A Man Buries Himself Alive: A Story for Father’s Day

A Man Buries Himself Alive: A Story for Father's Day urn willow

In this heart-rending story, a father’s grief drove him to literally join his lost child in the tomb.

Extraordinary Suicide in New Orleans.

A MAN BURIES HIMSELF ALIVE

HE TAKES POISON IN A TOMB

The New Orleans Crescent of the 24th gives the following remarkable story of a suicide

Sylvester Rupert, 37 years of age, an Englishman by birth, and by trade a ship carpenter, lived with his wife and two children in a house on Perdido street. In October last the yellow fever, then prevailing, counted among its victims the youngest child of the Ruperts—their little girl Lizzie, about four years old, and the particular pet of the father. This was a blow from which the father never recovered. Not able to buy a tomb, he had the child buried in the ground in Greenwood Cemetery. The grief preyed heavily upon him. It was his only thought; and, being out of his regular employment, he found employment in his grief.

He bought a burial lot and some bricks and other material, and with his own hands, and all alone in the Cemetery, built him a brick tomb. He had not the means to make the tomb a stylish one; so in its mouth or entrance he fitted a wooden frame, and on this frame he fitted a piece of board and secured it with screws in its four corners. On this board, with which he enclosed the vault,  (in lieu of the usual brick and mortar or marble slab) he had carved nicely with his knife the burial inscription of his child. The tomb finished, he disinterred the child’s body and placed it there. He fastened the board with screws, in order that he might afterward have no trouble in removing it when he felt like gazing upon the decaying remains of his child.

This employment finished, it was his habit to visit the Cemetery, open the tomb, and look at the corpse of his pet. He always carried a screw-driver in his pocket with which to remove and replace the board and also to remove and replace the lid of the coffin. Neither the haggard aspect of the shrinking little corpse, nor the foul odor of its decay could repel him, and his morbid grief. His visits were frequent, and sometimes his wife went with him. He frequently complained to her that he could not get work; and this inability doubtless fostered the despondency which was drawing him to death. He frequently spoke of having no faith in the future, and of death as a desirable thing.

On Wednesday he went to the Cemetery with two shrubs which he had purchased and planted them in front of the tomb. On Thursday, when he left home, he told his wife that if he had no better luck in finding work she would never see him again. He also said something about having a place in which to rest.

That evening, or that night—for no one saw him in his gloomy proceedings—he visited the cemetery; taking with him his screw-driver, an iron trunk-handle, a small rod of iron, a piece of wire, some new screws, and a large vial of laudanum. Unscrewing the board of the tomb, he threw away the screws and filled the screw-holes in the board with clay.

With his new screws he then secured the trunk-handle to the inside of the board. This work, of course, had to be done outside the tomb. Pushing his child’s coffin aside, he got in by its side, taking with him his poison and the other articles with which he had provided himself. His hat he placed upon the coffin; his coat which he had taken off, he wrapped around a brick for a pillow. He shut himself in with the board, by means of the handle he had screwed to it; the board fitting outside the wooden frame. The iron bar, which was of the proper length, he placed across the frame inside. The thickness of the frame would not allow the bar to pass through the trunk-handle on the inside of the board; so he secured the handle and the bar by means of his wire, coiling it through the one end around the other. He did not succeed in fitting the board squarely upon the frame. One corner of it caught upon the brickwork outside the frame; this he did not discover, probably owing to the darkness of the night; and but for this little circumstance his fate would probably have never been discovered, or not at least for many years. Having thus hid himself away, as he fancied, beyond mortal discovery, he drained off the contents of his laudanum bottle, composed himself on his back, placed the brick and coat beneath his head, and went to sleep, and on into the unknown region of the suicides.

As he did not return home on Thursday night, his wife feared the worst, remembering well the tendency of his late conduct and the tenor of his parting words. On Friday morning she rose early and went out to the cemetery. She looked all around, and failed to find her husband. She went and looked at their tomb, and was about to leave, when she happened to notice that the board did not fit snugly into the frame as usual. Looking closer, she discovered the mud in the screw-holes; and putting her hand on the board, found it was standing loosely. She pulled it out a little, and the first thing she saw was the dead face of her husband. She fainted away, and laid in the grass she could not tell how long. She recovered at last, got up and went and informed the sexton, Mr. Merritt, of her discovery. The latter went and looked at things, and sent word to the coroner; and the inquest was held, as we have stated, on Saturday.

The coroner’s verdict was in accordance with the facts so plainly apparent—suicide by laudanum.

Albany [NY] Evening Journal 2 February 1859: p. 2 LOUISIANA

This story was so detailed, yet so bizarre in its unique details of self-immurement, that I thought it might have been a journalist’s invention. Grave records show that Sylvester Rupert, who died 20 January 1859, is buried in Greenwood Cemetery.

Often the 19th-century press focused on brutal, drunken, or absent fathers, yet there are a distressing number of stories of fathers pining themselves to death or committing suicide to follow a dead child or being visited by the  prophetic ghost of a lost darling. A Cincinnati man who said that his daughter came and stood by his bed at night, begging him to come to her, cried, “There’s the wraith of my child—she’s winking at me—I shall, shall go.” He eluded his terrified family, ran upstairs, and cut his throat. In another sad case, a railroad engineer whose child had died set a place for her at the dinner table and spoke to her as if she was still there. He told his wife that the little girl accompanied him on the locomotive and assured him that he would be with her soon. Shortly afterwards, he was killed in a train wreck.

This is an excerpt from The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available for Kindle. Or ask your library/bookstore to order it. You’ll find more details about the book here and indexes here.

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

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A Casket 300 Feet Long

A casket 300 feet long Purple Cross story

A CASKET 300 FEET LONG

The Distressing Truth Revealed Why It Is Not Possible to Properly Bring Back Our Soldier Dead from the Torn Battlefields and how the Undertakers Are Pressing the Scheme for Business Reasons

By Rene Bache.

Any American mother whose soldier boy lost his life in France, or any wife whose husband died in the war “over there,” has a right to demand that the body be brought back and given to her for burial in this country. The Government promised as much, and the War Department will do its best to make the promise good.

But there are difficulties which by most people are not understood at all.

The principal agent of destruction used in the great conflict was high explosives, in shells, in bombs, and in other instruments for killing. It is estimated that 3 percent of the 77,000 American dead were literally blown to pieces. How in such cases could the fragments be collected and identified?

In numerous instances where our fighting men were killed by high explosive shells their fate was shared by French comrades-in-arms. Burying parties picked up such remains as they could find and interred them, marking part of the ground as the grave of an American soldier and another part as the grave of a French soldier. There were many cases where bodies of horses or other animals killed at the same time were buried with the bodies of men.

There are 18,000 Americans who died in hospitals, of wounds or disease, outside the war zone. Eleven thousand of these are to be brought back immediately; the rest will remain, by the expressed wish of their families, where they are.

With those who lost their lives in the war-zone the situation is entirely different. Already they have been buried twice, the first interment being usually by the regimental chaplain, without a coffin—just a covering of the body with earth, to get it out of sight and for sanitation’s sake.

This was always practicable when our troops were advancing. When they retreated, the American dead were often of necessity left unburied. The Germans interred them higgledy-piggledy in trenches dug for the purpose. Indeed, in many instances the Yaks were obliged to bury their own dead in this wretched fashion.

When the fighting lines were long stationary, bodies sometimes lay unburied for weeks before it was possible to reach them without undue risk.

Many small temporary cemeteries were established, in which thousands of uncoffined bodies were laid to rest. The sites chosen were usually on low ground, because in such places the burial parties were relatively safe from shell-fire.  But there came four months of continuous rain, and the cemeteries were flooded. One there was which for a long time was under four feet of water, which washed some of the corpses out of the shallow graves, so that they floated to the surface.

This is distressing, but it is the truth. Everything was done that could be done in the circumstances. A concrete dam was built around this particular cemetery, and attempts were made to get the water out with gasoline pumps.

