Potato Bugs, Cow Paunches, and Peaches: Indirect Poisonings

In my well-thumbed files of strange deaths, there are a number of curious poisoning cases. These are not the humdrum “I-mistook-Rough-on-Rats-for-sugar” stories of the harried housewife or careless servant nor the plausible tales of strychnine bought to exterminate vermin—unwanted stepchildren, for instance, or inconvenient spouses. No, these are more subtle, and to my mind, more interesting “indirect poisonings.”

They come in three flavors: animal, vegetable or mineral. Animals are by far the most numerous. We begin with an article by a dog-loving journalist. The baby seems to be an afterthought.

DOG POISONING

(Fort Wayne News-Sentinel)

Out in Spokane Washin., one of those sneaking beasts in human form, whose milk of human kindness has been curdled with the venom of a cancered soul, set out some poison for a dog the other day. The dog found the bit of food that had been poisoned and took the bait. In his agony, the poor creature crawled to his little pal, a 19-months-old child, and licked the baby’s hands. The baby put his hands to his mouth and got some of the poison and was soon in the throes of excruciating pain. At the moment when these lines are written, the baby is hovering between life and death. All this ghastly tragedy because some beast unworthy of the association of dogs had vented his sinister and unnatural spleen upon society. If nothing else will avail to withhold these perverted pusillanimous caninophobiacs from throwing out poison for dogs, let them reflect upon the Spokane case and consider the possibilities of death to human beings which may result from the death of a normal human being’s animal friend. But will a dog hater be much worried about what can happen to a baby? Hammond [IN] Lake County Times 27 February 1930: p. 4

Cow’s milk was often a hazardous commodity. There are too many cases to count of persons killed or driven mad by cows ingesting poisonous plants. [In The Headless Horror, for example, there was a case of an Ohio village in the grip of a witch mania from poisoned milk.] In this snippet, the culprit is supposed to be a snake, but one wonders….

Pittston, Pa., June 18. Eighteen persons were seriously poisoned here yesterday, by milk taken from a cow supposed to have been bitten by a rattlesnake. Evening Star [Washington DC] 18 June 1878: p. 1

Cows also might prove a more direct hazard, especially when the victims were groping around in bovine intestines.

SINGULAR POISONING CASE

Death of Two men from Poison Received in Handling the Intestines of a Dead Cow

Woman and Boy Dangerously Ill.

[From the New Albany Ledger.]

On Thursday of last week a very remarkable and terrible case of poisoning occurred at Tell City, Perry county, resulting in the death of two men, the probable  death of a woman, and the serious illness of a little boy ten years of age. The circumstances of the case, as we learn them from E.E. Crumb, Esq., of Cannelton, are about as follows;

On Wednesday night the cow of Dominic Friant died very suddenly. On the next day (Thursday) Mr. Friant determined to open her and examine as to the cause of her death, suspecting she had been poisoned. He called to his assistance his wife, a little boy of ten years, and Mr. Joseph Sporcey. Upon cutting open the paunch of the cow, small pieces of pewter and a silver spoon were found in it; and each of the parties named pushed their hands into the paunch and felt among its contents for other pieces of the spoons than those already found.

On Friday morning, when the persons arose from bed, they found their hands and arms much swollen and broken out with large red blotches. The swelling continued to rapidly increase and spread until it covered the entire upper part of the bodies of the victim. Medical assistance was summoned, and everything possible done for the relief of the sufferers, but all was of no avail. Mr. Friant died on Saturday, Mr. Sporcey on Sunday, and Mrs. Friant was still dangerously ill on Tuesday and it was thought would die. The little boy was out of danger at last accounts.

The physicians gave it as their opinion that the unfortunate victims took the poison from the cow’s paunch into their systems by absorption, as there was no abrasure upon the skin of either of them. The case is one among the saddest and most singular we have ever been called upon to record. The Cincinnati [OH] Daily Enquirer 13 July 1870: p. 3

Rats were a favorite animal culprit. They could be found in a domestic setting.

Apples Poisoned by Rats

Poison placed in a grocery cellar at Bucyrus, O., to exterminate rats was dragged by them over a lot of apples. Loren Haman bought some of the fruit and his whole family is sick. Ethel, aged 5, died in great agony. Many other purchasers of the apples suffered—New York World Marion [OH] Daily Star 16 February 1899

Or they could be found operating on a grand, public scale.

The National Hotel Sickness Again.

The Editor of the New York Scalpel makes the following statement in regard to the mysterious sickness at the National Hotel, Washington.

We have a patient from the immediate vicinity of this hotel—a very common-sense man and a housekeeper—who assures us that his premises were overrun with rats from the hotel; dozens of them might be seen at almost any hour of the day in the yard—indeed, they were so numerous as to be incredible, and a man from this city was sent for to poison them. He did so, and what he used it is not very probable he told. Those ingenious philosophers are not apt to communicate their secrets. The rats all disappeared. My patient tells me not one is visible on his premises, and they were in numbers so incredible, that he would not venture to say; but we know, for we have been there and seen them in the hotel-yard. He had a servant who had been employed at the hotel, and she told him, that it was known to all the other servants, that a great number of dead rats were taken from the water-tank, which was used for cooking and other household purposes! This was published at the time, and is doubtless true; for a rat’s instinct, after eating arsenic, will lead him to the top of a house to get water; and nothing is easier than for them to get in a water-tank. No other person than those who ate at the hotel were affected, although that sewer opens directly before the room, and under the doors and windows of a telegraphic office, where sixteen gentlemen are constantly operating. It by no means follows that all who ate of the food should be similarly affected; all did not die, and some ate mostly perhaps of dishes that did not require so much of that filthy water in their preparation. Some drank much strong coffee, and coffee is an antidote—in short, some had stronger constitutions, and many are still suffering.

No doubt, the proprietors of the National Hotel felt disgraced at the discovery of the filthiness of their premises; and no doubt the committee felt sore at our letter—it had too much common-sense in it; but we can’t cure committees—never. As for the hotels at Washington, they are the most disgraceful and filthy holes that humanity ever vomited in; and if our business again leads us to Washington, which it often has, and probably will, we will either live out of town in the suburbs, or carry some food with us. Such filth as we have there witnessed, we never wish to see again. We should not have been surprised to have found a rat entire in a hash or a pie.

Whilst reading the proof of this article, we find a very learned paper in the American Medical Monthly, by the excellent Dr. Hall, of Washington — a gentleman who is admired by all who know him — designed to prove the miasmatic character of the disease. The last paragraph is as follows: “One thing, however, jostled my theory, and has staggered me a good deal, and that is, that many persons who partook of but a single meal were seized! Could the miasma have affected or adhered to food? The water of the house I drank copiously without any ill effects.”

Dear Doctor, they never gave you that water to drink; it was a little too filthy for drinking; as the poor woman said, who wished to settle the stomachs of her guests, when they rebelled at their breakfast, her eggs were “not fresh enough for boiling;” so she fried ’em.

So far as regards the power of concentrated exhalations from sewers to produce disease of the bowels, no one doubts it; Heaven knows every physician in a large city is abundantly convinced of its power; but it acts chiefly on children, and in connection with teething; the dysentery of our summers is chiefly admitted to be caused by heat, and is dysentery and nothing else; that this National Hotel epidemic should have been confined solely to one house, and have produced the set of symptoms it did, without a specific or material poison acting on the stomach and its appendages is absurd. Arsenic, mechanically diffused from the decayed rats, and slowly acting on the stomach, is sufficient to account for all the symptoms. The Highland Weekly news [Hillsboro, OH] 9 July 1857: p. 1

See this link for more on this sensational case. [Thanks to Strange Company for the link.]

Fatally Poisoned by Impure Water.

Findlay, October 19. Miss Hattie Wade of Mount Cory, died of a strange malady just two weeks after her mother, Mrs. Rebecca Wade, the two cases showing the same symptoms. Investigation shows the cause to have been poisoning, due to the use of drinking water from a well in which a poisoned rat had been drowned. Cincinnati [OH] Commercial Tribune 20 October 1883: p. 6

We are, of course, reminded by both articles above of that tragic case where a young woman tourist drowned herself in the rooftop water tank of the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles.

Everyone knows that snake venom is still lethal for a long period after a snake’s death. Apparently it maintains its lethal qualities even in another animal’s body.

SNAKE POISON.

It is stated that the blood of an animal bitten by a venous snake assumes poisonous properties. Frank Buckland on one occasion having seen a rat bitten and killed by a cobra, dissected off the skin to examine the wound. Having discovered the two minutes punctures made by the poison fangs, he scraped away with his fingernail the flesh on the inner side of the skin which he had removed. Unfortunately, he had shortly before been cleaning his nails with a penknife, and had slightly separated the nail from the skin beneath. When he had completed his rapid examination of the rat he walked way, characteristically stuffing the skin into his pocket, (what strange things, alive and dead, did those pockets often contain!)

He had not walked a hundred yards before, all of a sudden, he felt as if somebody had come behind him and struck him a severe blow on the head, and at the same time experienced a most acute pain and sense of oppression at the chest, “as though a hot iron had been run in and a hundred weight put on top of it.” He knew instantly from what he had read that he was poisoned. Luckily he obtained ammonia and brandy, but was ill for some days. “How virulent, therefore,” he says, “must the poison of a cobra be! It had already been circulated in the body of the rat from which I had imbibed it at second hand.” From the account that he gives, however, it seems at least possibly, if not probable that some of the poison was hanging about the wound unabsorbed, and had thus entered his system directly and not, as he believed, indirectly. Murray’s Magazine. The Christian Recorder [Philadelphia, PA] 18 April 1889

I have a note in my files to the effect that “Charles Drury, taxidermist of Cincinnati was poisoned by rattlesnake head on specimen he was preparing,” but I cannot find the citation.

Tainted poultry has also been responsible for many food poisonings, but not for the same reason as in these two cases. Another reason to avoid Thanksgiving.

IDAHO YOUTH CAUSES ILLNESS OF HIS FAMILY

Feeds Poison to Flock of Turkeys Thanksgiving Morning

Results are Disastrous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Families Feed on a Poisoned Turkey

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

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

Did this young man die of anthrax poisoning? It is said that people who sorted wool or worked with animal bone, bristles, or hides were susceptible to inhalational anthrax. The wonder is that it didn’t kill more people.

A SINGULAR POISONING CASE

Jas. Francis McLean, whose singular poisoning was yesterday referred to, was employed in the morocco factory of James. S. Barclay, on Piano Street, Newark, N.J., where imported skins are tanned. Last Wednesday he was engaged in the handling of some Russian hides that were in the process of tanning. While his hand was still wet, he rubbed a pimple of his chin. On Thursday night he was taken ill, and on Friday morning he complained of chills, and his throat was slightly swollen. He continued to grow worse, the swelling extending upward to the forehead and half way down his chest. The swelling affected his breathing and he suffered intense pains. A consultation of physicians was held and the conclusion was reached that the young man was afflicted with a malignant pustule. All efforts to save his life proved unavailing, and on Saturday evening he died, partly from strangulation and partly from nervous prostration. These pustules arise generally from the infusion into the blood of virus from diseased animals, and the skins of animals who had died with disease are said to have communicated the poison months after their slaughter. [N.Y. Times, 6th.] Evening Star [Washington, DC] 7 June 1878: p. 3

Then we have the animal that is man. There are a surprising number of stories of people dying or becoming ill from human bites.

A DYING MAN

Bit His Wife’s Finger and her Life is Despaired Of.

Tiffin, O., March 25. Mrs. Elizabeth Atkinson lies at the home of her parents in this city in a critical condition, the result of being bitten by her late husband while he was in the throes of death. The deceased by W.H. Atkinson, a man high in  railroad circles in Cleveland. He died in that city last week of Bright’s disease, and his body was cremated. While his wife was administering to him just before his death, he seized her little finger in his teeth and in his delirium lacerated the flesh badly. She accompanied the ashes of her husband here, and a few days later the injured hand began to swell, until now her entire arm is swollen to twice its natural size, and she suffers excruciating agony.

It is believed that blood poisoning has resulted and that the woman’s life is in danger. Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 25 March 1902: p. 1

A letter from Portsmouth, Ohio, written by a lady to her husband in this city, makes mention of an extraordinary circumstance. A short time ago a young lady was bitten by a dog. Hydrophobia manifested itself on her, and while confined with the disease she bit her sister, who was waiting on her. The sister was soon attacked by the same disease and bit the mother. All three were alive at the last account, but were all raving mad, and there was no prospect of their recovery. Louisville Journal.Standard [Clarksville, TX] 8 October 1859: p. 2

While insect bites also could be or turn poisonous, this is an unusual story of insect toxicity. Any explanations?

At Piqua, Ohio, last week, Rev. W. L. Fee picked a quantity of potato bugs off his vines and placed them in a tin can; then pouring boiling water into the can, he stood over it to watch its Christian effect on the enemy, but soon became very ill and it was concluded the vapor had poisoned him. Cleveland [OH] Leader 2 June 1871: p. 3

Our final animal entry circles back to dogs in a seemingly unlikely case of indirect poisoning.

Singular circumstance. A Baltimore paper states, that a girl died recently in Virginia from having biten [sic] a thread with which she had sewn up a rent made by the bite of a mad dog, in her apron. Ohio Monitor [Columbus, OH] 29 June 1831: p. 2

Stories of indirect vegetable poisons are more rare.

