Ashes à la carte


coffee can urn
Ashes a la carte Coffee Can 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.


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

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 Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.



The Woman in Black – Victorian Mourning as Criminal Disguise

 The Woman in Black – Victorian Mourning as Criminal Disguise A classic mourning ensemble c. 1870-2.
The Woman in Black – Victorian Mourning as Criminal Disguise A classic mourning ensemble c. 1870-2.


The Victorian widow, swathed in her “habiliments of woe,” was a familiar figure on the streets of the nineteenth century. The dull fabrics, the crape, the veil: all marked the wearer as one touched by Death and entitled to special consideration. Mourning garb both protected the wearer from the public gaze and elevated societal expectations for the widow. This made it all the more shocking when mourning dress was used as a criminal disguise.

Let us look at the rogues’ gallery of crimes committed in the United States from about 1860 to 1929 under the cover of crape. The list is a long and distressing one: Assault, inducing panic, menacing threats, armed robbery and pickpocketing, burglary, kidnapping, arson, murder, and most heinous of all to a 19th century audience: transvestism.

Why was mourning  such a useful disguise for criminals?

The phrase the “Woman in Black” was in common use by the 1870s, referring to a series of mysterious black-clad apparitions who stalked and startled people in the dark. They usually wore the veil of the Victorian widow and melted uncannily into darkness when challenged. There was ambiguity as to whether “The Woman in Black” was some flesh-and-blood woman in mourning clothing, a man in disguise, or a supernatural omen of death. Inexplicably—since widows were scarcely an uncommon sight—these appearances often escalated into full-scale panics, and, as the New York Times of 7 January 1887 wrote, afforded “unscrupulous and criminally disposed persons an opportunity to do their wicked work under the mask of the Woman in Black.”

These veiled supernatural horrors apparently provided inspiration for copy-cat wearers of crape because it is apparent from newspaper reports that, far from being ghostly, the Women in Black were corporeal enough to commit assault.

For example, a veiled Woman in Black attacked citizens of an Illinois town in 1898. A man and his wife were confronted by the woman and, “without making the slightest sound, except the rustling of skirts,” the creature “struck the wife a sharp blow on her cheek.” …The assailant was described by multiple witnesses as nearly 6 feet tall, wearing a solid black gown with a heavy veil reaching almost to the bottom of her skirts. Her step was noiseless, and, said the papers, “she invariably strikes a blow with her hand as she peers into the face of any one she meets.” Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 29 December 1898: p. 4

Not something you would want to meet in a dark alley…

“Menacing threats” was another crime associated with The Woman in Black. I have collected many examples of the lost art of the “crape threat.” This is the practice of hanging mourning crape streamers on the door of an enemy as a threat, rather like sending funeral flowers to a rival mobster.  In one classic case, for nearly five years a veiled woman in black stalked Mrs. Amy Thornley of Brooklyn, lurking around her house, hanging crape on the door and throwing threatening letters into her yard. One of the letters read: “Murder for you. Crape is for Amy T. May you soon be sleeping with your dead son.” Mystifyingly, despite several witnesses who also saw the Woman in Black, the case was never solved. Evening News [San Jose, CA] 20 January 1906: p. 3

Moving from menacing threats to felonies, we find a woman at the peak of her disreputable profession: In 1887 a woman nicknamed ‘The Widow’ used to attend the funerals of the rich wearing a long black veil drawn over her face. When the time came for the friends to take their last look at the departed she contrived to be among the last in line. “When she came opposite the head of the coffin she would sob passionately, and fling herself on the bier so that her veil covered it.” Under the cover of the mourning veil, she would loot the corpse of jewelry and valuables. Lawrence [KS] Daily Journal 15 December 1887: p. 2

Pick pocketing was another fertile field for widow impersonators. In 1875 a besotted reporter on a New York street car described how he could not take his eyes off “the most saintly looking widow that I ever set eyes on,” wearing “the sweetest little widow’s cap imaginable.” When another widow boarded the car, the saintly widow kindly made room for her to sit down. “The car stopped, and widow No. 1 got out; she was hardly out of the car when widow No. 2 discovered that her pocket had been picked by that saintly widow who had been sitting by her side. Bruce [NZ] Herald, 12 January 1875: p. 3

The Women in Black were not afraid to use firearms as this story from 1911 shows.

A woman, or a man in female attire, armed with a small revolver and with a heavy black veil covering the face, entered the store of the Sanitary Grocery this morning about 7:40 o’clock, held up two woman clerks and the porter, and robbed the cash register of about $10.

So quietly was the robbery perpetrated and so slowly did the robber walk away from the store after getting the money that neighbors and passers-by knew nothing of the occurrence until the clerks gave the alarm. Evening Star [Washington, DC] 3 April 1911: p. 1


Ellen Gibbons, a burglarious Woman in Black
Ellen Gibbons, a burglarious Woman in Black

One of the most adroit American burglars was a lady who wore widow’s weeds. Her name was Ellen Gibbons; she was described as one of the “most notorious female house-breakers” in the country. She went by many aliases, but was best known as “the woman in black,” because often she “dressed in the deepest of black, and was closely veiled when she committed her depredations.”   Wherever she went, her neighbors would be startled by a sudden surge in robberies and burglaries. Although the police initially thought the thefts were the work of a well-organized gang, it was quickly realized that a veiled woman dressed in mourning was frequently seen near houses that were robbed.  Gibbons’ house was found full of plunder that she had spirited out of homes under cover of crape. She was repeatedly arrested, sent to prison, then repeatedly pardoned.  I’m not sure why, except she claimed to be a kleptomaniac and she was said to be the wife of a police officer in Brooklyn. In 1877 The Chicago Daily Tribune paid her a well-earned tribute: “Her long-continued life of crime ranks her with the most daring and skilful of male robbers and burglars.” Chicago [IL] Daily Tribune 14 October 1877: p. 11

A far more dire crime was that of kidnapping. A widow’s garb is frequently mentioned in high-profile stories of child enticement. For example, the terrifying “Black Ghost” of Toledo was reported by the Cincinnati Enquirer:

A “woman in black” has put in an appearance on the East Side… and is causing a reign of terror. The mysterious stranger is believed to be a man. ..This morning while Johnny Barror, aged 12, was hurrying on his bicycle for a doctor, he was seized by the “black ghost” and pulled from his wheel and told that he would be instantly killed. The black-robed figure tried to carry the lad away, but the little fellow fought like a tiger and broke away, and after a chase of several blocks met two policemen, who hurried to the place… but the “black ghost” was gone….  Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 26 November, 1902: p. 1

Mourning costume was particularly alluring to murderesses. In 1896 a St. Louis family was nearly poisoned by a veiled woman in black who gave their little boy a pie to give to his family. When his mother cut the pie, she found green powder under the upper crust, indicating Paris Green. A chemist examined the food and found that it was laced with arsenic. No one was ever charged with the crime. St. Louis [MO] Republic 29 February 1896: p. 6

In 1914, in Newark, New Jersey, 20-year-old Hazel Herdman donned a mourning veil to hide her face, and shot dead the wife of the man with whom she was infatuated. The veil effectively confused the police, who spent a day rounding up other suspects before Herdman, who had swallowed poison, confessed. Seattle [WA] Daily Times 7 February 1914: p. 1

One of the most startling murderous crimes by a veiled woman in black was an attempt in 1892 to blow up the residence of Charles D. Irwin, a wealthy speculator in Chicago. The woman was interrupted at her fiendish work by passers-by and ran toward the lake, leaving behind a container filled with 10 pounds of high explosive, more than enough to have blown the building to atoms. The description given to the police was that she was attired in deep mourning and wore a heavy black veil that fell below her waist.”  Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 5 August 1892: p. 5

Once again, there was no capture of the black-clad bomber.

You will have noticed that none of the veiled criminals in the preceding cases were conclusively identified as a man disguised in mourning. While some male criminals wore women’s clothing, usually to avoid detection after a crime had been committed, only rarely are they described as wearing widow’s weeds. The criminal Women in Black I’ve studied are sharply divided between women criminals and male transvestites.