But the water seeped in beneath the concrete as fast as it could be pumped out; and finally, as a last resort, men equipped with long rubber boots and gas masks were sent in to grub literally for the bodies. It was a dreadful task, but they got them.

The possibilities of mistake in returning to American families the bodies of dead soldier boys are many and dreadful to contemplate. Recently 200 were brought back from Russia, and out of that small number no fewer than twelve were sent to the wrong homes.

After the Spanish war and subsequent fighting in the Philippines, the bodies of many dead American soldiers were brought back to the United States. Several of the coffins were found to contain the corpses of Chinese coolies.

Frequently it happened in France that American soldiers and German soldiers perished together and were buried together. Nothing is more certain than that efforts to fetch our dead boys from the war zone will result In the incidental importation of German remains. One can easily see how many an American mother or widow might thus weep over German bones, or even put flowers on the grave of the very man who slew the mourned son or husband.

For it must be remembered that the bodies shipped to this country from the war zone will be impossible of identification after their arrival.

They will be saturated with disinfectants, and inclosed in metal-lined caskets, hermetically sealed. It will be clearly explained in every instance that they are on no account to be opened.

There are now in the war zone, in France, 52.200 American fighting men, interred in proper cemeteries. Much clamor has arisen for the return of their bodies to the Union States. But the French Ambassador, M. Jusserand, says that it is “an artificially stimulated movement.” Cardinal Gibbons says: “The experiment of exhuming the bodies would be a useless one, to say nothing of the distress and pain caused to relatives.”

The American Legion, at its recent convention in Minneapolis, passed a resolution to the effect that “the bodies of American dead be not returned from France, except in cases where parents or next of kin so desire.”

The “movement” to which Mr. Jusserand refers, however, is to press for the immediate return, at Government expense, of all the American dead now in Europe. It is being very strongly pushed in Congress.

If it be “artificially stimulated,” who is giving it stimulation? The answer is that the real force behind the movement is the self-styled “Purple Cross,” which is another word for the Undertakers’ Trust. They see big money in it for them.

If proof of this be demanded, it is furnished by an editorial printed in The Casket

(September 1, 1919), which is the official organ of the Funeral Directors’ Association. It reads:

“Suppose, Mr. Funeral Director, that some one were to come into your office and tell you that he had a scheme for increasing the number of funerals this year by more than fifty thousand.

“What would you do?

“Most likely you would rush out wildly into the street and shout.

“But. Mr. Funeral Director, with your neatly appointed office and your not-entirely-paid-for motor equipment, this offer is being made to you in all seriousness,

“In alien soil there lie more than 50,000 American men who died in battle or of disease during their tour of duty abroad.

“For nearly every American soldier returned some funeral director will be called  upon to perform the necessary duties of reception and burial.

“Extra business, gentlemen, legitimate, patriotic; kindly, sympathetic, remunerative extra business. No additional number of widows and orphans. Only the final laying away of America’s sons in the bosom of their dear motherland.”

With which whole-souled exordium “The Casket” urges all undertakers to get busy and bring the requisite pressure on Congress to put through the scheme so promising of big profits for them,

The undertakers are pushing propaganda designed to cause uneasiness among people whose boys died in the war and to persuade them to write to their Congressmen and bring other influence to bear.

Listen to the testimony of one bereaved mother, Mrs. Mabel Fonda Gareissen, of No. 619 West One Hundred and Fourteenth street, New York City. She writes:

“I am a Gold Star mother and vitally interested in what is to be done with the bodies of our soldiers who lie in France. Therefore I decided to discover for myself the truth of persistent rumors that the Purple Cross (American Undertakers’ Association) is back of the movement to bring to America the bodies of our heroes.

“I asked Miss Jane O’Ryan, sister of General O’Ryan, to go with me to Mr. Blank, a leading undertaker. We saw there a tall, pale-faced man, with horn-rimmed glasses, who spoke with authority as one of the proprietors or managers.

“‘Yes,’ he said, ‘the dead in France are to be returned. Every pressure is being brought to bear. We have powerful representatives at Washington–not only our own, but Congressmen. We have been after the Congressmen for a long time.’

“‘Are you sending embalmers over?’

“‘No, the dead are in no condition for embalming. We shall use strong disinfectants, place the bodies in hermetically sealed caskets, and they will not be reopened.’

“‘Shall you ship all the caskets from America?’

“‘Yes, we shall use our own caskets, made in America.’

‘”After our dead arrive, can we be certain they are our own?’

“He hesitated and cleared his throat. ‘Well,’ he said, with very evident doubt, ‘we are going to be as careful as possible.”

“As we left he gave each of us a beautiful pink rose. We dropped them on the sidewalk when out of sight.

“Is it possible that the undertakers of this country would profiteer and use to that end the bodies of our American boys, one of whom is my own son?”

An answer to Mrs. Gareissen’s question is furnished by the editorial above quoted from “The Casket.” “Extra business, gentlemen–remunerative extra business.”

Big money in the scheme from beginning to end if it goes through. Fifty thousand caskets to start with! If all the American dead were put in one casket it would require a coffin 300 feet long, about sixty feet high and would cover a block and a half of Fifth avenue and stretch from sidewalk to sidewalk.

There is no article of merchandise on which the profit is larger than on coffins.

Each coffin must be inclosed in a box. It is an ordinary wooden box, costing perhaps $2.50, but the price the undertaker usually asks for it is $50. Then the funerals on arrival at destination, with carriages, incidentals and “service.” Did you over see an undertaker’s bill, and note the way in which it was “built up” out of a variety of items? Only a plumber’s bill can compare with it in this respect.

And then there are the tombstones, to wind up. The tombstone maker usually stand in with the “funeral directors,” and tombstones, like everything else, have gone up in price. The cost of them has doubled and trebled recently. When a monument is in question, you cannot buy the smallest and simplest pattern for less than $500.

H. S. Eckels, Director General of the Purple Cross (No. 1922 Arch street. Philadelphia) offers the following estimate for bringing a soldier’s body from France—a private job:

Average cost of disinterment and transportation to New York $605.00

The above total itemized as follows:

Zinc-lined oak coffin and outside box (cheapest) $115.00

Labor, legal fees, etc $120.00

Own transportation and expense of journey $112.00

Transport from French port to New York $100.00

Transport of body in France $48.00

Personal supervision and service  $50.00

It will be noted that this fetches the body only as far as New York. One may safely surmise that “extras” would double the bill. And, of course, the undertaker would not be making such an expedition for the bringing back of one body. There would be many, and for each one the charges for “personal services” and “own transportation, ” etc., would be duplicated.

Never was there such a chance for ghoulish graft.

Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt’s father and mother asked the War Department to permit his body to remain in France. They felt that the American soldiers who fell there should lie in the soil they died defending.

A great many parents and widows have been led by the Roosevelts’ example to relinquish their desire that the bodies of their soldier sons and husbands be brought back. Already letters to this effect have been received by the War Department from 19,000 families. In two recent weeks 500 such letters came from families who wished to reverse a previous request that their dead be returned.

Congressmen have made excited speeches to the effect that the French were anxious to prevent the removal of our dead, in order that money-spending Americans might come over in flocks. But, as a matter of fact, the French, in relation to all this sad business, have conducted themselves in the most sympathetic way imaginable. Their women, peasant and cultured alike, have tended with loving care the graves of the khaki-clad American dead. They are doing it to-day, esteeming it an honor and a privilege. They plant flowers on the graves, one or more being assigned to each volunteer for the purpose.

It was the voice of France that spoke when Clemenceau said “We look upon the Americans who died in France as sons of France!”

At the close of hostilities, with the ready cooperation of the French, convenient sites for burying grounds were chosen as centers into which the American dead were gathered from the temporary war cemeteries. There they now rest, awaiting the decision as to their final disposition.