Mr. John Thomas, residing at No. 2233 B street, visited the Odd Fellows’ Cemetery in company with some friends, on Sunday last, and while there weeded some grass from the flowers on a grave. On arriving home he discovered a poison had entered his skin, completely covering his body with a mass of putrid corruption. The doctors in attendance say they are unable to determine the natural of the poison. The Evening Telegraph [Philadelphia, PA] 29 may 1871: p. 8

Singular Case of Poisoning

From Our Jacksonville correspondent we learn of a strange poisoning case. J.M. Dille, a citizen of Richhill township, while cleaning off some ground for the plow, recently, and burning brush with which was mixed some mercury vines (rhus radicans?] and other poisonous vegetation, inhaled some of the smoke of the burning mass. This, singular to relate, acted upon the lungs like poison upon the external surface, and soon produced serious sickness. Mr. Dille is now lying in an almost hopeless condition from the effects of the poisoning. Waynesburg Republican. Washington [PA] Reporter, 27 May 1874: p. 1

A curious case of tobacco poisoning is reported from Brooklyn. A child purchased a cake at one of the refreshment stands in Prospect park. After eating a small portion of it, he was taken with nausea and vomited freely. A physician being summoned declared that the child was suffering from tobacco poisoning, and, on examination, tobacco was found scattered through the cake. This accident indicates the necessity for some sort of supervision of the bakeries, as there is but little doubt that the subordinate workmen are not of the most cleanly habits possible. Chicago Medical Review Denver Medical Times, Volume 2, Issue 3 1883

Indirect mineral poisonings are even rarer (although there have been suggestions that lead leached from pipes or ceramics brought down the Roman empire.) but I find these to be some of the most interesting.

A bartender was believed to have rheumatism, but the doctor suspected that he was suffering from lead poisoning.

One point in his history was suggestive, and that was the fact that he was accustomed to drink a good deal of what he termed “soft stuff,” [i.e. soft drinks] being a total abstainer, yet compelled to drink something when “treated” by his customers. The bottles containing these beverages were closed with old-fashioned lead stoppers and the carbonic acid gas dissolved in the beverages made them much better solvents of lead than uncharged fluids. Eliminative treatment led to quick recovery of the patient and proved the correctness of the diagnosis. Medical Record, George Frederick Shrady, Thomas Lathrop Stedman, Vol. 74, 1908

I have previously written about the perils of poisoned stockings. Here is one more.

Cincinnati, March 18. Last Saturday Louis Mosser, purchased a pair of stockings. He wore them Sunday. Monday morning he was unable to leave his bed, and to-day the physician, who has been in constant attendance, considered his case very precarious. His feet and legs are swollen two or three times their natural size and give him the most intense pain. The stockings were dyed a cardinal red, and it is supposed the coloring matter must have contained poison. The Highland Weekly News [Hillsboro, OH] 24 March 1886: p. 2

And finally, watch out for peaches.

The Granada (Mi.) Register of the 19th ult., says the family of G. Morehead, residing near the Yazoo Pass, were recently poisoned (as is supposed) by eating peaches which had been dried upon a painted scaffold—‘the acid of the peaches, combining with the alkaline and other properties of the white lead, probably producing a poison like sugar of lead.’ Mrs. M. and two of the children died. The other members of the family recovered. Boston [MA] Traveler 2 December 1842: p. 2

My alter-ego, the murderous Mrs Daffodil, has a penchant for what one might call “indirect murder,” never resorting to direct violence, but allowing circumstances or other people to do her dirty work. The cases above seem to be accidents, but contain some useful details. Mrs Daffodil is taking notes.

Any other indirect poisonings? Is the book-page poisoning from The Name of the Rose strictly a fictional creation? Thoughts to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com, who does not lick her fingers when turning over the leaves of a book.

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.

Hung by a Corpse – Occupational Hazards for the Resurrectionist

Hung by a Corpse – Occupational Hazards for the Resurrectionist

Life for the Resurrectionist, while certainly nasty and brutish, may also have been gravely shortened by their profession. Oddly enough, people resented those who unearthed and sold their loved ones’ bodies, no matter how much it advanced scientific knowledge, and they put up stiff opposition to the body-snatcher’s clandestine activities.

A RESURRECTIONIST KILLED

Grave Robbing at Mount Hope, Ky., Receives a Bloody Check.

Louisville, Ky., Dec. 18. News of the shooting of a grave robber at the cemetery in Mount Hope was received here yesterday. Several robberies had been committed and when the remains of Miss Morris were interred her fiancé watched the grave. Two men came at midnight and began digging. “Smiley” Jordan, a farm hand of the neighbourhood, was killed, but his companion escaped the fusillade of bullets. Marion County Herald [Palmyra, MO] 20 December 1894: p. 2 

Normally physicians did not go into the field in search of specimens, but perhaps this unfortunate decided to cut out the middle man.

BODY SNATCHER KILLED

Syracuse, N.Y., May 18. Dr. Henry W. Kendall was found in a meadow near the county poor house cemetery this morning with a bullet hole between his eyes. A full kit of resurrectionists tools were found near the body. It is supposed that he was engaged in body snatching. He cannot live. The Atchison [KS] Daily Champion 19 May 1882: p. 1 

Sad mistakes sometimes occurred.

FRENZIED FATHER KILLS WRONG MAN BY MISTAKE

Great Falls, Mont., May 10. Last night the body of the baby of Mr. and Mrs. W.C. Conroy was stolen from the grave in the local cemetery. This morning the father of the dead babe, while hunting the grave robbers, killed Joseph Hamilton, former sheriff of this county, mistaking him for the robber of his child’s grave. Fairbanks [AK] Daily Times 11 May 1911: p. 1

And there seemed to be little honor among corpse-thieves. In one particularly appalling instance, in Ohio an elderly, retired Resurrectionist named Beverly Taylor was murdered, along with his wife and grand-daughter, by his former colleagues, who sold the bodies to the Ohio Medical College: the same institution which Taylor had once supplied.

Sometimes there was disagreement over the spoils of the grave.  Usually an episode like the following would conclude in the arrest or lynching of the grave-robbers, rather than the grave defenders.

GRAVE ROBBER KILLED

Farmer Indicted for Shooting Wm. Gray, of Cantrell Party.

Indianapolis, March 14. Lucius Stout and Hampton West, farmers living 15 miles north of Indianapolis, were indicted today at Noblesville for the murder of Wm. Gray at Frankfort, in a grave yard battle over the possession of a corpse, in which Stout and West opposed Cantrell and his gang of thieves. The evidence before the grand jury showed Stout and West came upon Cantrell and his gang of thieves just as the latter was lifting a corpse from the grave in Beaver cemetery. West and Stout opened fire upon the gang, one bullet killing Gray, while the others escaped. Cantrell and his companions testified before the jury. They said Gray was buried in the swamps near the cemetery. Iowa City [IA] Press-Citizen 14 March 1903: p. 1 

I thought something didn’t quite ring true in this squib. Were Stout and West at the cemetery just as vigilante guardians of the grave? Well, not exactly…

The investigation of the operations of ghouls in the vicinity of Indianapolis, Ind., has taken a new and unexpected turn. The grand jury at Noblesville returned an indictment against Lucius Stout and Hampton West, charging the two men not only with grave robbery, but with murder. Both men are prominent and wealthy farmers. For years, according to the testimony of half the hundred witnesses who appeared before the jury, the two have been the most conspicuous figures among the mourners at all the funerals of the country-side. Even when they were unacquainted with either the dead or the surviving relatives, they were present at the graveside when the corpse was lowered to its last resting place. Suspicion on this account, has rested on the men for some time, but their wealth and position shielded them from open accusation Cantrell’s arrest and subsequent confession, however, implicated both men, and their arrest followed. The indictment returned charges them with the murder of William Gray in September, 1901. At midnight West and Stout, proceeding to a grave in the Beaver cemetery, surprised Cantrell and his gang at work removing the corpse that the two farmers had come to secure. Hot words followed, and both parties drew revolvers. A running fire ensued, in which Gray was mortally wounded and West’s forehead was grazed by a bullet. He bears the scar to-day. During the battle in the midst of the little churchyard, the combatants sheltered themselves behind the grave stones. Cantrell and his men, including Samuel Martin and Walter Daniel, two self-confessed ghouls, running short of ammunition, were forced to abandon Gray. The latter was taken by West and Stout to the West home, where it is alleged he died. By a strange turn in fate, Gray’s body, it is alleged, next made its appearance in the dissecting room of an Indianapolis medical college. Another story, however, relates that upon Gray’s death West and Stout buried his corpse in a swamp near the West home. The Indiana [PA] Democrat 18 March 1903: p. 10

Rufus Cantrell, “The King of the Ghouls,” sang like a ghoulish canary, implicating Stout in the chloroforming of a young woman, the murder of a police officer, and several other unsolved murders. Prosecutors were dubious and in the end Stout seems to have gotten off on a procedural technicality.

Many sextons and graveyard guards thought it prudent to arm themselves. There are thrilling reports of gun battles among the tombstones.

A RESURRECTIONIST KILLED

Last Monday night, Jacob Swein, the sexton of the new City Burial Ground, in Cincinnati, was awakened by a man in his employ, and told that some one was in the grave yard and engaged in digging up bodies. Mr. S., taking his gun, went out, and saw three persons, one of whom advanced towards him with a knife in his hand. Mr. S. immediately raised his gun and fired, with so much certainty as to kill the body-snatcher dead in his tracks. The other two instantly fled, leaving a horse and wagon, and the implements used for digging up the graves behind them. Lebanon [PA] Courier 15 October 1852: p. 2 

If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. Not only did honest Resurrection Men have to deal with over-zealous sextons with guns, there was no guarantee that the corpse they exhumed wasn’t a death-trap. An Ohio artist named Phil. K. Clover was the inventor of the “coffin torpedo.” 

Good News for the Dead

Mr. Phil. K. Clover, the artist, has invented a torpedo designed to make the robbery of graves a hazardous and unpopular business, and has taken the necessary steps to procure letters patent. The torpedo may be briefly described as a miniature needle-gun. It is about six inches long, and is divided into two pieces. The first piece, which is to be nailed inside the coffin, and almost covered by the upholster, contains a spiral spring, to which are attached two small chains, which are to be fastened around the body or around the arms of the corpse. So far the invention is harmless, but just before the final closing of the coffin the second piece, containing a cartridge, and arranged on the needle-gun plan is to be screwed onto the section containing the spring. The torpedo is now ready for action. The grave-robber may dig to the coffin, and remove the covering thereof, but when he attempts to move the body he pulls the chain and sets off the spiral spring, which strikes the needle with great force, explodes the cap, and sends buckshot or ball in an upward direction. The grave-robber, stooping over his work is liable to be shot with deadly effect. Under the most favorable circumstances to him he is likely to be powerfully impressed with a sense of danger, and to vacate the premises with dispatch. The torpedoes will not be very expensive, and several of them may be placed in the same coffin, so that the resurrectionist will have no assurance, when one explodes, that the danger is over. Should the article come into general use, the knowledge of its existence will have a restraining influence, and it will do its work without many fatal cases. Iowa Liberal [Lemars, IA] 31 July 1878: p. 8

TORPEDOES FOR BODY SNATCHERS.

If one may judge from the patent records, live people do a good deal of thinking about death. The very latest device that has been applied to burial appliances is the “coffin torpedo,” which is designed as an effective and very summary punishment for body snatchers. Nothing less than a bomb is introduced into the coffin, before the latter is closed, the arrangement being such—we spare the reader all technical details— that any attempt to force it open will release a spring, strike a percussion cap, and set off the bomb. The thing is done, and the robber is floating in pieces about the air long before he has had any time to prepare for his sudden journey.

But what happens to the corpse? The inventor leaves us in the dark on this point—probably because the question is hard to answer. We are afraid the coffin torpedo has no very brilliant future on this account, and for the further reason that local authorities (who are notoriously difficult to deal with) might object to have their burial grounds studded with infernal machines. Electrical Engineer, Vol. 22, 1896 p. 332

Clover wasn’t the only man thinking along these lines.

SURE DEATH TO GHOULS.

A Lawyer’s Startling Device to Foil Grave Robbers.

The details of the device of Jesse Hodgin, the well-known Westfield [Indiana] attorney, to protect the grave of his wife were made public the other day, says a Noblesville (Inc.) dispatch to the Cincinnati Enquirer. The plan has been examined by experts, who unhesitatingly say that it will put a stop to body snatching by ghouls. They not only say the device will be effective, but they also indorse it because it is inexpensive.

A few inches above the rough box in the grave is an ordinary gas pipe three-quarters of an inch in diameter filled with nitro-glycerine. The pipe occupies a position lengthwise of the coffin and extends from six to twelve inches over each end. There is a cap fastened tightly on each end of the pipe to prevent the deadly explosive from leaking. Scattered promiscuously through the soil about a foot or eighteen inches above the pipe are several dozen concussion caps. A spade or any hard substance that comes in contact with these caps will explode them. The jar will in turn explode the nitro-glycerine, which would mean death to any one within twenty-five or fifty feet of the grave. It is intimated that there is sufficient nitro-glycerine in the pipe to make an excavation in the earth fifty feet square and from ten to fifteen feet deep.

While Mr. Hodgin admits that the explosion would completely destroy the body of his wife, he says he would rather see that done than to know that the remains were ever on a dissecting table in a medical college.

“And I would also know that there would be some dead ghouls somewhere in the vicinity of the grave,” he said. “The plan is original with me and my brother, but I am satisfied that it would prove a success if it was ever tried. When I first mentioned the matter to the sexton of the cemetery, he refused to allow me to put in the device on the ground that it might result in injuring some innocent parties or despoil other graves. I then consulted the trustees who have charge of the cemetery and obtained their consent.” The Newark [OH] Advocate 6 November 1902:  p. 8

It is impossible to know how often these devices were deployed, but here is an incident from 1881.

A more serious incident was reported near the village of Gann [Knox County] about the same time. When three men attempted a grave robbery, they struck a torpedo which had been planted near the bottom of the grave, instantly killing one of the men and breaking a leg of one other. The third party, who was keeping a watch, succeeded in getting his companions into a sleigh, taking flight, and evading arrest.  Ohio State Journal January 20, 1881. 

