Corpse Contracts: People who Sold Their Own Dead Bodies

body snatchers with rotted corpse 1865

The sun is shining, the weather is clement, the birds are chirping in the shrubbery, and it is altogether a grand day to be alive. On such a lovely day, one’s thoughts must, inevitably, turn to bodysnatching. 

It is a sinister fact that, before the passage of the various Anatomy Acts, the doctors of the past paid for stolen corpses for their dissecting rooms. What is less well-known is that various individuals in what might be termed the “pre-corpse stage” sold their own bodies to the anatomists, assigning legal title to their mortal remains with an official document.  One wonders if such contracts were valid if not signed in blood?

 The temperate found many morals to point in these transactions.

THE BIRD OF DEATH DEAD

Demise of a Man Who Sold His Own Body to Buy Drink

Vienna, July 15. A man known as the “Bird of Death,” employed in the Vienna general hospital, met with a singular fate in the discharge of his gruesome duties. His name was Alvis Paxes. He was about 55 years old, and of herculean physique. For 33 years he carried all the corpses from the mortuary chamber, hence his weird name, which the hospital jesters gave him. He died to-day of blood poisoning caused by handling the body of a patent who died from an infectious disease.

Some years ago he sold for cash his own body to a museum manager and spent the money in drink. To-day his body was handed over to the purchaser. Pittsburg [PA] Dispatch 16 July 1890: p. 1

I expect the original German had the connotation of something like “carrion crow.”

 This squib weighs whether the drink or the selling of his aged mother’s body was the greater sin. Whisky seems to have won out. 

Sold His Body for Whisky

Cincinnati, Nov. 17. John Winkler, an old rag picker, who was found dead in his hovel, 608 West Sixth Street, this morning, was a peculiar example of the depths of degradation to which a human being may sink. For many years he was a familiar figure in the West End. For 10 years past it is very doubtful if he drew a single sober breath. He lived in the utmost filth and squalor, and when found dead in his bed had his clothes and boots on. Four years ago his aged mother died, and Winkler sold her body to a medical college. He also sold his own body to be delivered after death and squandered the money in whisky. The Somerset [PA] Herald 23 November 1887: p. 2

 Some had seller’s remorse. 

Trying to Buy Back His Own Body.

This queer story comes from Massachusetts: A man who lives in a suburb of Lowell is seeking to have a deed given by him twenty years ago recovered. The deed conveyed his body to a surgeon now practicing in Great Falls, N.H., for the sum of ten dollars and other considerations, possession to be taken on his death. Since the deed was made the giver has made a fortune in South America and has decided that he would like a Christian burial. The deed provides that the body shall be dissected and the skeleton articulated and presented to a medical university. The lawyers have decided that the deed holds good and that the only alternative is to buy off the doctor. The giver of the deed has made a big offer, but it has been refused. Hartford Courant. Daily Nevada State Journal 16 January 1892: p. 1

 Others imposed on good-hearted physicians. 

TWO HEARTS BUT NO CONSCIENCE

Police of Naples Looking for a Man Who Sold his Own Body to Physicians

NAPLES, April 3. The police of this city are looking for Giuseppe di Maggio, a freak possessed of two hearts, but, evidently, no conscience. Some time ago a medical institute of New York bought Maggio’s body to be delivered after death, for $8,000. With this money Maggio settled down in Naples and lived merrily on his capital, which was soon spent. He ingratiated himself into the favour of a wealthy landowner, whose sister he promised to marry. He pretended that he was to receive a large sum of money from America and supported his story with a fraudulent cablegram. On the strength of his story he borrowed money right and left, including his prospective brother-in-law, and then skipped.

Now a warrant is out for his arrest. The Evening Statesman [Walla Walla, WA] 3 April 1906: p. 2  

Given the date, we may be permitted to doubt the strict veracity of this item. 

Strange Freak to Get Money

Louisville, Ky., Dec. 5. Milton Clark, who is employed at the University of Louisville, medical department, to take care of the dead bodies brought to the place for examination, sold his own body yesterday for the thirty-third time to physicians for dissection. Whenever he is sore need of money he visits a physician interested in one of the various medical colleges and sells his body. Lawrence [KS] Journal World 5 December 1898: p. 2 

Still others, like this sad lady, with the “checquered past,” sold their bodies to clear a debt. I have not yet found Annie E. Jones’s grave in Bridgeport, but Dr. John Cooke was a luminary of the Eastern Ohio Medico-Chirurgical Society. 

A Singular Suicide

There has lived on Glenn’s Run and about Martin’s Ferry and Bridgeport, for the past few years, a queer, gnarly-looking little old French woman, named Annie E. Jones. Her past history has been varied, checquered and not altogether reputable. She had several children, all dead or wandering. She was twice married—the last time to a negro. By some of her children there came a granddaughter named Agnes Racine, a white girl, of rather prepossessing appearance, and together she and her grandmother lived at Martin’s Ferry, till a colored man, named Boggs, essaying to be a Baptist preacher, living in Bridgeport, concluding his Christian duty was to discard his wife and make love to Miss Racine. The tender emotion was reciprocated by Agnes, and Boggs quit preaching, began to vote the Democratic ticket—kicked his old wife out of doors, and took old Mrs. Jones, her granddaughter Agnes, and the illegitimate young one by her, to his home on top of the hill, south of Bridgeport, on Vincent Mitchell’s place, where they have since nestled. Having voted for Hancock, he next, it is alleged—so the old woman said to us the evening she suicide—he began to abuse her terribly, knocking her down and otherwise showing his high appreciation of his—grandmother—by his baby. It seems Agnes lent a helping hand also when necessary to keep the old woman in proper subjection. Time flew apace, and the old woman—who by the way, was rather a good French scholar and more perhaps than ordinarily intelligent—grew tired of her rations of abuse, and soured and sickened of life. This Boggs, as many of the Chronicles’ readers know, was charged with a tried for adultery with this Racine girl in St. Clairsville, and much to the regret of our people, was acquitted; since which time he has been living, it is alleged, in open criminality with the girl, though he claims to be married to her.

The old woman had contracted a bill with Dr. Cook, amounting to $17 for herself and Agnes. She had no money, and though Boggs abused it, she claimed to own, in fee, her mortal body—65 years old, not very comely, and weighing, perhaps, 80 to 100 pounds. She wanted to pay her debts, so she came to see her creditor, Dr. Cooke; he was not in, she went home, leaving a message for him to come up at once. He went, and she asked the doctor “what bodies were worth for dissection?” He replied it depended on certain contingencies. She then informed him she meant to deed him her body, after death, and as she meant to be honest, she would give him the paper just then. The doctor informed her such a transaction such as that must be regularly drawn up and acknowledged, and referred her to  R.J. Alexander as a suitable person to “draw up the papers and make them full and strong.” So she proceeded to wash her clothes and her person, and all things being in readiness she visited Mr. Alexander at his office, when Mr. McDonald, Alexander’s partner, drew up at her request and had acknowledged the following deed:

Know all men by these presents, That I, Anna Eliza Jones, for and in consideration of seventeen dollars in hand paid, the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledge from Dr. John Cook, of Bridgeport, Ohio, do hereby give grant and convey to said Dr. John Cooke my body after my death, to be disposed of as said Dr. John Cooke may desire, either for dissection by any medical college, or for his own private use for dissection. Said Dr. John Cooke to have immediate possession and control of my body as soon as life therein shall be extinct and wherever my body may be at that time.

It is hereby witnessed that the real considerable of this deed is the release by said Dr. John Cooke or his claim against me for medical professional services, for myself and granddaughter, Agnes Racine, which amounts to seventeen dollars above mentioned, and by accepting this deed said Dr. John Cooke released said claim.

In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and seal this 25th day of March 1881

Anna E. Jones

The signing and sealing of the above was witnessed by the undersigned at the request of said Anna E. Jones

W.W. Conoway

J.E. MacDonalds

State of Ohio, Belmont County ss: before me, F.C. Robinson, a Notary Public and for said county, personally appeared the above named Anna Eliza Jones and acknowledge the signing of sealing of the above instrument to be her voluntary act and deed, this 25th day of March 1881.

T.C. Robinson, Notary Public.

It was now late in the evening of Friday, and having all things in readiness, she presented the Dr. with his “deed,” receiving therefor his receipt in full for his bill, and the old woman mounted the hill by the aid of a lantern “to deliver the goods.”

