O tödliche Baum! O tödliche Baum!

santa claus with doll by tree kind of creepy

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

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

MYSTERY OF “HOODOO” CHRISTMAS TREE SOLVED

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

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

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

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

CHRISTMAS TREE A HOODOO

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

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

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

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

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

Crepe on Christmas Tree Recalls Death of Captain Schuenemann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9 ARE DEAD IN CHRISTMAS TREE BLAZE

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

ALL ARE INCINERATED

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

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

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

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

MOTHER KILLED AS SHE PREPARED CHRISTMAS TREE

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

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

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

Or in this sad story of Christmas greed run amok:

Boy Trampled to Death in Rush at Christmas Tree

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

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

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

In others, the tree was clearly to blame;

FATAL CHRISTMAS TREE

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

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

A Deadly Christmas Tree

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

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

Killed by a Christmas Tree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other balsamic bereavements? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

 

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

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Christmas in the Graveyard: 1912

russian graveyard
Christmas in the Graveyard An Old Russian graveyard. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Much to do to prepare for Christmas so a quick post on mourning and Christmas in old Russia.

A STRANGE CHRISTMAS PARTY

December and the year had almost unwound themselves. We were among the scantily clothed days at the end of the year. There was now no snow on the ground, or if there were any, it was not of the time; it survived from earlier days when the skies had been prodigal. It rained a little and froze a little and the feeble air blew up in little gusts or lay exhausted in mists. The mists trailed over the withered maize fields or lay listlessly about the green roofs of the village houses, or cleared for a few hours to show the bases of the mountains. I was living in the far South of Russia.

I stood one morning in the little cemetery and looked around me. It seemed the mist had just cleared a space. The graves and the stones and the crosses, the grass and last summer’s withered flowers could be seen quite clearly, and even the low green paling that fenced the graveyard in. But beyond these the mist had dominion. My world had for the time shrunk, and the unknowable boundlessly increased. As I stood there I felt the mist encroaching, encroaching—like oblivion upon memory; as if it would limit even to the seven feet of shadow I cast upon the ground.

Around me were many green wooden crosses, crosses that had weathered many rains and dried in hot suns, and become wet again in mist and rain, or white and green in snow, or silvered in frost. They were all fragile and unstable as if put up for sport by children, and the winds had tumbled them so that they pointed at all angles, as it were, at every star in heaven. Round the necks of the crosses hung little ikons or artificial-flower wreaths, a prayer book, a shape, a token; and below, one read the legend:

Here lies buried the body of a slave of God.”

It was an ancient graveyard full of dead, and had served several little villages for a century or more. Its fresh dark earth exhaled an incense to the mind, a remembrance of tears and prayers.

Fast underground lie the poor joinered coffins, most of which the moujiks had made for themselves before they died. All the fair form and flesh has vanished away, and with them the personality and lovableness of those whose life’s limit was marked by these crosses. But to the Russian it is the cross planted upon the grave that nullifies the grave, signifying the triumph of Christ over death. No crosses are of stone, and the wood is for him the wood of the Tree of Life.

For there are no dead in Russia … all who have passed the dark portal are alive for evermore.

Suddenly out of the mist a form emerged, as if the mist itself had taken form. An old woman, tall, and bent with age, came slowly forward, gathering sticks here and there as she walked. She did not notice me, but wandered to and fro among the graves. Then as I reflected what she might be doing, a grey-headed crow fluttered down from an unseen tree and balanced itself upon a cross in front of her. Whereupon she turned hurriedly from the bird of evil omen, and I saw that she was a worshipper at a grave. At some distance from me, where little rustic seats had been placed about a grey-green cross, a candle was burning, and a young woman was arranging some tribute upon the low mound—a wreath perhaps. I approached and recognised my neighbour who lives in the house facing the white church on the green.

I did not go nearer, but I saw they had planted a new Christmas tree before a grave, and they had hung it with little ornaments and candles. The old lady lit a little fire with the sticks she had gathered, and the young one, her daughter, spread out a cloth in which was a portion of cake from their Christmas table. They had come to share their rejoicing and their festival with one who had died, a daughter and a sister.

The fire crackled and sent up clouds of blue smoke, and the little lights twinkled on the tree upon the grave. The red and yellow candles gleamed. The liquid mist flowed about the scene like staring ghosts, and I was the only human witness.

Presently, after crossing herself, and kissing the ground, the old lady rose. She placed a little cake upon the mound for the dead one, and took to herself a little, and gave a little to her living daughter; then to myself in my heart the sacred fare also was given, and we made up this strangest Christmas party. There were four present; there were four thousand—the ghosts pressed around in the mist, a mob of the dead. I felt like Ulysses in quest of Tiresias.

