An Arizona Story, Which Need Have No Doubts Cast Upon Its Entire Authenticity.
[San Francisco Call.]
“Yes, I’ve shaved more than one corpse in my time,” said a Geary-street barber as the reporter sank into the luxury of the big velvet-cushioned chair and said, “shave.”
“Yes, and I’ve shaved more dead men than I ever got pay for,” said the barber, as he tucked in the towels about the reporter’s neck. “You know the price is $5 for scraping a ‘stiff.’ Well, I never got a cent for one ‘stiff’ that I handled once.
“Tell you about it? Well, if you really want to hear it, though it ain’t a pleasant story.
“It happened down in Arizona, where I had a shop. A tall, lean fellow, looking as pale as milk, came in one day and climbed up into the chair.
“I fixed the towels around him and put on the first dash of lather when in walks an old friend who wanted to pay a bill.
“’Are you in a hurry, sir?’ I asked the big man in the chair. He said he was not in a tone that sounded like a funeral bell. So I talked with my friend who came in to pay the bill and went out to take a drink with him.
“When I came back something else happened that kept me from shaving the big fellow in the chair for fully fifteen or twenty minutes. But some other customers came in and I began to get a move on me. I only ran one chair in Arizona.
“I thought the stranger’s face was awfully cold and damp to the touch as I went about shaving him, now in dead earnest, for there were two waiting.
“I was feeling in a good humor and tried to be pleasant to the big fellow, talking about this and that and the other thing. But he never let on he heard a word I said.
‘Razor hurt, mister?’ I asked him as I always ask everybody, for sometimes, you know, the razor may be a little dull and me not know it.
“Well, the stranger never answered a word.
“Shampoo, sir?’ I says.
“He never let on he heard me.
“I tried him again: ‘Hair trimmed a little?’
“’Bad weather we’re having,’ I said after a pause, but he never said a word.
“Thinks I, ‘he’s a mute, I guess,’ but I didn’t think twice about it, for when a man wants a quiet shave and he’ll only say so, I never bother him. So I went to shaving and talking to the other customers who were waiting their turns and never said ‘beans’ to the tall stranger under me.
“Well, I got the job done, and bay-rummed, washed and dried him and had put the powder on his face. Then I waited for him to get up so I could comb his hair.
“But he never budged.
“I knew he hadn’t gone to sleep, for his eyes were wide open and he was staring at the ceiling. I thought he must be an awful jay not to know enough to raise his head up to get his hair combed.
“’Rise up, please,’ I said.
“But he didn’t rise for a cent.
“Then I got frightened and remembered how cold his face was. ‘Hello,’ I said, ‘he’s’ fainted!’
“I dashed a cup of water in his face, but it didn’t bring him round.
“Then I sent after the doctor, who had his office right across the street, meanwhile leaving him, just as he was in the chair.
“”Why,’ said the doctor when he got out there, ‘that’s my patient. Not more than an hour ago I told him I couldn’t save him and he’d be liable to die any moment. It’s that fellow Rocks who struck the big lead last week and got a ball in him for trying to jump “Fatty’s” claim. I couldn’t get the bullet out, and I told him so.’
“Maybe you can imagine how I felt when I heard that I had been shaving a dead man. I was young in the business then and had never struck that kind of a job before.
“’Yes,’ said the doctor, ‘Rocks has been dead for the last half hour. He must have given up the ghost right after he got into the chair, for he’s getting stiff now.’
“And what do you suppose brought that living-dead man into my shop. He came over to get shaved while he was alive so it would only cost him two bits. He knew he was going to kick right off, and the idea of his heirs paying $5 for a shave went against his grain. And you’d believe this if you knew old Rocks. He was the closest and tightest man in Arizona.
“No, I never got a cent for that job. I wouldn’t take the two bits the heirs offered me and they kicked about paying the regular fee.”
The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 24 September 1892: p. 10
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The barber who shaved the dead was a mortuary service-person little remembered today. The subject seemed to titillate journalists of the nineteenth century, as stories about “Dead Man’s Razor,” involving secret journeys to shave the faces of dead ladies and odd requests from relatives about facial hair stylings, were commonplace in Victorian papers. Some barbers had custom razors made with a skull-and-crossbones moulded into the handle so they would not use that razor on a living man. All of the barbers interviewed in the press emphasised the lucrative aspects of the funerary trade: $5 for a corpse as opposed to 50 cents for the living, hence the barber’s chagrin at being “stiffed.”
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.