Reaching Boggs’, she called for writing materials, wrote a letter to a Mrs. Berry, in Martin’s Ferry, saying among other things, that “ere that reached her the writer would be dead,” &c., Giving this to Agnes, with orders to mail it, she kissed the baby, called for the keys of the door, which at first were refused her, but then given her, she took a chair  in hand and mounted it beside a post in the yard to which was fastened a clothes line—fastened one end of the rope around her neck, the other to the post, and pushed her old bark off, into the darkness and eternity. She informed Boggs & Co., that she meant to hang herself—but, as he alleges, she had threatened to destroy herself with pistols and by starvation before, he paid no serious attention to it. When morning came, however, Boggs & Co. saw the old woman hanging by the neck dead. The alarm was given, Coroner Garrett summoned, and after hearing the facts as related, he decided Anna E. Jones came to her death by her own hand, and of premeditation. The goods were delivered. The old woman was a good as her word. Setting a wholesome example to many creditors, to either “pay up” or “go and do likewise.” We can but revere the old woman’s memory for her determined purpose to pay an honest Dr. bill. Oh! That others we know of would profit by the old woman’s example—pay their bills we mean—or—or—well, a “word to the wise is sufficient.” Dr. Cooke waived all present claim to the old woman: her body was taken in charge by the Township Trustees, and by them buried on Sabbath afternoon, at Bridgeport Cemetery. A solitary vehicle alone formed the funeral cortege, with not a mourner to drop a tear for the strange determined old suicide.

As they rattled her bones over the stones,

The old dead woman that Dr. Cooke owns.

Belmont Chronicle [St. Clairsville, OH] 31 March 1881: p. 3

The rhyme at the end comes from a much-quoted poem called “The Pauper’s Drive” attributed to Thomas Hood. It has the refrain

Rattle his bones over the stones

He’s only a pauper whom nobody owns. 

Ohio was home to some of the giants among bodysnatchers. Yet even the “Prince of Ghouls,” probably knowing that his body would be stolen anyway, decided to profit from it when alive.

 The man about whom more graveyard stories have been told than about any other “resurrectionist,” was “Old Cunny,” the prince of ghouls, who in his day was known to every person in this part of the country, at least by name. He was the bogyman for all ill-behaved children. He was popularly called “Old Man Dead.” His real name was William Cunningham. He was born in Ireland in 1807. He was a big, raw-boned individual, with muscles like Hercules, and a protruding lower jaw, a ghoul by vocation, a drunkard by habit and a coward by nature. His wife was a bony, brawny, square-jawed Irish woman, with a mouth like an alligator. Both had a tremendous appetite for whiskey. Cunny had sold his own body to the Medical College of Ohio. When he died of heart trouble in 1871, the body was turned over to the college. Mrs. Cunningham, the bereaved widow, managed to get an additional $5 bill for the giant carcass of her deceased spouse. The skeleton of “Old Cunny” is to this day the piece de resistance in the Museum of the Medical College of Ohio. Daniel Drake and His Followers, Otto Juettner (Cincinnati, OH: Harvey Publishing Company, 1909): p. 395

 Cunningham’s apprentice and eventual partner followed Old Man Dead’s example.

 PICKLED

CHARLEY KENTON, THE RESURRECTIONIST,

GOES BACK ON THE PROFESSION

HE SELLS HIS OWN BODY TO THE DOCTORS

AND IS CARRIED FROM THE DEATH-BED TO THE PICKLING VAT

  Last Friday night a coffin containing the dead body of a colored man was driven to the Ohio Medical College, taken from the wagon and carried up the stairs, with little, if any, effort at concealment. Arriving in the “dead-room” the body was taken from the coffin, the large artery in the side of the neck cut, the blood removed, and the arteries filled with a preservative fluid, after which the body, divested of its clothing, was tumbled, with no further ceremony, into the “pickling tub,” along with a couple of dozen others which had been quietly accumulating during the past month. There was a peculiar lack of the secrecy which accompanies most of the operations of this sort by which dead bodies are transferred to the dead-room of the college, and a business-like air about the whole transaction which indicated that it was somewhat different from the ordinary cases of grave-robbing and body-snatching. A little inquiry into the case showed that it was a peculiar one—that, in fact, the body was that of one of the most notorious body-snatchers of the city, and that the lack of secrecy in the matter was from the fact that it was merely the carrying out of a plain business transaction, that the dead man had in his life sold his body to the college for dissection after death, receiving the payment, and that in accordance with this agreement his body was thus being removed to the dissecting room for that purpose.

Charley Keaton, the dead man, was in his life one of the most active body-snatchers in this city, and from his hands have hundreds of “stiffs”—bodies from many of the burying grounds in the city and vicinity, somebody’s loved ones to whose memory tears have fallen and marble shafts aspired heavenward—been sent down through the terrible “chute,” and upward through the death shaft to the dissecting room.

Keaton was a colored man of about forty, and had been for more than ten years in the business of body snatching, making good money at it, and coming to rather enjoy it than otherwise. To him there was nothing more in the handling of stiffs than in so many bolts of cloth or sacks of grain, and no more in dissection than in the business of the butcher or meat vender.

He began his work with “Old Cunny,” the noted resurrectionist, and followed it through all seasons and all weather, until only a few weeks before his death. In it he encountered all sorts of weather and exposures, and so contracted colds and a cough which finally led to bleeding of the lungs, and so his life among the dead ended in death, whose presence was as familiar to him as the days of his years of manhood.

To him the medical college, the chute, the dead-room, the pickling-vault, and even dissection had no horrors; familiarity with these had deprived him of that feeling of repugnance so common to mankind, and especially to his race, and as a result he had expressed a willingness in life that his remains after death should be submitted to the dissecting knife “in the interest of science,” as he said, as he considered his business and that which he supplied, inseparably interwoven with the science of anatomy and medicine, and as a result he had sold—deliberately sold during his life-time–his body to the college professors, receiving the usual price, $35 cash in hand, and giving a receipt and statement that his body should become the property of the college after dissection.

Indeed, he seemed rather to prefer that his skeleton should stand beside that of old “Cunny” in the museum of the college than to mold to nothingness in the dark, damp earth, and in life he frequently contemplated Cunny’s skeleton as it stands, spade in hand, in the college, evidently reflecting that he would someday stand beside it, and keep the “ole man” company through the many years that the college shall stand, instead of being consigned to the changes and final nothingness of the Potter’s field grave.

  So when old Charley died on Friday last, the college authorities were notified, his wife, who had accompanied him on many of his nightly expeditions, and is herself an expert anatomist, prepared the body for dissection, and after the brief funeral service, it was removed from the house on Barr Street, where he lived and whence he had sallied forth for many nightly excursions in the homes of the dead, and taken directly to the college, where it was prepared and put in pickle. It is pronounced “excellent material,” being well developed and obtained without serious delay after death.

  Whether this is strictly “professional,” as viewed from a body-snatcher’s stand-point, seems extremely doubtful. A system which takes the body with the consent of all parties concerned direct from the death-bed to the dissecting-room, and upon an agreed-upon and already paid price, seems to be one which must undermine the business of the profession, and therefore should be frowned down by every patriotic body-snatcher. Hawarden [IA] Independent 14 August 1878: p. 2   

I’ve asked the librarians and archivists at the University of Cincinnati School of Medicine (the successor to the Medical College of Ohio) if Cunningham and Kenton’s mounted skeletons are still in their collection, but no one seems to know. If you have any answers, sack ‘em up and send to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com. 

Mrs Daffodil posted about a unique method of Burking by Snuff,.   Look for similar joy and jollity in The Victorian Book of the Dead, which can be purchased at Amazon and other online retailers. (Or ask your local bookstore or library to order it.) It is also available in a Kindle edition.

See this link for an introduction to this collection about the popular culture of Victorian mourning, featuring primary-source materials about corpses, crypts, crape, and much more.

 

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

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My Fatal Valentine

My Fatal Valentine The Fatal Letter.

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.

[N.Y. Tribune.]

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

 

“My Buxom Widow” vinegar valentine. http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/533291.html
Widow “to be let” Vinegar Valentine http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/534700.html

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.

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

Detritus of the Dead

Detritus of the Dead, a dead infant’s photo framed in a coffin-like shadowbox by a fabric flower wreath. Former eBay listing.

In the theatre noir of Victorian mourning, textiles took center stage, providing backdrop, scenery, costume and props.  Crape, the quintessential mourning fabric, darkened clothing, doorknobs, and public building facades. Textiles veiled the widow, covered the coffin, and enshrouded the corpse. The hairwork wreaths and mourning embroideries created by mourners to enshrine the memory of the dead, might be framed with the coffin plate of the late-lamented and hung in the front parlor as a kind of domestic reliquary.

Today, of course, crape has rather fallen out of fashion as a mourning textile. In fact the only mourning textiles we find these days are “funeral blankets,” also called “sympathy” or “memorial throws.” These ghastly objects are often printed with angels or the “Footprints” poem, and may be personalized with the name and dates of the deceased. A far cry from crape fluttering ominously from the doorknocker.

Detritus of the Dead Memorial wreath made from the deceased man’s ties and displayed first on his coffin and then at his former place of business. https://twitter.com/attyfay/status/1017610721071333376

So  I was intrigued to find a return to the spirit of Victorian mourning textiles in some recent examples of very personal mourning art: first, the wreath above, made of the deceased’s ties, which I find both attractive and touching, and second, the work of an artist who “forms severed tree stumps from pieces of her late father’s clothing…The works address the passing of time and allude to the body returning to the environment after death.”

