probably intended to be used as a neck pin or as an ornament for the pair. There was not the least intimation who is the giver, nor can the lady or her family imagine who sent it. For the donor of so munificent a gift he shows a strange taste in sending such a remarkable valentine to a lady. A pet dog had the heart for his dinner, but what do to with the pin the lady can hardly determine. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 20 February 1875: p. 1
At least the dog appreciated it. And she could sell the pin.
Then there were the other body parts, reminiscent, in this case, of Van Gogh.
LEILA’S STRANGE VALENTINE
Human Ear Was Enclosed in a Box and Sent to a Woman.
St. Louis, Mo., Feb. 14. There was wild excitement at Miss Norma Langdon’s mansion, at 1311 Pine st., about noon today.
The cause was a valentine received by Leila Powers, one of her guests.
The valentine was a pretty fabrication of lace and pink celluloid, and within the box that contained it there was a human ear, only recently severed from the head and still bloody.
The box and its contents had lain undisturbed in Miss Langdon’s sleeping apartments about 12 hours, for Leila Powers had a short time before disappeared from the house.
No one at the house knew its contents, but the office authorities had opened the parcel to make sure there was no writing in it, and that it was entitled to third-class postal rates. They were horrified to find the bloody ear, evidently that of a delicate woman, close to the pretty valentine. The carrier hastily rewrapped the gruesome bundle, separated it cautiously from the rest of his mail, and breathed a sigh of relief when he had safely delivered it. The Boston [MA] Daily Globe 15 February 1893: p. 6
I wondered about that “mansion” and its guests. Norma Langdon seems to have run an “improper house” for “soiled doves,” if we go by various court reports and an article about Nora Way “an inmate of the house on Tenth street kept by Norma,” who attempted to stab Norma in 1886. St Louis [MO] Post-Dispatch 10 August 1886: p. 7. I could find no further word on the fate of Miss Powers or the ear’s owner.
Another ear was sent as a valentine to a Virginia man in 1903, noted with the casual racism of the day.
Mr. E.D. Foster, of Clifton Forge, received a very peculiar valentine, which caused much comment. A human ear, taken from a grown negro (supposed by some college friend), was sent him nicely decorated with ribbon and securely packed in a box padded with cotton. Mr. Foster takes great pride in exhibiting the oddity, which is indeed a peculiar valentine. Richmond [VA] Times Dispatch 22 February 1903: p. 15
It seems incredible, but a particular class of “vinegar valentines” was directed at tormenting widows, suggesting that they were “man eaters” or “merry widows” eager to snag a man or that they were glad their husband was dead. In a heartless case in Chicago, a newly-bereaved and deeply grieving widow was the victim of one of these valentines.
Mrs. Sarah Sweeney Tries to Die Because of a Comic.
DRINKS A CUP OF ETHER
Missive Laid at Her Door at 150 Gladys Avenue.
CRUEL VERSES TO A WIDOW
Grief and mortification at finding a hideous valentine underneath her door on her return from viewing the body of her husband in the receiving vault at Calvary impelled Mrs. Sarah Sweeney, 150 Gladys avenue, a widow of one month, to swallow a cupful of ether in an effort to end her life. The valentine, on which were a picture and some unkind verses inscribed to “A Widow,” is supposed to have been sent by mischievous boys of the neighbourhood.
Mrs. Sweeney was discovered a few minutes after she had swallowed the ether by her sister, Mrs. E.L. Seaton, and a physician was summoned in time to save her life. She is still in a precarious state, however, and the prank played on her, together with her own troubles, threatens to seriously affect her mind.
Mrs. Sweeney’s husband, Philip Sweeney, was the proprietor of a prosperous plumbing business at 1025 West Lake street up to the time of his death, one month ago. The family, including two young children, was known to the neighbourhood as an unusually happy one, and when Mr. Sweeney died suddenly his wife was prostrated by the shock, and for a time her life also was almost despaired of.