Meanwhile there has been organized in this country an American Field of Honor Association, which, when sentiment on the subject has crystallized, expects to send to France a commission for the purpose of choosing a site for a great central soldiers’ cemetery. It is thought that France will give the site. There will be erected a magnificent memorial—possibly a duplicate of the Washington Monument. Also there  is in contemplation a memorial hall, to be there located, with a room for each State of the Union, on the walls of which will be placed bronze tablets bearing the names of the gallant dead.

According to present plans, the cemetery is to be made as much unlike a typical burying ground as possible. There will be no dismal rows of tombstones, but groupings of graves about rocks and under trees. And always will be maintained there a guard of honor, composed of honor men of the army, who, with fine quarters and extra pay, will service for one year, being thus rewarded for distinguished and meritorious services.

The great memorial cemetery will enjoy the special and extraordinary right of intra-territoriality. In other words, though in France, it will be a part of the United States—as much so as the Island of Manhattan. And above its sacred precincts will forever float the sheltering folds of the Stars and Stripes.

France has pledged herself to care for the American dead. In the belief of the Field of Honor Association, it is a mistaken scheme to attempt to disinter the bodies in the war zones, to haul them hundreds of miles to a seaport, to load them on ships, to bring them to this country and to forward them by railroad and truck to all parts of the United States.

It would take years to complete the job. During that time homes that have endured the first pangs of sorrow and have become in a measure reconciled would be plunged into renewed grief.

“Extra business, gentlemen! This is a matter of dollars.” So says their official organ, “The Casket.”

The Oregon Daily Journal [Portland OR] 15 February 1920: p. 61

Funeral Men In Denial.

Elmwood, Ill. –To the Editor:

The article written by Rene Bache which appeared in The Register Feb. 8, in which the statement is made that the undertakers are urging for the return of the dead American soldier boys from France, because it will help business, does a gross injustice to the legitimate members of our profession.

We desire to correct the article in two instances. First, The Casket, quoted in the article, which is edited by William Mill Butler of New York City, is not the official organ of the National Funeral Directors’ association.

Second, the National Funeral Directors’ association is not in any way connected with the American Purple Cross association, neither does it approve of the aims and objects of said Purple Cross association, as evidenced by the fact that at our last annual convention in Atlantic City, N.J. Sept. 10, 11 and 12, the National Funeral Directors’ association emphatically refused to affiliate in any way or to approve of the methods of the American Purple Cross association, whose request for such action was at that time presented to our association.

We believe the publication of this communication will in a measure explain to the people that the legitimate undertakers, of which the National Funeral Directors’ Association of the United States is composed, are not in any way connected with the American Purple Cross association.

H.M. Kilpatrick, Secretary.

The Des Moines [IA] Register 17 February 1920: p. 8

REMOVAL OF SOLDIERS DEAD FROM FRANCE

Mr. THOMAS. Mr. President, I have no doubt that every Senator has received a communication from Mabel Fonda Gareissen, of New York City, bearing date the 1st of January, relating to the desire, very naturally entertained by relatives of those sacrificed during the recent war and whose bodies are reposing in French soil, to have them transported to America for permanent interment. That is a sentiment with which every man must deeply sympathize and in his official action as well as his personal conduct accede to as far as possible. If, consistently with the policy of the French Government and its ultimate consent, the bodies of those whose relatives desire their transportation across the ocean can be brought back, it should be done. But the situation seems to have developed a commercial enterprise known to the world as The Purple Cross, said by this lady to include the American Undertakers’ Association, whose purpose, seemingly, is to commercialize the grief and affliction of parents and widows and children of those who have offered up their lives for their country across the sea.

I do not, Mr. President, indorse this recital or affirm that it is true, but it is in line with a number of circumstances that have developed since the close of the war, indicating that The Purple Cross is an organization designed to profit from this Sentiment and secure appropriate legislation to enable them to effectuate their purpose. However that may be, the public is entitled to know what the views of this lady upon the subject may be, particularly as she assumes to give an interview that occurred between a representative of The Purple Cross and a lady speaking in behalf of what is called a “gold-star mother.” If The Purple Cross is not the sort of organization that is here disclosed, then it is as much concerned in having the truth known as the country can be. If, on the other hand, it is true, then certainly it should be known and the facts considered in any legislation that we may undertake regarding this very important subject. I ask unanimous consent, therefore, for the insertion of this letter in the RECORD.

Mr. LODGE. Mr. President

Mr. THOMAS. I yield.

Mr. LODGE. If the Senator from Colorado will permit me, I merely wish to say that I have received a letter similar to that just presented by him. I believe it to be written in good faith, and I think the subject ought to be referred to some appropriate committee to inquire into it. If there is any truth in the statement, it is a scandal.

Mr. THOMAS. I think the Senator’s suggestion is a very pertinent one, and instead of merely asking that the letter be inserted in the RECORD–

 

Mr. LODGE. I think the letter had better be inserted in the RECORD.

Mr. THOMAS. I will supplement that request, and I ask that the letter be also referred to the Committee on Military Affairs, with a request that the committee investigate the subject and make report to the Senate.

Mr. LODGE. That is the committee to which it should be referred.

Mr. WARREN. Perhaps the Senator from Colorado will remember that legislation in reference to this matter has been heretofore considered, and that even at the commencement of the war, before there was any use for such a service, mothers of soldiers came before the Military Committee in regard to the matter. It seemed then, with the slight information which we had upon the subject—and we were not impressed that it was then necessary to go further—that there was a sort of trust that proposed to take over the entire situation.

Mr. THOMAS. The Purple Cross?

Mr. WARREN. Yes; The Purple Cross.

Mr. THOMAS. Yes; I think its adjective description might well be amended. There being no objection, the letter was referred to the Committee on Military Affairs and ordered to be printed in the RECORD, as follows:

JANUARY 1, 1920–8 P. M.

MY DEAR SENATOR: I am a gold-star mother and vitally interested in what is to be done with the bodies of our soldiers who lie in France. Therefore I decided to discover for myself the truth of the persistent rumors that “The Purple Cross” (American Undertakers’ Association) is back of the movement to bring to America the bodies of our heroes. After some thought, I asked Miss Jane O’Ryan, sister of Gen. O’Ryan, if she would go with me to Campbell’s, 1970 Broadway, New York City—the leading undertaker of America. She consented, and at about 5.1.5 p. m., January 1, we entered, Miss O’Ryan preceding me.

A man Came forward to meet us. The following is the gist of the conversation that ensued :

“Miss O’RYAN. My friend is a gold-star mother, and I hope you can tell us something definite concerning the return from France of our dead soldiers. “

MAN (politely, but with hesitation). I don’t know. I can’t say, but I’ll see. Won’t you be seated : ”

Very soon a tall, pale-faced, youngish man with a kindly expression entered. He wore horn-rimmed glasses and a well-made cutaway suit. He spoke with authority, as one of the proprietors or managers.

Miss O’Ryan repeated the statement she made upon entering.

After observing us closely, the man said :

“MAN. Yes; the dead in France are to be returned.  We are now working in England.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. Are all the bodies to be brought over from England? “MAN. Yes; and from Italy; from all the countries but France.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. But when will you begin in France?

“MAN. It’s a little hard to say, for the French Government has not yet given permission.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. But the papers have announced that France had given permission.

“MAN. It’s a mistake. We have definite news from Washington. France is, as you know, in a terrible condition since the war. Think of the ruined cities, and labor is hard to get. We were even willing to supply the labor, but without result. If we asked to have our dead returned now, England and the other countries would also.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. But when do you think you can get France’s permission?

“MAN. Her own people have to be thought of first, naturally, and the transportation is very difficult. You can see France’s viewpoint. Everything can’t be done at once. But I think we can begin by Spring.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. Spring is a long time. Are you doing everything in your power to hasten this?

“MAN. Every pressure is being brought to bear.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. What, for instance?

“MAN. We have powerful representatives at Washington.

“Mrs. GAREIssEN. Do you mean your own representatives?

“MAN. Yes; and not only our own but Congressmen.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. That is interesting. Have you been trying to persuade Congressmen for any length of time?