There must be many other bereaved artisans creating similar intimate memorial works from family garments. Unsurprisingly, this thread of mourning arts and crafts runs back many years.

FLOWERS OF FLANNEL

An Up-Town Artists Who Makes Gorgeous Posies of Peoples’ Old Clothes.

ART THAT OUTSTRIPS NATURE
Gaudy Wreaths Evolved From the Depths of the Family Rag-Bag.

“Remember the Loved Ones! Memorial Flowers Made of Your Deceased Friends’ Clothing.” This is the simple inscription on a tin sign, nailed against the front of a private residence on Columbia avenue, near Twenty-second street. A passing reporter saw the sign and sought an interview with the person who puts sentiment into old clothes. The bell was answered by an artistic-looking lass, who ushered the scribe into the studio to await the advent of the master, who happened to be the mistress of the establishment. Around the apartment there were distributed glass shades covering specimens of unnaturally luscious-looking fruit and supernaturally bright-colored flowers, all wax. On the walls hung several frames containing what looked like somber tinted prints of mournful weeping willows, monuments, crosses, wreaths, and other mortuary emblems, which proved, on inspection, to be human hair wrought into these various cheerful shapes. While the reporter was still inspecting these works of art and remembrance the lady of the house entered.

A LEADING FEATURE.

“Good morning. You’re looking at some of my relics, I see. Pretty, aren’t they?” was her greeting. Without ascertaining her visitor’s wishes she began to explain the various designs and to tell how many premiums she had taken at country fairs.

“Do you really make flowers of old clothes?” asked the curious newspaper man.

“Yes, indeed; that is a part of my business. In fact, it is the feature that I want to make the leading one. It is a new departure, and there is no limit to its possibilities.” Before the reporter had left he was fain to believe there was not.

A great many people don’t like hair work, and some say preserved flowers have too much of the waxy look of a corpse. The prettiest natural flowers are only emblems, after all; but bouquets made from clothes worn by those we wish to keep in remembrance are almost a part of our friends themselves.”

The floral artist then proceeded to prove in a most conclusive manner what could be done by showing what had been done already, and when all is known it is as simple as it is ingenious. Samuel of Posen could not make a necktie out of a pair of socks with more ingenuity. Given a sufficient quantity of old garments and the skill imparted by the artist at one dollar a lesson, the problem of how to make the flowers is easily solved. The process is much like that of making artificial flowers for ladies’ bonnets, the difference being that instead of selecting the colors to suit the design to be wrought the design must be made to suit the materials at hand. Right there is where the skill of the manipulator to adapt means to end [sic] of ribbons and scraps of cloth comes into play.

DAISIES FROM WHITE DRESSES.

Two wreaths, in which the artist takes especial pride, were shown to the reporter to illustrate this point. One was made from the clothing once worn by a dead grandchild. It contained, besides a number of roses fashioned of the white muslin of tiny skirts, a number of odd-shaped leaves made by cutting out the pattern of the embroidery upon the edge of the same. A daisy’s blossom had the white stuff of a baby stocking cut in strips for petals and a yellow-covered button for a center. There were queer-shaped botanical specimens evolved from striped and plaid percale, and unnameable blossoms in navy blue and cardinal wool that only the brain of a grower of flannel flowers might conceive. The second wreath, the admiring newspaper man was told, contained flowers made of the clothing worn by the artist’s own first infant. In this white blossoms predominated, as was explained by the proud mother, because “there is not so much variety in an infant’s dress as in an older person’s. But white flowers are so much more appropriate for a little babe that is all innocence and purity, and besides, they never will fade, you know.” The skeptical scribe didn’t pretend to know. With pride the mother proceeded to point out a pale buff pansy made of the kid of a tiny shoe, and a few little snowdrops of cotton that had been stuffed into the toe of the shoe to make it short enough for baby’s foot. The gem of the whole collection and the one which was shown with most gratification was a cream-colored lily on the inner circumference of the wreath, which the loving parent triumphantly explained was a part of the crape scarf that hung on the door-knob when the little one lay cold in its casket.

TROPHIES OF THE LIVING

Another wreath, more gaudy in color and more cosmopolitan in make-up, was one of all the shades of the rainbow and several others besides. It was in itself a whole family history. “A red, red rose” was a part of her married daughter’s last new bonnet, and a delicate white blossom called to mind the dress she wore when she was made a wife. A wild-looking tiger lily was once part of a colored underskirt. The blossoms that old the story of the rest of the female side of the house were in such colors as were not found in all the bright robes worn by Solomon in the days of his glory.

“But only feminine apparel can be utilized for bouquets,” objected the reporter. “That’s just where you are wrong!” the artists exclaimed. “Why, think of the colored shirts, flannel drawers, neck ties and stockings. They furnish an unlimited supply for as bright bouquets and rosettes as you could wish. I made a beautiful bunch of pansies not long ago of bits of a gentleman’s kid gloves. Many of the pieces were the right shade, but a few had to be colored to suit. I am about to make a large bouquet for a down town women whose husband belonged to the old Moya Hose Company and was afterwards a soldier. The centre will be a large hollyhock. His red fireman’s shirt will come into play here, don’t you see? I can surround this by blue glowers of some kind. I liked best to make them according to my own ideas. Some people think they can tell just how it ought to be done. Why this woman, whose husband was a firemen, wanted me to make a lot of forget-me-nots and lilies of the valley of her husband’s blue uniform and a white flannel shirt. Such blossoms would do for a baby or a love sick girl, but for an old fellow that used to run with the masheen it makes my head ache.”

TIGER LILIES FROM COATS.

Just at this point a Columbia avenue dude passed the window. The disgusted artist espied him and exclaimed: “Wouldn’t I like a chance to make a bouquet for him out of his clothes? That spotted jacket would be just lovely worked up into tiger lilies and sunflowers and his legs would make elegant stems for the flowers if they were a little thicker and not so crooked.

The many advantages of the faille and linen flowers are causing the trade in them to grow and the florist who now does the chief business in growing them has confidence that as soon as their virtues become more widely known some of the florists will be compelled to shut up shop for lack of something to do. When it is considered that they don’t fade or wilt under the hottest rays of the sun or freeze though attacked by the coldest blasts of winter, the mall sum of $20 asked for making a medium-sized wreath sinks into insignificance and it will be admitted that the genius that originated the idea of remembering dead friends by their old clothes is a benefactor of the race.

The Times [Philadelphia, PA] 24 June 1883: p. 3

Most readers would have nodded knowingly at the first level headline.  Flannel—also known as shrouding flannel—was formerly the main textile used for shrouds.

Some relicts were not content just with flowers made from the deceased’s wardrobe, but added the detritus of the dead to their memorial collages. This widow, with an eye to future historians, carefully labeled all the artifacts.

A NOVEL MORTUARY WREATH.

The Unique Memorial of a Connecticut Widow,

From the Boston Herald.

A unique piece of handiwork has just been completed by Mrs. Sophia Laramore of Waterbury, Conn., who is now approaching her 70th year. It is a mortuary wreath In memory of her husband, who was dead nearly five years before the curious symbol was begun. She made it of relics of her late husband, and of articles which were the property of the wives who preceded her. The frame is of putty, into which while soft the widow placed, among others, the following articles: In the center of the top cross piece are the spectacles of her late lamented and a small vial containing the pills which were left over from his last Illness. Besides these the Hartford Courant says there are many small stones which he had treasured during life, his jackknife. a piece of candy, which she says be had left uneaten; buttons of all kinds from his old clothing, and a small bottle containing cheese made by his first wife. All of this collection is labeled, as, for instance. “The smelling bottle used by the wife before me.” Inclosed in the frame is a picture of him whose memory the wreath is supposed to perpetuate. The wreath above the portrait is composed almost entirely of flowers and leaves, each of these made either of some portion of his coat, waistcoat, trousers, neckties or suspenders, and worked together artistically. The shirt in which he died is honored by having made from it a showy bird, too wonderful and strange for description. Just outside the wreath are placed suspender buckles and watch chains entwined with the hair of the mother of his first wife. Some of the hair of his own head has been made into tendrils, and the stamens of one of the flowers is of the material that lined the coffin. On another side of the wreath is a bunch of raisins he bought her the winter before he died, saying: “Now don’t cook any of these, but eat everyone.” Balancing the raisins are three wires, each supporting one of his teeth, and behind them the last toothpick he ever used.

St. Louis [MO] Post-Dispatch 16 January 1890: p. 11

And this Vermont widow found solace in a mixed-media memorial to her husband made from all manner of sentimental scraps.

A Widow’s Fad.