The newspapers are full of stories of plucky girls who tucked their hair up under a cap and put on boy’s clothing to escape an unhappy home life. Boys who put on girl’s clothes, however, never do so except with evil intent. And donning widow’s weeds was an unmistakable signal that the men so dressed were up to no good. A common theme of the Women in Black panics I mentioned earlier is the ambiguity of the sex of the veiled spectres. While never explicit, the coded language used in reporting these panics reflects this:

1866 It was a terrible creature, shrouded in black, the garments of a female and the stature of a man, moving awfully about the streets o’nights, and creating panic…   Freeport North West July 19, 1866: p. 2

1911 A man disguised as a woman and out for a sinister purpose…Greencastle [KN] Herald 29 November 1911: p. 2

1912 A man is masquerading in women’s clothing and is either crazy or is trying to perpetuate a huge joke on the community. New Castle [PA] News September 26, 1912: p. 1

1886 There are yet others who suppose that the “woman in black is some evil-minded man who is masquerading in female attire for the purpose of frightening timid persons.Columbus [GA] Daily Enquirer 12 November 1886: p. 5

1903 One of the current theories in the village is that the masquerader in mourning is a man, who is either bent on mischief or is mentally unbalanced Boston [MA] Herald 15 October 1903: p. 8

“Mentally unbalanced” may have been a euphemism for “transvestite.” Cross-dressers were considered mentally aberrant and were sometimes sent to lunatic asylums. In 1848 Columbus, Ohio, was one of the first cities to pass anti cross-dressing laws;  some 40 other cities soon followed their example, making it illegal to wear clothes contrary to one’s sex.  Penalties became increasingly severe. In San Francisco, for example, Revised Orders 1863 said that cross-dressers would be guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction, would pay a fine not exceeding five hundred dollars. In 1866, the penalty increased to a $500 fine or six months in jail; in 1875, it went to a $1000 fine, six months in jail or both (General Orders 1875)

Of course none of these laws stopped men from dressing as women. Few were criminals trying to escape detection, but the act of wearing women’s clothes made them criminals. As Clare Sears writes in “Electric Brilliancy: Cross-Dressing Law and Freak Show Displays in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco,” public, but not private cross-dressing was against the law and, she notes, “As such, cross-dressing was marked as a deviant and secretive practice, rather than a public activity and identification.”

A widow’s garb was the perfect cover for a transvestite, who, given the usual domestic organization of a 19th-century working-class household, had little privacy or time for cross-dressing. It allowed him to walk abroad publicly, dressed as a woman; hiding in plain sight. The act of wearing widow’s weeds was, for transvestites, both a criminal act and the concealment of that criminal act.

In addition, mourning clothing was readily accessible. A man might borrow the weeds his wife had at home. Mourning goods could be purchased second-hand or through the mail. And security was guaranteed by the fact that few persons would have the courage or the impudence to walk up to a veiled widow in the dark and remove her veil. I found only a single case among hundreds of spectral Women in Black sightings, where a young Connecticut woman pulled the veil from the face of what turned out to be a well-known young man in widow’s weeds. His motive for doing so was elided by the newspaper.

how a burglar really looks burglar mask


What were the advantages to a criminal of donning widow’s weeds? Why not simply wear some other disguise or perhaps an automobile veil, a medical mask or a traditional burglar’s mask?

motoring veil


There are two primary advantages: First, of course, the physical concealment offered by the veil. Second, the social barrier created by the societal expectations and status of widows.

Let us look at the physical concealment advantage. While there was much discussion among physicians about the hygiene of mourning textiles, a widow in deep mourning generally wore a thick veil, of near opacity, made of or bordered with crape. We can see by the surviving fabrics—which in practice were often doubled–that the veil effectively obscured the face when lowered. This all-encompassing veil was the defining symbol of the widow.

mourning veil 1800-99


Unlike the ordinary fashionable veil, which was thin or semi-transparent, the mourning veil was meant to conceal the face, not for nefarious purposes, but for the protection of the widow.

In 1907 The Illustrated Milliner wrote: “The sorrowing when death comes, turn instinctively to the protection of the mourning veil.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer 1899 commented about mourners:

“the struggle to retain one’s composure is a cruel one. Against it crape is the only protection.” Philadelphia, [PA] Inquirer 30 December 1899: p. 11

The mourning veil protected the painfully sensitive widow from the prying eyes of the world. It conferred anonymity, even invisibility. It explained and it excused. The veil was psychologically impregnable, leaving the widow shrouded and shielded in grief and crape.

What made mourning clothing such a powerful social barrier? The answer lies in the communal expectations of widows. Leaving aside the “Merry Widow” jokes endemic in 19th-century popular culture, if we judge by what we read in newspapers, etiquette books, and popular fiction the average person, on encountering a widow in the street, might feel pity for one who was too often struggling to raise her family alone and in poverty.  A woman in mourning was essentially an invisible woman, yet one who had the instant sympathy of all right-thinking spectators.

Victorian literature is filled with quotes emphasizing that a widow was thought to be more spiritual, closer to heaven, than an ordinary woman. Mourning costume assumed the status of a religious garment:

Harriet B. McKeever wrote in 1867, in her novel Heavenward-Earthward, “now in her widowed state she was invested with a holy sanctity.” And McKeever described a widow “In her mourning-dress, an expression of holy resignation resting upon her face,”

“The Mourning Veil,” an 1857 short story by Harriet Beecher Stowe, makes the connection even more explicit. When a mourning veil is delivered by accident, a beloved dying child says to her mother: “Oh, mamma, that veil was for you; our Father sends it, and he knows best. Perhaps you will see heaven through that veil.” [Source: “The Mourning Veil,” by Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Atlantic Monthly, November, 1857]

There was an odd dichotomy between the wink-and-nudge widow jokes and the adjectives and phrases often used in literature to describe the widow, which emphasize her passivity and harmlessness: delicate, sad-faced, pale and careworn, weak, helpless, and unprotected, gentle, sanctifying.

Widows’ weeds sanctified the wearer, who was assumed to be patiently submitting to the will of Heaven. Few would dream of invading the privacy of one so dressed. And so it was the perfect criminal disguise.

A criminal might exploit these two facets of mourning garb and operate in perfect safety, knowing that while wearing mourning, she could not be identified and as a widow, she might be given the benefit of the doubt long enough to perpetrate the crime and escape. Who could possibly suspect a woman of “sanctified affliction” of any criminal act? And while the black mask of the penny-dreadful fiend or the kerchief of the desperado would be highly conspicuous if worn in the street, the veiled widow was a familiar and disarming sight.

While I have emphasized the female Women in Black, some male criminals, too, found crape a convenient disguise, although they tend to be less well-represented in the papers, except by inference. Of course, today we draw a sharp distinction between the “crime” of cross-dressing and criminals trying to escape detection; it is the difference between an enthusiast who enjoys passing as female in public and, for example, an embezzler wearing widow’s weeds, trying to evade capture, as was reported in the Macon Telegraph:

A Missouri railway express agent named William Page stole $8,000 in cash. He donned the full mourning his wife had been wearing for her father, and hopped a train. “In this costume he started on his travels, but his walk gave him away to the train men, and the conductor telegraphed to the chief of police here. Detectives met the train and took the charming young widow into custody, when she weakened and confessed.” Macon [GA] Telegraph 1 January 1886: p. 4

I finish with one final mourning costume disguise: that of grieving innocent. There are stories of an unsettling number of murderers taking their places in the witness box wearing mourning for their victims to give the illusion of innocence. In 1872, accused serial poisoner Mrs. Emily E. Lloyd, “The Leesburg Borgia,” on trial for giving arsenic to her husband, aunt, and four children, appeared in court dressed in deep mourning, weeping piteously.

One man asked to wear his “Sunday Blacks” at his execution, as a mark of respect for the wife he had murdered.

In 1929 Jane Weyler, who killed her husband after an orgy was reported as wearing “deep mourning, with just a wee bit of white under the rim of her widow’s bonnet to match the pale cream of her face. Her eyes were delicately penciled to express black sorrow.” Auckland Star, 28 December 1929: p. 3

Sadly for our sense of mystery, the Women in Black no longer roam our dark back alleys. Rising hemlines and the First World War’s ban on deep mourning for considerations of morale meant that the veil went the way of the horse-drawn carriage. Female pickpockets and male transvestites clothed as “The Women in Black” had to find some other method of disguise. The very term “The Woman in Black” slipped to the level of a journalist’s catchphrase for any mysterious or seductive female and as an undertaker’s euphemism for “widow.”

What strikes me most in reflecting on the cases of criminal Women in Black I have studied is this: Mourning dress was an exceptionally effective method of concealment. I have searched for follow-up stories, but very few of the women in black were ever caught or brought to justice. Those mistresses of the dark had, under the shelter of their veils, discovered the perfect criminal disguise.

Other examples of Victorian criminals disguised as widows? Or of confirmed men in crape? chriswoodyard8 AT

This post is adapted from my presentation “The Woman in Black: Victorian Mourning Dress as Criminal Disguise,” given in 2015 at the fall symposium of the Southeastern Chapter of The Costume Society of America, a professional organization for historians of dress and costume/textiles curators. Parts are included in The Victorian Book of the Dead and The Ghost Wore Black.

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 Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.


Transparent Fiction – The Myth of the Victorian Tear Bottle

weeping widow SF Call 3 Oct 1897 p. 18
Transparent Fiction – The Myth of the Victorian Tear Bottle This 1897 weeping widow uses a black-bordered handkerchief and not a tear bottle.

It is an affecting picture: sobbing black-clad Victorian mourners holding little glass vials to their eyes to catch their streaming tears. The vials could be sealed and left at the gravesite or taken home as a reminder of loss and its attendant grief.  By the time  the trapped tears evaporated, perhaps the bereaved one’s eyes would be dry, symbolizing an end to mourning and the renewal of hope.

This touching image has spawned the legend of the Victorian tear bottle, which has spread virulently through books and the internet, usually by people who seem to be making it up as they go along. One book describes—without citing sources—how groups of mourners would mingle their tears in one bottle and how the wives left behind during the Civil War collected their tears to show to their loved ones as proof that they had been missed.