But when it comes to poetic justice, it would be hard to top this story.

A Man Hung by a Corpse

The Cincinnati (Ohio) Gazette states that on Saturday night, a fellow was stealing a dead body from the graveyard at Cumminsville near that city, when in crossing the fence, he slipped and fell on the outside, and the rope which held the sack containing the corpse, sliding from his shoulders to his neck, at daylight his body was found hanging on the outside of the graveyard fence, while the corpse he had stolen, hung on the inside, both equally lifeless. Weekly Vincennes [IN] Gazette 12 March 1859

I will add the caveat that there’s an identical story about a man stealing a pig.

Given the many hazards inherent in the profession, I was surprised to unearth no tales of body-snatchers crushed by tipping tombstones, buried alive, or infected by diseased corpses. Except this one, about the ghastly end of one phrenologist-turned- grave-robber. This was the story my editor wouldn’t let me use in The Victorian Book of the DeadShe said it was too gruesome.  Thanks to the fearless and always tasteful Undine of Strange Company for sharing!

Other grave threats to Resurrectionists? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

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

The Spiritual Telegraph

For “Morse Code Day.”

In the early days, the dead were enthusiastic early adopters of those new-fangled technologies, the telephone and the telegraph. I’ve written of a shape-shifting boggart who called at the Cape Town telephone office to speak with a switchboard operator, of the dead Mr. Miller, who had an assistant ring up a friend who had just attended his funeral, and the Rev. Dr. Richard R. Schleusner and his Temple/Church of Modern Spiritualism, where, rather than communicate through old-fashioned rappings, the spirits spoke via wireless.

Today I’ve borrowed the title of the Spiritualist newspaper, The Spiritual Telegraph (1852-1860) to dash off a few stories of spirit communication via the telegraphic instrument. The first story is found in The Headless Horror: Strange and Ghostly Ohio Tales.

A WEIRD EXPERIENCE

A TELEGRAPHER’S REMARKABLE MESSAGE FROM A SPOOK

DOTS AND DASHES OVER AN INSTRUMENT WITH

NEITHER WIRES NOR BATTERY

A STORY TOLD BY A MAN WHOSE VERACITY IS VOUCHED FOR

A FRIGHTENED OPERATOR

One of the wildest, weirdest stories of the supernatural that has ever come under the experience of mortal man is told by R.H. Field, the Big Four telegraph operator at South Side station.

Mr. Field is a very intelligent and conscientious man, and he relates his fearful experience with a candor and earnestness that almost make one believe it in spite of its extreme improbability.

“I have been a telegraph operator for twenty-two years. I have told my story to at least a hundred people, and I have never met one yet who would believe that it was an actual fact. I know that it will be a severe test on your credulity, but my experience is Gospel truth. I want you to understand that I have never, and do not now, believe in the supernatural. I have never attended a spiritualistic séance in my life, and am rather inclined to accept the philosophy of Colonel Ingersoll.”

Mr. Field was quite reluctant about telling his story for publication, but finally consented to do so. He is an entertaining talker, and related the great event of his life with an ease that showed that he had told it before. “It was several years ago,” he began, “when I was much younger than I am now. I was assigned to night duty at a little station called Evansburg, in Pennsylvania, on the New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio railroad. I hadn’t been around the world very much, but flattered myself that I had a good deal of mechanical genius. The office was in charge of an old fogy sort of a fellow named Jones. The telegraph instrument got out of adjustment, and I knew something about repairing it. Jones suggested that I take to my home an old-fashioned relay box and fix it up.

“Glad of the opportunity to show what I could do I carried the box to my boarding house one morning and put it on a shelf in an old cupboard and went to bed intending to fix it after my sleep was over. I had been in bed but a few minutes and had not got to sleep when, to my surprise and astonishment, the armature, or what is otherwise known as the lever, on the instrument began ticking. I was perfectly amazed and thought there must be some mistake. To satisfy myself that I had not been carried away by my imagination, for the ticking was faint and subdued, I got out of bed and with fear and trembling opened the cupboard door. I took the instrument in my hand and it continued to work. I put it on the table, but the sound it made was unintelligible. I turned the spring so that there would be less resistance, and then, in as clear and perfect Morse as I ever heard, the invisible person, spirit or whatever it was wrote:

“‘Do you get me?’”

I was so overcome that I involuntarily answered, ‘Yes,’ without putting it on the instrument. The unknown heard me, for again, in the beautiful writing, it continued.

“‘Thank God, at last! My name is Charles Blake. I am an old timer. My parents, who reside in Mount Pleasant, Ia., have lost me. They don’t know what my fate has been. I want you to write to my father, Homer Blake, at Mount Pleasant, Ia., and inform him that I died at Shreveport, Tex., of yellow fever, on’–. I have forgotten the date, but it was several years prior to the date of this communication. I was frightened to death. My hair stood on end. My boarding house was two miles from the telegraph station, and there was no battery nearer than the station, and there was no telegraph wire of any kind in that vicinity. I was a little dubious about the communication, from the other world or somewhere, I will not undertake to say. Before venturing to write to Homer Blake as directed I picked up a Western Union tariff book which I had in my room to see if there was such a town as Mount Pleasant, Ia. I found that there was such a place, a fact that I did not know before, and that it was located on the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroad.

“To satisfy myself and not be taken in, I wrote a letter to the postmaster at Mount Pleasant and asked him if he knew of anyone in that vicinity named Homer Blake and to give me what information he could without telling him what I wanted it for. A few days later I received a reply, and I have his letter somewhere among my effects, in which he said that Homer Blake had lived in Mount Pleasant some years before, but that he had moved away, to what place he did not know. Blake, he informed me, had two sons, one of whom, Charles, was supposed to be dead, and the other was a grain merchant in the far west.”

“Did you not pursue your investigations further?”

“No, I did not. The truth is I was scared to death. I worked that wire for eighteen months. Every time I took off the relay it made the same peculiar noise and worked in a sputtering sort of a way, and to show that there must have been some hidden or occult force it crossed the other wires. Every once in a while I used to ask Jones if he heard the noise, and he laughed at me. He never believed my story, although the reply from the postmaster at Mount Pleasant somewhat staggered him. I was actually so afraid to take the relay off that my hair used to stand on end, and I never had any further communication with the hidden force that called itself Charles Blake. I shall never forget that experience as long as I live. People look so incredulous and are so apt to believe me a crank when I tell it that I never relate it any more unless I am asked to do so.”

Mr. Field lives with his wife at South Side. He is well known in this city and has the reputation of being a truthful and sensible man. There is no doubt in the world that he sincerely thinks that he was talked to on that old instrument without wire or battery, and he declares most solemnly that it could not have been a matter of fancy.

This article first appeared in the Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer, 31 July 1892: p. 17. This version appeared in the Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 8 September 1892: p. 6

Colonel Ingersoll was Robert G. Ingersoll, 19th-century lawyer, orator and agnostic, dubbed “the most noted of American infidels.”

How much of this next story is actually the result of misunderstood technology? Or was it an early form of EVP?

Barre Excited Over “Electric Ghost”.

Barre, usually staid and phlegmatic, is greatly excited over an “electric ghost,” which has made its appearance at the railroad station and refuses to depart, says a Barre dispatch to The New York World. It has attracted the attention of several prominent railroad men and electricians and each has a theory for a series of sounds that still mystify the investigators.

The “ghost” made its appearance one night when C.A. Brown, a clerk, was alone in the office containing the telegraph instruments, safe, and various articles of furniture. He was quietly at work balancing his books when he heard a voice over his shoulder. Several words of French were spoken and Mr. Brown looked up. No one was in the room and the clerk investigated every nook and cranny to ascertain whence the voice came. He was unsuccessful, but while he was hunting he again heard the voice, this time in English, but indistinct. He located it, and a chill crept up his spine as he made the uncanny discovery that the words came from the metal relay box connected with the telegraph instrument. The instrument was working at the time and the clerk admits to having been well frightened.

For five minutes the one-sided conversation was kept up, and Mr. Brown made out enough to understand that some one was talking of a business deal. Answers to questions put by the voice could not be heard, and altogether it sounded like a telephone conversation. However, as no telephone was in that part of the building, the sounds were not connected with that instrument.

The clerk was so upset that when A.A. Stebbins, his chief, came in, he made no reference to the matter. Soon after he went out Stebbins got a scare that made his hair rise. He was almost leaning on the relay box when a voice shouted “Hello!” almost in his ear. A rapid conversation followed, but he was too frightened to take note of what was said. As he was afraid of being laughed at, he kept his own counsel until the next day when he and Mr. Brown heard the same voice. They then compared notes and quietly called in the head lineman.

The lineman thought a telegraph wire had become crossed with a telephone line, but this proved not to be the case, and F.W. Stanyan, the general superintendent of the road, who has had twenty years’ experience with telegraph equipment, was notified. He made a careful investigation and was at a loss to account for the phantom voice. While he was making his investigations he heard two voices emanating from the box. They spoke of different subjects and had nothing in common. Part of the time whole sentences were plainly spoken and other times only a word or two was distinguishable.

The story got about town and many persons have listened to the sounds. Among the number were many spiritualists, who are of the opinion that the messages are sent from another world. Expert electricians believe that the sounds are the result of some undiscovered law in the field of electricity, and that this law can be worked to advantage when the cause is discovered.

St. Albans [VT] Daily Messenger 8 June 1905: p. 3

It was convenient that the witness in this story had been a telegraph operator. If she had not, she might have identified the sound as the clicking of the Deathwatch Beetle.

MESSAGE FROM THE BORDER.

I would like to relate an incident in connection with the death of my mother, which occurred nine years ago and the facts of which I am positive of.

“My mother’s only sister lived in Denver, Colorado, and she had not been apprised of her serious illness.

“We sent her a telegram about 9 A.M. on the morning of her death, which she received about noon. Upon her arrival here, two days later, we asked her, if the news had been a shock and she told us that on the morning that mother passed away, she sat down to sew, but could not keep her mind upon it. She then heard the click of a telegraph instrument, the sound apparently coming from a closet in the room. As she had been a telegraph operator in her younger days, she realized it was a call and going to the closet, listened. It stopped as suddenly as it started and she sat down again. The call was repeated twice after this and each time she went to the closet to listen. She was then convinced it was news she would receive and inside of thirty minutes, a boy rang the door bell and delivered the message announcing the death of my mother.”
I had no reason to doubt her statement for there had always been a sort of mental telepathy between these sisters, separated by so many miles.

Dayton [OH] Daily News 17 January 1914: p. 7

While the first part of this last story suggests a practical joke, it quickly slides into a folkloric tale of a Palmer Lake lineman, who is still on the line and not only wants to tell someone how he died, but to get that damned telegraph pole off his chest.

Please give the Kansas Democrat the entire bake-shop for the following:

“A ghost telegraph operator has been having a picnic with the boys on the Colorado circuit. At a certain hour every night call comes along over the wires for “AZ.” Now, there being no AZ”, and the call being regularly repeated, the officials were somewhat at loss to account for it. The superintendent, however, answered the call, and asked what was wanted. Back came the message in a jiffy, with “rush” prefixed. This was all well enough in its way, but no one could read the message when it was received. After much time, and ciphering, the ghost was telegraphed for the key. This he immediately gave–one to three read backwards. The message was then read, which stated that many years ago a telegraph operator had been killed on the continental divide, near Palmer Lake; that a telegraph pole ran right into his grave, and the end of it was resting on the breast of the corpse. He could not rest in his grave until he had informed somebody how he had died. This was indeed a strange affair. And upon the threat of the ghost operator of raising hades with the wires every night, till they hunted him up, and verified his statement, a search party was organized. Three linemen stopped at the divide, picked out the probable pole and sat down to eat their lunch, before commencing to dig. In a minute they were paralyzed. Right before them stood the ghost operator with a ‘ticker’ in his hands. He jumped up to the wires, sent a message into Denver and then vanished. The linemen dug, found the grave, and when they returned to Denver they found that a message had been received there mentioning their arrival, that the ghost was satisfied, and that both he and Gould’s servants could now rest in peace.”

Coldwater [KS] Enterprise 28 March 1891: p. 3

To be Relentlessly Informative, “Gould’s servants” refers to Jay Gould’s controlling interest in the Western Union telegraph company.

While we still hear stories of telephone calls from the dead and even the occasional text or e-mail message, somehow the Dead do not seem to be fully taking advantage of Instagram or Twitter.

Other stories of ghosts on the wire?

— . – .-.  .—

chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

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

Morfa Resonance: The Pit of Ghosts

Memorial card for victims of the Morfa Pit explosion, 1890 Amgueddfa Cymru — National Museum Wales

Recently Dr Beachcombing wrote about the many premonitions of disaster occurring before the Morfa Colliery explosion of 10 March, 1890. The colliery, which was known as a “gassy” mine, had a long and deadly history.  There were explosions in 1858 (4 men killed), 1863 (30 or 40 men killed), and in 1870 (30 men killed), when the mine had to be flooded to put out the resulting fires. What I propose to look at today is the sequel to the 1890 disaster or, perhaps, to the entire grim history of the Morfa pit, which became known as “the pit of ghosts.”

Reports from the days and months after the 1890 disaster almost invariably mention superstition in connection with the warnings told of in Dr Beachcombing’s post.