“MAN. Indeed we have. We have been after them from the very beginning. Every pressure has been brought to bear.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. Are you sending embalmers over?

“MAN. No; the dead are in no condition for embalming. We will use strong disinfectants, place the bodies in hermetically sealed caskets, and they will not be reopened.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. Where will you get these caskets?

“MAN. We will take them to France from America.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. You mean you will ship all these caskets from America : “MAN. Yes; we will use our own caskets, made in America.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. How much is it going to cost to do all this?

“MAN. It isn’t going to cost you people anything. The Government is going to pay us.”

A repetition of the question as to what the cost would be brought no response.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. After our dead arrive, can we be certain they are our own?”

The man hesitated and cleared his throat, “Well,” he said (with very evident doubt as to the result), “we are going to be as careful as possible.

“Mrs. GAREISSEN. You are very honest.

“MAN. I mean to be honest.”

As we left he gave us each a beautiful pink rose and bade me stop in from time to time and he would keep me posted. We dropped the roses on the sidewalk when out of sight.

I send you this as a gold-star mother who protests against such activities as are described above.

Is it possible that the undertakers of this country would profiteer and use to that end the bodies of our American boys, one of whom is my own son?

I appeal to you for an answer.

Respect fully, MABEL FONDA GAREISSEN

Congressional Record – Senate 13 January 1920: pp. 1471-2

Dead Man Standing

Dead Man Standing. Le Transi de Rene de Chalon
Dead Man Standing. Le Transi de Rene de Chalon

While I am a huge fan of Le Transi de René de Chalon, at the Church of St. Étienne, Bar-Leduc, France, seen above, the sad reality is that a corpse is a limp pile of meat. “Dead weight” is no mere expression. The dead cannot stand by themselves.

Naturally there are a few exceptions such as persons struck by lightning or electrocuted and the mummified, frozen, or heavily embalmed (see below). Rigor might occasionally occur in a way to temporarily allow a corpse to remain freakishly upright. But there are many vintage anecdotes about Resurrection men baffling the law by smuggling corpses sitting upright in a carriage—the corpse of Baroness Marie Vetsera was said to have been removed from Mayerling in this manner–or inconveniently dead men being “walked” as if they were drunk as in this story:

 

GRIM RUSE TO REMOVE A DEAD BODY.

The New York police are investigating a ghastly incident, which is alleged to have occurred in connection with the death of Mr Goodale, of Watertown, New York State, a well-known millionaire. While visiting New- York last month Mr Goodale died suddenly in an apartment in Forty-seventh Street, where he was dining with a friend and two women. The landlady refused to allow the undertaker’s hearse to take away the body, asserting that it would injure the reputation of the house. Mr Goodale’ s physician and. the coroner were summoned, and the latter, it is said, agreed to keep the matter secret to prevent a possible scandal. Mr Goodale’s companion is said to have then sent for another friend, and late at night the two men, arm-in-arm with the corpse, walked to the nearest cab-stand. During their grim journey they pretended that the dead man was only intoxicated. They staggered about the pavement and addressed jocular remarks to the corpse. Although the streets were crowded with people coming from the theatres, the deception was never noticed, When the cab was reached, the body was placed in it and conveyed to the undertaker’s, a generous gift sealing the driver’s lips. Star 6 April 1905: p. 2

Fair enough. But even with exceptions, it is nearly impossible to get the dead to stand on their own two feet without considerable assistance from the living. Which brings me to a point of considerable annoyance.

Recently this article on post-mortem photographs was published by the BBC. Now, rightly or not, I still have this nostalgic vision of the BBC as home of quality journalism, received pronunciation, and gravitas. But the BBC should be ashamed of itself for printing a piece that looks like it had been researched on Buzzfeed or its ilk. The article claims as post-mortems photographs of persons who are patently not dead, states that an obvious pre-mortem of a dying woman has had its eyes painted open, does not cite sources except a single mention of an Australian library, and, most damningly, repeats a canard that has been refuted again and again, about the dead being propped in a standing position for a post-mortem photo. [This site covers the question so well, I’m not sure why I’m bothering…] But indulge me while I rail against this beloved Victorian mortuary falsehood,  with little hope that it will make the slightest difference to those who Believe.

I will warn those of you with sensitive stomachs or advanced degrees, that I am all about the primary source.

Here’s the gist: Somewhere the fanciful idea got started that some dead Victorians were photographed in a standing position, supported by metal propper-uppers. If you can see the base of a metal stand behind a Victorian photographic subject, it means the subject is really and truly dead.

This is patently absurd and there are many sites out there that will patiently explain why it is absurd. Here’s one of the best. As that site points out, the metal stands pictured were headrests to keep the head of a subject still for a long photographic exposure—lightweight articles that could not physically support the dead-weight of a corpse. But, of course, the notion of the standing dead is a fun fact that many people just love and Ebay sellers, who may be ignorant or exploitive, repeat the old lie in listing after listing of “post-mortems,” no matter how blatantly lively the actual subject.

Would actual contemporary sources help to dispel this fantasy?

Looking at nineteenth-century medical/forensic texts, we see much excitement that post-mortem photographs will aid in identifying the unknown dead. Those commercial photographers who specialized in “securing the shadow ere the substance fade,” generally wanted to show a corpse in repose; “not dead, but sleeping.” The recumbent position, in coffin or on a chaise longue, was essential to the illusion.

Forensic photographers had no such illusions. It was obvious that a) dead people can look remarkably dead and b) a positive ID was much more likely if the person was posed like a living person.

One of the most famous pioneers in post-mortem photography for the identification of the unknown dead was Dr. Nicolas Minovici, who used a variety of special techniques to bring les inconnues back to life.

 

Photographing the Dead for Identification.

The London Lancet states that the coroner has on two recent occasions commented on the unsatisfactory character of the photographs of the unidentified dead taken by the police authorities. It adds that Doctor Miniovichi [Minovichi] has contributed a valuable report on this subject from his experience as director of a Medicolegal Institute of Bucharest. He describes his method in the Archives d’Anthropologic Criminelle. He substitutes artificial eyes and gives a natural appearance to the lids by means of lead foil or by pinning them to the eyeball with small pins. The jaws are drawn together with threads, and the face drawn to a natural expression by means of pins, evacuating accumulations of gas by means of incisions in the scalp or mouth. He gives photographs of the various steps in photographing the dead and states that he was able in one case to fully establish the identity by means of the photograph, the body having been in the water for six weeks. Physician and Surgeon: A Professional Medical Journal, Volume 28, 1906

You can read about Dr. Minovici’s artifices and see before and after photographs of some shockingly decayed and disfigured corpses in the Archives. It is not for the faint-of-heart, but our weeper-trimmed hats must be off to Dr. Minovici—he worked astonishing transformations on bodies that seemed beyond humanity.

Minovici describes and illustrates the chairs and supports he used to photograph corpses. Here, for example is a corpse in a special posing chair.photographing cadavers 2

photographing chair

The table [fig. 5] was also used—it tipped over; the body was fastened at neck and crotch; then the table was set upright.

Here is another table to hold the body upright, used in the morgue at Geneva:

This table and its accompanying text really ought to put paid to the notion that a corpse could be stood on its feet for a photograph.

table for photographing cadavers

An illustration of a table/litter used for photographing corpses. It could be laid flat, or adjusted to hold the body upright. The inventor recommended clamping the head of the corpse “otherwise a slow sinking of the body occurs which renders photography very difficult, especially if a long exposure is required….