Near Vergennes, Vt., lives an old widow, Mrs. Parthena Barton, who has just completed a novel memorial to her dead husband. This memento takes the shape of a wreath and the articles in it would start a junk shop. There are many different kinds of flowers composing the wreath, each one made of a bit of the neckties or trousers, or suspenders, which the deceased Barton had worn in life; the centers of the flowers are tender souvenirs in the shape of collar or coat buttons. The spoon with which Mr. Barton took his medicine, the cough drops and boxes of pills are all enshrined in the memorial wreath, as are a motley collection of watch keys, and samples of all the kinds of garden seed he last saved. There’s a bit of the cushion of the church pew in which he sat Sunday after Sunday, a section of the saw he used in providing stove wood, and the awl and bristles he used in mending his boots. Indeed to make the memorial as complete as possible, the good widow included in the collection a souvenir of his first wife in the shape of a smelling bottle, and a match box some one had given Mrs. Barton No. 2, while for herself she only put in a lock of her hair. This huge wreath is enclosed in a frame and hangs on the wall. Both wreath and frame were made by the old lady herself, who views her work with much pride and says: “Taint natural to build monuments and put flowers on the graves of friends. What you want is something to remind you of them. That’s why I made that wreath. Everything’s got a history.”

The Times-Picayune [New Orleans, LA] 7 November 1888: p. 4

The latter two stories remind me of African-American conventions of leaving objects important to the dead person at the burial place. As James M. Davidson writers in “Keeping the Devil at Bay: The Shoe on the Coffin Lid and other Grave Charms in Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century America,” sometimes the last items used by the deceased–medicine bottles, dishes or spoons–were interred with them or carefully positioned on the grave. (You can find a contemporary description of the practice as found in Washington D.C.’s Mount Zion Cemetery in The Victorian Book of the Dead, where the stories of the Pennsylvania wreath-maker and the Vermont widow also appear.) I should emphasize that the making of these unconventional wreaths was certainly not a widespread practice, but it was novel enough to interest the press.

Other examples? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com, who has a brimming junk drawer handy for post-mortem use.

 

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

Sewing Shrouds: 19th-century Burial Clothing

Sewing Shrouds: 19th-century Burial Clothing A shrouded ghost in a cemetery
Sewing Shrouds: 19th-century Burial Clothing Calling up the shrouded dead.

I have always been interested in what the well-dressed corpse is wearing: a netted beadwork shroud, as worn by an Egyptian mummy; the beautiful brocades found in the royal tombs at Las Huelgas; a plain wool shroud tied at the head and foot, as modeled by John Donne in his funerary monument; or the frilled-front white shrouds worn by some Victorian ladies, accessorized with a ruffled cap.

But who made dresses for the dead? We have records of commercial shipments of shrouds from 1770s America. I remember reading, but cannot find a firm source for the assertion that ladies from the 16th through the 19th century would sew their own burial clothes when making their wedding trousseaux because women were so likely to die in childbirth. (Anyone have a reference?) And there are many news articles about elderly ladies buried in a shroud made by their own hands decades earlier. There is no doubt that the home-made shroud was a significant part of 19th-century burial customs in the United States. People also buried their dead in their own garments or nightwear. See this link for an excellent article on the subject. I have also seen notices for meetings of “Shroud Committees” or “Ladies’ Shroud Sewing Societies,” where charitable ladies made shrouds for the poor.

In my search for information on 19th-century burial garments, I ran across the following articles, which discuss the labor issues, the materials, and costs of manufacturing commercial shrouds and burial robes. They are a frank look at the undertaking industry over the course of three decades.

SEWING FOR THE DEAD

Girls Who make Good Wages and Are Contented in an Undertaker’s Shop.

“Isn’t it lovely?” asked a young sewing girl, holding up for inspection something of white satin and lace.

“We are crowded with work just now, so I brought this home to finish it to-night.”

‘You have a trousseau on hand, then? I suppose that fancy garment, whatever it may be, is for a bride.”

The sewing girl opened wide her eyes. “We don’t make no trousseau,” said she. “Did you think I worked at a dressmaker’s?”

“Yes? Aren’t you with Mme. X.?”

“Not much! I left there a month ago. The madame gave me too much sass and too little pay. I’m in Y___’s undertaking establishment and am earning half as much again as I did at Mme. X___’s, who is the most awful crew in this city. The season is longer, too, though of course there ain’t half the number of girls employed where I know that there were at madame’s. When I worked there I was laid off reg’lar three months in the year, while four weeks is the longest that the girls at the undertaker’s are idle. When there is a full supply of robes in stock they are put to making coffin linings, which most of ‘em like because it isn’t fussy work, though, for that matter, none of their work is half so fussy as what I had to bother with when I sewed for live people. Miss B___ (she is our forewoman) used to have the same place at a dressmaker’s, and she says she has grown ten years younger since she went into the robe making business, because she has so much less worry of mind. She sometimes used to have to keep her girls up till 12 o’clock Saturday night to finish a dress for some rich customer, and early Monday morning here would come the dress back again to be altered, and a sassy message long with it about its want of fit. Now, there aren’t any particular fit about a burial robe as you can see by this; it is made only to go over the corpse. Miss B___ says it is a great comfort to her to know that them as wears ‘em don’t make no complaint , and in the main they are becoming, which can’t be said of live dresses—I mean the dresses live people wear.

“To see them in their coffins you would think they were completely dressed, but really all their finery is on top. Even the men’s solid looking black coats and smooth shirt fronts can go on and off without removing the corpse. What I am making is for a young girl who died yesterday, and will be buried to-morrow. She was to have been married next month, and her trousseau was begun at Mme. X___’s before I left there. She will look just as sweet in this robe I am making for her as she would have done in her wedding dress.

“Afraid of the coffins? Not after the first day. It would be a pity if we were, as our sewing room is at the end of the loft where piles upon piles of them are stowed away. We talk and laugh and sing, just as we did at Mme. X___, and Miss B___ is an awful lot nicer than the freewoman we had there, because, as I have already said, she isn’t being constantly worried out of her life by fussy ladies; and, as it is piecework, she never has to scold the girls for loafing. She says that what she can’t get used to is to have to go downstairs and take orders for robes for folks that still have breath in their bodies. Some people seem to be in an awful hurry to get their dead put underground.

When Miss  B____ was downstairs today at noontime and the rest of us were eating lunch, one of the girls had her chair break down under her, and, as there was no other to be had, what did she do but go out and drag in a coffin to sit on! When we had finished our lunch we took and laid her out in it and covered her with a robe, and then we began to cry, and talk about the virtues of the deceased, and were having a real jolly wake, considering there was no candles, when in come the boss. We didn’t’ know but we’d all be fired out for meddling with the coffins, but all he said was that it would be money in his pocket if we lazy loafers were all of us in our coffins, as our custom would pay him better than our work. The girl in the coffin—she’s awfully cheeky—jumped up and told him it was playtime, as it was not yet half past 12, and then he said what as fun to us would be considered death by most folks and with that he went out. One of the girls said he was in a good humor because there was talk of the yellow fever coming here this summer, but that wasn’t so. Undertakers ain’t no more heartless than other men, and when it comes to paying their girls they ain’t half such skins as some women.” New York Tribune. Huron Daily Huronite [Huron, SD] 16 January 1890: p. 3

This next article may be one of the the earliest mentions in the press of machine embroidery—the shroud seamstresses ingeniously created patterns with their regular sewing machines.

FASHION STOPS NOWHERE

Costumes for the Grave

“Sweet Things” in Shrouds, and Trimmings—“Ladies’ Fine Lawn Robes”—“Ladies’ Cashmere Habit”—“Style No. 37”—The “Forelady’s” Role.

Every dress intended expressly for the dead may be styled, generically, a shroud. Modern usage, however, makes a distinction according to the color of the dresses, applying the term “Shroud” to those which are black or white and “habit” to those of brown material. Only black, white or brown material is used. There are large shops for the manufacture of dresses for the dead, as for clothing for the living. The manufacturer sells to the undertaker. He usually makes coffins and coffin trimmings, and everything he sells to the undertaker is, as a rule, sold for just half of the retail price and often for less than half. A lawn shroud that is retailed to the mourner for $2.25 costs the undertaker, usually 90 cents. The undertaker often waits for his pay, and frequently he doesn’t survive the waiting time. So he makes his sales on a basis of large margins of losses. In that way he manages to counteract the effect upon him of the grief that he sees, and he doesn’t die of sorrow accumulating within him.

In the larger manufactories from which the undertaker gets his supplies, from seventy-five to one hundred different styles of shrouds for dead women are shown, and fifteen or more for dead men. The materials chiefly used are merino and lawn. The trimmings are satin, plain, stamped, or quilted; gimp, in folds, puffings, bows, edgings, box plaits, ruches or crepe lisse and of other material, embroidery and raised flosswork representing flowers, vines, tendrils, and in mottoes. The styles of cut and making follow to a considerable extent the prevailing modes of dress for the living. The morning dress pattern is largely used for women, and the dressing gown for men, invariably with a bosom piece. For men it is the usual shirt bosom and collar of starched linen, often with studs; for women the bosom piece is made according to fancy, regulated largely by the material of the robe. The frequent use of the patterns above mentioned may be due largely to the fact that they are easily put on, because of their large sleeves and loose fit. They are open at the back from top to bottom and, when put on, are fastened at the neck. The sides are simply tucked underneath the body.