“Other curious instances of warnings are freely spoken of which would yield matter of interest to the student of either folk or spirit-lore.’’ Such stories used to be quite common in the mining districts of Wales in connection with every disaster of this kind, and although the spread of popular education has done much to deaden the popular fancy and to kill off the old superstitions, it is quite clear that the land of the corpse-candle, the phantom funeral, the coal-finding gnome, the sprite and elf and fairy, is not yet denuded of all its poetical traditions.—Christian Herald, March 19th. Quoted in The Two Worlds: A Journal Devoted to Spiritualism, Occult Science, Ethics, Religion and Reform, 28 March 1890: p. 229

Some men even went on record with their belief in omens:

There is an abiding belief among the men of the Morfa Colliery that signs of warning preceded the terrible accident by which eighty-seven lives were lately lost. Not only is this floating belief current among the gossips, but it is sufficiently firmly held to be testified to on oath. In the course of the inquiry into the cause of the disaster the following evidence was given on oath:—

Peter Williams, questioned why a special examination of the pit was asked for previously to the day of the explosion, said (speaking in Welsh): The truth was there had been complaints of spirits being about in the four-foot vein. He supposed the colliers thought a special examination would get rid of the spirits. Another witness, named Harding, said a rumour had gone round that something was to be heard in the pit, and it was regarded as a proof that something unusual was to occur at Morfa—a fire or an explosion. He himself thought something would happen in the four-foot. The sounds they heard created fear in the minds of the men that there was danger in the pit. About a fortnight before the explosion he was in the four-foot with another man. After emptying a tram they went on their knees. No word passed between them; but they heard something, and looked at each other in amazement. One asked, “What is that?” and thereupon a door opened and slammed against the frame. He met Tom Barrass, the undermanager, and said to him,” Something very strange has happened there to-day.” Barrass remarked, “Well, I can’t doubt that this sort of thing makes one believe that everything one has heard before is true.” There were some people who were superstitious, and he had his ideas before the explosion; but he had come to believe that it was something else that caused the accident. He had proof himself that sounds and signs occurred before the explosion of 1883. Light, Volume 10, 3 May 1890

The tokens of the disaster as reported several months after the explosion were weird and varied:

PITMEN’S SUPERSTITIONS.

As the excitement connected with the awful colliery accidents in South Wales has died away, it may not be out of place to give a few interesting facts, as personally related to the writer, concerning the hallucinations which many of the colliers who worked in the Morfa pit laboured under before the disaster.

Mr Isaac Hopkins is the manager of the well-known Dynevor Collieries, at Neatb, and he told Mr George Palmer, of Neath, that a great many men had come to him from the Morfa pit seeking work, giving as their reason for leaving that “the Morfa pit was certainly haunted, and that some terrible calamity was about to occur. Several of the men declared that “there were frequent peculiar noises as of ghostly trams running wild in the pit, with heavy fails of coal and debris which never happened; that at times strong and most remarkable perfume spread itself all over the mine, the odour being like that from clusters of roses, clematis, and honeysuckle. Nothing could be seen, but scent of the most exquisite kind was honestly stated to have been frequently inhaled.” Others of the men stated that “a huge red dog was daily seen prowling about the workings, that it suddenly disappeared, and it could be none other than a ghostly dog and a sure omen of great evil; also that a strange man, dressed in oil-skins and wearing a leather cap tightly fastened over his ears [shades of Spring-heel Jack?], one day suddenly appeared on the cage of the pit, and, after waving his hands upwards as if in despair, faded away into thin air.”

An old collier named Thomas swore that he saw a weird-looking man jump on a journey of trams underground, and after riding some distance jumped off and melted away in the darkness of the mine. This statement was confirmed by a man named Beece, who both declared they recognised him as a pitman who died years ago. These, with many other tales of the most extraordinary kind, the mining population about Taibach even now pin their entire faith in. Press, [Canterbury, NZ] 22 December 1890: p. 6

But the noises and presences did not end in 1890. It was said in the papers that only six bodies were not recovered from the 1890 disaster; a list found here suggests that 44 of the 87 dead were not recovered–ample reason, from a classic ghost-lore perspective, for the echoes of the dead to linger and for the mine to be haunted.

In 1895 the mine was hit with a wave of new terrors.

WELSH MINERS SCARED They Leave Work in a Panic Owing to Uncanny Noises

London, Dec. 20.

The latest sensation for lovers of uncanny things is a haunted coal mine. It is situated at the Morfa colliery in South Wales. The spooks first made their presence manifest last week by indulging in wailing and knocking all over the underground workings. There could be no doubt about it, as several hundred miners heard mysterious sounds which were unlike anything they had heard before. They were so thoroughly scared that they threw down their tools and went to the surface and refused to resume work until the ghosts had been laid.

It has been suggested that the trouble at the Morfa colliery is due to the “coblyns” or fairies supposed in Wales to dwell in mines. But the miners themselves scout the idea. Coblyns, they say, are friends of the miners, and when they knock or shout or throw bits of coal about, it is for the purpose of letting the men know where the best veins of coal are to be found. The suggestion that the mysterious and terrifying wailing came from a tomcat, which had strayed from the mine stables and got lost in the workings is unanimously repudiated and denounced as unworthy trifling with a solemn subject. The Ottawa [Ontario, Canada] Journal 21 December 1895: p. 3

No longer were strange noises signs of disaster: the mine was declared haunted by the victims of the 1890 explosion.

SPOOKS IN WELSH MINES

Workmen Frightened Away by Mysterious Noises

The latest sensation for jaded lovers of uncanny things is a haunted coal mine. It is situated at the Morfa colliery, in South Wales. The spooks first made their presence manifest by indulging in wailing and knocking all over the underground workings. There could be no doubt about it, as several hundred miners heard mysterious sounds which were unlike anything they had ever heard before. They were so thoroughly scared that they threw down their tools and went to the surface and refused to resume work until the ghosts had been laid.

Recent efforts to persuade the men that the mine was perfectly safe and spook proof, and that the noises were due to natural causes, succeeded, and the men reluctantly returned to their work. Some had begun to be somewhat ashamed of themselves and made pretense that they had feared not ghosts, but some physical disaster, of which the noises were intended as a warning. But the majority fervently persist in the belief that there is a supernatural explanation and incline to think that the trouble is due to the disturbed spirits of six workmen who were killed in an explosion which occurred six years ago, and whose bodies were never recovered. Some of the men have declined to go down again until those bodies have been found and decently interred with Christian rites.

The evidence in favor of the supernatural theory is still considered abundant and plain enough for the average Welsh miner. Scores of men heard blood curdling noises, and several saw doors and brattices moving in the most unearthly manner. People abroad after dark are said to have heard the singing of dirges and the roll of muffled drums. Repository [Canton, OH] 5 January 1896: p. 6

Reported even longer after the fact, was this tale of the omen of the “Seven Whistlers,” which was not mentioned in any of the 1890 accounts I have found. These creatures seem to be the ornithological wing of the Wild Hunt.

WARN OF DANGER

SEVEN WHISTLERS UNCANNY

Peculiar Noises Like Yelping Supposedly Heard in Parts of England Before a Disaster.

In some parts of England peculiar whistling or yelping noises are heard in the air after dusk and early in the morning before daylight during the winter months. Sometimes, however, the noise is described as beautiful sounds like music, high up in the air, which gradually die away. The general belief is that the “seven whistlers,” as they are called, are the foretellers of bad luck, disaster, or death to some one in the locality.

It is a very ancient suggestion. Both swifts and plovers have been suggested as the “whistlers.” It may be noted that plovers are traditionally supposed to contain the souls of those who assisted at the crucifixion and in consequence were doomed to float in the air forever.

Like Singing of Larks.

In Shropshire the sound is described as resembling that of many larks singing, and the folklore of both Shropshire and Worcestershire says, “They are seven birds, and the six fly about continually together looking for the seventh, and when they find him the world will come to an end.”

Everywhere, without exception, the “seven whistlers” are believed to presage ill, but the superstition seems to be more particularly a miners; notion. If they heard the warning voice of the “seven whistlers,” birds sent, as they say, by Providence to warn them of an impending danger, not a man will descend into the pit until the following day.

Heard Before Explosion.

Morfa colliery, in South Wales, is notorious for its uncanny traditions. The “seven whistlers” were heard there before a great explosion in the sixties and before another, in 1890, when nearly a hundred miners were entombed.

In December, 1895, it was said that they had been heard yet again, whereupon the men struck work and could not be induced to resume it until the government inspector had made a close examination of the workings and reported all safe. Muskegon [MI] Chronicle 17 June 1904: p. 6

Another article on the “Seven Whisperers” says that the Morfa mine was a “singularly unlucky pit,” and that

In December, 1896, the scare broke out afresh, as a repetition of the same curious noises [as in 1890] took place, and, direst portend of all, one Sunday night a dove  [one of the three “corpse birds:” robin, pigeon, and dove] was found perched on a coal truck in the weigh-house. By way of reassuring the miners, who had struck work in a body, the Government inspector, the chief manager, and a small party of officials made a strict examination of the workings, but although they found nothing changed it was several days before the superstitious miners could be induced to resume work. Auckland [NZ] Star 17 January 1903: p. 5

The miners read the jocular pieces ridiculing their “superstitions” and rightly resented the slur.

A reporter from the Western Mail wrote: “I visited Morfa in quest of a ghost. In arriving at the place I found the Morfa miners standing in groups at the street corners. Being descendants of the ancient Silurians, these men are very brave, and, like their ancestors, they would meet a charge of cavalry on foot. But, if they are equal to all kinds of flesh and bones in war or peace, they are terribly afraid of ghosts….

It is all very well for the reader seated in the daylight at his fireside, to call the Morfa miners “superstitious,” because they on hearing strange and unexplainable noises in the dark caverns of the earth…One of the miners today, standing among his fellows, with his hands in his pockets, a pipe in his mouth, told me he had read the editorial comments in the Western Mail that morning on what they were pleased to call the “superstition” of the Morfa miners. “Tell the editor,” he said severely, “to confine his remarks to things of this world, for he knows nothing about heaven and hell and the workings underground.” And he added the remark that if the Western Mail editor had been seated in the dim light of a clammy lamp in the interior of the workings, and had heard groaning in the darkness beyond and below in the deep, he, too, would have taken to his heels and quickly sought “some hole to hide in.” Another miner, sharp-eyed and seemingly highly intelligent, declared to me that there was not the slightest doubt that inexplicable strange noises had been heard in the workings both lately and before the explosion six years ago. This belief, which he declared 50 percent of the men believed, has been intensified by the finding the dove at 10 o’clock on Sunday night close to the mouth of the shaft…. The Scranton [PA] Tribune 28 December 1895: p. 6

Considering the noises and alarums the miners experienced in 1895-1896, they must have been relieved that there was only one fatality in 1896—a man who died of dropsy exacerbated by a fall in the pit. As far as I can find, the Morfa Colliery had only isolated fatalities—no large-scale disasters–from 1890 until it closed in 1913.  Is the pit still believed haunted by the men who died there? And what toxic gases found down a coal mine might produce a sweet, flowery scent? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Various materials have been believed over the centuries to trap spirits: iron, crystal, and various gemstones. Coal is not one of them, yet the mines and their communities teem with mysterious voices, knocking kobolds, silently flitting Women in Black —and the spirits of those men and boys buried, not beneath decent slate in the churchyard, but under tons of rock and smouldering slag.

At these links you’ll find posts on a haunted mine, a black spectre in a mine, a headless miner’s ghost, and a subterranean centaur scaring miners off the job.

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

Tales from the Presidential Crypts

 

Garfield monument
President James A. Garfield’s tomb, Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio

President’s Day is Monday, so today let’s look at some dead presidents—particularly stories of a few strange incidents at presidential tombs. Some 19th-century newspapers wrote about presidential graves suffering from neglect or disrepair like the overgrown grave of Thomas Jefferson in 1873, where student vandals had chiselled and chipped all the letters off of the granite monument or the once-popular tomb of William Henry Harrison, which was described as looking like a shabby bread oven in the 1890s. The tomb had been built on a hill overlooked the Ohio River. Steamboat captains would sound a reverential whistle and notify their passengers so that they could bare their heads at the simple brick vault, but the bricks were crumbling into dust by the time Harrison’s grandson came to the Presidency.

There have also been cases of genuine desecration of presidential graves: the infamous attempt to steal the body of President Lincoln from his Springfield tomb, vandals uprooting a cross at the head of John F. Kennedy’s grave in January,1970 and more vandalism there in December of 1997. And this strange disturbance at President Reagan’s grave by a person whose hobby is apparently desecrating as many presidential graves as possible. Such things happened more often in the past than one might expect, starting with George Washington.

Relics of the Father of His Country were avidly collected. One disgruntled gardener tried to collect the skull of George Washington, but was foiled.  Below, a Washington biographer describes the old Washington tomb, which may still be seen today at Mount Vernon and also the condition of the General’s body.  Prior to this description, the author fumes at a sacrilegious daguerreotypist offering to take pictures of tourists with Washington’s original tomb, aggressively peddling his services to people getting off the excursion boats.

This vault and inclosure were erected many years ago, in pursuance of instructions given in the following clause of Washington’s will: “The family vault at Mount Vernon requiring repairs, and being improperly situated besides, I desire that a new one, of brick, and upon a larger scale, may be built at the foot of what is called the Vineyard Inclosure, on the ground which is marked out, in which my remains, and those of my deceased relatives (now in the old vault,) and such others of my family as may choose to be entombed there, may be deposited.”