“The author [Dr. H.T. Gosse] has obtained excellent results with this apparatus, which is cheap and easily put together. He has employed it especially in the identification of unknown bodies deposited in the Morgue at Geneva, and since the introduction of this method the mean of the corpses classified as unknown has fallen from forty to five or six per cent.” The Photogram, Volume 5, 1898

What did commercial photographers have to say about their post-mortem subjects’ poses? Looking at interviews with photographers who did such work, we find statements like “The photographer lifted the little corpse out of the coffin and stood it up in a chair. The nurse held it in position and a flashlight picture was made.” And when a photographer was called to take a photo of a dead coachman whose widow insisted he be photographed on the box: “So we carried him out to the stable, tied him on the box in full livery, with the lines and whip in his hands, and photographed him.” The Topeka [KS] Daily Capital 18 July 1885: p. 3

This particular artist also mentions that he has taken photographs of persons in coffins and on beds, while children were placed in parents’ arms or set up in chairs. But there is no mention of standing poses for the dead or of using a headrest to support them, as, indeed, there is no mention in any of the photographic journals or photographers’ accounts I’ve seen.

Rube Burrow, notorious train-robber, post-mortem
Rube Burrow, notorious train-robber, post-mortem

 

A popular sub-genre in post-mortem photography was images of the corpses of notables or outlaws photographed out of doors, usually in a coffin set on its end. The corpse of Manuel Morales, who threw a bomb at King Alfonso of Spain and his wife, and shot himself while trying to escape, was photographed “in a standing position, the body held up by two men.” British Journal of Photography, Vol. 53, 1906

I’ve run across two references to photographing the standing dead, one this frozen body:

An Irish family, living in the southern part of the city, called on me about two years ago to take a picture of their dead son—a young man—with his high hat on. It was necessary to take the stiffened corpse out of the ice-box and prop him up against the wall. The effect was ghastly, but the family were delighted, and thought the hat lent a life-like effect. Photographic Times and American Photographer, Volume 12, J. Traill Taylor, Editor, 1882 [The “ice-box,” as I’ve written about in these pages, was meant to freeze the corpse solid.]

A western “tent photographer” noted a cultural difference:

I was tenting in an Arizona town and quite a number of Mexican children died. These people are quite fond of pictures, and seem to like corpse ones if they have none taken in life. Most of them in the town I was in preferred having them standing, so I ordered them to place the corpse against the back of a chair and tie it thus outside of their doby house in the sun; and I will say that a standing corpse picture looks much better than one lying down. “Nine Years a Tent Photographer,” E.A. Bonine, Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin, 1898.

There are also photographs of show mummies, like Elmer McCurdy or “John Wilkes Booth,” embalmed with tissue-stiffening potions, such as this one:

 

MODERN EMBALMING

“How do you embalm now; what chemicals are used?” “Oh, there are a number of processes. Dr. Chaussier had the body thoroughly emptied and washed in water and kept it saturated in corrosive sublimate. The salt gradually combines with the flesh, gives it firmness and prevents decay, and in process of time the flesh becomes as hard as wood. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 3 August 1885: p. 8

An Ohio undertaker named Pearce kept an embalmed corpse as a specimen of his work:

The “subject” has now done service for a period of three years and the proprietor confidently expects that it will last as long as he remains in business.

The body in question has been in the very warmest workroom of his establishment all this while and the leatherlike flesh of the corpse is totally free from odor or putrefaction…Formaldehyde, a product of wood alcohol and a comparatively recent product, is the fluid ..used for the desiccation of the body in question. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 17 October 1897: p. 19

An Atlanta doctor went the leathery corpse preparers one better:

 

SECRET

Taken From Nature

Atlanta Doctor Discovers a Certain Method

Of Transmuting Human Bodies Into Stone.

Placed in a Case That is Made Air-Tight

And Treated With Chemicals, the Principal one Being Silicon Dioxide in a Liquid Form

Atlanta, Ga., July 18. A process of preserving human bodies, known to the ancient Egyptians, lost, sought for in vain by chemists and alchemists for more than 2,000 years, has been discovered by Dr. Arnold Rosett, of Atlanta.

Unlike the method practice by the priests who laid the Pharaohs in their sculptured sarcophagi, the process of Dr. Rosett is not one of mummification, but turns human flesh into heavy white stone… Dr. Rosett can change, and has changed in his laboratory, human bodies and parts of human bodies into glistening silicon in from four to six months. The length of time varies with the condition for the subject at the time of death, the character of the drugs given in the last illness having much to do with determining the length of time necessary for the chemicals used to work upon the flesh. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 19 July 1903: p. 9

Perhaps it was stories of petrified corpses or articles on embalming that suggested that a body could be stiffened enough to stand with only the negligible support of a headrest. But it is obvious from accounts by forensic post-mortem photographers, doing work where a standing portrait was most desirable, that an apparatus more substantial than a simple headrest was necessary to put the dead back on their feet.

And yet…. There is this poignant woodcut, taken from a photograph which accompanies a report on the autopsy of a toddler with Pott’s Disease.

child corpse suspended from head rest

After death, a photograph, from which the accompanying woodcut was obtained, was taken by Mr. Mason, of Bellevue Hospital, by simply suspending her in a head rest. Transactions of the International Medical Congress, Seventh Session, 1881

Theories as to why, in the face of so little evidence, the myth of the standing corpse persists? Or proof (Buzzfeed doesn’t count) that it isn’t a myth. chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.

This conclusive, meticulously-researched article on several Victorian post-mortem photography myths was just sent to me by the author, Edward Clint. Do read and share it!

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

May Queen Crowned in Coffin

May Queen Crowned in Coffin Stereocard showing The May Queen in Tennyson's poem on her death-bed http://www.nms.ac.uk/explore/collection-search-results/?item_id=20029777
May Queen Crowned in Coffin Stereocard showing The May Queen in Tennyson’s poem on her death-bed http://www.nms.ac.uk/explore/collection-search-results/?item_id=20029777

MAY DAY QUEEN CROWNED IN COFFIN
SAD DEATH YESTERDAY OF MISS ISABEL PORTER

Frock Made for Celebration of Tuesday is Her Shroud and Crown a Wreath in Memory.

Miss Isabel Porter, eldest daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Tom Porter, of Biltmore, died yesterday morning at 9 o’clock at her home, the old Cheesborough place, on the Swannanoa river.

The circumstances surrounding the little girl’s death make it one of particular sadness. Tennyson’s lines, “The May Queen,” are applicable, for sweet-faced, popular Isabel Porter had been chosen from her schoolmates for “Queen” at the May Day celebration to be given by the pupils of the Biltmore Parish school on next Tuesday, and now, by the death angel’s visit, her funeral will take place on today, May Day. As the chosen queen in Tennyson’s poem, she died before the honor bestowed by her schoolmates could be completed by the crowning.

Miss Porter had been ill for a week or two with pneumonia, but until a few days ago it was thought she would recover sufficiently to take her place at the May pole, when the festivities should take place. During the last few days and nights her mind had wandered constantly to the May Day celebration and she talked of the dress in which she was to be crowned and of her mates and teachers and their preparation for the celebration.

The funeral will take place this afternoon from the late residence. The honors of the May Queen will be given her by a large coterie of her school mates. The dainty white frock she was to have danced in as Queen is a burial robe and the fingers of her little friends have woven a crown of flowers that will rest upon her head just as it would have crowned her in the glad celebration.

Rev. Mr. Crutchfield will have charge of the ceremony.

The May Day celebration will be held on Tuesday, because of circumstances which make it almost impossible to postpone it, but out of the love for the dead queen and respect for her memory, the part of the celebration pertaining to the queen, will be omitted.

Asheville [NC] Citizen-Times 1 May 1904: p. 8

It is a pity that Dickens died in 1870. What a death-bed he could have conjured from this poignant story….

The ritual of crowning the May Queen has been said to go back to the Middle Ages (earlier, if you believe James George “Golden Bough” Frazer.) The folk-holiday continues in England and Canada. I remember it being a religious holiday at Catholic schools, where a statue of the Virgin Mary would be crowned with a wreath of flowers.

This parody is based on the old chestnut, “The May Queen,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, which was quoted in the press and recited ad nauseam in drawing-rooms until one wanted to scream. The anonymous Punch contributor has captured perfectly the thumpety-bumpety scansion of the original, which ill-accords with the lingering death-bed and morally uplifting sentiments found in the last two sections of the poem.