In the 19th-century press there was a slight, but revealing collection of stories about funeral fanciers. These were mourners without portfolio, who attended funerals merely for the fun of the thing. As this fashionable undertaker reports, they do not seem to be ghouls, but are generally sympathetic souls.
FASCINATED BY FUNERALS
People Who Are Mourners Regularly, and Find Comfort in so Being.
[New York Sun.]
“Do you see that nice-looking little old lady over by the stained window?” asked a fashionable undertaker of the reporter. “I mean the quaint, respectable-looking little personage, with the black satin dress and the black crape shawl.”
The reporter saw her.
“Well,” continued the undertaker, with an appreciative smile, “she’s as fine a regular attendant as any establishment in this city can produce. I send her an invitation to all my nice funerals, and I have sometimes sent a carriage for her when I knew mourners would be scarce. She is never really happy unless she is at a funeral. She won’t touch weddings, as most women will; her sole amusement, so to speak, is a first-class funeral;” and the undertaker looked over to the old lady with a tender professional interest.
“I have some other nice people on my list,” he went on. “One of my most graceful mourners live in Forty-eight street, and seldom gets down this way, but she hardly ever passes a day without a funeral, and I never saw her at one when she couldn’t’ shed tears with the best of them. She’s one of the heart-brokenest ladies I ever had for a ‘regular.’ Does she really feel badly? Well, I should say she did, most decidedly. She always has a word to say to the family, if she thinks they need comforting, and is very careful to learn all the particulars. Why, she can tell me all the details about some of my own funerals that I had forgotten years ago. She’s as good as a set of books.
“Oh, no, there’s nothing hysterical about these cases at all. I’ve got some men that do just the same thing. There is one now. He’s a curious customer. I sometimes lose sight of him for six month, and then all of a sudden he’ll turn up and not miss a funeral. Of course, I couldn’t ask the women folks why they came, but I asked him one day. He said he couldn’t describe exactly the kind of feeling it gave him, but he thought it sort of quieted his mind and soothed his feelings like. He made one remark about it that I never could quite get the hang of, though I dare say it had a certain sort of meaning for him. He said, ‘ I haven’t got any friends at all myself, and so I like to go to funerals.’ A lady volunteered almost the same kind of remark to me once after she had been to four or five of my best funerals. She said, ‘It makes me feel kind of friendly, you know, and then they are kind to me, and, besides, I feel afraid and solemn, and it always does me good.’
“I think it would be unjust to call it mere curiosity that brings them here, though I have noticed that some of these people watch every detail with the most intense curiosity. They seem fascinated by the presence of death, and their sympathies are moved by the grief of the living. You might think they were very solemn people but the contrary is the case. Some of them are remarkably cheerful, in fact. That little old lady is always very pleasant and vivacious after the ceremony is over. She always comes up and shakes hands with me and is as agreeable a person as one would wish to meet.
“There’s an unusually lively and pleasant gentleman living in the Ninth Ward who occasionally drops in at my funerals. He does not make it a point to go to them, but, as he says himself, he can never get past them. He told me he was obliged to go in; no matter how important business might be, he would forget all about it as soon as he saw the hearse and carriages. The first time I saw him at a funeral I thought he was certainly one of the nearest relatives. He is a very large, round-faced, benevolent-looking gentleman, that would be observed in any crowed. On this occasion, after he had looked at the deceased person for a few moments, he became greatly overcome with emotion, and someone led him to a chair. Each one of the mourners supposed, of course, that he was known to the others. He wept throughout the discourse, and after it was over shook hands all around with the mourners, and showed a good deal of fervent, and, I have no doubt, genuine sympathy. I did not know until some time after that he was a dummy—that’s the name we sometimes call them by. This man is really as jolly a fellow as you ever met, and they say he has been requested to leave theaters more than once, in case he would not subdue a particularly substantial laugh which he possessed. In fact, most of these people who love to go to funerals are good-hearted people. It is not true, as has sometime been said, that they are touched a little in the head. The fact seems to be that they are emotional and sympathetic, and are strongly affected by any awe-inspiring scene. Even young girls and boys have now and then a fancy for funerals, though none of them can say why. Most of them say it makes them feel better, but if you ask where or how, they cannot say. They all watch everything as though in a sort of a dream.
One of my best hearse drivers used, as a boy, to be a regular attendant at funerals. One day he came around to my stable and asked if he might help us. I let him do so, and after a while he used to take a hand regularly in keeping the hearse in order. When he got old enough to go to work his father had to bring him to me—he wouldn’t work any-where else. If you ask him why he likes this business, he’ll tell you he don’t know.”