The old vault referred to was upon the brow of a declivity, in full view of the river, about three hundred yards south of the mansion, on the left of the present pathway from the tomb to the summer-house on the edge of the lawn. It is now an utter ruin. The door-way is gone, and the cavity is partly filled with rubbish. Therein the remains of Washington lay undisturbed for thirty years, when an attempt was made by some Vandal to carry them away.  [1831]The insecure old vault was entered, and a skull and some bones were taken; but these comprised no part of the remains of the illustrious dead. The robber was detected, and the bones were recovered. The new vault was then immediately built, and all the family remains were placed in it. Mr. William Strickland, of Philadelphia, who designed the composition on the lid of Washington’s coffin, and accompanied Mr. Struthers when the remains of the patriot were placed in it, in 1837, has left a most interesting account of that event. On entering the vault they found everything in confusion. Decayed fragments of coffins were scattered about, and bones of various parts of the human body were seen promiscuously thrown together. The decayed wood was dripping with moisture. “The slimy snail glistened in the light of the door-opening. The brown centipede was disturbed by the admission of fresh air, and the mouldy case of the dead gave a pungent and unwholesome odor.” The coffins of Washington and his lady were in the deepest recess of the vault. They were of lead, inclosed in wooden cases. When the sarcophagus arrived, the coffin of the chief was brought forth. The vault was first entered by Mr. Strickland, accompanied by Major Lewis (the last survivor of the first executors of the will of Washington) and his son. When the decayed wooden case was removed, the leaden lid was perceived to be sunken and fractured. In the bottom of the wooden case was found the silver coffin-plate, in the form of a shield, which was placed upon the leaden coffin when Washington was first entombed. “At the request of Major Lewis,” says Mr. S., “the fractured part of the lid was turned over on the lower part, exposing to view a head and breast of large dimensions, which appeared, by the dim light of the candles, to have suffered but little from the effects of time. The eye-sockets were large and deep, and the breadth across the temples, together with the forehead, appeared of unusual size. There was no appearance of grave-clothes; the chest was broad, the color was dark, and had the appearance of dried flesh and skin adhering closely to the bones. We saw no hair, nor was there any offensive odor from the body; but we observed, when the coffin had been removed to the outside of the vault, the dripping down of a yellow liquid, which stained the marble of the sarcophagus. A hand was laid upon the head and instantly removed; the leaden lid was restored to its place ; the body, raised by six men, was carried and laid in the marble coffin, and the ponderous cover being put on and set in cement, it was sealed from our sight on Saturday the 7th day of October, 1837. . . . The relatives who were present, consisting of Major Lewis, Lorenzo Lewis, John Augustine Washington, George Washington, the Rev. Mr. Johnson and lady, and Mrs. Jane Washington, then retired to the mansion.” The Illustrated Life of Washington, Hon. J[oel] T[yler] Headley, 1860 

This narrator claimed to have been present at the removal of the Washington bodies to their new tomb.

William H. Burgess, who lives in Alexandria, Va., assisted, in 1836, in building Washington’s new tomb at Mount Vernon. He says: “I was a lad then, but I remember that in removing the bodies of George and Martha to their present tomb we decided to open the coffin. I looked in and saw General Washington’s face. The body was well preserved, and the features were intact. There was nothing to indicate the time he had been dead. A minute after exposure to the air there was a collapse, and nothing was recognizable. The face looked like his pictures.” Repository [Canton, OH] 8 June 1889: p. 2 

Several decades after the gardener’s attempt to get a head, there was another dire rumor about Washington’s skull. 

WASHINGTON’S HEAD SAFE

No Truth in the Tale of the Tomb Desecration

[From our Regular Correspondent]

Herald Bureau,

Corner Fifteenth and G Streets, N.W.,

Washington, Sept. 29, 1887.

The story that the head of Washington was stolen from Mount Vernon and carried to Paris by curiosity hunters is pronounced by Dr. G.M. Toner as an unqualified falsehood.

The remains of Washington were removed from the old and original coffin about fifty years ago and placed in the marble sarcophagus made for that purpose, which was not only to keep out the air but so constructed and fastened that it would be next to impossible for anybody to violate the sanctity of the seals without having uninterrupted access to them for many hours.

THE SKELETON INTACT IN THE TOMB.

When the remains were transferred from the old coffin to the marble receptacle many members of the Washington family were present, with persons of prominence, and they all certified to the fact that the skeleton was all intact. After the sarcophagus was put in its place the iron grated door was locked and the key thrown into the Potomac. The old lock is still in good preservation and has never been tampered with.

During the Rebellion the grounds at Mount Vernon were held sacred and the hand of the vandal was never known to have desecrated any part of the tomb or its surroundings.

WATCHING NIGHT AND DAY.

The last resting place of Washington has been vigilantly watched ever since the present tomb was erected. Though some distance from the mansion, every device known has been used for many years to alarm the superintendent of the grounds. Now electric wires communicate with the house, making it impossible for any one to even attempt to open the iron doors.

The story, therefore, that the skull of Washington was ever removed or even profaned by the touch of vandals, Dr. Toner says, is utterly without foundation. In 1849 the Washington heirs loaned to Mr. Clark Mills the original cast of Washington’s face, made during life by the celebrated sculptor Houdon. It was never returned, but in its place, a copy which Mr. Mills claimed was in better condition than the original, was sent to the Mount Vernon mansion. It subsequently passed into the possession of Mr. McDonald, the sculptor, and is supposed to be in his possession still. Speculation was rife for a time as to who had the original. It was not, however, stolen, and is probably still in New York. New York Herald 30 September 1887: p. 6 

Those pesky, overwrought headline composers were at it again in this article about an incident at the McKinley vault. There was an actual event, but no attempt to blow up the tomb. 

VANDALS AT CANTON

Guards at McKinley’s Tomb Attacked

WANTED TO BLOW IT UP

That is What is Generally Believed. Great Excitement.

Dastardly Plot at Canton

Attempt Was Made Last Night to Blow Up McKinley’s Tomb.

Canton, O., Sept. 30 A strange story comes from Westlawn cemetery, where a company of regulars from Fort Wayne, Mich., is guarding the vault in which the body of the late President McKinley lies. It is to the effect that the guard on duty on top of the vault last night fired a shot at one man who refused to heed his challenge; that the shot was diverted by another man, who appeared from another direction, and that an effort was made to stab the guard.

Private Deprend was on guard duty on top of the vault at a point commanding the entrance below and the approach from the rear. Shortly before 7:30 o’clock  he saw what he took to be the face of a man peering from behind a tree about forty feet from his post. He watched it for twenty minutes, he says, and at 7:45 o’clock saw the man hurry to a tree ten feet nearer. He challenged the man to halt, but this was not heeded, and the fellow approached nearer. Deprend levelled his gun and aimed to shoot for effect, but just at that instant, another man, who came toward him from the opposite side, caught the gun, threw it up, and the bullet spent in the air.

This same man struck Deprend on the right side of the abdomen with a knife or other sharp weapon, cutting an L-shaped gash in his overcoat an inch and a half long each way, and a smaller one in his blouse. The flesh was not broken, but was bruised under the cuts in the clothing. Deprend, in the struggle, fell and rolled down the side of the vault.

Lieut. Ashbridge, officer of the day, was in front of the vault and rushed to the top on hearing the shot, but the men made their escape. All members of the company, on hearing the shot, hurried to the vault, and, besides searching the cemetery, the guard was increased.

Deprend is said to be an excellent soldier, and to have a fine record with his officers. He says the man who attacked him was masked, but that the first one he saw was not masked. He saw the latter carried a white package in his right hand and something that glittered in his left.

Since the incident stories have been told in camp of some incendiary conversations overheard in the crowds that have visited the cemetery, including one today, alleging that some stranger said: “Lots of people would like to see this whole thing blown up.”

Canton, O., Sept. 30. Eight prisoners broke from the county jail here Sunday by sawing out the bars of a window opening from a court between the jail and court house. They had five minutes start when discovered. Bloodhounds were immediately put on the trail.

Canton, Sept. 30. The city is astir today over the assault on Guard Deprend at the vault in which McKinley’s body rests. Some advance the theory that one man who broke jail here last night made the attack in an effort to secure a rifle, with which to protect himself against pursuing officers. The belief is general, however, that the attack was part of a plot to blow up the tomb. Riverside [CA] Daily Press 30 September 1901: p. 1 

A later article quoted a sentinel who described three men who had spoken to him as he was guarding the tomb. “One asked how long sentinels in front of the vault gates were kept on duty. I told him half an hour at a time. He asked me if there were other guards. I told him several on the hill, over the vault and at other places. The second man said he did not see the use of all this fuss: that no one would try to do any harm now.

“The third man said he was mistaken; that there were lots of people who would like to see the whole thing blown up.

“No, I had no suspicion that any of these men would have any interest in or would sympathize with any act of violence. I think they were speaking of the disposition of other classes who might be prompted to such acts.” Morning Herald Lexington KY] 1 October 1901: p. 1, 8.  

One can see how this might have been twisted by an overzealous journalist into an actual attack on the monument, but the men’s remarks might equally seem suspicious: like reconnaissance for some dastardly mission. 

Other papers sneered at the event as the product of a nervous guard’s brain.

The marauder scare at Canton, as nearly as we can make out, was not caused by beings in the flesh, but by spirits which are supposed to haunt cemeteries. It is not likely that there will be any further difficulty with such uncanny presences, if the officer in command of the detail will carefully exclude spirits from the camp. The Evening Times [Washington, DC] 1 October 1901: p. 4 

In fact, “Particular inquiry was made as to Deprend’s sobriety. The time, it is said, established beyond all reasonable doubt that he had not been drinking….The most common belief is that the sentinel was over-wrought by the loneliness of his position; that his nerves were taxed, and that imagination contributed to some of the details related in good faith. The post is regarded as particularly isolated and depressing to a man guarding it at night.” Morning Herald [Lexington, KY] 1 October 1901: p. 1, 8. 

There was definitely something to the notion of the job being particularly depressing. [See this post on Tombstone Madness.] Here is the story of a soldier who apparently had a breakdown while guarding the Cleveland grave of President Garfield. This was before the immense tomb we see today was finished. I have not found others, so the journalist may have exaggerated.

A Soldier Becomes insane While Guarding Garfield’s Tomb.

Cleveland Dispatch to Philadelphia Press.

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

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

Some newspapers attributed the young man’s insanity to the “Curse of Guiteau” (another post, another time), a malign hoodoo widely reported to have killed and driven dozens of people insane. 

There had been an attempt to snatch Garfield’s body before it was placed in the temporary tomb in Lake View Cemetery so guards were felt to be necessary. “The guards are almost essential to protect the tomb from the relic fiends as from the ghouls. The guards assert that were it not for their presence, and the wire screen or fence, which completely surround te tomb, that the crowds that visit it would chip off, break up and carry away vault, casket and all as relics. As it is they break twigs from adjacent trees, reach through the wires and pluck blades of grass, pick up pebbles or anything else they can seize upon.”  New Ulm [MN] Weekly Review 14 February 1883: p. 1 

The Garfield tomb was a popular tourist attraction. In 1882 there were complaints of littering, theft, vandalism, and harassment of bereaved visitors  by the “picnic masher element.”  Lake View Cemetery decided to close its doors to the public on Sundays, except for “proper persons” who could apply for a ticket of admission. [Source: Cleveland [OH] Leader 22 August 1882.] 

There was much resentment expressed in some newspapers about the expense and the “farce” of keeping up a guard of soldiers at Garfield’s grave and eventually the guard was withdrawn July 1, 1886. With this event, as well as the finishing of Garfield’s permanent tomb, a story emerged about some genuine bodysnatching: 

When Secretary Endicott ordered the guard removed from Garfield’s tomb the family and friends of the dead President were alarmed. Detectives informed them that an organized band of body snatchers had plotted to desecrate the sepulchre. It was finally decided to remove the remains to an obscure vault in another corner of the cemetery. This was accomplished in darkness by a party of four chosen friends. Pittsburg [PA] Dispatch 19 February 1890: p. 1 

The article goes on to describe how four prominent Cleveland business men, friends of the Garfield family, got a key to the holding vault, got Garfield’s immensely heavy coffin out of its sarcophagus, and carried it in complete darkness to an obscure vault in a little-visited section of the cemetery. Then they resealed the sarcophagus, locked the door, and went home, sworn to secrecy. Apparently one of the men hurt himself so badly in carrying the heavy coffin that he never really recovered. The article goes on to describe how people paid their respects at an empty sarcophagus, little knowing of the “necessary deception.”   

Today Garfield’s massive monument at Lake View Cemetery is said to be haunted by mysterious lights and perhaps the apparition of the man  himself. 

Our last case concerns some truly odd events at the holding vault where the body of President Warren G. Harding and his wife were kept until the Harding Monument could be built.  

Harding’s Tomb Guards Are Annoyed

Marion, O. Jan. 3. Lieutenant R.H. Harriman, commander of the guard detachment stationed in Marion cemetery to guard the vault in which reposes the body of the late President Harding, supplement a previous order, today issued instructions to the twenty-six men in his command to make every effort to capture a marauder, who, since the formation of the guard detachment, has continually annoyed the perpetual guard of six men. Gruesome disturbances including bugle blowing at midnight, ghostly noises by prowlers and throwing of stones in the direction of the vault make up the offense with which the individual or individuals will be charged if captured.

  Several time soldiers have caught glimpses of a man and on several occasions have shot at him. Early one morning a guardsman chased a man for over half a mile.

  It is believed by Lieutenant Harriman that the continual disturbances represent an attempt to frighten the men and to break the morale of the detachment. It is also thought that possibly people came to the cemetery to rob the graves of flowers. Elyria [OH] Chronicle Telegraph 3 January 1924: p. 8 

An Associated Press story added that “at first it was thought it was small boys, but when the disturbances kept up, the guard took it more seriously.” So seriously, that Lieut. R.H. Harriman, the commander of the tomb guards, ordered his men to shoot directly at anyone causing a disturbance. The article said also “Riot guns have been sent from Fort Hayes, at Columbus headquarters for the guard detachment here, and these loaded with buckshot will be used if the disturbances continue.”  

It seems unlikely that flower thieves or pranksters would be flitting about the cemetery, risking being shot. The stone throwing and ghostly noises almost suggest poltergeist manifestations.  