Today you can purchase pretty objects described as “tear bottles,” or “tear catchers,” both new and antique, and the bottles have become emblematic of the quaint and macabre mourning practices of the Victorians. Now I like an attractive mourning tradition as well as the next ghoul, but, like the myth of standing corpses held up by posing stands for their post-mortem portraits, this transparent fiction really needs to be smashed to bits.

Recently there have been some excellent articles disputing the use of tear bottles and calling them what they are: perfume flasks. I was about to publish this article when this excellent piece by Sonya Vatomsky was posted. There is also this slightly older post, examining the tear bottle legend, so my post may seem redundant.  However, I am all about primary sources, and I have looked at the subject using textual references, which may seem tedious if you are a believer in the myth.  Be warned that this post will be Relentlessly Informative. If you have tears, prepare to shed them now….

When searching the literature for references to “tear bottles,” “tear catchers” or variant spellings of “lachrymatories,” there are basically three types of references: the sacred, the archaeological, and the secular, which almost always has a satirical or comedic context. There are also a few outliers such as reports of customs from exotic lands, and, of course, modern references to the alleged Victorian “tradition.”

Let’s start with the legend’s origins. Persons discussing the tradition of tear bottles often cite Psalm 56: 8: “Thou tellest my wanderings: put thou my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book?” Small glass and clay bottles have been found in copious quantities in ancient graves. Nineteenth-century archaeologists and scholars described mourners crying into the bottles, which were then left at the grave. These artifacts were dubbed “lacrymatories” although, due to my lack of ancient languages, I haven’t found ancient texts confirming that there really was such a word or custom in Egypt, Cypress, Phoenicia, or Greece. However, even if this was just a sentimental fiction, the notion was well-known to the Victorian reading public.

I have a few decades of experience reading Victorian popular journals, newspapers, and fiction. Mourning fads and fashions are well-covered in all of these media. If tear bottles were deployed by mourners, we would expect to see them mentioned or advertised. Let me share a few statistics. Recently I examined several digital newspaper databases to see if I could find contemporary mentions of “tear bottles” or “tear catchers” used in Victorian mourning. What I found was this:

In the Library of Congress “Chronicling America” database, [1839-1922] there were 329 entries, almost all references to the lachrymatories found in ancient graves. In addition to duplicate references to the same newspaper articles, an estimated 10% of the total were optical scan errors, for example, misreading phrases like “four bottles” or “team catcher.”  Under the phrase “tear catcher,” there were 4 entries, none of which related to mourning.

In, [1786-2014] there were 1,545 matches for “tear bottle” and 281 matches for “tear catcher.” The references were largely religious and archaeological.

In, [1850-2015] there were 1,800 matches for “tear bottle” and 234 matches for “tear catcher.” These were also primarily references to ancient tear bottles. Some entries from the 1970s onward referenced the “tradition,” but did not give any primary Victorian sources. An article from 2015 advertised new tear bottles being sold at a gift shop, along with “artisan gourds, P. Buckley Moss, and fashion accessories.”

At, [1833-1983] we find 244 matches for “tear bottle,” which are, again, nearly all about ancient bottles and 29 references to “tear catchers,” most of which were mis-reads in articles about baseball.

In Google Books, [1677-1974] there are 205 entries for “tear bottle,” most of which refer to the bottles of antiquity. There are only 3 entries for “tear catcher” and none for “tear catchers.”

I’ve gone into this level of detail because I want to emphasize that while the 19th and early 20th century press was full of information on mourning practices, I can find absolutely no period “tear bottle” key-word entries which refer to Victorian mourners bottling their tears. 

Phoenician “tear bottle”

While the ancient artifacts sometimes called “tear bottles” certainly existed, I do not know if modern archaeologists would agree that they were used for tears. They might be ampullae or unguentaria. In the last few years, the use of investigative techniques unavailable to the archaeologists of the nineteenth century has confirmed that these so-called “tear bottles” contained oily substances, perhaps fragrant ointments used as libations or to anoint the dead. Oddly enough, this theory was known well before modern chemical analyses, but so ingrained was the idea that these ancient bottles were “tear catchers,” that a bizarre and misogynistic theory had to be invented to explain away the actual contents, as can be seen in this article from 1913:


“Tear Bottles” Used to Display Grief Were Powder Puffs.

Philadelphia. The “tear bottles” which women of the Orient carried centuries ago reveal the hypocrisy of the women. Several of these bottles are included in a collection of glassware which has been bought for $13,000 for the University of Pennsylvania museum. In ancient prints and histories the women of fashion of 1000 B.C. are represented as carrying the “tear bottle” in which to give vent to their grief on public occasion. It now develops that when the woman raised one of the bottles to her eyes she was dabbing powder over a red spot on her cheek.

Examination of the “tear bottles” in the museum collection disclosed traces of rouge, powder paint and cold cream still sticking to the bottom of the glass. In the collection are many cream pots and oil jars for the toilet table wrought in wonderful designs and colors, which have been more beautiful after lying for many centuries in tombs of Egyptian cities where they were found.

Daily Arkansas Gazette [Little Rock AK] 13 July 1913: p. 29

Talk about making it up as you go along….It takes a certain sort of insufferable arrogance to misunderstand an artifact and blame long-dead women for its alleged misuse.

In yet another extravagant display of making it up as you go along, we find this little-known episode of Egyptian history:

In 1952 the Cleveland Plain Dealer added this text to an illustration of a woman with an Egyptian flask. “On a wedding night, 1,900 years ago, a young bride like this cried her happiness into a tear-bottle—and then put the stopper in for later memories.”

Throughout the 19th century, there were spates of (probably) apocryphal stories from exotic locations about the use of tear bottles.

Take this unsubstantiated story, which has nothing to do with mourning:


It is a custom among the Chinese to have a tear-bottle. When two ladies or females of the lower rank quarrel, they go before a magistrate. A tear-bottle is given to the individual who says she is aggrieved, and if she can fill it with tears, the magistrate says, “I perceive you have been harshly treated. I shall award a great punishment to the one by whom you have been oppressed.” If she can only half fill it, the punishment is reduced to one half, but if she cannot shed one tear, there is no punishment at all.” Newark [NJ] Daily Advocate 5 August 1850: p. 2

Iran “tear bottle” (perhaps a perfume sprinkler)

This next story is the closest match I’ve ever found for the notion of mourners collecting tears, but it, too, is set in a distant country.

They still bottle tears in Persia. As the mourners at a funeral sit around weeping wads of cotton are passed with which the cheeks are mopped, the tears are then squeezed into a bottle and used as a charm and to revive dying persons. The practice was once universal, as every old tomb has a tear bottle. Otago Daily Times 24 November 1884: p. 4

I consulted two associates with backgrounds in Middle Eastern literature and culture and this is what I was told:

Both pre-Islamic Arabic poetry and Persian poetry have a long tradition of talking about tears.  A lot of crying tears of blood (crying so hard the eyes bleed) or crying enough to wash off a body in preparation for burial. There is a Farsi word for tear-bottle: Ashk-daan, but these objects seemed to be, like lacrymatories, historical objects or archaeological finds in graves, and not in current or 19th-century use.

The Persian tear bottle seems to be a poetic conceit conflated with grave finds. The Victorian public’s interest in Sir Richard Burton’s books and Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám may have suggested the idea of this Persian custom.

Such stories evoke extravagant displays of grief like those from the professional mourners of Egypt, Italy, and Ireland, none of whom reported bottling tears.

Ancient tear bottles pop up in a variety of odd places. For example, in an 1833 discussion of politics:

*“…we have nothing in the shape of consolation—not even a tear-bottle to send them.” (after mentioning “lachrymal vases which we received from the ruins of Thebes a few years since.”)

*A Temperance sermon called “How the Rum Bottle Fills the Tear Bottle,” [presumably God’s] was announced in  the New York Tribune 4 April 1884: p. 8

*A fairy character in a 1913 story called “HER BABY’S SMILE,” by Roy Rutherford Bailey tells about a tear in a bottle, which is revealed in the soppiest manner possible as “a tear of pure delight. It was the happy tear of a young mother over her baby’s first smile.” Boston [MA] Herald 30 December 1913: p. 11

*This quote, cited at, seems like it might offer some positive proof of the tear bottle custom.

One subtle, but accurate reference is found in The Living Age, a literary journal, in 1898. In the story, A Fateful Dinner Party, by H. Meyer Henne, the character Major Blythe discusses consoling a friend with Mrs. Samuels, “Lady Sloane won’t need to go shares with the tear bottle.”

However, looking at the tone of the entire story (which is a late silver-fork comedy of manners), and given the slangy context, (the exchange about Lady Sloane begins with “you bet your bottom dollar that Carol will console herself.”) this seems more likely to be a sarcastic reference to the easily alleviated grief of the mourning friend rather than a reference to an actual custom.

“The tear bottle” is often the equivalent of “get out your handkerchiefs!” and evokes in a jocular way fake sorrow or sympathy and exaggerated grief. It is important to recognize the unspoken subtext, the nuances, and the conventions of nineteenth-century writing rather than just seeking a keyword match.