The grief of the widow was so great that she was reluctant to have her husband’s body buried at once, and to please her it was placed in a receiving vault at Calvary, where she made regular visits, often looking at the remains. Her friends were unable to persuade her to stay away, although it was found that the visits only aggravated her grief.
Two weeks ago Mrs. Sweeney and her two children left the house at 1025 West Lake street, where the family had lived for almost ten years, and moved to 150 Gladys avenue. Once away from her old surroundings and partly lost sight of by her friends, grief took possession of the widow to such an extent that her relatives feared she would try to end her life. Mrs. Seaton went to live with Mrs. Sweeney and her children. The latter still continued her visits to the cemetery.
Finds the Cruel Valentine.
On St. Valentine’s day Mrs. Sweeney went early to Calvary and took what she said was to be a final glance at her husband’s remains. She reached home a short time before noon, almost hysterical. The valentine was lying underneath the door and Mrs. Sweeney found it. It contained a cruel picture, supposed to represent a widow, and verses that were even more unkind than the picture. The sight of it threw Mrs. Sweeney into hysterics, as she thought it a reflection upon her grief for her husband.
Although the neighbors, who had deep sympathy for her sorrow, assured her that the work was only a boyish prank, Mrs. Sweeney was inconsolable. She threatened to end her life, also, and for three days it was necessary to keep her partly under the influence of opiates.
On Friday morning she appeared to have forgotten all about the valentine, and her relatives rejoiced to think that she had finally gotten control of her grief.
There was a quantity of ether in the house which had been used by Mr. Sweeney in his plumbing business. Just before noon Mrs. Sweeney poured out a quantity of this, and, telling her sister she was going to end her “headache,” swallowed the drug before anyone could prevent her. The cries of Mrs. Sweeney’s sister aroused the neighbourhood and Dr. Richard H. Brown, California avenue and Jackson boulevard, was hurriedly brought. A half hour’s hard work brought the woman back to consciousness, though she was still hysterical over the memory of the valentine.
No effort has been made to discover who the senders of the offending paper were. Chicago [IL] Daily Tribune 20 February 1898: p. 12
Why the hell not? If children had left the valentine, at the very least strong words seemed in order. If an adult, charges of reckless endangerment or depraved indifference might have fit the case; involuntary manslaughter if the widow died.
And that is the big question. While I was able to find Dr. Brown in the medical rosters, Mr. and Mrs. Sweeney seem to be missing from the online record. Did she survive?
chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com, who will not be opening any mail today.
Incidents filled with deepest pathos, and occurrences to stir the soul with tenderest emotion, happen around us every day; yet seldom, very seldom, have we a pen commanding leisure enough to yield them a brief record.
We remember being at the house of a friend on a certain Christmas day, when our eye, glancing through the window, fell upon an upholsterer’s preparations for a funeral going on in front of a house immediately opposite. Our gentle hostess of the occasion, marked the action, and made us sit down to hear the following simple and affecting history of poor little Jane and her first Christmas Box.
The little girl about to be buried upon the merriest holiday in the year, was just approaching the anniversary of her seventh birthday, when some subtle disorder that had afflicted her from infancy, carried her off during the night that ushered in our last gay Christmas. She was a child of very sweet and attractive manners, and the neighbors had learned to know and love her. The incurable complaint which was consuming her, gave a placidity almost ethereal, to her disposition, and her smile was a thing so mildly beautiful, that (if we may use a simile to assist this warm but imperfect description of our informant,) it must have been like the leaf of a lily shining in the embrace of a moonbeam.
The parents were poor, but dignified and retiring, and notwithstanding the profound interest little Jane awakened in the neighbourhood, the bearing of the father and the constant seclusion of the mother, clearly forbade any intrusive proffer of assistance. A few weeks since the child ceased its visits to the sidewalk, and was seen to sit no more upon the door step. Poor Jane was upon her death-bed.