She who had died was a beloved daughter, and the tears streamed down the face of the old mother, and though the younger did not weep, I have learned there were as many tears in her heart as in the eyes of the other. The old woman, the babushka, belonged to Old Russia, and the young one belongs to the newest of the new.

I have more to say of them. They took the toys from the tree and gave them to the poor children round about their home, and to these also gave of the cake. For the younger woman had learned the lesson that in the living we can find all our dead again.

Undiscovered Russia, Stephen Graham, 1912

Graham [1884-1975] was a British journalist and travel writer, who wrote several dozen books about Russia, the First World War, social issues, biography, and “tramping.” He began traveling in Russia in the heady, pre-Revolutionary days when a remaking of the world seemed possible and seems to have felt a mystic connection to the peasants, to tramps, and those who toiled on the land.

I have collected several heartbreaking accounts from 19th-century United States newspapers of placing decorated Christmas trees on the graves of children.  The practice continues to this day.

If you have an interest in mourning practices and rituals, see The Victorian Book of the Dead.

 

 

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 Groaning Thanksgiving Board

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

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

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

A Family Poisoned by Cranberries.

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

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

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

Green Bean Proves Fatal.

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

Poisoned by Green Beans.

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

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

Then there’s the humble and wholesome potato.

POISONED POTATOES

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

 

POISONED POTATOES.

Came Near Causing Death of a Whole Family.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FIVE ARE POISONED

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

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

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

And

Made Gravy with Poisoned Flour.

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

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

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

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

IDAHO YOUTH CAUSES ILLNESS OF HIS FAMILY

Feeds Poison to Flock of Turkeys Thanksgiving Morning

Results are Disastrous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Families Feed on a Poisoned Turkey

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

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

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

Poisoned Pumpkin Pies

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

 

Death From Pumpkin Pie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Thanksgiving!

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

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

Death Masks

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

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

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

Mask-related accidents like these were sadly common.

Hallowe’en Mask Cause of Death

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

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

MASK CAUSED CHILD’S DEATH

Blinded, She Stepped Before Car and Was Killed.

Was Playing Halloween Games With Companions.

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

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

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

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

HALLOWEEN FESTIVITY

Two Girls Were Instantly Killed Near Elizabeth, Pa.

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

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

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

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

PEEP MAY PROVE FATAL

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

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

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

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

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

SCARED THE BABY TO DEATH

Muncy, Pa., Dispatch 26th.

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

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

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

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

FRIGHT MAY CAUSE DEATH

Hideous False Face Throws Baby Into Spasm and Spinal Disease.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or possibly some insect-borne disease of the summer.

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

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

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

This mask prank led to a lawsuit.

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

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

WORE A HIDEOUS FALSE FACE

Strange Estate Left by a Farmer’s Child.

Republic Special.

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

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

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

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

KILLED BY PAPIER MACHE MASK

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

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

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

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

Poisoned by False Face

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

***

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

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

This vintage case had a much worse outcome.

SATANIC MASK THE CAUSE OF DEATH

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

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

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

A cautionary tale, indeed.

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

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

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

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

 

Ghosts in Grave-clothes

 

Ghosts in Grave-clothes John Donne in his shroud, engraved by Martin Droeshout. He posed in his shroud for the portrait on which the engraving is based in and then kept it on until he died, five weeks later. National Portrait Gallery
Ghosts in Grave-clothes John Donne in his shroud, engraved by Martin Droeshout. He posed in his shroud for the portrait on which the engraving is based in and then kept it on until he died, five weeks later. National Portrait Gallery

A figure inexpressibly thin and pathetic, of a dusty leaden colour, enveloped in a shroud-like garment, the thin lips crooked into a faint and dreadful smile, the hands pressed tightly over the region of the heart.