This next item initially seemed promising, but no—the lady practicing with her tear bottle was from ancient Pompeii….

Before the days of La Grippe, when the ladies of Pompeii were the belles of the day, posed as the professional beauties, and, for all we know, had their photographs taken and got a percentage on them, well-bred people didn’t cry in handkerchiefs. They dropped their tears slowly and graceful into vials of cut glass that had gold stoppers set about with precious stones. There can be no doubt that the woman with thoughts upon a graceful pose practiced with her tear-bottle before her mirror, and, can there be anything more touching than when one’s best young man was off to the wars, sending him by registered letter a little note saying, “You have all my heart and these are the tears I have wept for you since your absence!” The tear-bottle could be enclosed as practical proof, and the maiden fair would write on the outside of the envelope in large letters: “Glass—please do not stamp so hard.” Those, indeed, were the days of romance! Undoubtedly some very fetching young women, who appreciated the impression made by a bottle of tears, but didn’t like getting a red nose, had their slaves do the weeping for them, and physical cultured themselves by administering to the slaves a good sound whipping that they might have something to weep for…

Nowadays in place of the bottle [emphasis mine] we have handkerchiefs… [goes on to discuss handkerchiefs at length.] St Louis [MO] Republic 11 January 1890: p. 9

I wonder if the bit about sending the bottle of tears to a soldier boyfriend was the inspiration for the idea that Civil War wives and sweethearts made a practice of this.

Next I got my hopes up with the promising headline, “Revival of the Tear Bottle.” But, alas! “Tear bottle,” only referred to the shape of the ancient bottles.

Revival of the Tear Bottle.

Among quaint old shapes in porcelain that are being revived are the classic “tear bottles,” a narrow-necked, full-bodied shape, round at the bottom, recalling the primitive days of the human race when such luxuries as tables were unknown and the bottle, the chief domestic utensil, was stuck in the stand to keep it upright. The tear bottle is often found in Roman and old Greek tombs. In it were supposed to be stored the tears shed for the departed ones. Quaint bottles of porcelain in this shape are mounted in ornamental frames of wrought iron.…All varieties of exquisite shapes in porcelain and Bacarat glass are mounted in wrought iron frames. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 16 July 1891: p. 6

Then there was an article headed “Bottled Tears,” which began by describing a craze for painting household accessories. It goes on:

But the very latest, up to the hour of going to press is painted “tear bottles.” For centuries there has been absolutely nothing to catch tears in, when a girl desired to sit down and have a good cry. How on earth this has come to be overlooked is not simply astonishing; it is astounding. Hitherto expensive handkerchiefs have been drenched, and their value nearly destroyed, on account of the sorrowing person being obliged to run to the door every few minutes and wring them out. If the person happened to be a copious weeper and her sadness of a great and overshadowing nature, like the loss of a thirteen ounce poodle, not only would the handkerchief be ruined, but all evidence of the feelings of the afflicted one over the calamity would be obliterated—wrung out in the gutter and carried away into the sewers. It is proposed now to retain these blessed mementoes in bottles, for future reference, and it is certainly a beautiful sentiment. Elegantly painted bottles, standing in rows on painted shelves provided expressly for them, will hereafter form a principal feature in a lady’s boudoir—showing the rainfall for the year throughout a large part of the Northwest. The decanters will be labeled appropriately, “On the death of poor Carlo,” “On seeing the hateful Maliflores in the loveliest of bonnets,” etc. These tender tokens of past sorrows will be useful as well as sentimental, and in case the sincerity of the lady’s grief is ever called in question, on the occasion of the death of her poodle or her husband, she can set out the bottle containing the tears shed at the time, and silence the venomous tongue of slander. Bottled tears, not for export, but for home use, will also have a commercial value, and can be placed in evidence in a court of justice, on an action for breach of promise. A painted three-gallon jug of tears would assuredly go far with a jury in determining the amount of damages to be awarded…Peck’s Sun.

Alabama Beacon [Greensboro AL] 16 February 1883: p. 3

Well, while the headline certainly sounds authoritative, it is patently obvious from this and from the rest of the piece that the passage is meant as satire.  The source also gives it away.  Peck’s Sun was run by well-known humorist George W. Peck, and was sometimes called “the funniest paper in America.”

Surely a sermon could provide convincing proof of the tradition? Yet this widely syndicated homily called “A Vision of Heaven” or “God’s Tear Bottle,” by The Rev. Thomas De Witt Talmage, one of the most popular American preachers of the 19th century, does just the opposite.

Talmage wrote:

“…on the steps of the altar was something like the lachrymal or tear bottle as I had seen it in the earthly museums, [emphasis mine.] the lachrymals or tear-bottles into which the orientals used to weep their griefs and set them away as sacred. But this lachrymal, or tear-bottle, instead of earthenware as those the orientals used, was lustrous and fiery with many splendors, and it was towering and of great capacity… And I said to my attending angel; “What is that great lachrymal, or tear-bottle, standing on the steps of the altar?” and the angel said: “Why, do you not know? That is the bottle to which David, the psalmist, referred in his fifty-sixth psalm when he said: “Put thou my tears into thy bottle.’ It is full of tears from earth, tears of repentance, tears of bereavement, tears of joy, tears of many centuries.” Sermons, Thomas De Witt Talmage 1872: p. 365-372

This, I think is a vital piece of evidence in disproving the tear bottle as an actual Victorian tradition: it is always mentioned in the context of the past.

Not convinced? Here’s another:

I must now direct your attention to a remarkable classical curiosity, namely the “Tear Bottle.” No one quite knows what these bottles were, neither is the origin known of the strange title to an Italian wine called Lachrymae Christi. This name has but correspondential value, but the tear-bottles have reference to some strange ceremonies long ago lost and forgotten. [emphasis mine.] Nevertheless, if any one will reflect what sort of tears are shed, when the soul is in deep grief and contrition, it will be concluded, I think, that they are a physical effect caused by the attrition and solution of that soul, altogether different from the usual eye secretion. The Journal of the Alchemical Society, London, November 1913: pp. 26-7

Again, here we see reference to an ancient, long-forgotten custom and not a mourning curiosity of a decade or two before.

In a sermonette against self-pity from 1941, the author speaks of ancient tear bottles without any mention of a later tradition:

A tear bottle is a little container whose mouth is shaped just like an eye and which, when put to the eye, fits very snugly. It is made, you see, so that one may catch his tears. No, tear bottles are not made any longer, not really, but in far off Egypt, many, many years ago, thousands of them were made. (They were possibly also made in ancient Palestine, for we find the Psalmist praying, “Put thou my tears into thy bottle.”) The Pantagraph [Bloomington IL] 23 November 1941: p. 17

I’ll offer one last example against the idea of Victorian tear bottle usage. This is from a gossip column, but there is no reason to think that the description from the letter is inaccurate:

The columnist writes that the widowed actress Mary Moore, on tour in America, shared a letter from her nanny, who was caring for her two children back in England.

[The letter] recounted the progress of the babies. The elder of the two is inclined to cry copiously. It seems as if his little heart is ever overcharged with sorrows beyond his very few years. He is not a fretful crier, but a mournful little chap, generally. The nurse, a wise, motherly woman, determined to get him out of this habit. So she pretended to read in the Times newspaper that there had been invented “a tear-catcher for baby boys.” This useful little invention, she declared she should purchase, as mamma often said that boys’ tears were very precious after they had turned 4 years of age; “and, of course,” added the adroit nurse, “if they are so precious, why, mamma can sell them, if saved in the tear-catcher, and on her return sell them for a deal of money, thus preventing her having to leave us and go away off to America to work for us all.” For a day or two the manly heart of the sorrowful little boy was so stirred that he did not cry as he usually did. But finally he resumed his weeping. Meantime nurse had raked up an old pair of seaside smoked glass goggles, removed the glasses, and, with the aid of wire, filled up the holes with tiny china ink wells, completing the whole with an elastic head band. A birthday came. So! There was the usual weeping. Nurse produced the tear-catcher as her birthday gift. At once the tears were dried ere the lad had worn them two minutes. On this the baby toddler realized, in a dim way, that his brother was in some sort of disgrace, and he began screaming lustily. Off came the glasses, and, with tragic intensity, the youngster lisped out: “Put ‘em on him; he a cryin’, nurse; me won’t cry any more.” At the time of writing the tears saved by “the catcher” seemed very few indeed, for selling purposes, the nurse explained…

Annie Wakeman.

Boston [MA] Herald 5 January 1890: p. 21

Note that this diverting anecdote came from a recently bereaved household.  Mary Moore’s husband, James Albery, died in 1889. If there had been such a thing as tear bottles, the nurse would not have had to invent her bizarre tear-catching specs, but could have popped down to the shops to purchase one. And if tear bottles had truly been an article in use in Victorian England, why would the custom not have been mentioned in this very appropriate context?

A final point: It is possible that the tear-bottle myth arose from the great many references in Victorian deathbed scenes and poetry to the “last tear” of the dying. This is a phenomenon not unknown to those who work with the dying. It is called lacrima mortis.