At the approach of the holidays, the father and mother (with that old hankering of hope which so eagerly clings for safety to a straw,) grew joyous with a bright change in their suffering daughter. She suddenly grew to laugh and converse with pleasant freedom, and the symptoms of internal pain ceased to cross her sweet face so often as before. Then the cheered mother would sit by the bedside, and talk to her girl of the merry holidays that were soon coming, and promising the poor child what she had never known before —a handsome Christmas box.
This promise, as it would seem, took great hold upon poor little dying Jane’s fancy, for she still, from day to day, would question her mother about it, and desire to know what sort of a box it was to be? For an hour or two on the day preceding Christmas, she chatted with remarkable liveliness, telling her father and mother jocosely, that she meant to keep awake in the night, and watch Santa Claus when he came down the chimney with the box. But as evening came on, she faded into pale and sleepless stupor. The doling mother grew again uneasy, and with every innocent artifice, endeavored to keep the child’s senses in action. She lifted little Jane upon the pillow, that she might see how the stocking .was disposed in the chimney corner, telling her how she had promised to keep awake to see Santa Claus come down; but poor Jane smiled faintly, without speaking, a peculiar expression only crossing her countenance, by which the mother always understood a solicitation to be kissed.
There she slept—a sort of sleep from which her mother wished, yet feared to wake her—brightening up again at her father’s return home in the evening. Somehow then the child’s eye, or its changed voice, or some symptom not seen before, smote conviction of the coming catastrophe upon the father’s heart, and mute with wretchedness, he sank upon his knees by the bedside.
One loud, abrupt, involuntary and thrilling scream burst from the mother at this action, for it told her all that the father had no tongue to utter. She flew to her child, clutching it to her heart and lips, as though she would detain the breath heaven was taking away, and a deathly silence followed the woman’s scream, broken only by the mountain-like laboring of the father’s heart, and hysterical sobs bursting from the afflicted mother.
In the opposite dwelling Fortune and Pleasure were smiling upon each other, and a gay assemblage of the chosen votaries of each, were joyfully greeting as they passed away the merry and laughing hours of Christmas Eve! How strangely opposites will sometimes jar during our progress through this chequered scene! How, still more strangely, does that jarring oft touch up the chords of gentle sympathy, which vibrate ever with melodious sound.
The poor, bereaved mother’s scream reached, and startled the company opposite, and our good hostess commanding her guests of the evening to remain in undisturbed festivity, went to visit the scene of affliction, for her heart too truly told her what alone could be the cause of such a desolate sound.
Little Jane lingered till nearly midnight, fading slowly, like one of those thin vapors sailing in the train of Cynthia, which pass away into ether, mocking admiration as with some beautiful illusion that you think you’ve seen, yet suddenly and strangely miss. The fair child yielded its breath with a smile, while the mother’s tears were falling on its face, and the heavy throbs of the father’s heart kept mournful accompaniment with the last pulsations of life in the breast of his child.
So came the morning, and poor little Jane’s Christmas box was—a coffin!
Glimpses at a Modern Pawnbroker’s Sale in New York.
BAB BEFRIENDS A WOMAN
It Was at the Humane Establishment on Fifth Avenue and Many Unredeemed Pledges Were at Auction
A Pathetic Christmas Story of a Fallen Daughter.
New York, December 20, 1895
It was a very queer crowd—in the extreme front were the pawnbrokers from off the Bowery. Among them, and around them, were fashionable women, who looked frightened because their sables were a little too close to shabby coats, and because their ears were shocked by loud voices. It was the sale of society’s pawnshop—that is to say, the pawnshops that society, properly enough, is backing. The pawnshop permits you to get back whatever you pawn on the installment plan, and all the percentage that is asks is a very small one, so that your heart’s blood is not dragged from you, and there is some chance for the poor. But there were so many things no called for, and there had to be a sale. To be in harmony, this sale took place in a fashionable auction room on the Fifth avenue. The day before some beautiful pictures were sold, and the newest beauty flirted with the handsomest millionaire, and there was a mixed odor of violets and sable, while the seats were filled by the people who at night occupy boxes at the opera. The Four Hundred usually go to this auction room, but to-day it was the representatives of the four million who were there.