Garments worn in life are frequently used as grave clothes—a custom more prevalent in New York than anywhere else in this country, with the possible exception of Deadwood and some other places, where sudden deaths and unceremonious burials are rather the rule. Boston uses twice as many shrouds proportionately as New York, which does not require more than could be furnished by one or two manufacturers. The greater number of the shrouds made by New York manufacturers are sold in other cities….

The least costly shroud is of black lawn, and it sells at retail, ready made, for $2.25. It is trimmed with the same material, in puffings, bows and tulles. Lawn burial robes are little used compared with those of other materials. Prices of shrouds vary from that of the simple robe, already mentioned, to $40 or more. The more usual prices are $10, $12 and $15. Manufacturers of shrouds, coffins and trimmings do not sell at retail….

In a long, narrow room—nearly 200 feet long—in the second story of a manufactory of undertakers’ supplies, were shown shrouds for men and for women, in great numbers and various styles. A shroud of new design, was of black merino, with “cross-crease center” of black satin folds, trimmed at the side with box plaits and milliners’ folds, alternately of satin and Merino. Folds of the same kind around the neck inclosed a satin-threaded crepe lisse ruche. It was finished at the throat with a black satin bow. The end of the sleeve was trimmed to correspond, and was softened with crepe lisse. In an open box on the counter was a brown habit. The bosom piece was of white satin, with finger puffs up and down. There were gimp and edging at the sides, and box plaits, with edging; around the neck, white satin bows, finished with trimming. A man’s shroud was in another box. It was trimmed with quilted satin and raised floss work in the shape of a cross and a leafy vine. There were a linen bosom and collar, and a black cravat and bosom studs. TA fold of satin answered for the vest, and the shroud had the appearance of an elaborate dressing gown for a gentleman. Another shroud for a man had a matelassé front, a shirt bosom of another pattern, and folds to represent a vest showing two buttons. The shelves behind the counter were filled with boxes of burial robes and “head linings.” They were labeled “Ladies’ fine lawn robe;” “Ladies’ cashmere habit, No. 25 front, color brown,” Cashmere robe, No. 35 front, color white;” the number designating the style of the robe. An “old lady’s shroud” was in one of the open boxes. It was of black cashmere, with folds crossing over the breast, the second fold narrow and of black satin; pointed sleeve cuffs, bound with black satin; folds of white lawn crossing diagonally to the left, across the breast; a lawn bow at the throat and at the wrists and around the neck a widow’s ruche. “Style No. 37” was somewhat costly. The material was fine brown merino. Double puffings were edged with white satin and edged again with a ruche of rule. The plain white satin breast piece had “daisy buttons”—buttons with white satin center and loops of white silk thread around it—down the middle. At the throat was a white satin bow, edged, and around the neck a tulle ruche. The robe retails for $30. Quilted to the bottom it would cost $40, and a cord and tassel would come with it. Quilting is a more expensive trimming than puffing, for more time is required to make it. Ordinarily, a shroud has about two feet of trimming, and the cost is about one third as much as when trimmed to the bottom.

The women employed in the manufactures work by the piece. They make two shrouds a day of the more elaborate patterns and four of the simpler. The girls who stitch the seams on sewing machines earn $8 a week. Generally the same hand makes the entire shroud, doing the machine and the hand work and earning $12 a week. The “forelady” does cutting. Her salary is, on the average, $15 a week. The cutting is not a delicate task, for shrouds are nearly all the same size. When too large they are tucked under at the back and care is taken to have them all large enough for a person of ordinary size. The women work in the manufactory, and choose their own hours, generally going to work at about nine in the morning and quitting at five in the afternoon. They bring their luncheons and take about twenty-five minutes’ intermission for eating it. Some of the girls work only on “Headlines,” which extend from the head of the coffin to the break on the shoulder. These girls learn to work mottoes and ingenious figures, stitching them entirely with sewing machines. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 9 December 1879 p: 1

This next article is interesting in that it states that there is a particular apprenticeship period to be served because dressmakers don’t necessarily know how to make shrouds.

IN A SHROUD FACTORY

A THOUSAND GIRLS HAPPY IN A STRANGE OCCUPATION.

The Shroudmakers of New York a Distinct Class of Needle Plyers—Clothing for the Dead—Various Designs, Grades, and Fashions.

There are over one thousand well fed, well dressed, well paid young women in New York city who earn their living making shrouds for the dead. The “Song of the Shirt” was not written for them. They sing no songs with voices of dolorous pitch, and indeed they have very little reason for doing so. Their songs are as merry as the day is long, and are sung to the busy hum of sewing machines. Less doleful melodies it would be hard to find.

The shroudmakers of New York form a distinct class of bread winners. They differ from other needle plyers as essentially as silversmiths differ from locksmiths. An experienced shroudmaker may know how to make a dress, but a dressmaker has little or no knowledge of how a shroud should be constructed. This part is emphasized whenever a dressmaker secures employment in a shroud factory. Before she is able to earn the regular wages of her craft she must serve an apprenticeship, the length of which depends solely upon her aptitude to learn the peculiar knack of this strange trade. There are twelve well known firms in this city engage id in the manufacture of shrouds, and it is in their factories that all the work is done. The wages are well maintained, although fixed by no union, and employment is guaranteed the year through, for the sale of shrouds is not marked by any of the fluctuations which are noted in some other branches of manufacture.

New York is the recognized headquarters of the clothing of the dead as well as of the living. There is mothering about a shroud factory to indicate the character of its product. Even the rows of coffins and enticing varieties of caskets in the ware room below seem to belong to another business altogether. The showcases that are visible from the head of the stairs, with their display of the latest styles in shrouds, appear to have been left there, perhaps by some pervious tenant, and bear no possible relation to the use the rooms are now being put. It is very difficult to imagine that these light hearted girls who chat so merrily over their machines are turning out burial robes by the dozen, but such is the case and to them the work is no more dolorous than the making of shirts.

CLATTER AND CHATTER.

If you are curious come with me to one of the largest factories in the city, within a few blocks of Cooper Union, in the Bowery, and see for yourself. As the door of the shop opens the noise is almost deafening. Between the clatter of the machines on the one hand and the chatter of the girls on the other, one can hardly hear himself speak. It is 10 o’clock—early for us, perhaps, but not for the girls. They have been at work since 8, and one-quarter of their day has already been spent. In the center of the room is a double row of sewing machines, varying in size and power, and all fastened to two long and narrow tables with little round places cut in the sides into which the operators snugly fit. At the other end of the room are several counters forming a quadrangle. Within this square sit a dozen young women chatting and sewing, while a tall, middle aged, motherly woman snips out of yards upon yards of black, white,  and brown cloth patterns of shrouds. Shrouds with long skirts, shrouds with short skirts, shrouds with no skirts at all. Shrouds for the rich and shrouds for the poor. And such patterns they are.

This elaborate design in white satin, with soft ruching around the neck and fleecy ruffles around the wristbands, is modeled after a wedding gown as nearly as is possible considering the different use it is to be put to. It will grace the funeral of some rich patron of a fashionable undertaker. This plain black garment, with a false shirt bosom and a collar which ties behind with a cord, is patterned after an evening suit. It is quiet and eminently respectable. It is intended for a man of middle age and costs quite as much as a suit worn in life. Besides these there are robes of brown and combinations of brown and black, some faced with satin, some with silk, and others plain even to severity. These form the cheaper grade of goods and are worn by men or women of advanced years. The white robes are all intended for the young. Some of these are marvelous pieces of work, and if embroidered by hand would cost a small fortune. This little gown would hardly reach from your hand to your elbow. The tiny neckband is ruffled and tied together in front with a white satin bow. The little sleeves are covered with embroidery and the skirt is elaborately trimmed with lace. It is a baby shroud and is the smallest size that is made.

The styles in shrouds are continually changing. Every fashion used by the living contributes to the robing of the dead. Each large factory has its ‘special designer,’ and not even death can still the competition between them. Benjamin Northrup in St. Louis Republican. Daily Journal and Journal and Tribune [Knoxville, TN] 14 July 1888: p. 6

Let’s finish with this tongue-in-cheek look at the practical reasons behind “sham burial suits.”  The reporter mentions suits displayed in glass-topped boxes. You can see an example of a child’s burial dress in a box here.

SHAM BURIAL SUITS

Robbing the Grave of Valuable Raiment—Another Step Toward Economy in Funerals—How a Body May be Arrayed Without Waste of Wardrobe—A Real Masquerade of Death

Of late years the fashion in funeral wardrobes has materially changed. Where our ancestors used to be put to their last quiet bed in a plain shroud, their descendants make the same journey in full dress. In the case of a gentleman, a black coat and pantaloons, with a white vest, shirt and tie have been defined as the last tribute of decency he can pay to the social system from which he has departed. A lady is required to be attired in attire whose quality is generally decided by her dressers, but which is of a sober hue.