While there are copious references to “the last tear” there are far fewer references to actually catching that tear. These references are found mainly in a religious context and the tear is caught, not in a bottle, but on a bit of cloth or a handkerchief.

Here is a well-known example, from St. Therese of Lisieux (d. 1897), who speaks of her Superior, Mother Genevieve: “The Sisters hastened to claim something belonging to our beloved Mother, and you know what precious relic is mine. During her agony I had noticed a tear glistening like a beautiful diamond. That tear, the last she shed on this earth, did not fall, I still saw it shining when her body was exposed in the choir. When evening came, I made bold to approach unseen, with a little piece of linen, and I now have the happiness of possessing the last tear of a Saint.”

If not tear bottles, what are those pretty antique glass bottles which are so often advertised for sale? Sonya Vatomsky of Haute Macabre, who also wrote the Atlas Obscura article at the beginning of this post, suggests very plausibly that they are disposable perfume bottles called “throwaways.”

Some vinaigrettes or salts bottles sometimes mistaken for “tear bottles.”

Illustrations in catalogs show very similar bottles sold as “vinaigrettes” or “salt bottles.” The vinaigrette was a decorative bottle containing smelling salts.


The vinaigrette most in demand just now is the one which is most antique in appearance. The dull gold or “Indian finish” is almost exclusively used for the top….The bottles are much the shape of the famous “tear bottles,” and vary through every cut of the glassmakers’ art. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 28 January 1900: p. 36

Why am I bothering to go on at such length about a relatively minor mortuary legend? Because it is bad history. Fake news, if you like. And people are profiting from the fakelore. I suppose you could make a case that fakelore is harmless (although it would be difficult to tell that to the “Slenderman” victims), but I do not think it harmless to have an actual historical artifact turned into something it patently is not and never was.  This was highlighted in a recent article about those “vampire killing kits,” which asked if it made any difference if they were real or not. The notion isn’t “whimsical” or “letting people make up their own minds.” It is fraud. And yes, bad history and fake artifacts do matter.

But can I prove a negative? I cannot prove that tear bottles never existed. Yet the silence in popular sources, which otherwise dwelt at length on every gradation of crape and black borders, is damning. While I often study the ephemeral customs that had their fifteen minutes of fame and then vanished without necessarily leaving physical artifacts behind, it would be without precedent not to find some documentation. A custom claimed to be so pervasive must surely have left behind some traces in the written record.

I’ve collected as many primary references as I could, hoping to show conclusively that there is no evidence in the popular record of tear bottles being used in Victorian mourning. Perhaps someone has another set of primary sources that would prove me wrong.

I regret that I must specify primary sources. When I briefly sketched out these arguments for a group of mourning history/artifact enthusiasts, one of them told me about the modern book that I mentioned earlier that cited no sources for the tear-bottle fantasy, earnestly assuring me that I’d find the proof I was looking for there. Well, no….

While absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, in this case the evidence suggests that it is time to put the stopper into the tear-bottle myth. I’m sorry it all has to end without tears.


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 Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Tombstone Madness: A 19th Century Occupational Disease

Gothic entrance to Elmwood Cemetery 1886

Ghouls prowled the cemeteries of the 19th century, seeking corpses to unearth, sack, and sell to the anatomist. While our Victorian ancestors were terrified that they might be buried alive, they had an equally deep fear that their dead bodies would be resurrected, not on the Day of Judgment, but in the dead of night by the body snatchers.

To prevent this, graves were salted with explosives like the “coffin torpedo,” or bodies were held in vaults until they were too decayed for dissection. Sometimes heavy weights or cages (mortsafes) were placed over graves to discourage diggers. Family members took turns standing vigil over graves and many cemeteries had watchmen.

It was a thankless job. The ghouls at the head of their profession could open a grave, extract the corpse, and refill the soil in under an hour. A watchman had to be vigilant, walking the grounds of a cemetery in the dark, and in all weathers, for rain softened the ground and allowed for a quicker opening of a grave. Body snatchers might be armed and more than one watchman was murdered or exchanged gunfire among the tombstones. It was no wonder that, in the 1880s, a new occupational disease emerged.


A New Form of Mania that Affects People Who Guard Cemeteries.

[Philadelphia Times]

The men who patrol the cemeteries after the sun has gone down are armed with pistols and clubs, and are generally accompanied by trained and savage bloodhounds. In addition to these external and tangible means of defense they must be gifted with rare and peculiar mental organization. So many men have lost their reason through watching graves at night that person in that position have come to believe that they risk lapsing into a state of melancholia perfectly distinct form any other form of insanity. Sextons and grave-diggers call this affliction “tombstone madness.”

A startling realization of this fact was telegraphed throughout the country yesterday. It was announced that several of the soldiers who do sentry duty day and night at the tomb of Garfield, amid the dreary solitude of Lakeview Cemetery, near Cleveland, have become insane. Anything or any device is used by the men to get away from the ghostly muster of tombstones or the dark array of mounds.

An old watchman at Glenwood Cemetery explained this to a Times reporter yesterday by saying that in all probability the soldiers detailed at the grave were not picked.

Take half a dozen men from any walk of life,” he continued, “and place them at night to watch graveyards, and the chances are that in a short time five of the six will feel like retiring permanently to a lunatic asylum.

“If a man wants to enter this profession and be a success at it, he must be about as impressible as brick and mortar. If he has the least bit of imagination he had better abandon the business, for when the moon is obscured by clouds and he is walking about a cemetery, shivering from his heels upward, he will mistake tombstones for ghosts. He will think that the owls, as they whiz past his ears with their mournful hoots, are unquiet spirits come to haunt the receptacles of the bodies which they once permeated. When the noise of his footsteps makes the rats disappear with rustling sound into little thickets of evergreens he will start and grasp his weapon. The very whine of his dog will make him feel nervous, and bit by bit his reason would become impaired.”

“I could give you some sad reminiscences of people who watch graveyards,” said one of the oldest watchmen at Laurel Hill cemetery, in a strange, solemn tone. Then, half jestingly, he added: “But they’re buried in the past, and it’s my business to let what’s buried remain so.” He did not mind telling one story, however.

“I used to work in a Brooklyn cemetery before I came to this city,” he began. “It was then that the terrible scene I shall speak of occurred. We wanted an assistant night watchman very badly, but none of the persons who presented themselves could endure staying up with the graves for more than two or three nights each. At least there came an unfortunate man whose health seemed shattered by overwork and privation. It was his last venture. He had tried to get employment everywhere without result, and his wife and children were suffering. We took him on. I don’t think I shall ever forget his face the morning after his first night in the graveyard. He said he had endured unheard of agony, but was hopeful of getting over it in time. The following night was dark and windy. Rain came down in torrents, and there were flashes of lightning every few minutes. At about one o’clock the head watchman heard a loud cry; there was a sound of running feet, followed by the report of a pistol. A search was made, and the unfortunate man found lying on his back across a grave, dead. There was a small hole in his temple, and his own revolver, one barrel of which was empty, lay three feet away where he had flung it, imbedded in the ground. It was certain that some fearful creation of the imagination had so terrified him that he took his life to escape from it.”

When the old man had finished this narrative he was silent, with a vacant look, and allowed bright tears to chase each other down his cheek. Suddenly he made a brisk motion and forcibly forgot the subject of his narrative. “There are amusing things sometimes,” he said, speaking at first with an effort. “A short time ago a man was put to work at night in a cemetery not far from here. He strolled around in an affected, indifferent way, whistling tunes dear to his countrymen. In the course of his rambling he tumbled bodily into a newly-made grave and a lot of loose earth fell on him when he reached the bottom. He struggled wildly, and in about an hour and three-quarters managed to get out, screaming lustily that the devil had dug a grave and tried to bury him in it. With a single bound he cleared a four-foot fence, rolled down a forty-foot hill, and that’s the last of him, for no one about here ever set eyes on him again, dead or alive. He must have gone back to Ireland, for he wasn’t hurt at all. Some practical jokers once tried to scare a watchman, a friend of mine. It was immense fun—for the watchman. They got into the cemetery disguised as body-snatchers, and pretended to be opening graves. There were three individuals. One got seven buckshot in him, the second received five in his leg, and I forget what happened to the third. The only thing that is more dangerous than watching graves is robbing them.”

“What is it produces the dreadful melancholia?” asked the reporter.

The old man looked around him mysteriously and added, as he moved away: “I’m not a doctor nor a scholar, but I have my belief that it’s the miasma from the graves that poisons the blood and warps the brain. Just see, cool as it is this evening, the vapour is rising—rising.” And the old watchman pointed toward the setting sun, against which blazing background a filmy mist could be seen ascending from the ground like the genie from the fisherman’s box in the Arabian tale.  Texas Siftings [Austin, TX] 28 April 1883: p. 3

One could also perhaps point to exposure to the heavy metals used in embalming and coffins, insect-borne disease from that miasma, or to overindulgence in the warming flask sometimes employed to ward off the cold. The post of watchman may also have been a profession of last resort for those with few prospects.