A slim, middle-aged man here addressed the undertaker, and was received by that personage in a most friendly manner. The slim man suggested that there might be some way he could be of use before the services were done.
“Now, there’s a man,” said the undertaker, “who is interested only in the mechanical part of the business. He goes to almost all my funerals, but seems to feel no special sorrow or sympathy. His whole mind is taken up with the conduct of the funeral. To suit him, the business must be done with the most solemn exactitude. He said to me the other day that if he could only once have complete charge of a large funeral he would be happy for the rest of his life.”
The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 25 August 1883: p. 11
Moving beyond the amateurs dedeuil, there were also hired professional mourners (some cities had mourners’ unions!) and, of course, con-men–and con-women, who followed the coffin.
AT MANY FUNERALS
When Arrested She Wails Some More and Borrows From Judge.
LIVED OFF HER TEARS
Wore Reversible Coat With Gray Inside to Turn When Work Was Done.
It will be some time before Clara Howell, professional mourner and weeper at funerals, will be back at her vocation again. She has been arrested by Policeman Burdette and was released by Justice Gavin on her promise to go to Littleton, where she has relatives, and remain there. Incidentally she “touched” the justice for 25 cents to pay her fare out of the city.
Clara Howell continually wears a black scarf, which extends over her head and under her chin. She never has been seen on the street or at funerals without it.
She was arrested at Miller’s undertaking establishment, Seventeenth and Curtis streets, by Burdette, who had been watching her.
She has been in the habit of begging, says the policeman, and never overlooks a chance to ask for money. But it in the role of professional mourner that she shines.
Slipping quietly into an undertaking chapel or even a private home where funeral services are being conducted she would take a seat and begin to weep. Naturally some of the relatives of the deceased person would be anxious to learn the identity of the mourner and in many cases would address her, whereupon the disconsolate one invariably would say that she was acquainted with the departed one and incidentally call attention to her own poverty.
On such occasions it was easy to beg or borrow and, in this manner, Clara Howell succeeded in “getting the coin.”
The woman wears a reversible coat, one side being black, for mourning purposes, and the other gray, for street wear.
Policeman Burdette received many complaints concerning the woman from undertakers and finally decided to arrest her on a charge of vagrancy.
The Denver [CO] Post 8 March 1910: p. 6
Shirley Jackson has written about 1960s funeral fanciers who were in it for the food following the obsequies. I have heard from a woman who lives in Manhattan, that there is an entire class of women who scan the obituaries for women’s funerals. Then they attend and condole with the bereaved husband, pretending to be a good friend of the deceased wife. Object: matrimony with the hapless widower. Apparently these women recognize that there is a limited window of opportunity in which to snap up the grieving male before he is captured by some casserole-toting neighbor.
Are you a fiend for a funeral? Did you meet your spouse at a wake? Put on an expression of genuine sympathy and send to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
I once attended a very poor old man of the name of Jordan, in his last illness. I call him poor, but yet he was not in want, and had about him the comforts of life. When he was near his end, he said to me—
‘Doctor, I want to know the truth from you. I am not in the habit of being flattered by the world. There was a time, indeed, when it ‘fooled me to the top of my bent;’ but that was long ago. Do you not flatter me, but tell me your real opinion. Shall I soon die, or shall I linger on a brief career, in a world I am quite willing to be done with?’
‘You desire me,’ replied I, ‘to be candid with you, and I will. You are on your death bed.’
‘How soon shall I be immortal?’
‘That I can not say. But your hours, so far as human experience can teach me to predict, are numbered.’
He was silent for a few moments, and a slight spasm passed across his face.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘it is the lot of all. I have lived long enough.’
‘Is there no friend or relation, Mr. Jordan,’ said I, ‘to whom you would wish to send? You are here, as you have often told me, quite alone in lodgings. Perhaps you would like to revive some old recollections before you leave the world.’
‘Not one,’ he said.
‘Are you so completely isolated?
‘Most completely. I have tried all relations, and found them wanting. But still I have remembered them, and made my will. It is now between the mattress and sacking of this bed, and Mr. Shaw, the only honest attorney I ever met with, and who resides in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, will carry my intentions into effect I was rich once in early life. How dark a day.’
‘To-day. How dark and misty it has come over, doctor.’
His sight was going fast, and I felt certain that it would require but little patience, and a small sacrifice of time to see the last of Mr. Jordan.