It’s a curious thing that the stories about Garfield, McKinley and Harding all refer to events at holding vaults, rather than their finished tombs. Is there something about corpses in transit or bodies not yet laid to rest that encourages graveyard intruders? 

Any other stories of presidential tomb disturbances? Signal by dark lantern to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

You’ll other tales of disturbed graves in The Victorian Book of the Dead, also found on Amazon and other retailers in paperback and for Kindle.

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

 

The Dead-Hole in the Cellar: A Visit to a Dissection Room: 1887

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you might have noticed a fondness for “slice of life” stories and interviews with practitioners of specialized professions like freak-makers. Today’s post offers a “slice-of-death” (in a literal sense) visit to the dissecting room of the Ohio Medical College in Cincinnati. We’ve heard before about the notorious William “Old Cunny” Cunningham, the star body-snatcher of that establishment, who is mentioned several paragraphs in as presiding over the college museum.

DEATH AND LIFE

The Scenes in a Medical College.

A Visit to the Dread Dissecting-Room by a Reporter.

How the Young Doctors Carry on the Necessary Work

A Sickening Odor Pervades the Place Where Science Operates

The Subjects Now on the Slabs and the Dead-Hole in the Cellar.

Skeleton of “Cunny,” the Grave-Robber, and Other Weird Features of the Place.

Death makes cadavers for dissection. The cadavers help to educate doctors. People must die. We must have doctors.

This story of the dissecting-room is a very old one, but people never grow tired of it. There is a mystery, a horrid fascination about the place, which ever thrills and at the same time repels mankind. Ever since medical science came to bless and protect the human race the doctor’s knife has been busy upon the dead to better understand how to save the living.

Dead men tell no tales.

The fate of being hacked to pieces grates upon the sensibilities of those in this world.

The dead can not feel.

If they could, the keen knife of the ambitious sawbones would be stayed in its course through the muscles and flesh and vitals of the helpless victims upon the stone slabs.

Soon another corps of young physicians will be turned loose from the medical colleges in this city.

The dissection-room work is nearly over. Since the 15th of October the students of the Ohio College, on Sixth street, have improved their time by becoming acquainted with the human anatomy. Every night by the glare of the jets they have worked diligently upon the inanimate forms of some poor creatures who had no friends to bury them.

Subjects have been very scarce this year. It has been found necessary by Dr. Cilley, demonstrator of anatomy, to place ten students on one “stiff,” instead of five, as formerly. The boys have kicked considerably against being so crowded, but to no avail.

Body-snatching has become dangerous. The risk of being shot or lynched is not relished by ghouls. The law is also very severe against grave-robbing because all paupers who die in public institution whose friends do not claim them are turned over to the doctors.

The subjects are handled by the Anatomical Association.

This is a Board composed of physicians who distribute them among the various colleges according to the number of students.

The Ohio gets the most, but that college has been compelled to stint its students in cadavers to practice on.

A dead body is worth $25.

That is the market price paid for stiffs at the medical college.

The villains Ingalls and Johnson, who murdered the Taylor family, sold their three victims for $35. [Beverly Taylor, an elderly, retired body-snatcher, his wife, Elizabeth, and granddaughter Eliza Jane Lambert were murdered in 1884 and their bodies sold to the Ohio Medical College.]

Now the doctors ask questions when any one wants to sell a corpse. Since that horrible atrocity the venders of dead people are rarer and more wary. The professional body-snatchers have moved away from Cincinnati.

An Enquirer reporter was permitted to visit the Ohio Medical College a few days ago.

He saw many horrible sights, but they are necessary to science.

The students were at the time of the call listening to a lecture and the reporter pursued his tour of inspection without observation or hindrance.

The college is not an attractive place.

It is dingy, dusty, and a horrid smell of penetrating force permeates the interior.

It needs a cleaning.

The museum, which contains a valuable collection of specimens of diseased humanity, and innumerable jars of preserved monstrosities, exhales a musty odor which would try the stoutest stomach. The dust is two inches thick on the floors, windows, glass-cases and grinning skeletons.

The bones of Old Cunny, the notorious body-snatcher, hang from the railing of the balcony. His skeleton is the most conspicuous object in the museum.

The old plug-hat adorns the skull.

In his mouth, between the teeth, is the pipe he smoked before he died. Cunningham was a great character. He was in his day the most extensive grave-robber in the country. While he was janitor of the Ohio College there was never a short supply of stiffs. The faculty of the institution could always depend on “Cunny” to find the most desirable subjects, for he never had any compunctions of conscience about the grave he despoiled. Before he died the body-snatcher ordered that his body be dissected. As a mark of respect to his memory for the service he had rendered, his bones were strung on wires and hung up in the museum

Stairways on either side of the College lead to that most loathsome of all places in the average man’s estimation—the dissecting room.

The reporter entered from the west door. The room is always kept locked and the janitor had the key.

Before the threshold was reached a most noisome smell struck the olfactories of the newspaper man.

Who can describe that odor?

It is infinitely more nauseating than a charnel-house. A slaughter-house is attar of roses compared with it. The desiccating company’s building at Delhi is as sweet clover or new-mown hay after catching a whiff of the aroma in the dissecting-room.

But there is no way to prevent it.

The young doctors soon become accustomed to the stink and pursue their work on the decaying human flesh with the utmost nonchalance.

Two of them were busily occupied when the reporter stuck his nose, which he held by his hand, in the open doorway.

They were seated on stools under the glare of a gas jet which cast a lurid light on the ghastly cadaver, already mutilated beyond recognition by the skillful knives of the soon-to-be physicians. The students were on either side of the subject and looked up for a moment from their occupation to say, “how de do.” The strong light at the table made an intuitive contrast unpleasant with the gloomy aspect of the dingy room. It was not yet dark outside, but the dirt-stained windows would not admit a ray of sunlight. The ambitious and energetic students continued to examine the muscles and veins exposed by their dexterous wielding of the sharp steel.

“Pretty good subject, eh?”

“Very fair.”

The corpse, which was that of a middle-aged man, had been cut out of all shape. In fleshly places the bones protruded from the flesh.

“Nearly through with him?”

“Yes.”

Of course the votaries of science can’t stop their researches on account of sentiment for their purpose is to study the dead that the living may be preserved from untimely graves.

As the dissecting course is nearly over there is a dearth of stiffs in the Ohio College. The tables on which it is customary to lay the bodies have been piled up, and only seven of them are occupied. There is a sickening amount of debris scattered about the rooms. Bones, ribs, portions of legs, arms and headless trunks greet the visitor at every turn.

A colored boy, apparently about eighteen years old, lay stretched on his stomach across one of the slabs.

He is a fresh subject.

His arms and feet hung over the end and two or three incisions were all the marks visible upon his person.

“Rather too fat for a first-class stiff,” remarked the janitor. “The boys want lean people. Consumptives are the best. Very corpulent dead men or women are not received when we can get any other kind.”

“How many subjects have you had this winter?”

“Only ten, I think. We should have had forty to give all the students a chance to dissect the various parts. You see, when five men work on the same stiff one can dissect the arm, the second another arm, the third the head, and the other two a leg each. The boys, however, have done the best they could on the material offered. Here’s where they draw them up.”

The man walked over to a sort of elevator, where a chute extends clear to the pavement. By means of a pulley, the bodies are hauled into the dissecting-room. It was through this hole that the body of Scott Harrison was lifted to the repulsive place where it was found by his son.

Those days of horror are passed.

The college authorities will never take such chances again.

If the corpse of a prominent citizen gets within range of the knife and saw it will not be their fault.

Near this chute, connected with which are such terrible associations, was the body of a woman.

She was wrapped in a sort of bunting, but the hands and arms were exposed. It was a shapely arm, and her hands were soft and pretty.

Perhaps she was somebody’s sweetheart or wife. She could not have been more than thirty years of age. The little hand had become shriveled since death, which had occurred about one month ago.

The janitor knew nothing of her history. He believed she had come from the Hospital. If her friends had claimed the remains she would have received a decent burial.

It was impossible to tell the sex or age of any of the other subjects.

They were beyond all semblance of shape.

On a table in the east room was a pile of ribs which still held together.

Was it a man or woman?

No inexperienced, casual caller could tell what it as. The janitor said it once was part of a woman, but the doctors had completed their dissection, and before  school closed the ribs would be thrown into boiling water and the result would be a mass of bleached bones, which, with the other bones would be placed together and a skeleton would adorn some anatomical museum or a doctor’s office.

“Do you pickle bodies here in summer,” was asked of the janitor.

“Sometime; but it isn’t pleasant because we can’t keep the stiffs from smelling bad.”

The two young doctors were still examining the muscles of their subject when the reporter left the scene. The horrible odor seemed to follow them down stairs into the street. It was a welcome change…from the silence of the dead-room to the active, busy hum of life.

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 13 February 1887: p. 13

“This story of the dissecting-room is a very old one, but people never grow tired of it.” What a touching opening sentence–like a well-loved bedtime story!  Interviews with body-snatchers were, briefly, a popular feature of many nineteenth-century newspapers. No morbid detail was spared, although the article above is unusually emphatic about the smell. It is also a surprisingly less fluent piece than is normally  found in the pages of the Enquirer. One-sentence paragraphs are not typical of 1880s journalism.

In these interviews, the Resurrectionists often reiterated the idea that what they did was done in the name of Science and that they preferred to snatch the bodies of the poor and friendless. “Friendless” was the key word, for even the poor could cause a scandal or a riot by demanding their loved ones’ bodies. Janitors were frequently a reporter’s guide to the chambers of horrors. They knew the institutional workings inside and out and since they occasionally supplemented their income by collecting the odd cadaver, they could speak to the acquisitions side of the profession. As a completely random aside, medical schools today have the same aversion to overweight subjects.

Other interviews with body-snatchers? And I would kill for a photo of “Old Cunny’s” skeleton in the museum. No one I spoke to at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine knows what became of that gentleman’s earthly remains.

Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

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

Pinched Ashes

The Urn

A report of a vile, “ashes for cash” scheme sent me to my files on early cremation to look for vintage stories of  purloined cremains.  It was surprising that, while corpses were often held for ransom or replevin, similar stories about ransom demands for ashes were extremely rare. Perhaps this was because fewer Victorians were cremated, yet there were plenty of stories of stolen ashes.  Let’s fire up the retort and look at some of these cases of ashen bodysnatching. There is quite a variety in motives and mysteries.

In most of the ash-theft cases, it is obvious there was a more mercenary motive.

HIS ASHES STOLEN.

St. Louis Girl Carried Reminder of Dead Sweetheart in Ring.

St. Louis, Dec. 15. Miss Cora Evelyn asked the police to locate a robber who stole from her $250 worth of jewelry, including an unusual ring. This ring contained the ashes of her former sweetheart, according to her statement. He was Charles Patterson who died in Binghamton, N.Y., about a year ago.

After his body had been cremated, Miss Evelyn says she procured a small quantity of his ashes, which she had placed in the setting of the ring, behind a transparent film. Her reason for this, she said, was to have near her always, some forcible reminder of her dead sweetheart. The Topeka [KS] State Journal 15 December 1910: p. 9

Today, of course, you can purchase pretty glass lockets in which to keep a pinch of the loved one’s cremains ever near, but in 1910, the ring  was freakishly unusual. In the 19th century the “correct” mourning accessory would have contained the hair, rather than the ashes, of the beloved.

Thefts of bronze urns and grave markers for scrap-metal sale are commonplace even today. One wonders if that was the motive here.

DEAD MAN’S ASHES STOLEN

The police of Newark, N.J., were asked yesterday to investigate the theft of a bronze urn containing the ashes of Henry Rundel Center. The urn bore the name of Center and the date of his death, November 19, 1909. Mrs. Catherine Center, widow of Henry Rundel Center, occupied an apartment at 176 Third street. Recently she went to Washington, D.C., and left the apartment in charge of a friend. The friend discovered several articles were missing, among them the urn. A sneak thief robbed the apartment. Harrisburg [PA] Telegraph 29 March 1918: p. 24

Other stories are simply a comedy of errors:

HUSBAND’S ASHES LOST.

Comedy of mixed bags.

An American widow who is so devoted to the memory of her late husband that she always carries his ashes with her was revealed by a curious mistake at the Pittsburgh station of the Pennsylvania line.

Mrs Mary White, of Chicago, who had been spending a holiday with friends at Pittsburgh, left her portmanteau at the station cloakroom while she was saying good-bye. At the same time a mechanic named James Robinson, who was going to seek employment at New York, left a similar valise containing his tools at the same station. Robinson was the first to call for his bag, accepted the one handed to him, and started for his 21 hours’ journey to New York.

Here his quest for work was successful. “But I can’t begin,” said Robinson; “they’ve given me the wrong valise at Pittsburgh and my tools are left behind.” An examination of his luggage disclosed the fact that the valise he had brought contained some woman’s wearing apparel and a sealed copper urn, to which was attached a coffin plate engraved, “George Shires White, died 1910.” There was also a Civil War medal which had belonged to Mr White. At the same time the stationmaster Chicago was telegraphing throughout the Pennsylvania line: “Wanted, a lady’s valise containing memorial tagged with the name of White; lady very anxious.”

The bags were exchanged as speedily as possible, and Mrs White explained to the Pennsylvania officials that she was never able to bring herself to inter her husband’s ashes after his cremation. She kept them with her, and it always seemed as if he himself were still her companion. Mataura Ensign, 8 August 1911: p. 5

In this story, the ashes were removed by police-impersonators probably under the guise of public health concerns. If they just wanted her trunk, how did they know there were ashes in it—did the recently widowed Mrs. Rankin mention it to the desk clerk?