Here is the story of a soldier who apparently had a breakdown while guarding the Cleveland grave of President Garfield. This was before the immense tomb we see today was finished. I have not found any others, although there were some strange incidents at the cemetery [another post, another day]. The journalist may have exaggerated the insanity toll.

A Soldier Becomes insane While Guarding Garfield’s Tomb.

Cleveland Dispatch to Philadelphia Press.

Joseph Kashinsky, a private in Company H, Tenth U.S. Infantry, on duty at Garfield’s grave, in Lake View Cemetery, has become insane, and has been taken to Detroit for cure. The peculiar form of insanity is melancholia, and a peculiar state of affairs came to light when the case was looked up. The men on the guard dread their duty, and several cases are reported of men committing offenses for the purpose of getting punished.

Anything or any device is used to get away from the ghostly array of mounds and tombs. This is said to have driven Kashinsky insane, and his incoherent language and actions carry out the impression. One man, a veteran, said: “I dread the duty, although I am not afraid of it and do not complain, but on the younger the strain is intense. Many tricks are resorted to to escape the night watches.” Kashinsky is a young Pole, but ten months a soldier, twenty-one years of age, and, until this trouble came, a light-hearted, healthy young man. Cincinnati [OH] Commercial Tribune, 2 April 1883: p. 2

The font is badly blurred, but I believe the name is correct, although I have not found Private Kashinsky in the regimental roster. The papers had a difficult time with Eastern European names.  Any other insane guards?  Chriswoodyard8 AT

Portions of this post appear in The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition.

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

A Grave Warning About Iron Coffins

fisk burial casket

On 14 November 1848, Almond D. Fisk patented his “air-tight coffin of cast or raised metal.” The patent contained the further suggestion that “the air may be exhaused so completely as entirely to prevent the decay of the contained body…or…the coffin may be filled with any gas or fluid having the property of preventing putrefaction.”

Retailers of Fisk Burial Cases rhapsodized over their ability to preserve the body and their aesthetic qualities:

The idea of preserving the features of the dead unchanged—of staying the execution of the sentence, “dust to dust,” is a beautiful one, and had its origin in the gentlest affections of our nature.

The hand that cherishes the flower above the low bed of the dreamless, and bedews its leaves with tears, would, if it could, preserve the form from mingling with the elements, that the share of the ploughman might not rend it—that the winds of heaven might not strew it.

We love to think that the Corinthian column sprung from the tribute of memory to the dead—that the votive basket wreathed with Acanthus, and placed upon the grave of some dear lost one, suggested to the sculptor, that most elegant of all the orders that grace the temples of the world.

But the houses that shall “last till dooms day,” aside from the associated pall, and knell and tear, and clod and silence, offend the eye from their want of all symmetry and beauty. No matter of what material composed, how richly lined or how rarely adorned, they are repulsive still. A sense of oppression comes over us, as we look at them—those windowless apartments—those cold and gloomy boxes for the dead to lie in.

Fisk’s Metallic Burial Cases are not liable to these objections. While they preserve the forms we love, in something more like a pulseless slumber than a dread decay, they have the appearance of rich and heavy folds of drapery, thrown over the form, adapted to the shape, and realizing the line of “Thanatopsis.”

“Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch

About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

Many a heart, whose kindred heart beat, but afar from home, will bless him who has thus devised and disposed a mantle beneath which that heart may be borne by ship and shore, to sleep amid the dust that once throbbed symphonious with its own.

Specimens of these Burial Cases may be seen at W.T. Woodson and Co’s, 232 Lake Street. To those who admire beauty of proportion and elegance of design, so far from there being anything chilling or repulsive, one of them might appropriately enter into the imagery of a morning dream from which we grieve to wake.

Chicago [IL] Daily Journal 29 May 1851

To my critical eye they look grotesquely like diving suits, but they obviously struck a throbbing, symphonious chord with the bereaved.  Sometimes they even did what it says on the tin:  there are reports of bodies shipped long distances arriving in excellent condition and the faces of the dead, unearthed a century after burial and seen to be incorrupt through the coffins’ plate-glass windows, testify to the Fisk’s effectiveness. Iron coffins were also advertised as a deterrent to body-snatchers:

A Ypsilanti burial case company propose to beat the resurrectionists, by means of armor plated coffins. Jackson [MI] Citizen 22 February 1876: p. 6 

Obviously a sealed iron coffin was more difficult to open and it was impossible to follow the usual protocol of the resurrectionist of digging down to the head of the wooden coffin, breaking it open, and dragging out the corpse by the neck. Their use as a kind of personal, rather than parish, mort-safe was yet another of the advantages touted for the metallic burial case, but there was a darker side to the cast-iron coffin.  Human decomposition did not always follow the predictable, desired path, particularly when a dead loved one had to be shipped a long distance. Air often needed to be pumped out of the Fisk or a corpse might need to be embalmed to ensure a better outcome. Even so, I’ve seen reports from, for example, a man called in to paint the blackened face of an iron-coffined corpse, so it would look presentable for a few hours through the little window. Ideally the cast-iron coffin would protect the body from decay and grave robbers. The reality might be rather different and horrifically inaccurate conclusions might be drawn from that reality, as we will shortly see.

By way of introduction to the article issuing a grave warning about iron coffins, here is the back-story of the burial alive in New Orleans mentioned in that article’s first paragraph. This particular, heart-rending article had a huge circulation over several years and the way it spread and changed, suggests an urban legend. True or not, it is a reflection of the horrified fascination that premature burial held for the public.

I have just heard of one of the most horrible, heart-rending, and yet, perhaps, unavoidable affairs which it has ever been my lot, as a newspaper correspondent, to record. It is nothing more nor less than the frightful reality of being buried alive. A most estimable lady, named Mrs. Crane, whose husband is a book-keeper in Flemming & Co.’s drug store, on Magazine Street, in this city [New Orleans, LA], died very suddenly last July, of what was pronounced sun-stroke. She was a school teacher in one of our most popular public schools, and resided, if I am not mistaken, on Dryades Street. It was in the afternoon, after school was out, that she went to visit a neighbor on Felicity Street and just as she entered her friend’s house, she fell insensible to the floor and expired, to all appearance, in about two minutes, a doctor pronouncing it sun-stroke. Her body was interred the next day, at ten o’clock, and her mother, an old lady about fifty years of age, and her husband and one little son, went home almost broken-hearted and have since been nearly distracted, being at times unable to sleep, and, in fact, leading a most miserable and disconsolate life; and well they might, as the sequel will show, had they known what they had done. Well, one night last week the mother, after passing a most distressing day, fell asleep late at night and dreamed that her daughter had been buried alive. She jumped up in a frantic state and rushed to her son-in-law’s chamber crying, “My daughter is buried alive! Oh, my daughter is buried alive! What shall I do!” To sleep any more that night was out of the question; she still crying that her daughter was buried alive, whenever her son-in-law would try to quiet her. At length the proposition was made to have the body disinterred just to satisfy her. So, early the next morning the grave was opened and the coffin raised. Oh, what a horrible sight met their view. Pen is powerless to portray the scene which followed. The body, which had been placed in a metallic coffin, was turned over, the glass covering the face was broken to atoms, the ends of her fingers being beaten and battered all to pieces; her hair torn out in handfuls and her shroud torn in many places—all presenting the appearance of one of the most desperate struggles to free herself from her terrible misfortune.

If any of your readers could have seen the relatives of this unfortunate lady, when the condition of what they supposed was the perpetually silent tomb had been brought to light, it would have forced  a tear from the most stolid and adamantine heart. It was one of the most distressing affairs ever recorded in this State and I sincerely hope it will be the last I am ever called upon to record.

I have not seen this affair mentioned in any of our city papers, but as far as the truth of the matter is concerned, I can vouch for it having occurred, as I have it from parties intimately connected with the unfortunate family and whose veracity I cannot doubt. The husband and mother, it is now said, are almost entirely bereft of their reason, and it is feared they will go permanently deranged; and, indeed, they have sufficient reason.

This should be another warning to all who read this of the uncertainty of death until the body begins to decay. It is generally conceded by physicians that as long as there is a possibility of returning life the body will not show any signs of decomposition. Therefore, in warm weather, when a body does not commence to decompose immediately it is a sure sign that the life has not left it, and the body should not be buried. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 3 December 1868: p. 2

The motif of the glass window being broken outward, as well as the distortion and damage to the body appear in many stories of premature burial. Given the clearance in the form-fitting Fisk, there does not seem room for a revived corpse to break out a window, which also was made of quite thick glass. But is there a logical explanation?


Their Effect Upon Dead Bodies

Correspondence of the Cincinnati Commercial

Washington, D.C., January 11. I read in the Intelligencer—it will be in the Chronicle next week—a frightful statement of burying alive that is said to have occurred in New Orleans, and is now going the rounds of the press, to the intense horror of all sensitive people.

The mother of the unfortunate, it is claimed, was informed of the horrible event, through a dream, and insisted upon having the body disinterred, for investigation. On opening the grave the horrible fact was manifested. The glass over the face was broken, the face was mutilated, and the fingers wounded.