How the dealers did lean forward to look at the diamonds! They were so eager that they were told to sit down. And such pitiful diamonds as they were! Good enough stones, but those in rings were set as you remember your mother’s engagement ring was. Those in brooches were in the deep, old-fashioned way that didn’t bring out the brightness of the stone, but which was though very smart fifty years ago. There were old-fashioned breast-pins, such as gentlemen used to wear in their scarfs; there was a flounce of Spanish lace—whose dress had it trimmed? There was a little watch with an open face, and on the back engraved “To the One Woman from Him” –who was she?
Poverty at the Sale.
My neighbor on my right was a shabby woman, not pleasant to look upon. She was thin, she was tall, her features were sharp, and she had that peculiar air that one sees among the people of the other side of never having been satisfied. Never having been warm enough, never having had clothes enough, and never having had quite enough to eat. She had on a black alpaca dress, a miserable looking black crape bonnet, while a shabby blue and green shawl was wrapped around her shoulders. She pushed her way through the crowd, bringing a stool with her, shoved me closer to the wall, placed her stool and seated herself. Then she borrowed my catalogue. She turned over several pages, and I heard her say to herself, “’Taint come up yet.” She continued talking, and although I did not understand every word, I did heard her say, “if I’d a got here before the sale commended, there’d a been no trouble; but when you hire out for a day, people they say ‘gimme a day,’ but I was bent on comin’ here this afternoon to get that.”
Rings were sold, watches were sold, there were so many wedding rings sold, and then there was a child’s necklace put upon a string of coral beads with a tiny enameled clasp. I glanced at my neighbor, thinking it was that in which she was interested, but no; she evidently cared nothing for it. In a few minutes I felt her touch me on the arm. I looked around and smiled. She said, “Lady, would you be afraid to bid on anything?” I told her I wouldn’t, and then she asked, “If I start and don’t get right will you straighten me?” I promised. Then I heard her say, “I had enough to pay for the ticket, but a handsom’ thing like that—well, there’s no telling what some of these fashionable folks will do.”
Bid All the Money She Had.
Suddenly the auctioneer said: “I am not in the habit of selling dry goods, but—“
There was a hush, and for once the brokers were silent. And I knew, in some queer way, some inexplicable way, that what my neighbor had come for was put up. It was not a diamond ring, it was not a beautiful watch, it was not a long gold chain; it was only—a mourning veil. For a second—and it seemed like an hour—nobody bid. Then the auctioneer said, “Won’t somebody start this?” Somebody did for 50 cents. In a second my neighbor was on her feet, and it was raised to 75 cents. Her opponent called out a dollar. She raised it a quarter. He made it a dollar and a half. She raised it another quarter. He made it $2. She sat down, the tears streaming down her face. I heard her say, “I ain’t got a penny more, an’ can’t get it.”
I lifted my muff way up in the air. The auctioneer saw it, and the veil was knocked down to me for two dollars and a half. She looked at me quickly. She saw the smile on my face, the smile that struggled with tears for supremacy, and she realized the truth. Grasping my gloved hand in her hard, rough one, she said: “I’ll work it out.” But I whispered good-by, gave my card to her, and was glad that I had been of use to somebody in the world.
The next morning I went in to pay my bill, and the cashier said to me: “There is a woman here, a woman who was here when we opened the door, and she is waiting for you.” It was my friend of the day before. I felt that she was unusual in her desired to say “thank you,” for experience has taught me that thanks are the scarcest things in this world and yet they cost the least. But here she stood, stiff and starved looking, and with the precious veil in her hand. After the ordinary thank you, she said to me, “You must let me pay you the money I’ve got, lady, and as I told you yesterday, I’ll work out the rest.” I told her it was not necessary, that I was glad to think I had been able to make her happy. And then she began to cry.