There are few men who would through choice wear a dickey over their breasts instead of a suit on their bodies. Yet the sham burial suits are nothing but dickeys. A Sunday News reporter saw one in an undertaker’s window the other day, or rather he saw two. One was intended for a gentleman, and the other for a lady. They were inclosed in neat boxes with glass covers, and would have been quite pleasant to look at if it hadn’t been for the coffins which formed a background to them, and the photograph alongside of an embalmer inspecting the corpse of a man who, if looks go for anything, must have been hanged for slaughtering three or four infant schools from a tub of chemicals through a garden house. At first sight they seemed to be what they were evidently intended to represent. The reporter was examining them, when a rosy man, who had been telling a story to several cheerful gentlemen, who laughed heartily at it, called form his arm-chair in the doorway, “What do you think of them, eh?”

“They seem to be real nice,” The reporter responded.

“Nice!” repeated the rosy man; “Why, they’re just bang up. Look at ‘em in here close to. How is that for high, eh? Only take that in.”

‘And yanking what had seemed to be a black coat, vest, shirt, collar and tie complement from its case, he waved a fluttering rag over the reporter’s head. The arrangement was simply a front, no longer than a waiter’s jacket, and with tapes behind to tie it to the body. “Nobody ever sees the back of ‘em,” said the rosy man, “and half of the lid covers ‘em up to the waist. So what’s the use of buying a forty-dollar rig or so when you can get one of these for ten dollars, I want to know? Ain’t the deceased loss enough without chucking his clothes in too, eh?”

The reporter admitted that, taking this view of the subject, the idea was certainly an admirable one. Encouraged by this indorsement, the rosy man sent a rosy boy, who was cracking peanuts and throwing the shells into an open casket, for a pint of beer and went into details. He had long noticed with pain that the poorest of people buried the best suits of clothes they could obtain with their dead. According to a computation he had made with great care, something over $3,000,000 was squandered annually in this way, literally thrown to the worms. This was very wrong. It was an outrage on the whole system of social economy. Somebody could wear those garments, and get more good out of them than the man or woman who had them on. Then why didn’t they wear them?

They didn’t wear them because they were “down on” shrouds, and couldn’t bury the “diseased” with nothing at all on.

But the present improvement supplied a happy medium. It arrayed the body in a stylish garb wherever the body was seen. In the hidden recesses of the casket, where no eyes had access, it didn’t matter in the last how it was dressed. One of these suits only cost from $5 to $15, according to its quality. Ladies’ dresses, constructed on the same plan, rated according to the same schedule. The idea was a new one, but it had made a hit, and the sham suits were selling, to use the narrator’s own picturesque figure of speech, “like hot cakes.” The illusive garments were made in all styles to suit all tastes. One dress had lately been made for a young lady who desired to be buried in pink. Her family were going to sacrifice her best dress when this substitute was suggested to them.

‘And her sister wore that dress to a ball last week,” said the rosy man, triumphantly. “Simmy seen her in it, didn’t you?”

“Simmy set down the beer and responded in the affirmative. As the reporter prepared to depart he asked:

“Are they patented?”

“You bet,” replied the rosy man. “When you need one, let your folks give us a call, will you? Simmy, hand the young man a card.” Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 23 October 1880: p. 12

On Thursday, I’ll be posting on supernatural stories connected with shrouds. Mrs Daffodil has more on shrouds here. Check all of Mrs Daffodil’s posts under the “mourning” category for stories about mourning boudoirs, diseases spread by mourning clothing, and more.

Portions of the post above appear in The Victorian Book of the Dead, which can be purchased at Amazon and other online retailers. (Or ask your local bookstore or library to order it.) It is also available in a Kindle edition.

See this link for an introduction to this collection about the popular culture of Victorian mourning, featuring primary-source materials about corpses, crypts, crape, and much more.

 

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

 

The Tombstone Censor

angel carving tombstone W V Gazetteer and Bus Dir 1882-3

Think you can have anything you want carved on your tombstone? Think again. When a Lancashire man’s family wanted to write “Sleep Tight Dad” with Xs representing kisses on his monument, the local parish priest objected and asked for the offending gravestone to be removed. The parents of a young soldier were forced by Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati to take down a “Sponge-Bob-“shaped monument, at least temporarily.  Such cemetery sensitivities are nothing new. In 1905, the Tombstone Censor was on the job and in the news.

THE TOMBSTONE CENSOR

He Sees That No Unseemly Inscription Mars the Cemetery

A tombstone censor is employed by most large cemeteries. It is the duty of this man to see that nothing unseemly in the way of a tombstone is put up.

A young engineer in a Norristown mill was killed by the explosion of a boiler, and the family of this young man, believing that the mill owners had known all along that the boiler was defective, actually had carved on the tombstone the sentence, “Murdered by his masters.” The tombstone censor, of course, refused to sanction such an epitaph.

On the death of a certain noted prize fighter the surviving brother of the man wanted to put in a glass case beside the grave a championship belt, four medals, a pair of gloves and other trophies of the ring. But the censor’s negative was firm.

A widow who believed that the physician was responsible for her husband’s death wished to put on the tomb, “He employed a cheap doctor,” but the tombstone censor showed her that such an inscription would lay her open to heavy damages for libel.

Atheists sometimes direct in their wills that shocking blasphemies be carved on their monuments. The censor, however, sees to it that these blasphemies do not disfigure the cemetery. Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 22 June 1905: p. 3

There was a relatively recent case in England of a widow being made to take down her husband’s cricket-bat tombstone, but I’m unable to find the reference. The story was practically identical to this one:

A Remarkable Tombstone

[Sheffield (Eng.) Telegraph.]

All day Sunday a large number of people visited Wadsley Church-yard to inspect a tombstone which has recently been erected to the memory of Benjamin Keeton. The characteristic of the tombstone is that immediately after the worlds “In affectionate remembrance of,” and before “Benjamin Keeton,” there is engraved in very bold relief a set of stumps, six inches across, with balls on, the stumps being a foot high; a cricket-bat, which is across the stumps, the bottom of the bat resting on the ground, the bat being eighteen inches high, and the handle appearing as if it were wrapped with the orthodox waxed thread. The Vicar and Church Wardens as soon as they saw the stone, communicated with the widow of the deceased, and required her to remove it in three days. The widow of the deceased says there has been nothing irregular, and she has no intention either to remove or deface the stone. On the other hand, the officers of Church say that the putting up of the stone was a trespass, as the stone got into the church-yard surreptitiously. Keeton was a professional cricketer. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 22 January 1877: p. 2

This article, from a monument-makers’ trade journal, spells out the law in England and mentions a few high-profile cases.

THE LAW AND TOMBSTONE INSCRIPTIONS.

Not long ago an American newspaper called attention to the fact that the vestry of an English church refused to allow a few lines of poetry to be inscribed upon a tombstone in the churchyard. The ground of their objection was that the verses were held to be “mere doggerel.” The vestry was undoubtedly unaware of the fact, brought out by the newspaper, that the “doggerel” was from the pen of no less a writer than Longfellow, whose bust is given an honored place in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey. As if to even up for this international slight, the same writer recalled the fact that another vestry board refused to permit a tombstone inscription from Tennyson, on the ground that it was sacrilegious.

The curious epitaphs that so frequently find their way into print must often cause the serious to grieve. That a tombstone is no place for jocularity, for sarcasm, for mawkish sentimentality or for grotesque exaggeration is one of those things that should be known without teaching. But it is not known, and a tombstone censor would be an overworked official in almost any community. It is a question how far church officials or cemetery directors could go in the supervision of epitaphs or inscriptions in this country. That the law would frequently be invoked is evident. \With the Established Church in England, the condition of affairs is far different. A recent exchange touches on this matter, and quotes several decisions that have a general interest to readers of Stone. The writer says: It would appear from many legal decisions that, notwithstanding the powers vested in an incumbent, he has no legal right to refuse to allow an inscription on a tombstone in his churchyard of a simple and scriptural nature. Apart from the sentiment of the question it was never intended or contemplated by the Legislature that the ordinary’s power to regulate the inscriptions on tombstones should be oppressively or arbitrarily exercised. Sec. 28 of 15 and 16 Vic., ch. 85, provides (inter alia) that any question which shall arise touching the fitness of any monumental inscription placed in any parts of the consecrated portions of the burial ground shall be determined by the Bishop of the diocese. In the case of Keet vs. Smith, L.R. 4, Adm. and Eccl. 398. and P.D. 73, the incumbent objected to the promised inscription on a tombstone, and on application being made by the father of the deceased for a faculty, the Chancellor of the diocese and the Court of Arches refused it, but the Privy Council, seeing nothing objectionable in the inscription, directed it to issue. The objection taken by the incumbent in this case was that the deceased was described as “The Reverend,”‘ he being only a Wesleyan minister, and as such, in the incumbent’s opinion, not entitled to the prefix” “Reverend.” The inscription in its entirety was as follows:—”I.H.S. In loving memory of Anne Augusta Keet, the younger daughter of the Rev. H. Keet. Wesleyan minister, who died at Owston Ferry, May11th, 1874, aged 7 years and 9 months. Safe sheltered from the storms of life.” It should be remarked that no exception was taken to the latter part of this inscription.