It was something of a joke that May-day weather in England was always inclement. In 1876 and 1877, records show that the day was either snowy or very wet.  It was no wonder that May Queens died from chills, consumption, or pneumonia. Mrs Daffodil has previously posted an amusing cartoon sequence on the Ideal vs. the Actual May-Day, dating from 1878, when the weather continued perfectly foul.

Other tragic May Queens? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

 

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

For Earth Day: Wicker Man: Victorian Basket-work Coffins

 Wicker Man: Victorian Basket-work Coffins Wicker coffin for green burial
Wicker Man: Victorian Basket-work Coffins A modern wicker coffin in Victorian style from a company in Australia: http://www.handwovencaskets.com.au

 Willow coffins are now the rage in England. They are more comfortable in hot weather, it is claimed. Dallas [TX] Weekly Herald 10 July 1875: p. 2

“Bury me,” said a ruddy and strong man, with whom I was discussing the subject of wicker coffins, — “when I am dead, bury me in an earth-to-earth wicker coffin, so that I may get out again into God’s pure air just as soon as possible.” England as Seen by an American Banker: Notes of a Pedestrian Tour, Claudius Buchanan Patten, 1885

In the summer of 1875 some residents of London received a novel invitation reading:

THE DUKE OF SUTHERLAND

Requests the honor of the company of

__________

At Stafford House,

On Thursday, the 17th, and Saturday, the 19th of June, to see a collection of models of basket and other perishable coffins constructed on the principles advocated by Mr. Seymour Haden.

Garden entrance. Four to six o’clock

A strange summer garden-party—with perishable coffins?–and to what end?  Why, to solve the problem of London’s graveyards bulging with bones, stenches, and partially decomposed corpses, of course. This is not an issue we think of today, but for urban Victorians, it was a real concern.

The author of the following piece paints a hideous picture of the horrors of conventional burials:

The objection against vaults and hermetically sealed coffins are great; if their purpose is to prevent dissolution of the compages of the flesh, they do not accomplish it, and the horrible scenes witnessed when old vaults are opened—where water has come through or the bodies are found in a loathsome deliquescence in which they float—are infamous if they can be prevented, as they can be by the use of the wicker coffin. Daily Graphic [New York, NY] 31 July 1875: p. 2

Wicker/perishable coffins also had the advantage of being cheaper than “the extortions of the undertakers” and “it affords of the body being restored quietly and lovingly to mother earth, and to head off the cremation fever now attacking many Britons.” Cleveland [OH] Leader 19 July 1875: p. 4.

But back to that invitation issued by the Duke of Sutherland.

THE COFFIN RECEPTION

After a description of American window displays of funerary necessities, the author writes…

 While all this may seem incongruous, and while less of ‘commercial’ obtrusiveness about the necessary work of funerals might be less offensive to good taste, even the American undertaker does draw the line somewhere. We never heard, for example, of his imitating the milliners and dressmakers by holding a mortuary “opening” or giving a coffin reception.

The last-named bit of enterprise was reserved for the ingenious Duke of Sutherland. That alert nobleman discovered a reformatory speciality to which his attention had never before been turned, and he proceeded at once to make the most of it. After cremation, as a method of getting the remains of human beings out of the way expeditiously and thoroughly, had been discussed, and after a vast majority of the British public had come to the conclusion that they did not care to burn themselves or their friends, Mr. Seymour Haden proposed a compromise with convention. The idea of destroying a body before the very eyes of the mourners was, he admitted, not altogether pleasing, but he, he argued, there could be no reasonable objection to permitting the remains to assimilate with their mother earth as rapidly as possible after they should be hidden from sight. Such a disposition, he contended, was preferable to cremation, because, while the latter process would leave nothing but a few worthless ashes, the other would give to the soil much which would enrich it and make it fruitful. To Mr. Haden, thus contemplating the bodies of himself and his kindred and the great army of the coming dead as fertilizers, nothing seemed lacking but a method of interment which would the most facilitate decomposition, or which would obstruct it the least… Like many reformers, Mr. Haden has to pull down as well as build up. He is obliged to overcome the preservative prejudices of the people before he can persuade them to inter their friends in such a way as to promote dissolution. He is convinced himself that the most important appliance of a fertilizing funeral is a basket. He is willing to be buried in one, but to induce other persons to follow his example is a difficult matter…. If he could succeed in introducing his death-basket into “high life,” he reasoned, he would be enriched, and so in time would be the soil of England. He approached the Duke of Sutherland, who just then happened to have no other extravagant undertaking on his hands, and who readily fell in with the scheme. Invitations “to see a collection of models of basket and other perishable coffins” at Stafford House were issued, and a large company was assembled accordingly.

The affair was grotesque enough. In place of what at other times would have been a program of the concert or a bill of the play, guests were furnished with a printed description of the coffins, their purpose, merits and defects. There was ghastly humor in the statement, especially in the fourth direction:

“Accompanying each of them [the coffins] should be a narrow leaden band or ribbon pierced with name and date of death, to be passed round the chest and lower limbs, and through the sides and over the top of the basket: 1. For retaining the body in its position; 2. For the subsequent identification of the bones; 3. For sealing the coffin, as a guaranty that the contents have not been disturbed.”

One model was of “a nest of coffins as they will be kept in stock, from the smallest to the largest.” There were “forms of coffins for ordinary use,” with the legend, “The best are very inexpensive.”… Considering the basket coffin seriously, if it was meant to be seriously considered, the most forcible argument for it which we have seen is that it will cheapen funerals. But we are by no means sure that it would do so; the undertakers probably would contrive to make even a willow-ware burial costly. And even if it would do so, cheapness is not the only thing to be considered in living and dying. It must occur even to Mr. Haden, meditating upon his fertilizing scheme, that if the economical disposition of bodies, quick or dead, is of prime importance, it would be cheapest to die young, and cheaper still not to be born at all. Evening Post [New York] 17 July 1875: p. 2

Another eye-witness took a gallows-humor approach. (The proposal to “make a funeral very much like a festival,” has been my complaint as a church organist witness of many “celebrations of life.”)

 A cold chill ran down my back. A garden party at Stafford House, at which the entertainment was to consist of coffins and “perishable coffins” at that! There is something ghastly, uncomfortable and incongruous in this. One may joke and try to be gay when surrounded with these memorials of death, but the jokes will be far-fetched and the gayety unnatural. Mr. Haden has elaborated a completely new programme for all the arrangements connected with deaths and burials, and proposes to make a funeral very much like a festival. Everything is to be light, cheerful, and pleasant; the undertaker’s people are not to enter the house; the ladies of the family are to wrap the corpse in a light shroud, lay it in a pretty basket of open willow work, lined with fragrant moss and lichens; and, when all is ready the men of the household are to carry the body away and bury it. This was certainly less shocking than cremation; but still there seemed to be much nonsense about it. Now, however, we were to have a garden party in order to the look at the new coffins—and, perhaps, we might be treated also to a funeral got up for the occasion. Since the Duke of Sutherland had taken the matter in hand there was no reason why he might not send up to one of his Scotch estates and order a gilly or two to be killed and sent down by express train, in order to afford Mr. Haden every facility for a demonstration of the advantages of his new method of burial….

The joke about killing a gilly almost looks like Second Sight. In 1883 the Duke accidentally killed a man, said to be his gamekeeper, during a hunting expedition.