Now, it would be well to let this pass as a warning to the thoughtless who hurry dead bodies into their graves, before positive assurance that life is extinct. But the case is so horrible that it is better to know the truth. The corpse had been encased in an iron coffin—called casket—made iron-tight. The consequent is that the gases generated by the decaying body produce the most frightful disfiguration, and in some instances shiver the glass over the face.

I know all about this, for I had a case come under my immediate observation—the death of a friend, in the country, caused by an accident, so sudden and unexpected that few of the friends and relatives could be called to the funeral within the ordinary time incident to such occasions. An iron coffin was procured, the body placed in it, and the lid sealed and screwed down in the usual manner with a thick glass plate over the head. To those who watched the loved face through tears, there soon appeared a singular change; the veins of the forehead began to swell, and soon stood out like cords. Then the face began to swell and soon the eyes partly opened and the lips fell apart, giving to the face a wrathful, horrifying expression that was painful to look upon. These changes continued until the dead seemed to be striving to breathe and speak, and strange noises were heard inside. Women shrieked and fainted, and at last a cloth was thrown over the glass, and persons were forbid looking in. During the night of the second day (if I remember correctly), an explosion occurred, accompanied by the sound of broken glass, and it was found that the plate, over the face, was shivered, and the room filled with the most sickening stench. The dead body was horrible to look at, and it required no active stretch of the imagination to believe that life had returned and a struggle ensued.

I doubt whether one could return to life from the counterfeit condition that had been mistaken for death, while sealed up in one of these iron cases. Such return must, of course, be slow, uncertain, and feeble. How long the air of the coffin would continue pure enough to strengthen the lungs, so as to start the circulation, I am not prepared to say, but I should think not long—certainly not a sufficient length of time to enable the subject buried alive to make much of a struggle.

Memphis [TN] Daily Appeal 20 January 1869:  p. 1

One doesn’t know whether to be reassured or appalled at the idea that burial alive was unlikely if interred in a cast-iron coffin. The author makes a convincing case for the sealed case producing all the dreadful signs of premature burial. Similar stories that I’ve collected contain many of the same details as above; this was a far from isolated incident. It was said that sextons who noticed a swelling lead coffin would tap it and burn off the gases.

Do you have a personal favorite exploding coffin/corpse story? Break the glass window to relieve the pressure and notify Chriswoodyard8 AT

For more stories of coffins, both eccentric and exploding, see The Victorian Book of the Dead.

fisk Chicago City Directory and Business Advertiser 1877.JPG

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

Death Angel in Lancashire

Death Angel in Lancashire, Death Angel, Horace Vernet, 1851, The Hermitage Museum

The Death Angel takes many forms: the hooded Grim Reaper, the Radiant Boy, fairy-like cherubs, the bloody-handed Banshee, or, in today’s case, a dazzling Woman in White.

[This piece comes from an interview of medium Mrs. Ellen Green, in a column called “The Mysteries of Mediumship” by “Our Special Representative” in the Spiritualist journal Light.]

A short time since I gave an account of a chat with Mrs. Stansfield, a bright little medium from the North, enjoying much honour in her own country, and commanding it in London immediately her remarkable gifts became known. Mrs. Green, of Heywood, is another Lancashire medium, or Lancashire witch if you will have it so, who, in many respects, compares with Mrs. Stansfield, of Oldham. She is a pleasant mannered, pleasant spoken little woman, very quiet and very retiring, with the accent of her native county just enough marked to agreeably flavour her talk.

[The narrator asks about how she became a medium.]

“Was there mediumship in the family”

‘My mother had the gift of second sight strongly developed, and could often foretell a death or a striking event. I myself can always feel when anybody related or dear to me is going to pass over. The first time I saw the Death Angel—’

‘The Death Angel! Surely now, I thought that dread personage was an altogether imaginary character.’

‘I have the same vision in each case, and I have come to call the spirit the Death Angel. I have never heard of anybody else seeing it. I was about sixteen at the time, and my mother and I were alone in the world. She was ill; and whilst I was at work in the factory where I was employed I heard my name, “Ellen,” repeated three times very distinctly. Fearing something wrong, I obtained permission to go home, and on the way, while passing through a large yard connected with the factory, I saw in front a form of dazzling white. There were no features distinguishable, but the form was that of a woman, clothed in a white robe of indescribable beauty. I put out my hand, a cold shudder went through me, and she melted away like snow under the sun. Hastening home, I found my mother unconscious; and when she came to herself I told her what I had witnessed. “My child,” she said, “I shall never get well. You have seen the spirit I always see when one I know is about to die.” And a day or two later she passed over. I have seen the Death Angel several times since, but only in the case of relatives or friends for whom I have a strong feeling of affection.’

Light 3 August 1895: p. 368

This is a softer, gentler, friends-and-family version of the Reaper, as opposed to the terrifying hooded Things found here and the bureaucratic Messenger of Death found here.

Intriguingly, in the same interview, Mrs Green confesses that she is afraid of spirits.

Spirit people I have seen as long as I can remember. As a child I used to play with spirit children, and not dream that they were different in any way from other children.’ “I suppose you were not long in discovering the difference ” ‘Longer than you might think. It was all so natural; and it did not occur to me that my little playmates were not visible to everybody as they were to me. When I knew they were not of earth, my feelings changed.” ‘How do you mean?’ ‘I don’t know whether it should be said, lest I be misunderstood, but I am afraid of spirits—afraid, that is, for them to come near me.’ ‘That is rather singular, is it not, when, as I gather is the case, you are on such intimate terms with the other world, and find its beings so natural in appearance and character?’

‘Yes, particularly as they are so natural that I often fail immediately to distinguish them from persons who have not passed over. I can’t explain the feeling, but it is very strongly implanted in me. I never attempt to speak to them, and if one comes near me I shrink away or even cry out. One of the photographs in Mr. Glendinning’s book, “The Veil Lifted,” is of me with a spirit form by my side. The spirit was necessarily quite close to me, and the peculiar expression of my features, and the attitude of shrinking away from the form were due to my uncomfortable sense of its proximity.’

Mrs Green does, indeed, look dubious in the photograph.

Death Angel in Lancashire Mrs Green, of Heywood (medium), and the same spirit form as in the next plate, but in a different attitude, and with the birds and flowers reversed. Stereoscopic photographs obtained October 21, 1893
Death Angel in Lancashire Another view of the death angel spirit photograph.

To be Relentlessly Informative, the hand in the lower right hand corner of this photograph somehow suggests an air pump; inflatable “spirits” were a useful prop in the séance room—easily hidden, then inflated and deflated, they were perfect for materializations and dematerializations.

I’ve included a chapter on Victorian personifications of Death in The Victorian Book of the Dead. They are fascinatingly rare in nineteenth-century non-fiction, especially considering the cultural focus on death and mourning.

Other Death Angels or Grim Reapers? chriswoodyard8 AT


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 Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Inventive Deaths – How to Die in a Better Mousetrap

sept 1915 The Electrical Experimenter, 18th c static exp.
Inventive Deaths – How to Die in a Better Mousetrap Early static electricity invention

As a child I remember being terrified by a story in (I think) Strange Worlds by Frank Edwards about a clockmaker who was slowly strangled to death in the gears of a tower clock. Inventors often seem a hapless lot. If they aren’t being blown up by their own patented explosive shells (Samuel H. Mead/Mead-Meigs Safety Explosive Bullet), they hang themselves from their own perpetual motion machines or are found wandering the streets of great cities, hopelessly insane when their creations fail to make them rich.

We all know (or think we know), how the inventor of the guillotine met his end under its blade. In fact Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin proposed a more humane method of capital punishment, but did not create the guillotine. Antoine Louis was the inventor of the machine, which was briefly known as a louisette, but Guillotin’s name became attached to it because of his advocacy of the device as more civilized method of execution. The Doctor was imprisoned during the Terror but actually died in his bed in 1814. Guillotin’s family was so mortified by the connection that they changed their name after they failed to persuade the French government to rechristen the instrument.

When I ran across the story of the “demented inventor” at the end of this post who devised an similarly elegant and creative method of suicide, I went in search of obscure inventors—mostly Americans–who died at the hands of their better mousetraps.


By the Invention He Had Spent 25 Years Perfecting

New York, June 13. Herman O. Mortiz, a Brooklyn inventor, sixty-two years old, was killed at Coney Island by a device on the invention of which he had spent more than a quarter of a century and all his savings.

Mortiz’s invention was an aerial toboggan slide. Permission had just been granted to operate it, all the laws of the department being complied with. The first car was empty and went without any trouble. Other cars with persons in them were sent over. The device seemed to be working to perfection and as the various cars, one after another, went down the steep slide and came up with a round turn, Mortiz stood and looked on, his face beaming with pleasure. He fairly shouted for joy. The dream of the last twenty-five years of his life was realized and his face beamed with delight as his friends alighted from the cars and pronounced the construction a success and as certain to make him a fortune.