Her Daughter an Actress.
She said, “It mayn’t seem much to you, but it’s a great deal to me. Times has been hard with me, else this’d never gone into the pawnshop. I’m common, lady, but I had a girl and you’d never thought she was my girl. And she was like you and the other ladies and wore soft furs, and dresses that rustled, and always had a nice perfume all around her. She was pretty when she was a baby, and when her father died some kind people got the Sisters interested in her, and they took her in the school for nothin’. An’ she was so bright and pretty that they taught her to play on the piano, an’ she could sing and talk to the laundress that lives in the same house with us, and who comes from way off across the sea just as well as she could to me, though the langwidges was different. I always thought she was goin’ to be a teacher, an’ when she came home to my poor place, just one room, I used to think how comfortable we’d be when she got a situation an’ we could take a cheap little flat and enjoy ourselves. But no, she said she was goin’ to be an actress. I don’t know how she managed it. No, I never went to see her act. Somehow it didn’t seem right to me. But she sent for me once, an’ I went to a big hotel, an’ there she was lookin’ like a queen, an’ she told me she was married, an’ showed me the picture of a handsome young man. An’ she wanted to give me some money, but I said ‘No, my dear, I know just how fussy some son-in-laws are, an’ this one shan’t say that your mother’s interferin’ with you.’
“I could always keep myself decent, but I just made up my mind I’d have to give her up. Once in a while the neighbors would show me a paper, where there would be a picture of her, and it’d tell how she played and sang and how much people liked her. But I never saw her again ‘till one night last winter near Christmas. I’d gone to bed. There was a knock at the door, and who should it be but my girl.
She and the Baby Died.
“I saw she was in trouble, and when she says to me, ‘Mother, I’m a bad girl, but I have come back to you,’ I remembered that story in the Bible where his father went far out to meet him, an’ I never blamed her. She had a few trinkets, and they went first to get medicine. Then came that awful night when her baby was born. They both died. The poor little baby seemed to know it wasn’t wanted in this world, an’ it just opened its eyes an’ closed them again. But she, she said to me,’ Mother, I don’t want you to forget me’ an’ I promised her I wouldn’t. An’ to show I didn’t, I got this crape bonnet and that veil and wore them to the funeral. That was Christmas Eve she died, nearly a year ago, and during the year I have been strapped pretty tight, and I bundled up a lot of things and took them to the pawnbroker so I might square myself with the undertaker. They was things I didn’t care for, but he wouldn’t gimme enough on the, so I just yanked off my veil and left it. An’ I have been worrying for it ever since. I thought I’d get here in time to redeem it, ‘cause I kept my ticket, but I appreciate your kindness, lady, an’ I think you can understand why just when it was getting’ near Christmas I wanted to have my veil on, ‘cause it seemed to tell those people who knew her that, no matter what she was, no matter how she acted, she was my girl, an’ I wore the veil in memory of her. God give you and yours a happy Christmas.”…
It is strange how that spirit of Christmas brings up in our hearts the desire to keep before us always those for whom Christmas was made joyful many years ago. There are processions of children who are thought of, and the memory of each one comes back to the mother heart that has each missed a little child. And that mother heart can sympathize with the hard, common-looking old woman who longed so for her black crape veil that she might show on Christmas Day she had not forgotten her daughter….
The Washington [DC] Post 22 December 1895: p. 22
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil has previously written about the desperate desire by the poor for respectful and respectable mourning. To those comfortably well-off, it seemed a foolish mania to spend all the burial club money on crape and display. This struggling woman, however, points the moral that wearing mourning was not always about what the neighbours thought, but of love for the unforgotten dead.
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.