Again in the case of Breeks vs. Woolfrey. Curt 887, Sir Herbert Jenner said:—”It was not denied, nay it was admitted, that if the inscriptions were of the character attributed to them in the citation, viz., contrary to the articles, canons and constitutions, and to the doctrines and discipline of the Church of England—no person had a right to erect a tombstone with such inscriptions impugning the doctrines of the Church of England, and that a person so offending is liable to be punished.” The inscription in this case was “Pray for the soul of J. Woolfrey,” and the court held that such an inscription was not illegal. Stone; an Illustrated Magazine, Volume 19, 1899

Apparently the Tombstone Censor could not be everywhere, for there were a surprising number of stories in the 19th- and early 20th-century press about epitaph lawsuits, such as these two:

A CURIOUS EPITAPH

Tombstone Maker, of Wheeling, W. Va., Takes a Queer Revenge and Gets in Serious Trouble.

Among curious epitaphs, that which is engraved on the monument of James Rine, of Wheeling, W. Va., is certainly the most unique. List most epitaphs of interest, says the Chicago Daily News, this one does not spring from an attempt to eulogize the dead; on the  contrary it is a distinct effort to cast disgrace upon the sleeper beneath the stone. The inscription, besides the name, date of birth and death of the deceased, tells the world in large letters that “This Ain’t Paid For.”

Some years since James Rine had Tombstone Maker Carroll erect on the family lot at Stone Meeting House Cemetery a monument for which he gave his note in payment. Before the same matured Rine died, with his estate insolvent. Carroll, being unable to collect his claim, inscribed on the stone: “This Ain’t Payed For.” In consequence, the nearer relatives had him indicted. Morning Olympian [Olympia, WA] 19 November 1899: p. 4

LIBEL SUIT CAUSE UNIQUE

Tombstone Inscription Curious

Widow is in Dilemma.

Hamburg, May 28. From Heligoland comes a curious libel action for the German courts to deal with in the course of the present sessions.

Last year the lighthouse-keeper on the island died, and his affectionate widow put up a tombstone on which was inscribed: “Neglect shortened thy life in the Spring of thy years.”

Friends of the widow say this was a dig at the authorities, who sent no relief to the lighthouse-keeper when he needed it, but the local doctor has read it as a reflection on himself. So he has filed a suit for libel.

Now the widow is faced with a dilemma. She denies any reflection on the doctor, and, as she draws an official pension she does not wish to fall foul of the authorities. Her defence, therefore, is that she set up the inscription for her own neglect of her husband in his last hours. Oregonian [Portland, OR] 29 May 1910: p. 2

Either standards have become much more lax in some cemeteries or the Tombstone Censor was looking the other way when this particular monument was carved. Any other actionable epitaphs? Laser-etch on a slab of Vermont marble and send to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

[Thanks to Michael Robinson for the BBC article that inspired this post.]

Portions of this post (with more odd mortuary jobs) appear in The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition.

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

Cremated Alive

Bradford Crematorium retort with doors open 1889
Cremated Alive Bradford Crematorium retort with the doors opened, 1889 Always room for one more….

It is the stuff of nightmares and horror movies. A woman in India was declared dead of a lung infection, taken quickly to the ghats, and cremated a few hours after death. But bystanders, believing she was still alive, dragged her off the pyre and an autopsy showed soot in her windpipe and lungs that could not have gotten there if she had been dead. Yet the doctors at the hospital where she died who certified her death were certain she was dead. The case is complicated by allegations of rape, murder, and property disputes; DNA and other forensic testing has been ordered, but it is unlikely the truth will come out any time soon.

If, indeed, the poor woman was burned alive on her funeral pyre, it was not the first time for such a horror. I have previously written about burial alive, something dreaded by the Victorians perhaps even more than they feared the Resurrection Men. Today we fire up the retort as we look at the third of a terrifying triumvirate of Victorian death-fears:  being embalmed alive, dissected alive, or cremated alive. We have some surprise witnesses to share their stories.

The three fears were often mentioned—and cautionary statistics cited–in the warning screeds published by the various branches of the Society for the Prevention of Premature Burial.

STARTLING FIGURES SUPPLIED BY A DOCTOR.

Some very disconcerting figures were supplied to the meeting of the London Society for the Prevention of Premature Burial at Bloomsbury Town Hall by Dr Hadwen, of Gloucester, as arguments in favour of speedy legislation in. burial reform. The following cases, he said, had been certified by medical men:

Persons buried alive 149

Narrow escapes from burial alive 319

Dissected alive 10

Narrow escapes from dissection alive 2

Embalmed alive 2

Cremated alive 1

Star, 7 July 1906: p. 4

Obviously the odds were vastly against cremation alive, but that reflects the lower instance of cremations in this period. There was still religious prejudice (and some social hostility) towards the practice.

It would seem impossible that we should ever know about most cases of premature cremation: ash tells no tales, unlike the corpses of the buried alive, with their fingers bitten or battered to the bone, their hair and grave clothes rent. But we are fortunate that Spiritualism was on hand to bring us first-hand, beyond-the-grave testimonials from those who met their end in the flames.

How It Feels to be Cremated.

Mrs. Althea Romeyn-Roberts is a Spiritualistic medium at No 36 Cottage Place. She is one of the many who give séances in which forms emerge from a cabinet and present themselves to be re-embodied spirits. There are twenty to thirty such establishments in town, and they have not had any essential differences. In her parlor a cabinet stands against the wall, and from this, after some preliminary speaking and singing, white-robed forms come out into the very dimly-lighted room.

Accepting the theory of unbelievers that these apparitions are either the medium herself or her assistants, there is nothing puzzling about the exhibition. They could be easily introduced into the cabinet through a secret panel, or might sneak into it under cover of what at times becomes total darkness. But of late Mrs. Romeyn-Roberts has bettered the doings of her rivals by introducing a spirit character who tells a sensational story. He purports to be the late James Allen, and he relates to each successive audience that he was cremated alive.

“Folks thought I died at Binghamton about three years ago,’’ he said, on the occasion of the Times correspondent’s visit to the séance, “but I didn’t. I was taken singularly ill and fell into a condition that resembled death. It was a cataleptic attack, I presume, and after a brief spell of unconsciousness I came to myself, so far as my mind was concerned, but could not move a muscle. I soon discovered that I was regarded as a corpse, and a horror of being buried alive took possession of me. But soon I learned that I was not to be buried—I was to be sent to the crematory at Washington, Penn. I then remembered very well that I had expressed a preference for cremation over interment, and that my family were also converts to that new method. I think that I lost consciousness several times, but only for short periods, and nearly all the while I was fully aware of all that was going on. But I could not make the slightest motion or the faintest sound. They put a shroud on me, laid me in a coffin, shut me up and shipped me to Washington. At that place is the first furnace ever built for cremation I suppose in the country. I had read descriptions of the process, and I knew what was coming to me unless I could regain vitality enough to show that I was alive. Struggle as I would I could not get myself at all out of the condition of seeming death. The preparations for burning me went on—enough of them in my presence, too, to keep me aware of them. I was mentally wide awake when they took me out of the coffin and laid me on the iron carrier, which, when all is ready is run into the superheated furnace.”

At this point the alleged ghost launched into a flighty and oratorical description of the horror which he felt at his impending fate. Then he concluded: “The white-hot doors of the furnace were at length opened, and the glare of the intense heat drove the attendant for an instant away from the opening. Four attaches of the crematory were doing the work. My relatives, who had accompanied me to the place, were withdrawn from the room. I made a last frantic exertion to stir and to give utterance to my terror. But I was relentlessly held by the trance, and probably the most careful examination would not have developed evidence of life. The iron carriage run on iron tracks that led directly into the fiery furnace. Then men laid hold of it and moved it nearer. A hot blast almost compelled them to let go, and as for me I seemed to be actually melted in the indescribable temperature. Then they shoved the apparatus suddenly clear into the furnace and shut the door. The clang of the metal was the last thing of which I was conscious. Death came instantly and painlessly. Within a few hours my mortal form was reduced to a few pounds of ashes which was delivered to my relatives, encased in a tin box, to be conveyed to my home and there reverently inurned.”

[Philadelphia Times.

The Better Way 22 September 1888: p. 1

Allen is practically a poster-boy for the benefits of cremation: “instantly and painlessly” must have reassured his audience, brought up on stories of cataleptics who met terrible deaths after being put living in the tomb.