Inspector Rittenhouse, and Charles Otis, a friend of the inventor, rode in the last car to be tested. Mortiz stood at the foot of the incline. The car had nearly reached the top, a distance of about seventy feet.

There was a cracking sound, a shout, and Rittenhouse and Otis shot backward. Their car had failed to hold the steel dog until the top of the incline had been reached. It came down with great velocity straight for the place where Moritz was standing. The car was almost upon him when he turned to get out of the way. It was too late. The heavy vehicle struck him in the back, knocking him through the wire netting and out into the Bowery walk. He died two hours later. Rittenhouse and Otis were thrown from their seats, but were uninjured. Morning Herald [Lexington, KY] 14 June 1902: p. 8

Singular Suicide – Horace Wells, the Discoverer of Ether.

“the same individual who made the original discovery of ether, or chloroform, and of its successful application in surgery or dentistry….The ingenious discoverer of the powers of this extraordinary substance, in its application to surgery, has himself fallen a victim to his own discovery, the only rational conclusion after reading the account of this suicide and of the steps which led to it, seems to be that Dr. Wells has been in the habit of producing intoxication in himself by the habitual use of ether, or chloroform. Under one of the paroxysms produced by the intemperate use of this powerful agent, it seems he sallied forth into Broadway, where he committed the pranks upon some unfortunate females at night, which led to his arrest by the police, causing a great noise to be made in the public prints. For the purpose of drowning the consequences of this exposure, and not being able to meet the issue of his strange acts, Dr. Wells deliberately goes to work and commits suicide, using his own medicine to destroy the sensation of pain in the act. New York Herald 25 January 1848: p. 1

Dr. Horace Wells was one of three physicians who claimed to have discovered the use of ether as an anesthetic. Unfortunately he became addicted to chloroform and in a moment of exhilaration threw vitriol at a prostitute on Broadway. He was arrested and taken to the Tombs where he committed what may have been the first suicide under anaesthetic.

 No suspicion was entertained by the keepers of any intention of self-destruction, as Mr. Wells appeared to be rather cheerful on Sunday, conversing freely, and while out of his cell, on the corridor, appeared to pay particular attention to the sermon delivered by the Reverend gentleman who preaches every Sunday to the unfortunate and abandoned creatures confined in the Tombs. The principal subject of the discourse related to the ill effects arising from the early and constant association with disreputable females, and seemed to throw Mr. Wells into a deep meditation….On the following morning, (Monday) Mr. Jackson, one of the deputy keepers, opened the cell door, between 8 and 9 o’clock and was astonished to find Mr. Wells in a sitting position on his bunk, with his head resting in one corner of the cell, his right leg hanging over the side of the bunk and the left lying straight on the straw mattress. Between his legs, on the mattress, lay an empty vial labeled “Pure Chloroform,” a razor, and a penknife. The razor was fixed with a slip of wood running from the back of the bald along the handle, made fast with a piece of wire, and some threads drawn from the sacking of his mattress. The left leg of this unfortunate man exhibited a most horrible sight, from a desperate gash, evidently inflicted by the razor. This wound was made about the center of the thigh, severing the femoral artery [illegible] nearly to the bone, and some six inches in length, from the effects of which he bled to death. On his mouth he had placed a silk handkerchief, bunched up, and another passing on the outside and tied on the top of his head, on which he had placed his hat. This handkerchief was supposed to have contained the chloroform, which he inhaled just before he inflicted the fatal wound…. [The deceased left a lengthy letter explaining how he came to commit the offense as well as letters of farewell to friends and family.]

The prison was visited during the day by many of our eminent doctors and dentists, and, from remarks made by Drs. Hosack and Smith, founded on interviews with Mr. Wells, prior to his arrest, they were decidedly of opinion that the deceased was perfectly insane on the chloroform practice. We are informed that this chloroform is nothing more than an extract from alcohol and chloride of lime, which, upon application, is inhaled from a sponge. Dr. Walters, the coroner, was called to hold an inquest, and the jury rendered a verdict, “that the deceased came to his death by suicide, by inflicting a wound in the left thigh with a razor, while laboring under an aberration of mind” New York Herald 25 January 1848: p. 1

Killed by His Own Invention

The cause of the death of Samuel Wardell, which occurred at the Kings County Hospital on Wednesday night, was most singular. He was a street-lamp lighter, and lived on Malbone street, in Flatbush. His duties necessitated early rising and for a time he trusted to the usual methods in such a case until a failure on the part of the alarm clock to perform its customary functions nearly caused his dismissal from the service. He made an invention of his own. On the top of his clock he adjusted a heavy stone, so nearly evenly balanced that the natural shaking of the clock occasioned by the striking of the bell would cause it to roll off to the floor and thus awaken the sleeper by its crash. This was successful until Monday night. A party had been held during his absence. All the available rooms had been utilized for the accommodation of the guests, and the position of Wardell’s bed had been so changed to make desirable space that the head stood directly under the clock.

He returned early in the morning. Too tired to change the position of his bed he hastily retired. For some reason he seemed unable to go to sleep, and not until an hour before the customary time for rising did he finally lose consciousness. True to its perfect mechanical arrangement the little bell tinkled; the heavy stone rolled slowly in its place and fell, striking the sleeping man on the skull–the stroke that cost him his life. N.Y. World. Quoted in San Francisco [CA] Bulletin, 8 January 1886: p. 4

Others in the death roll of American ingenuity:

John Manier, killed at the Gilbert Car Works in Troy, New York when a machine with rotating knives he had invented broke apart, hurling a knife straight into his heart. Aberdeen [SD] Daily News 2 May 1891: p. 2

Stockton, Cal., Dec. 27 Roy Austin McKeel, 19, was electrocuted at his home in Lodi, near here, today while conducting an experiment with an electric welding outfit which he had recently perfected and sold to an electric house.

McKeel was taking a correspondence course in electricity. While at work his hand dropped across a wire carrying a high voltage, and standing on a steel plate laid on wet ground, he closed the circuit, receiving a shock from which he died in a few minutes. Omaha [NE] World Herald 28 December 1920: p. 2

Herbert Goers, 26, of Evansville, Indiana, who was crushed and impaled on the picking arm of a corn picker machine he had worked on for five years. Omaha [NE] World Herald 9 October 1909: p. 5

Victor Palmer, described as an inventor of wonderful versatility, had been working on a scheme to keep the water in a bathtub at an even temperature by means of a gas heater. He was found, nude and gassed, under the water of his tub, while testing the apparatus. One of the rubber connection pipes had come loose. Fort Worth [TX] Star-Telegram 26 April 1911: p. 6

H S Roper, inventor of a steam bicycle, died when it went out of control, throwing him on his head. Jackson [MI] Citizen 5 June 1896: p. 2

A mother and son named Juergens were killed by an electrical apparatus used to heat a chicken incubator, which the son had developed. The son touched a live wire and when the mother went to his aid, she too was electrocuted. Olympia [WA] Record 17 April 1906: p. 5

At Laporte, Ind., last week, Harry May, a New York inventor, was killed by the accidental explosion of a secret waterproofing compound, used in the manufacture of artificial stone. Elmer E. Harding, owner of a cement block works, to whom May had sold the patent on the compound, was severely burned, but will recover. Industrial World, Volume 43, Issue 2, Part 2, 1909, p 1300

Thomas Midgley, Jr., the chemist who gave us leaded gasoline and chloroflurocarbons, contracted polio in 1940. To help his caregivers lift him, he devised an elaborate system of cords and pulleys. He somehow became entangled in his device and was strangled to death by it, age 55.

Dr. Sabon von Sochocky died of the luminous paint which he had invented for the painting of watch dials in the plant of the United States Radium Corporation. Times-Picayune [New Orleans, LA] 15 November 1928: p. 13

George Webb, a prison guard at San Quentin met a painful death in the prison jute mill when a fanning device he had created and attached to the main shaft of the mill caught his clothing and whirled him up to the ceiling. San Francisco [CA] Call 1 August 1913: p. 13

The Russian Captain Stepanof, inventor of a system for laying submarine mines, was blown up when a cable snapped and allowed two mines to touch..The Saint Paul [MN] Globe 17 February 17 1904: p 4

And finally, the piece—true or false–that sent me on the hunt for unfortunate inventors:


Deliberate Preparations Which a Demented French Inventor Made to Take His Own Life.

Arthur Charollais, a demented inventor, 40 years old, guillotined himself this week in his laboratory at Mulhouse in Alsace. He had constructed the machine himself. It was an exact duplicate of the legal French guillotine, but was made of costly woods and finely polished.

The triangular knife had engraved on it: “This blade cut Arthur Charollais’ neck, October, 1900.”

Near the body was found a note reading: “Distribute my belongings among the poor. Demolish this guillotine. It is intended solely for my own private use.”

Charollais’ servants heard an unfamiliar electric bell suddenly ringing persistently, and rushing to answer it discovered with horror a wriggling, headless body, with blood gushing in streams from the neck. The head was in a basket with sawdust where it had fallen.

The suicide had so arranged the knife that its fall started an electric bell.

Marietta [OH] Daily Leader 7 November 1900: p. 7

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 Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.