DEAD HUSBAND’S ASHES STOLEN FROM WIDOW

Trunk Stolen From Hotel Room Contained Remains of Man

Cincinnati, Ohio, July 29. The disappearance of a trunk from her room in the Bremen Hotel, Twelfth and Bremen streets, containing the ashes of her husband, John Rankin, 47 years old, who died June 25, was reported to police late yesterday by Mrs. Bertha Rankin.

She told detectives she was informed police had ordered the trunk to be removed. No such order was issued through the Police Department, she was told. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 30 July 1916: p. 7

Sometimes the thieves, spooked by what they’d done, abandoned their loot.

ASHES OF HUMAN BODY STOLEN FROM DENVER OFFICE, UNOPENED URN IS LEFT AT BAKERY SHOP

Human ashes stolen Monday night from the offices of the Denver Crematory association, 100 First National Bank building, and abandoned by the thieves in a bakery at 1955 Curtis street, were returned to the crematory by the police Thursday.

As a result of conflicting instructions from relatives of the dead man—Jesse J. Haller of Mancos, Colo.—the disappearance of the ashes was not known to officials of the crematory association until the urn containing the ashes was returned to the crematory. At the downtown office of the association it was thought the ashes had been scattered in Riverside cemetery, in accordance with instructions given after Haller died here. Operator Rice of the crematory at Riverside thought the ashes had been sent to Mancos in accordance with instructions given to him by a brother last Sunday.

“It is the most mysterious happening I ever heard of,” declared President W.D. Pierce of the crematory, Thursday. “When we received Mr. Haller’s body, we were instructed to cremate it and scatter the ashes.

BODY CREMATED WEEK AGO

“The body was cremated March 24 and the ashes were locked in a steel vault at the cemetery. On Sunday, a brother appeared at the crematory and instructed Mr. Rice to ship the ashes back to Mancos. Mr. Rice sealed the ashes in an urn and brought them in to our office Monday night. The office force was gone when he arrived, and he placed the urn in a roll-top desk, locking the desk.

“The next morning we noticed that the desk would not lock, but [The rest of the story doesn’t appear or is illegible.] Denver [CO] Post 30 March 1922: p. 1

Here’s the rest of the story:

Thieves Steal Man’s Ashes, But Police Recover Them.

After having passed thru a peculiar chain of circumstances, including interment in a steel vault in the Riverside cemetery, theft from the office of the Denver Crematory association offices, abandonment in a Denver bakery and finally being turned over to the police, the ashes of J.J. Haller of Mancos, Colo., whose body was cremated on March 24, are to be shipped today to Mancos, where they will be laid in what is intended as a final resting place.

The almost unprecedented theft of human ashes was discovered yesterday when an urn containing them was returned to the Crematory by the police. The theft, which evidently occurred on Monday night, had not been noticed because of conflicting instructions from the relatives of the dead man.

Stolen from Desk.

The body was cremated on March 24, and the ashes locked in a steel vault in Riverside cemetery. Instructions from one source directed that the ashes be scattered in Riverside cemetery but a brother of the dead man, living in Mancos, gave instructions that the ashes be sent to him.

Joseph C. Rice, assistant superintendent received the latter instructions on last Sunday, so he took the urn containing the ashes to the downtown office of his company. He placed the urn in a rolltop desk and locked it. On Monday morning the urn was gone, but because of the misunderstanding that existed the possibilities of a theft was not considered.

Abandoned in Bakery.

Upon the return of the urn to the crematory association yesterday by the police, it was explained that the urn had been left in a bakery shop by two boys who said they would return for it. When they did not come to claim it the baker took it to the police station where it was opened and its contents discovered. It is a matter of conjecture as to whether the boys left the urn with the baker without knowing what it contained or whether they opened it and learned of its contents before abandoning it.

A telegram asking reasons for the delay in the shipment of the ashes was received from Mancos yesterday, so the ashes will be shipped today.

Denver [CO] Rocky Mountain News 31 March 1922: p. 3

Recently I read of a donation to a thrift store of a bottle labeled “Dad’s Ashes.” Perhaps the bereaved are simply absent-minded, leaving “Dad” or, as in the following story “a carpenter” in the wrong place.

DEAD MAN’S ASHES STOLEN

Urn Taken From Railway Carriage Is Hastily Abandoned in Tram Car by Surprised Crook.

Berlin, April. 30. Strange objects have been left behind in public conveyances, but it is not often that deliberation or forgetfulness abandons anything more incongruous to workaday traffic than the urn containing the ashes of a carpenter, which was found yesterday by a conductor in the corner of a Cologne tram car.

The incident proved to be even odder on investigation than it had appeared at first sight, for it turned out that the vessel had been stolen from a railway carriage, evidently under the impression that it contained something to eat or drink, while its legal owner was conveying it home from the Maience Crematorium. On discovering that he had embarrassed himself with the incinerated remains of a carpenter, the thief had hastened to get rid of them by leaving his burden in the train. Los Angeles [CA] Herald 15 May 1910: p. 4

Did the thief think the urn was a thermos?

Then there are the truly mysterious thefts, hinting of nameless uses for the ashes.

ASHES STOLEN FROM A GRAVE

The Discovery of the Outrage Causes a Sensation in Raleigh

Raleigh, N.C., May 26. A distinct sensation has developed here among a wide circle of friends of the family at the discovery that the grave of Miss Mattie Oettinger, in Oakwood Cemetery, has been opened and her ashes stolen away. The ghouls had cut off the turf and dug down into the inner cell, where the urn was placed. On replacing the roof a mistake was made, so that the earth sifted through, causing a depression of the grave. This and the withered turf led to the discovery.

Miss Oettinger was a daughter of the late Isaac Oettinger, and died in New York about more than a year ago. The remains were cremated and brought here for burial in the family lot. Every effort thus far has failed to reveal any clue to those guilty of the crime. Richmond [VA] Times Dispatch 27 May 1906: p. 5

Towards the end of my search, at last I located a single instance of “ashes for cash.”

KIDNAP ANCESTRAL ASHES FOR RANSOM

Berne, Switzerland, Oct. 1. Thieves broke into a crematory situated in Bienne near Berne, a few nights ago, and stole a few sepulchral urns containing the ashes of members of wealthy families.

Prominent families of Berne and Zurich are receiving letters offering to return the urns for a consideration varying between 2,000 and 4,000 francs, according to the financial standing of the owners.

The police hope to lay a trap for the ghouls.

Wyoming State Tribune [Cheyenne WY] 1 October 1902: p. 4

And, finally, the lust for murderabilia formed the motive for the theft of a murderer’s cremains.

MURDERER’S ASHES STOLEN BY MORGUE SIGHT-SEERS

Visitors to Allegheny County’s Dead House Carry Away Dust Mementoes

Pittsburgh, Pa., Jan. 3. The ashes of Steve Rusic, whose body was first to be cremated in the county crematory, after he had been hanged in the county jail yard for murder, have slowly disappeared from an urn in the morgue building, where they have been on view since February, 1911. Curiosity-seekers are accused of carrying away the ashes until about half a handful remains.

The theft was discovered today when Deputy Coroner John Moschell noticed that the urns, containing the ashes of persons cremated, had been disturbed. Rusic was hanged for the murder of Salvarro [Mary] Domboy at her home in McKees Rocks January 15, 1910. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 4 January 1917: p. 2

Mrs Garvarro Domboy was shot by Rusic as she lay in bed with her husband and baby. Some papers reported that this was because she refused to accept the man’s attentions; others because she had ended their love affair. Did the curiosity-seekers think they could use the ashes for some kind of charm or did they merely want a grim and sooty souvenir?

Any other ashes-for-cash stories? 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.

The Rector’s Ghost: c. 1815

St Peter’s Church, Dorchester

Since the season of holiday decorating is upon us, let’s start the month of December with a tale of two church officials trying to enjoy a well-earned cup of cheer after decorating St. Peter’s Church in Dorchester.

THE RECTOR’S GHOST

In the ancient town of Dorchester, Dorset, one Christmastide (I cannot fix the exact date, but it was not earlier than 1814, and might probably have been the following year), a rumor arose that a ghost had appeared in the old church of St. Peter’s to the clerk and sexton. They were both dreadfully frightened, and the former, I think, insensible for a time. The spirit was said to be the Rev. Nathaniel Templeman, the late rector, who died in 1813.

The story reached the ears of the then rector, the Rev. Henry John Richman, a learned and intelligent man, genial and kindly (I have the pleasantest recollections of him). The action be took in this affair was attributed to his eccentricity, in which he certainly gave proofs in regard to some other matters. He had an invalid wife and sister-in-law, both very nervous; so, to avoid annoying them, he examined the clerk and sexton both together, and apart, at the house of my aunt. I was quite a child then, but can just remember the whispering and excitement, and the men being shut in with the rector. The particulars of the story I heard afterward.

It was the custom in Dorchester, on Christmas Eve, for the clerk and sexton to decorate the church, not in the artistic fashion of modern times, but with large bunches of holly and mistletoe stuck about indiscriminately. Afterwards they gave the church a good cleaning for Christmas Day. On this Christmas Eve, the clerk and the sexton, after locking the doors of the church in order to prevent the intrusion of curious persons, busied themselves, as usual in Christmas preparations until the winter day drew to a close, when they sat down, on a form in the north aisle, to rest from their labors.

Then it was, as they told Mr. Richman, that the temptation came upon them to take a glass of the Sacramental wine, which kept in the vestry. After obtaining wine, they became aware that someone was sitting between them on the form. There had been no sound of steps, and the figure passed neither, but seemed to grow upon the seat. They both recognized the later rector, or “Old Master,” as they called him: he had the old familiar look and dress. He turned with a stern countenance from one to the other shaking his head in his peculiar way, but did not speak. The sexton, Ambrose Hunt, was able to say the Lord’s Prayer; Clerk Hardy was utterly unable to utter a word, and shook with extreme terror. The spirit after a while rose, and retreated down the aisle, turning round occasionally with the same awful look. He seemed to melt or vanish over the family vault, where his body lay. I never heard any explanation, except a surmise that somebody concealed in the church, and dressed like the late rector, frightened the men, but the “somebody” was never discovered, and I believe the other good rector believed the men’s story.—

Lucia A. Stone.

Shute Haye, Walditch, Bridport, Eng.

Spiritual Scientist February 1878: p. 19

So many details turn this into an M.R. James story: “no sound of steps,” “turning round occasionally with the same awful look,” and melting into the family vault.

The Rev. Nathaniel Templeman, who died 12 June 1813 and was succeeded by his curate, Mr Richman, was Rector of St Peters for 32 years–no wonder he was called “Old Master.”

While I can’t find a Clerk Hardy in the online parish records, Ambrose Hunt and Thomas Hardy are listed as witnesses at a number of weddings conducted by Mr Richman. I wonder if there is any link to the novelist Thomas Hardy, who, with architect John Hicks, helped restore St Peters in 1856-7? Hardy’s father, also named Thomas, was a violinist in his village church choir and a stone mason. It would hardly be a stretch, since the novelist was fascinated by the supernatural, to find that his father had met the rector’s ghost. But perhaps the name was a common one in the area.

Thoughts on the Hardy genealogy in relation to this tale?  Or of newer visitations from the Rector? Some modern lists of haunted sites say that he angrily comes back when theft or damage is threatened to St Peters.  chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

You can hear a reading of the original story on the Boggart and Banshee Podcast, available on Apple, Spotify, Buzzsprout, Amazon, etc. etc.

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

A Post-Mortem Room Ghost

A short time ago, I promised my readers an occasional series of “Little Visits to the Great Morgues of Europe,” which started with the morgue at the Monastery of the Mount St. Bernard in the Alps. Further morgues will be profiled, but in scouring the journals of the past for crowd-pleasing details of maggots and decomposition discerning readers demand, I got distracted by this account from a hospital morgue in Dublin, Ireland. I pride myself on not being rattled by the average ghost story, but this one actually brought me up rather short.

A Post-Mortem Room Ghost

[The subjoined is a narrative of the experience of Dr. B__. It has been transcribed for the benefit of readers of the Occult Review by Dr. J.H. Power, the record having been previously checked and its accuracy confirmed by Dr. B__.] 

See me, at the time the following episode happened, a medical student at a hospital in Dublin. I was not quite a novice, being in the third year of my course. I was in the pink of health, and with the happy irresponsibility of the golden age of twenty-one years. In truth I was a bit of a lad, never happier than when I was playing pranks on citizens both offensive and inoffensive. All the same I was never in serious trouble, for up till then a bottle had never touched my lips, and my little differences with the police were the outcome of friendly religious and political fights.

I mention these few facts about myself as a proof that I was, for my age, a normal Irishman, with vague ideals, content to take life as it came, never troubling about anything practical save what the moment gave, and loyally hating the Government.

While I was taking my turn as resident clinical clerk at the hospital, a young man was brought in one morning with a temperature of 106°, a condition known as hyperpyrexia. No cause was found for his high fever at the time, though later it was discovered that he had been suffering from peritonitis, and, for some reason that I have forgotten, he was sent to the wing of the hospital that was reserved for infectious cases. I saw this patient that morning in company with the physician under whose care he was placed, but not again during the day.

As clinical clerk it was my duty to go round the wards during the night and inspect the patients, reporting to the house surgeon or the house physician if I found anything that I thought needed his attention.

About midnight came my visit to the fever wing. This was built separate from the rest of the building, and I had to go some twenty yards in the open air to get to it. The side door of the hospital, through which I left, was kept locked, and on opening it, I found that snow was falling. Turning up the collar of my jacket, I started to make a dash for my destination, when I saw coming towards me through the snow the hyperpyrexia patient who had been brought in the previous morning. He was clad—so far as my impression went, and I confess that I did not think much of how he was clad, and, of course, the light did not favour a casual glance—in the night-shirt and red flannel jacket that were used in the wards.