 The day was lovely; the grounds were in all their beauty; the toilets of the ladies were brilliant; the Duke, smoking a cigar, his hands in his pockets and a white hat set jauntily over one side of his head, moved from group to group, laughing and jesting. But for all this the company were not gay. The coffins saddened them, although there was nothing in them. On the broad terrace which extends along the front the house the “basket and other portable coffins” were arranged in rows. There were dozens of them, from the tiny ones intended for infants up to the full size ones large enough for the Duke himself. Some were made of nothing but willows, open on all sides like a basket; others had the sides and bottoms filled in with green moss; others, intended for the bodies of those who had died of contagious disease were double, a layer of powdered charcoal being placed between the outer and inner baskets. …

The people crowded around the coffins, examined them with interest, not unmixed with anxiety, listened to Mr. Haden’s explanations, shuddered in spite of themselves as he insisted upon the fact that a body thus interred would be all “absorbed in a month,” tried to make remarks expressive of their pleasure at such a prospect, and then strolled off into the grounds. I saw more than one lady grow pale as she looked at the little coffins for children. For all that, the coffins lined with soft and fragrant moss were not unpleasant to gaze upon—not unpleasant, that is, for coffins. Augusta [GA] Chronicle 17 July 1875: p. 3

So who were these Wicker Men, the Duke and Mr. Haden?

Sir Francis Seymour Haden (1818-1910) was an English surgeon as well as a noted etcher. He was also an expert on the etchings of the old masters, particularly Rembrandt. He married a half-sister of the artist James Whistler and for a time he and Whistler printed their etchings together in a home workshop. He also testified in the Tichborne Claimant trial and invented a papier-mache coffin.

I have not been able to find out what triggered his life-long near-mania for earth-to-earth burial, although any doctor in London would have realized that the burial grounds were a breeding ground for pestilence.

Other than his interest in burial reform, he seemed to have led a fairly conventional, Royal College of Surgeons/Royal Academician sort of life, (although he had married into the family of the relentlessly unconventional James McNeill Whistler.) The founder of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers, he was revered world-wide for his artwork and was dubbed The Great Master of Etching; The Apostle of the Burin; The Foremost of Living Etchers. He was knighted in 1894.

Dr. Haden was back in the news briefly in the summer of 1896 with his comments on “shallow burial”—one foot under rather than the statutory 4 ½ feet—to encourage rapid decomposition. He came to this conclusion by studying dead animals he buried at various depths on his estate—a proto-Body Farm. I have been unable to discover if he received an earth-to-earth burial. [Source: “Disposing of the Dead” New York Herald-Tribune 3 July 1896: p. 6]

The Duke of Sutherland was Sir George Granville William Sutherland – Leveson-Gower, K. G., Third Duke of Sutherland, 1828-1892. [I will not weary you with his string of other titles.] As you might expect from the greatest landowner in Great Britain, he did as he pleased. He was frequently dubbed “eccentric” and “a queer old fellow” in the press. One of his pranks was to send a wildcat trapped in Sutherlandshire to the first Crystal Palace Cat Show in July 1871. He was intrigued by invention and loved driving locomotives. (It was said that he was the only man in the world who could drive his own engines, fired with coal from his own mines, over his own private railroad tracks, throughout his own extensive properties.) He also invented a fire engine and worked as an amateur firefighter in London.

His personal life was equally unconventional. In November of 1888, his wife, Duchess Anne, gravely ill, saw him off on a voyage to the United States, then died of a cold contracted from the exertion. The Duke caused a scandal by refusing to travel from Florida for her funeral.  Less than four months later, the Ducal widower married his “traveling companion” Mary Caroline Blair. Mrs. Blair’s first husband, Arthur Kindersley Blair, had been an employee of the Duke—some say gamekeeper; others estate Superintendent–whom the Duke accidentally shot and killed in 1883 (the date and the circumstances are also murky).  The married Duke became fascinated by the lady, who was described as 6-feet tall and “raw-boned,” causing a rift with Duchess Anne. “He was best known on account of his immoralities, which he took no pains to conceal.” [Elkhart [IN] Daily Review 28 September 1892: p. 4 ]

The Duke made several visits to the United States where he met Thomas Edison while viewing electric lights Edison had installed for a New York client. In the course of their conversations, the inventor mentioned the excellent tarpon fishing at Ft Meyers. Intrigued, the Duke visited Edison at Seminole Lodge and then built himself a home near St Petersburg at Tarpon Springs where he lived with Mrs. Blair.

At his death in 1892 the Duke left his vast fortune to his second wife who was found guilty of contempt of court for destroying documents related to the estate and served six weeks in Holloway Jail. The Duke’s children by Duchess Anne contested the will and paid the lady off handsomely. She later married her legal advisor.

Other than the Duke’s interest in innovation and invention, I am not sure why he decided to patronize Mr. Haden’s wicker coffins. I also do not know if the Duke was buried in a wicker coffin, but I have seen a note that his coffin was put into the ground rather than the family vault, at his request.

Despite his letters to the Times, Mr. Haden’s wicker coffins proved only a summer sensation. Although at the time of the “Coffin Reception,” his name was on everyone’s lips, after 1875 Dr. Haden’s press notices focus solely on his art, lectures, exhibitions, and art criticism. Neither man’s obituary notice mentions death-baskets or earth-to-earth burial.

Wicker coffins never really caught on over in the States except as temporary/transport coffins. They were unusual enough that they were mentioned as a curiosity in death notices. You sometimes see such coffins for sale, possibly because undertakers found that they were not popular with the public.

There is nothing new under the sun, of course. Seymour Haden and the Duke were early proponents–138 years too early—of what today we call the green-burial or eco-funeral movements.

A friend sent me a recent article about “free trade” basketwork coffins being made by cooperatives in Bangladesh.  You can see a pretty example here.

Bury me beneath the willow
Under the weeping willow tree
Where she will know where I’m sleeping
And perhaps she’ll weep for me.

“Bury Me Beneath the Willow”

-Trad. Folk song-

 

Thanks to Michael Robinson for the free-trade basketwork article, which inspired this post.

Further Reading:

Cremation: a Pamphlet, Seymour Haden (London, 1875)

The Disposal of the Dead, a Plea for Legislation, Seymour Haden (London, 1888).

Earth to earth: a plea for a change of system in our burial of the dead, Seymour Haden (London, 1875)

Cremation: an Incentive to Crime, Seymour Haden (London, 1892)

The Corpse in the Garden: Burial, Health and the Environment in Nineteenth-Century London by Peter Thorsheim is an excellent article giving much of the background about issues that inspired burial reformers like Dr. Haden: questions of sanitation, earth-to-earth burials, cremation, and the transformation of some of London’s cemeteries into public parks.

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

Death by Owl

skull owl finis.JPG

This weekend begins the “International Festival of Owls,” and while we do find some touching stories of owls as pets and grudging acknowledgment that they keep down vermin, the papers of the past are more likely to report on owls killing domestic fowls or sheep, or on monster owls with 4-foot wingspans. Owls are silent, taloned killers and they have long been heralds of death. Even today some people believe that their call is a token of doom. It must have felt that way to this unfortunate Long Island woman:

OWL IS CAUSE OF SUDDEN DEATH

YOUNG WIFE SUCCUMBS TO ATTACK OF APOPLEXY

Heard Omen in Screeches.

Dies When Bird Flies Against Window

New York, June 15. Mrs. Josetta Coonan O’Neill, wife of James T. O’Neill, assistant corporation counsel in Brooklyn died suddenly in their summer home in Argyle Park, near Babylon, L.I., early yesterday, from apoplexy caused, it is believed, by fright when a screech owl flew against the window of her room just before she retired. Mrs. O’Neill for two days had lived in fear of the owl, a dark-feathered bird that had followed her about the grounds and had passed and repassed her husband and herself when they went out. Her dread is believed to have reached a fatal climax when the owl flew against the window in the darkness, screeching.

The body of Mrs. O’Neill last night lay in the home of her mother, Mrs. Thomas Coonan in Seventh street, Brooklyn, on the Park Slope, the home from which the young woman went forth a bride only last December.

Mrs. Coonan, who is an invalid, was in the Argyle Park home of her daughter when Mrs. O’Neill died. There was no warning that death was to visit the house. Mrs. O’Neill, only five minutes before her death, had passed into the room of her mother and kissed her good night. The younger woman then apparently was in her usual health. It is thought, however, she was suffering secretly through her fear of the owl, which at that moment was screeching dismally from the limb of a tree near the house, and that she concealed her fear for her mother’s sake.