On the other hand, our old friend Dr Franz Hartmann brought news from a Spiritualist medium that was not quite so sanguine.

REMARKABLE OCCURRENCES AND PRESUMABLE EXPLANATIONS

By FRANZ HARTMANN, M.D.

Perhaps many of the readers of the OCCULT REVIEW residing in Switzerland will remember the death of Mr. H__, a well-known and prominent member of the Federal Council, who suddenly died at his office in the federal palace at Bern, about three years ago, and whose body was brought to Zurich to be cremated. Everybody at Zurich went to see the funeral procession on its way to the crematory. It took place with great pomp; the streets were crowded, musicians played solemn airs, and speeches were delivered. Among the spectators there was present a lady of a very sensitive nature, and in possession of certain mediumistic gifts, and as the coffin containing the corpse passed near her she felt a very curious sensation, and claimed that she had come in contact with the spirit (or aura) of the deceased. The procession went on, and the lady went to her lodging, where she was occupied with other things, and thinking no more of the funeral; but about an hour afterwards, presumably when the preliminary ceremonies at the crematory were ended, she began to suffer terribly from a burning heat overspreading all the left side of her body and face; the skin grew red, and cold water applications had to be applied for relieving the pain. After about a half-an-hour’s intense suffering, the pain left her entirely.

Some time afterwards there was held a spiritualistic séance at the house of Mr. S__, a judge of the Court of Appeal, at which this lady was present. It may here be remarked, in parenthesis, that this Judge S__ was one of the witnesses for defence in the well-known trial of the medium Rothe, at Berlin, where he testified in favour of the actuality of so-called spiritualistic phenomena; but his experience and testimony availed nothing against the ignorance of the Court.

At this séance there manifested an entity claiming to be the personality of Mr. H__. He said that he was unable to see anyone of the persons present in the room, except that lady; and, among other things, he informed the company that his body had been cremated too soon, and before his soul had become fully separated from it, and that in consequence he had suffered intensely at the left side of his body. It then only occurred to that lady to bring the burning sensation which she had experienced into connexion [sic] with the cremation.

Now, as concerns the identity of the” spirit” of Mr. H__, he was asked whether, during his life, he had known anything about the possibility of communicating with the spirits of the departed, and he answered that he had paid no attention to such matters, but had heard of it indirectly through Dr. A. P__. Nobody in the circle knew who this Dr. A. P__ was; but after some research in the register he was found to be a member of the National Council, residing at L__. Mr. S__ thereupon wrote to him, and Dr. A. P__ answered that he had spoken of such things to a friend of Mr. H__, and upon further inquiry it was found that this friend had a conversation with Mr. H__ about it.

Now, in this case, any theory of collusion, telepathy, etc., is to be excluded, because none of the members of that circle knew anything about Dr. A. P__’s existence, nor of his conversation with the friend of Mr. H__; and it seems reasonable to believe that the explanation given by the “spirit” of Mr. H__ is the correct one, and that the ethereal body actually may suffer from injuries inflicted upon the physical body after its apparent death, as long as the soul has not entirely separated from it.

It seems that a similar occurrence took place in the case of H. P. Blavatsky, whose body was burned. It is claimed that before the cremation took place her “spirit” manifested itself in two places: at Paris with the Duchess de P__, and at Hamburg at Professor S__’s, asking in each case that urgent telegrams should be sent to London to request a delay of the cremation, as she had not yet become free from her physical form. The telegrams were sent, but no notice was taken of these warnings by her friends, and the cremation took place at the previously appointed time.

Moreover, at least three cases have come to my notice in which similar communications were received from “spirits” of persons prematurely dissected. One was a case of suicide by poisoning, another by shooting, and the third one that of a young lady who killed herself on account of a love affair, and whose body was exhumed three days after her burial, some suspicion having arisen as to her having been murdered. She was submitted to post-mortem examination and dissected, and the “spirit” claimed that she had felt every cut of the dissecting knife the same as if it had cut her living nerves. Whatever may be thought of such communications, it stands to reason to suppose that the ethereal form of a person dying prematurely a forcible death will find it more difficult to separate itself from the rest of the elementary body, than if the death occurs in a natural way in old age or after a sickness. We find a corresponding law in other departments of nature, for the shell of a ripe orange may easily be detached from the pulp, while from an unripe one it separates with difficulty. Cases of premature burial, cremation, dissection and suffering after forcible death will probably continue to occur until the world at large recognizes the fact that death is not, as public opinion goes, a cessation of the perceptible functions of life; but it takes place only at the final separation of the soul from the physical form.

The Occult Review November 1906: pp 242-3

This is a rather eerie precursor of the recent discovery that brain activity continues some little time after death.

The question of cremation was a hot-button issue throughout the late-19th century. In a lengthy story titled “Ghosts Among Coffins,” about a violent, poltergeist-like haunting at the undertaking establishment of the appropriately-named Valentine Geist in Detroit, the story concludes with a theory that

Yesterday the superstitious came to the settled belief that none other than a ghost haunts the building. Moreover, that it is the ghost of Louis Dohmstreich, a wealthy brewer, who was killed by being thrown from his sleigh about the time the weird rappings and rackets began. His body was taken to Buffalo and cremated there. Geist had charge of the funeral and accompanied the body to the crematory, returning with the ashes. This grounds the belief in the minds of many that the spirit of the dead man has come back to protest against cremation and make it exceedingly warm for the undertaker.

Omaha [NE] World Herald 19 February 1887: p. 1

In other cases, the ghost protested because he or she had not been cremated as requested. While cremation was regarded by burial reformers as a hygienic alternative to over-filled churchyards, it was still seen by many as the choice of the crank or the infidel. While we may wonder why the “spook” was so adamant, this is not the only story I have seen of a ghost returning when its wish for cremation was ignored.

SPOOK INSISTS ON CREMATION

Ghost of Ernest Heinig Upbraids His Sister for Burying his Body

Fort Wayne, Ind.; March 7. The body of Ernest Heinig was cremated Saturday evening at the Lindenwood crematory, under peculiar circumstances. Heinig committed suicide on Jan. 30, because of despondency, owing to having been thrown out of employment. Two weeks before he died he expressed to his sister, Mrs. Leuchner, the wish that in the event of his demise his remains might be cremated. Mrs. Leuchner, however, had a horror of cremation, and had his body buried. One night last week, Mrs. Leuchner says, her brother appeared to her in a dream and demanded why her promise had not been fulfilled, and insisted that she, even then, should cause the body to be exhumed and burned. So impressed was Mrs. Leuchner by the dream that she ordered the corpse taken up and cremated.

Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 7 March 1899: p. 1

Returning to the initial story of the young Indian woman, we find this similar tale from 1889. Cholera was a great dissembler of death and fearful communities hastily bundled its victims into the grave without much thought.

I am here reminded of an incident told me by the Residency surgeon. The young wife of a well-to-do Hindoo was struck down by cholera. Our friend the doctor was called, and under his care she rallied, and bade fair to recover. What was his surprise to be told, two or three days after, that the woman was being carried at that very moment to the Pashupati burning ghat! He mounted his horse and rushed down to the place. Here he found his poor patient still alive, but laid out so that her feet touched the flowing stream, while beside her the wood was being arranged, and the cremation ceremonies were under way. The doctor expostulated with the husband and relatives, and urged them to desist at once from their murderous intentions. They were finally prevailed upon to stay proceedings, and to take the poor woman home. She survived only three days. But for her rough exposure to premature cremation she might have entirely recovered.

Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1889: p. 479

And finally, this is the only story I have found of premature cremation being both discovered and prosecuted. As we might expect, it is reported from a land far, far away.

CREMATED ALIVE

The police at Hiroshima, Japan, have arrested a man named Jinsuke Ikeda and his wife, says the ‘Japan Times,’ on a charge of wilfully cremating a live man. The prisoners were in charge of a crematorium, and while at work a faint voice coming out of the coffin begged for fresh air. The couple took no notice, however, and proceeded to apply fire, roasting the man alive.

Mataura Ensign, 1 September 1911, Page 5

Other horrors of premature cremation? Fire them over to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

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

O tödliche Baum! O tödliche Baum!

santa claus with doll by tree kind of creepy

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

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

MYSTERY OF “HOODOO” CHRISTMAS TREE SOLVED

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

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

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

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

CHRISTMAS TREE A HOODOO

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

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

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

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

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

Crepe on Christmas Tree Recalls Death of Captain Schuenemann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9 ARE DEAD IN CHRISTMAS TREE BLAZE

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

ALL ARE INCINERATED

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

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

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

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

MOTHER KILLED AS SHE PREPARED CHRISTMAS TREE

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

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

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

Or in this sad story of Christmas greed run amok:

Boy Trampled to Death in Rush at Christmas Tree

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

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

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

In others, the tree was clearly to blame;

FATAL CHRISTMAS TREE

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

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

A Deadly Christmas Tree

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

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

Killed by a Christmas Tree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other balsamic bereavements? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

 

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