“Lost Hearts,” M.R. James

Recently I’ve been digging up the dirt on burial shrouds, trying to determine exactly what the well-dressed corpse was wearing and when. While there is no doubt a certain esoteric charm in studying Z-spun tabbies and shrouding flannels, what I found even more fascinating was the ghosts who appeared clothed in their grave-clothes, often of a markedly archaic pattern. Andrew Lang gives us an striking example:

The most impressive spectre he [Andrew Lang] had ever heard of, he says, in substance, appeared in an English village. Half a dozen children who had been playing together in a house rushed out through the open door in a frightened state of mind, and one of them fell down in a fit. A lady who was driving through the village stopped, attended to the child who was lying on the ground before the horses, and asked the other children as to the cause of the panic. They said they had been playing on the staircase when “a dreadful woman” suddenly appeared among them. The only reason they could give for saying that the woman was dreadful was that she wore a long woolen robe and had her brow and chin bound up with white linen. “In fact,” says the writer, “she was a walking corpse come back from the days when the law compelled us to be buried in woolen for the better encouragement of the wool trade. This wandering old death, seen in the sunlight by the children, has always appealed to me as a very good example of ghosts and of their vague and unaccountable ways. For it is most unlikely that the children knew anything of the obsolete law of the ancient English mortuary fashions.” Religio-Philosophical Journal 7 February 1891: p. 578

“Buried in woolen” refers to the Burial in Woollen Acts of 1666-1680, requiring burial in a shroud of pure English wool.  The acts were resented and were largely ignored after the late 18th century. They were repealed in 1863. Obviously the walking dreadful woman was one of the unhappy woolen-shroud wearers.

Some of you may be familiar with the statue of John Donne depicted in his shroud, which is knotted on top of his head, as pictured in the engraving above. This ghost, seen in a church chancel, presented a virtually identical appearance, as well as making a curiously incongruous rustling noise.

Out of the Long Ago

In 1907 my late husband and I were visiting some friends when the subject of ghosts arose in conversation. My husband did not believe in spirits appearing from another world. I did, for I had seen my father who had, at the time, been dead over twelve months. He also spoke to me. I knew I was awake when I saw the apparition, for I awoke my husband to tell him, as I was frightened. As soon as my husband spoke, the apparition vanished. My mother also saw my father’s spirit twice, and she was the least imaginative of women. My husband’s friend, a young man of about thirty-two, said he believed in ghosts, for he himself had seen one when a boy. He then went on to elate the following remarkable story. I have put it down just as he gave it, without embellishments of any kind. “When I was about twelve or thirteen,” he said, “I visited some relatives in a village near London. About eleven o’clock one morning, I went with the vicar’s two boys, with whom I was friendly, to get a book from the vestry of the church where their father officiated. The elder of the two boys went to get the book, whilst the younger one and I went down the aisle to wait, and to pass the time until the book was found. Hearing a sound, I thought my playmate was coming for us, and looked up towards the chancel. Walking across the chancel I saw a tall figure shrouded in a sort of blanket affair, dull and drab and gathered on the top of the head, and tied in a bunch from which it hung down in folds over the figure, which was walking or gliding toward the vestry door. There was no sound of foot-falls, but, as the apparition moved, it made a sort of rustling noise, like walking amongst dry withered leaves. Thinking some one was playing a trick I followed, hoping to see the fun, but the figure vanished at the vestry door. I looked inside and asked my friend, who was not quite ready to leave, if any one had been into the room, and told him what his brother and I had seen. He answered that he had not seen or heard anything unusual. The church, for certain reasons, was always, except when in use, kept locked. My playmate of the church aisle was full of our adventure, and he told the vicar what we had seen. He strictly forbade us to repeat the story to any one, and went on to say if we did he would be exceedingly angry. His reason for keeping such a tale secret was obvious. When I grew up to manhood,” the narrator continued, “I received a letter one day, from a gentleman who lived, or had lived, in the village where I had seen the ghost in the church chancel. He enclosed me a sketch of the apparition, which he himself had seen when about sixteen years of age. He wanted to know if the drawing was like the figure I had seen. I wrote that it was exactly the same, except for the side face, which I did not remember to have seen. The side face was thin and keen, and the nose thin also, and very prominent. The writer went on to explain that he had heard I had seen the ghost and, like myself, in the broad daylight, and that he was very interested in looking the matter up.”

“In 1911 we called to see the relator of this story, when he at once mentioned that there had been further development in his ghost story. The gentleman who had sent him the sketch had written to inform him that the apparition had again been seen. He was inquiring the time and date of the previous appearances as he was anxious to ascertain if the uncanny visitor came at stated intervals. The shroud that covered the ghost was probably one of the very old-fashioned shrouds that used to be tied on the top of the head. Uncanny Stories Told by “Daily News” Readers, S. Louis Giraud, 1927: p. 30-31

Sometimes even the minutest details of the shroud were noted by a witness.