Stopping short, I waited for him to come up, thinking that he was walking in his sleep; and having some notion that a somnambulist should not be awakened suddenly, I stood back by one of the buttresses that supported the wall of the hospital. As I glanced round, fully expecting to see a nurse running from the fever wing in pursuit, he passed me in the direction of the side door of the hospital. No nurse was in sight, and on looking again for the patient, nobody was to be seen. The man had gone—nowhere, for I had locked the side door on leaving the hospital, on the right of the side door was an unscalable wall, and immediately opposite this side door was the morgue, the door of which was fastened with a Yale lock of which I had the key. He could not have passed back the way he had come, or I should have seen him.

Then I felt that kind of chilliness down the back which is not caused by cold, for I realized that I had come across something a trifle out of the ordinary.

“There’s no fun in snow,” said I to myself, and made a bolt for the fever wing.

On entering the ward, I saw the night-nurse sitting in a chair asleep, with a book in her lap. I went to the bed of the hyperpyrexia man, and, as I expected, found him dead, the condition of the body showing that he had died but a few minutes before. I next went to the slate on which the night nurse wrote reports of patients, and found that opposite the number of the hyperpyrexia patient’s bed, she had noted that his temperature had fallen and he was better, not more than a quarter of an hour previously.

I then went to the nurse. She woke with a start, and exclaimed, “My God, you did give me a fright. I thought Sister had come in and struck me on the mouth with a clothes-brush.”

“How is No. 19?” I asked.

“Oh, much better,” she replied, “his temperature has dropped.”

“Should you be surprised to hear that he was dead?” I answered.

She was much upset, but still she was not to blame, and as there was no more to be done, the night-porters were sent for, and the body taken to the morgue.

At 9.30 a.m. the pathologist gave demonstrations in the morgue, and by that hour bodies had to be prepared for him by the clinical clerks. This rather nauseous task fell to my share during the week, and about 2 a.m. I decided that I would get on with the preparation of the body of the hyperpyrexia man.

I own that the job had no attractions for me. I was feeling more upset by what I had seen in the snow than I would have believed possible. Up to that time I had laughed at the idea of being afraid of anything uncanny, and would have gone out of my way to meet a ghost. Besides, our morgue was not a very cheerful place. No post-mortem room that ever I came across has many pretensions to liveliness, but in addition the gas burner in our morgue was faulty, and had a way of slowly and silently allowing a jet of gas to grow up to a flare, and then cutting it off till the flame faded to a minute spark. However I would not allow to myself that I was so badly scared as not to be able to do what there was to be done, so I went down to the morgue.

I had to hold myself well together as I put the key in the lock. . . . Then with another effort I pushed the door open.

The gas had not been turned out by the porter, and by its uncertain light I saw the corpse lying on the table, covered with a sheet, with the feet towards me, and facing me, standing at the head, close against the table was the Figure of the man himself, watching.

I must have been a plucky youngster in those days, for even then, frightened as I was, I did not give in. I remember that I did not look straight at the Watcher, but kept my eyes slightly averted. I had in my mind the notion that he could not, or would, not blame me for what I was about to do to his body, if I did not know he was there, and so I pretended that I did not see him. Why I should have thought that he would be so easily deceived I cannot tell, but one has strange notions at trying times.

Strive as I would, however, I could not bring myself to go through the process of prosection in the usual way. I cannot be certain now, but I fancy I had some idea of finding if the man was really dead, and making a wound to test the matter. Still taking no notice of the Figure, I gave the table a pull, and ran it on its castors till it was quite near the gas. The Watcher at the head moved with it. Then, instead of uncovering the body from the head downwards, as I should ordinarily have done, I took hold of the sheet and threw it upwards from the feet. The Watcher at the head did not move. Then, greatly daring, I took the knife in my hand, and made as if to pierce the leg of the corpse. Instantly the Watcher made a motion with his hand, and…

I remember no more till about 9 a.m. the next morning, when the other clinical clerk came to the room and found me asleep on the floor. I think it likely that the mental strain had made me lose consciousness, but I did not feel like telling anybody about it all, and said that I had been tired and had lain down there and fallen asleep. We must have been a happy-go-lucky lot, for the fact of my having chosen the cold stone floor of the morgue as a resting place excited no particular remark from him. I caught a bad cold, and another man did the prosection, but I told nobody what had happened on that dreadful night till many a day later. 

The Occult Magazine July 1918: p. 32-35

Taking up my Relentlessly Informative syringe, the fever ward patients were dressed in red flannel jackets because red flannel was not only warm, but was believed to protect the chest and throat—it was often called “medicated flannel.” An 1861 medical journal suggests also that the toxic poison-sumac dyes in some red flannel served as “a very excellent, gentle counter-irritant,” counter-irritants being thought useful in “drawing out” disease. It obviously had no salutary effect on the patient with peritonitis.

This story will be found in my upcoming book When the Banshee Howls.

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

Dead Man Cycling: 1899

Since we are nothing if not topical here, I thought I ought to do something in honor of the Olympics. Even thought it is an Olympic sport, I find watching cycling a tedious pastime, frequently dropping into a coma easily mistaken for death while viewing the surging masses of spandex. But devotees are fanatical about the sport. In this astonishing story, one man crossed the finish line as a corpse.

DEAD MAN WINS CYCLE RACE

Victor in an Australian Contest Goes Under the Tape a Winner.

Vancouver, B.C., Feb. 25. Australian advices by the steamship Miowera tell of a remarkable bicycle race in Sydney, which was won by a dead man.

It occurred at a big electric light carnival. In a one-mile race there were 50 entries, some of the fastest men in Australia taking part in it. While 10,000 people watched this particular race, which was for a magnificent cup, young James Somerville passed under the tape a winner, though dead.

At the start he quickly forged ahead, closely followed by another crack rider named Percy Cliff. They left 48 riders away in the rear and shot around the track almost wheel to wheel. When within 25 yards of the tape Somerville, who still led by half a wheel, was seen to relax his hold on the handlebars. His pedals whirled around, however, and he pluckily held his position. Five yards from the tape Cliff put on a tremendous spurt and struck Somerville’s hind wheel, shooting the machine with its then almost inanimate burden, like a rocket under the tape.

The crowd yelled wildly, but silence ensued when Somerville, after crossing the tape, plunged head foremost from the machine. When picked up he was dead. Physicians who examined his body said he must have had an attack of heart failure on the last lap. Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 25 February 1899: p. 1

A thrilling narrative, indeed!  But who was this plucky post-mortem winner?

OBITUARY MR JAMES SUMERVILLE AETAT 23

The friends of the above-named well-known cyclist will regret to learn that he died in Sydney Hospital at about six o’clock this evening. It may be remembered that at the electric light bicycle race held on the Sydney Cricket Ground on Thursday last deceased fell while riding for the Trustees’ Gift and sustained fracture of the skull. He was taken to the hospital and at first, according to the newspaper reports, hopes were entertained that he would recover; but these proved illusive and he never regained consciousness, but died as stated above.

Deceased was a very respectable, well-conducted young man, much liked by those who knew him. He was second son of Mr. J. Somerville of Yarra, and until recently he assisted his father and brothers in carrying on farming. Lately however he became enamoured of cycling and devoted much attention to it. In his career as a cyclist he was fairly successful, having last year won two races at Braidwood and one at Cootamundra, and about four months ago he was first in a local road race from Tarago to Goalburn.

He was single and leaves a father, mother, and three brothers to mourn their loss.

The body will be brought to Goulburn by mail train to-morrow morning, and the funeral will leave Mr. Wiseman’s Auburn-street, at five pm., for the Presbyterian cemetery, North Goulburn. Cyclists are by advertisement requested to attend. Goulburn Herald [NSW] 23 January 1899: p. 3

An inquest was held a few days later, giving an affecting description of his funeral and some unexpected details.

The Inquest on Somerville.

The inquest was on Tuesday resumed on the body of James Somerville, the Goulburn cyclist, who was fatally injured whilst riding in a race at the electric light cycling carnival at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Thursday night. A number of witnesses were called to show that the ground was well lighted during the progress of the race in question, and the track was in good order. Senior-constable Pearse, who was stationed within the enclosure, stated that the riders were in a bunch until within 150 yards of the wining post, when they spread out. He saw two men fall near the fence, and went to their assistance. In the casualty room he asked deceased how it happened, and he replied, “I know nothing about it.” Joseph Cliff, cycle mechanic, Waterloo, who fell with Somerville, said that in the rush for the finish he was three yards behind him, and another man was an equal distance ahead. He saw him suddenly fall, but did not notice the machine strike the fence. Henry Johnston, who was a spectator of the race in the public reserve, stated that he saw deceased fall a few feet away from where he was leaning over the fence. In falling deceased struck witness on the arm. He thought Somerville’s machine must have struck the back wheel of a bicycle in front of him. Fred Rathgen, who was present at the carnival in the capacity of referee, said that he was standing close to the scene of the fall. Deceased was on the outside of the bunch, and nearest the fence. The front wheel of his bicycle must have struck another bicycle, as it turned it completely round, and brought the machine to a standstill, throwing deceased off. He struck the track with his head, and lay there bleeding and motionless. The jury, without retiring, found that death resulted from injuries accidentally received. The funeral took place in Goulburn on Tuesday afternoon. A large number of cyclists took part, walking in procession in front of the hearse in couples, with their bicycles on the inner side. Before the cemetery was reached the wheelmen numbered over seventy, and the procession had a very imposing effect. Following the hearse were the mourning coaches, a large number of other vehicles, and horsemen. The hearse was draped in the riding colours of the deceased. The remains were interred in the Presbyterian cemetery. The Rev. Stanley Best, assistant minister of St. Saviour’s Cathedral parish, officiated at the grave, and in the course of a brief address said that it was a beautiful sight to see so many of the deceased’s fellow cyclists attending the funeral. Handsome wreaths had been sent by the local and metropolitan branches of the League of Wheelmen and by the promoters of the electric light cycle meetings. Mr. R. Sidney Craig conducted the obsequies. General sorrow is expressed at the untimely end of so promising a young man. Goulburn Evening Penny Post [NSW] 26 January 1899: p. 4

Wait—he spoke? He was injured on Thursday and died on Friday? But what about the exciting narrative of young Somerville crossing the finish line as the winner, lifted off his bicycle a corpse?

Alas, for the world of strange deaths, this fanciful tale had more revolutions than a peloton.

Usually a tragic event needs to fade at least slightly into the mists of history before becoming distorted, but Somerville—the man, the myth, the legend—began his victory lap almost immediately.

He died on the 23 of January 1899 and a month later, the story heading this post appeared in the Michigan paper. In April, not even three months after the tragedy, the local paper was commenting on the far-flung variants of the story and even they had their facts wrong with “died some days after.”

English Fancies and Australian Facts.

It has often been a puzzle to understand where English journals get their Australian news from. Some of it is fearfully and wonderfully mangled during the process of transposition form the columns of the Australian to those of the English press. He is a paragraph in point, taken from the “British Weekly,” one of the most respectable of English religious weeklies, which has a large circulation in these colonies:

A bicycle race was won by a dead man at Sydney a few days ago. When James Somerville, a champion Australian bicyclist, was within 25 yards of the winning post, he released his hold of the handles, and his head dropped forward, but he apparently continued to work the pedals, and came in the winner. He was lifted from his bicycle, and was found to be dead. The doctors said he died during the last lap.” The facts of the unfortunate case, it will be remembered, are that James Somerville was thrown from his machine while racing on the Sydney Cricket Ground, and died some days after from the injuries received. Goulburn Evening Penny Post [NSW] 8 April 1899: p. 4

This story whirled round the world nearly as fast as the bicycle of the unfortunate Somerville. In a discussion of long-distance cycle racing the tale was commented upon with an even stranger assertion about the story having its origins in a fictional yarn in a cycling magazine.

Thus an English contemporary: Those of us who’ve done long distances know that it is quite possible to drop into a semi-sleep and yet keep on pedalling. But it is news that a man may be dead and yet ride a bicycle.

The latest tall tale arrives from Australia. A telegram tells how James Somerville, a champion rider, came to his death suddenly. It was during a race, when within 25 yards of the winning post, he released his hold of the handles and his head dropped forward. But he worked the pedals for all he was worth, and came in the winner. He was dead; the doctors said he died in the last lap. Who was James Somerville, anyhow? A “prize tale” in a cycling contemporary a few months ago had this incident as its foundation, and the name of the hero thereof was James Somerville The Ballarat Star [Vic.] 6 May 1899: p. 6

Much in the same way that some continue to insist that Victorians photographed their dead standing, held miraculously upright by a mere posing stand, this story had wheels, running on for years after Somerville’s death. What is strangest of all is to find the dead-man-winning tale repeated in Australian papers in 1899, where, you would think, the actual story might have been known.

One of the latest versions was published in 1925. The story was freshened by a preface reading, “It is not long since a valuable cup was won in a bicycle race at Sydney by a man who was actually dead when his bicycle flashed past the winning post.” [Dallas [TX] Morning News 9 August 1925: p. 1] The story was also repeated as true in the Evening Star (Washington DC) 27 February 1949: p. 56 in one of those features about “quaint stories from the past.” Even today you can find dozens of sites where James Somerville’s post-mortem victory is celebrated. Lore, we must admit, is stronger than death.

Was there actually a fictional story in a cycling magazine where this legend got its start? Or is that just another part of the Somerville legend? No valuable cup for guessing. chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

See this story from The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales from the Past, at Mrs Daffodil’s blog. It is dated 1892; could it have been the inspiration for the cycling dead man?

Undine of Strange Company writes in with a chilling parallel from the world of horse racing. Thanks, Undine!

Your post about “Dead Man Cycling” reminded me of this memorable finish from the world of horse racing. (Lewiston Sun, June 5, 1923)

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