Mrs. O’Neill was in the railroad station in Babylon at 5.40 o’clock Tuesday afternoon, when her husband arrived from Brooklyn, and together, as usual they walked to Argyle park. The owl was not then in evidence, for it was still daylight. After dinner, however, when O’Neill went out to rake a flower bed he had been preparing for his wife, the owl began to screech nearby. The flower bed is in front of the house and only 50 feet from the front porch where Mrs. O’Neill sat watching her husband. Suddenly she uttered an exclamation and her husband looked up to catch a glimpse of the owl that swiftly passed within a foot of his face, crying as it passed.

Three times the bird made the passage in front of him until, in exasperation; he threw his hoe at it. The hoe went over a fence and the owl perched again in a tree, letting out a succession of raucous screeches. To O’Neill it seemed as if the bird mocked him, and he tried to hit it with a stone, but the owl only flew away unharmed.

Mrs. O’Neill was much disturbed by the actions of the bird, which the night before had pursued her and her husband in their walk to the village. O’Neill hardly could persuade her to go out for their usual walk, but at last she went, though expressing a fear the owl would give them no rest. She said the persistence of the bird was an omen. Her husband treated the subject lightly, saying he would get a gun the next day, and end the bird and the omen too.

But Mrs. O’Neill’s fears of being pursued quickly were verified. Scarcely had they gained the street when the owl, out of the darkness, darted past their faces, uttering its hoarse scream. The bird, O’Neill observed, waited until it was passing before it screeched. Once it went so close to them its wings fanned their faces, and Mrs. O’Neill stopped, trembling, and grasped her husband’s arm, saying she could go no further. They had walked no more than 300 yards from home. They just had turned back when the owl again passed them, screeching. All the way to the house the owl passed and repassed, and at last Mrs. O’Neill’s terror became so great she released her husband’s arm when they almost had reached the steps and ran into the house, where she sank trembling into a chair. Her husband reassured her and afterward they sat on the porch and watched for the appearance of the bird, which at intervals flew close to the steps. By that time Mrs. O’Neill seemed to have recovered her courage, and laughed and chatted with animation. Afterward they went into the house where O’Neill wrote letters and Mrs. O’Neill read and commented on some of the articles she looked at. She still maintained the air of cheerfulness. It was almost midnight when they thought of retiring. Mrs. O’Neill’s last act was to kiss her mother.

Just after the wife entered their room, which is on the second floor, O’Neill left it for five minutes. It was in his absence the owl is thought to have struck the screen of the window. When O’Neill returned his wife apparently was asleep. Believing she merely was feigning sleep the husband pinched her earl slightly but she made no response. Then, becoming alarmed, he looked closely at his wife and observed her pallor. He called her mother and the maid and telephoned to Dr. Harold E. Hewlett of Babylon, who on arriving, said Mrs. O’Neill had died from apoplexy.

At dawn yesterday, the owl again flew near the room where lay the body of Mrs. O’Neill. In a second flight the bird flew against a screen door which gives egress from the room to a balcony.

The nurse who had been summoned and several others in the room saw the bird hurl itself against the screen as if to break its way into the room. It uttered its cry, fluttered to the floor of the balcony and then again flew to its favorite perch in a tree nearby. O’Neill, when asked last night about the owl, said it had persisted in following his wife and himself. The Argyle park home has been owned by the O’Neill family for 20 years, but Mr. O’Neill said he never had seen the owl until two days ago. O’Neill said the owl was not larger than an ordinary pigeon, but had a great spread of wings. Springfield [MA] Union 15 June 1911: p. 2

Now, I’m sure a naturalist would hoot at the idea that the owl had anything supernatural about it, and perhaps rightly so. Owls are intensely territorial. The “favorite perch” could have been its nest and it might have been defending its eggs or owlets. Owls are well known for attacking people who come too close. They sometimes hurl themselves against windows, believing the reflection is an intruder. One owl even attacked a window of a room where a stuffed owl was kept. But it does seem a little odd that the bird only showed up two days before Mrs. O’Neill’s death and that it attacked the room where her body was laid out.

Rational explanations aside, the owl is, of course, a token of death.  The unfortunate Mrs. O’Neill believed it had come for her and that she was doomed. Other headlines for this story also emphasized a belief that Mrs. O’Neill was scared to death. “Dies from Fear of Owl,” “Dread of Owl Causes Death.” “Bride of Three Months Scared to Death by Owl.” Even the New York Times’ headline read: “Hears Owl Screech; Dies,” although the Times article mentions that Mrs. O’Neill was also grieving for her father, who had died five weeks previously and that she had had a “nervous breakdown” over his death. In a post on people who died of fear, I cited “broken-heart syndrome,” which is triggered by a sudden loss or shock.

The “superstition” of believing that owls hooted of death was supposed by all educated and right-thinking people to have been wiped out by 1911 (except in isolated pockets of rural or ethnic ignorance).  A 1912 article rather scornfully stated that the barn owl was the source of more ghost stories than any other living creature, with its uncanny cry and ghastly face. Owls trapped in chimneys and furnaces were exposed as the source of haunted house rumors; eerie moans in burial vaults were revealed to be roosting owls. Such things really took all the fun out of folklore. But despite ridicule, there was a deeply-rooted belief in the malignity of owls.

A gravedigger had this to say:

“It seems like the graveyard is their natural element, especially when there’s lots of big trees and ivy-grown vaults. To hear an owl hoot in the night here, as I do sometimes, when everything is still, would make your blood run cold. They don’t keep it up right along through the night, so you can get used to it; but it will be quiet for a long time–so still that you get almost afraid to breathe, and the falling of the leaves startles you–then all of a sudden you’ll hear the long hoot-too-toot and a dull rushing in the air, as a big owl sails by and drops down upon a vault beneath the hill…

“I can always tell when there’s going to be a busy time here,” he continued. “When the owls are particularly plenty and keep up an awful hooting during the night I look for the funerals next day. They always come. When the owls hoot, it means funerals.”

“I don’t like owls,” the old man went on, scraping the red clay from his spade with the toe of his boot. “I don’t like ’em; they don’t mean good. Dead people are good enough in their way, I get used to them. But owls are a kind of half-dead and half-alive bird, and if t’warnt that I knew they couldn’t get at ’em, I’d believe they lived on dead people.” The Independent Record [Helena, MT] 9 December 1883: p. 9

A half-dead and half-alive bird. A perfect description of the skull-faced barn owl, silent and deadly one moment; screaming as if knifed the next. You’ll find a selection of owl calls here. Even knowing what is coming, they are unnerving.  A screeching owl dive-bombing out of the dusk; hitting window screens; screaming like a banshee–it is like something out of The Birds and it is no wonder that, in her weakened state, Mrs. O’Neill felt that a taloned angel of death had come for her. Death is the thing with feathers…

Other fatal owl attacks? Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

 

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

Corpse Contracts: People who Sold Their Own Dead Bodies

body snatchers with rotted corpse 1865

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

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

 The temperate found many morals to point in these transactions.

THE BIRD OF DEATH DEAD

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

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

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

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

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

Sold His Body for Whisky

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

 Some had seller’s remorse. 

Trying to Buy Back His Own Body.

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

 Others imposed on good-hearted physicians. 

TWO HEARTS BUT NO CONSCIENCE

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

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

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

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

Strange Freak to Get Money

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

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

A Singular Suicide

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

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

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

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

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

Anna E. Jones

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

W.W. Conoway

J.E. MacDonalds

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

T.C. Robinson, Notary Public.

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

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

As they rattled her bones over the stones,

The old dead woman that Dr. Cooke owns.

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

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

Rattle his bones over the stones

He’s only a pauper whom nobody owns. 

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

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

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

 PICKLED

CHARLEY KENTON, THE RESURRECTIONIST,

GOES BACK ON THE PROFESSION

HE SELLS HIS OWN BODY TO THE DOCTORS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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