SPECTRAL ILLUSION

The following is one of the most remarkable of the ghost stories in Sir David Brewster’s late book:

About a month after this occurrence, [the appearance of her husband’s doppelganger] Mrs. A., who had taken a somewhat fatiguing drive during the day, was preparing to go to bed, about eleven o’clock at night, and, sitting before the dressing-glass, was occupied in arranging her hair. She was in a listless and drowsy state of mind, but fully awake. When her fingers were in active motion among the papillotes,[papers for making butterfly curls] she was suddenly startled by seeing in the mirror, the figure of a near relation, who was then in Scotland, and in perfect health. The apparition appeared over her left shoulder, and its eyes met hers in the glass. It was enveloped in grave-clothes, closely pinned, as is usual with corpses, round the head, and under the chin, and though the eyes were open, the features were solemn and rigid. The dress was evidently a shroud, as Mrs. A. remarked even the punctured pattern usually worked in a peculiar manner round the edges of that garment. Mrs. A. described herself as at the time sensible of a feeling like what we conceive of fascination, compelling her for a time to gaze on this melancholy apparition, which was as distinct and vivid as any reflected reality could be, the light of the candles upon the dressing-table appearing to shine full upon its face. After a few minutes, she turned round to look for the reality of the form over her shoulder; but it was not visible, and it had also disappeared from the glass when she looked again in that direction. On the 26th of the same month, about two P. M., Mrs. A. was sitting in a chair by the window in the same room with her husband. He heard her exclaim, “What have I seen?” And on looking on her, he observed a strange expression in her eyes and countenance. A carriage and four had appeared to her to be driving up the entrance-road to the house. As it approached, she felt inclined to go up stairs to prepare to receive company; but, as if spell-bound, she was unable to move or speak. The carriage approached, and as it arrived within a few yards of the window, she saw the figures of the postilions and the persons inside take the ghastly appearance of skeletons and other hideous figures. The whole then vanished entirely, when she uttered the above-mentioned exclamation. The Schoolmaster, and Edinburgh Weekly Magazine, Volumes 1-2, John Johnstone, Publisher, 1832: p. 221.

If the date on this story wasn’t much too early, we might suggest that Mrs. A. had been to Paris’s Cabaret du Neant and seen the coffined living decomposed to a skeleton and back in just minutes!  To be Relentlessly Informative, the “punctured pattern” was an eyelet-like effect punched in the cloth with pinking irons. It was a cheap way to achieve a lacy look for grave-clothes and linens.

Ghosts in Grave-clothes This post-mortem negative from Norway shows the "punchwork" commonly used on shrouds and grave-clothes http://digitaltmuseum.no/011015155636
Ghosts in Grave-clothes This post-mortem negative from Norway shows the “punchwork” commonly used on shrouds and grave-clothes http://digitaltmuseum.no/011015155636

In some variants of this next story, which was a popular urban legend, the ghost was recognized by a particular detail of the shroud.

A woman not far from Emly, buried her husband, a few months ago. A knock came to the door some night last month. She asked who was there. A hollow voice answered, “I am your husband, whom you buried, and I am very miserable in purgatory till my debts are paid. Sell the two pigs you have, and be sure you have the money for me on such a night when I call.” The poor woman did as he required, and felt happy at being able to meet his request, either through fear or love (as he appeared with his shroud and pale face.) Between the first and second visit of the ghost, the poor woman went and told her story to the priest; he told her it was all very good, but at the same time to have two policemen in the house when she would be giving the money. Accordingly, after getting the money, the purgatorial and shrouded ghost came and was arrested by the police and lodged in Limerick jail, there to undergo a little more purgatory till his trial comes on. This ghost turned out to be a near neighbor, who is god-father to one of her children. The Weekly Vincennes [IN] Western Sun 15 March 1862

In this account from the séance-room, an apparition draws attention to her burial robe as proof of her identity.

The next one who appeared was Mrs. Mary Ann Waugh, wife of the late John M. Waugh, of Rock Island, who died about thirteen years ago at this place; a sister of Mrs. Hill’s, and also sister of mine. The test in this case was remarkably good, principally in her general appearance of features and the manner she used to wear her hair, and some peculiarity in her burial robe, in the material used, and something very peculiar in the style and make, which she seemed very desirous of my wife seeing, as she assisted in the making of it.  Religio-Philosophical Journal 20 March 1875: p. 2

The shroud was also regarded as an infallible, if nuanced, death token in stories of second sight,  presenting a sort of sliding scale of death.

The event was usually indicated by the subject of the vision appearing in a shroud, and the higher the vestment rose on the figure, the event was the nearer. ‘If it is not seen above the middle,’ says Martin, ‘death is not to be expected for the space of a year, and perhaps some months longer. When it is seen to ascend higher towards the head, death is concluded to be at hand within a few days, if not hours, as daily experience confirms. Examples of this kind were shewn me, when the person of whom the observation was made enjoyed perfect health.’ Domestic Annals of Scotland from the Reformation to the Revolution, Volume 3. Robert Chambers, 1861: p. 290

This seeress predicted the death of a young boy without giving her reasons. After his death, she explained what she had seen:

I carried the boy’s corpse aboard with me, and, after my arrival and his burial, I called suddenly for the woman, and asked her, what warrant she had to foretell the boy’s death? She said, that she had no other warrant, but that she saw, two days before I took my voyage, the boy walking with me in the fields, sewed up in his winding sheets, from top to toe: and that she had never seen this in others, but she found that they shortly thereafter died: and therefore concluded, that he would too, and that shortly. Light 9 February 1889: 66-67

One of these seers had his vision calibrated to a nicety.

Two seers at work, one a gentleman and the other ‘a common fellow’, who were both visiting the manse of an Inverness minister. All at once the common fellow began to weep and cry out that a certain sick woman about five miles away was either dead or dying.

The gentleman seer—naturally the expert—replied, ‘No, she’s not dead, nor will she die of this disease.’

‘Oh?’ said the fellow. ‘Can’t you see her covered in her winding sheet?’

‘Aye,’ replied the gentleman, ‘I see her as well as you do, but do you not also see that her linen is wet with sweat? She will soon be cooling of her fever.’ And so it turned out. The Revd Hector Mackenzie vouched for the story’s truth. Ravens and Black Rain: The Story of Highland Second Sight, Elizabeth Sutherland, p. 62

Shrouds seen via second sight might not only predict a death, but the form or color of that winding sheet.

“Florence MacLeod, spouse to the present minister of St. Kilda, informed me lately, that her mother Elizabeth MacLeod, a gentlewoman distinguished from sevrals for piety and good morals, having come out of her house at Pabbay in the Harris, with a clear moon-shining night, and having sat down to enjoy the pleasure of a calm serene air, and the beautiful prospect of a glittering starry firmament; both of them observed a domestic girl, who had been a native of St. Kilda (they had left the house), issuing from it, covered with a shroud of a darkish colour, and stalking across the distance betwixt them and the house as if she intended to frighten them, and after continuing in this manner for some time, disappeared. Upon their return to the house, the said Elizabeth, challenged the girl for her frolick, who affirmed, with many asseverations, she had not left the house all the time her mistress and daughter were absent: to which the other servants gave testimony. In a short time thereafter, the same girl died of a fever, and as there was no linen in the place but what was unbleached it was made use of for her sowe, [winding sheet] which answered the representation exhibited to her mistress and the declarant as above.” Light 9 February 1889: 66-67

Today, although shrouds are making a comeback in the context of green burials, most people go to their final rest in their own clothing.  Although I haven’t done a scientific survey, I’ve heard from people who have seen apparitions of friends and relatives wearing the same clothes they were buried in. That would not be particularly remarkable–if you saw the clothes at the viewing or funeral, you might picture the visitation wearing those clothes. Where that logical argument sometimes breaks down is when the witness did not go to the funeral or have any information about what the dead person wore in their coffin, but could describe the burial clothing anyway. Such anecdotes reopen the whole question of why ghosts are seen wearing clothes and why, if, as some psychic researchers used to suggest, the dead can project whatever image they want to those they visit, they choose to wear their last outfit?

Other stories of ghosts in grave-clothes or burial garments?  chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

I’ve written before about shrouded specters and superstitions involving shrouds.

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

The Seven Babies in No. 77

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

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

THE SEVEN BABIES IN No. 77

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truth, Volume 1, 8 February 1877

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

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

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

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

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

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

IN CIGAR BOXES

Many Little Bodies Find Nameless Graves.

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

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

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

For other stories of corpse collectors and the undertaking trade, see The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition.

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

Ashes à la carte

 

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

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

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

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

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

Cremation’s Odd Phases

One Widow Reported to Have Eaten the Ashes of Her Husband

Complications That Happen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A LUDICROUS MISTAKE

Mark Twain Uses Human Ashes for Toothpowder.

New York Letter Kansas City Journal

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

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

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

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

In 2011 a widow who said that she was addicted to eating her husband’s ashes was profiled on a show called My Strange Addiction. Other historic cases of dining on the detritus of the dead?  (Other than the well-known ritual to prevent a vampiric relative from preying on surviving family members….) chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

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