‘Yes,’ he continued, speaking in an odd, spasmodic fashion. ‘Yes, I was rich, and had many a crawling sycophant about me, many smiling faces at my board; but there came a reverse, and like fair flowers at a sudden frost, my kind friends hid their heads. I was nearly destitute, and thinking and believing that the ties of blood would be strong enough to bind to me, in my distress, those with whom I claimed kindred, and who had been delighted to claim kindred with me, I went to them, a visitor.’
‘And failed, as you say. They dropped from me one by one. Some remembered slight offenses; some were never at home; some really thought I must have been dreadfully improvident, and, until they were convinced I had not, could not assist me. Doors were shut in my face—window blinds pulled down as I passed. I was shunned as a pestilence — my clothes were in rags — my step feeble from long want of common necessaries. And then an old school companion died in the West Indies, and left me £20,000, which I received through the hands of Mr. Shaw.’
‘A large fortune! And your relations?’
‘Heard of it, and were frantic. I disappeared from them all. From that day to this, they have not heard of me. Do you love wild flowers?’
‘Yes. Here are heaps just from the teeming garden. Look, too, how yon cherub twines them in her hair. The stream flows deep to eternity!’
‘Mr. Jordan, sir,’ I cried. ‘Mr. Jordan, do you know me.’
‘Come hither, laughing, gentle spirit,’ he said, ‘bring with you your heap of floral gems. Yes, I know this is the sweet violet. Mary, my Mary; God knows I love you.’
It was a strange thing but, at the moment the blind of the window, which I had drawn up to the top, came suddenly rattling down, and the room was quite dark. I raised it again, and then turned to the bed,
Mr. Jordan was a corpse!
What a remarkable change had in these few moments come over the old man’s face. The sharp lines of age had all disappeared, and there was a calm, benign expression upon the still features, such as in life I never saw them wear.
‘A restless spirit is at peace,’ I said, as I felt for the will where he told me it was placed, and found it. It was merely tied up with a piece of red tape, and addressed to Mr. Shaw, 20, Lincoln’s-Inn Fields; so I resolved to trust no other messenger, but to take it in my hand myself. I told the landlady of the house that her lodger was no more; and that she would no doubt hear immediately from his solicitor, and then I left.
‘Well, Mr. Shaw,’ I said, after I had mentioned to him the manner of Mr. Jordan’s death, ‘here is the will, sir, and I presume I have nothing further to do than to thank you for your courtesy, and bid you good evening.’
‘Stay a moment,’ he said. ‘Let me look at the document. Humph! a strange will. He leaves the form of an advertisement here, which is to be inserted in the morning papers, calling his relations together, to here the will read.’
‘Yes, Well, I shall, as I see I am named trustee, do as he wishes. He states that he is very poor.’
‘Why, he spoke to me of £20,000.’
‘Did he really? A delusion, sir, quite a delusion. £20,000! He had that amount twenty-five years ago. But, sir, as you have attended him, and as I happen to know he had a high opinion of you, I should like you, as his friend, to be with me, as it were, in future proceedings connected with his will!”
‘In which there is a mystery, eh! Mr. Shaw!’
‘A little—perhaps a little bit of post mortem revenge, that is all, which I am not now at liberty to descant upon. But I will take care to coincide with you, and I shall hope that you will follow the old fellow to the grave.’
I promised that much, and duly attended the funeral. It was a quiet, walking affair, and from the manner of it I felt quite convinced that there were not funds to make it otherwise. A mound of earth alone marked the spot in the little church-yard at Barnes, where Mr. Jordan slept the sleep that knows no waking. A drizzling rain came down. The air was cold and eager, and I returned home from the funeral of Mr. Jordan, about as uncomfortable as I could.
o o o o o o
The next day the following advertisement appeared in a morning paper, and caught my eye as I sat at breakfast:
‘If any of the relations of Mr. John James Jordan, deceased, will call at the office of Mr. Shaw, 20, Lincoln’s-Inn Fields, they will hear of something advantageous.’
I made up my mind to call upon Mr. Shaw during the day, and about three o’clock, I reached his chambers, or rather I reached the stair-case leading to them, and there I had to stop, for it was quite besieged by men and women, who were all conversing with great eagerness.
‘What can it mean?’ said an old woman; ‘I’m his aunt, and of course I speak for my Ned!’
‘Well, but bother your Ned,’ said a man, ‘he hardly really belongs to the family. I’m his brother. Think of that, Mrs. Dean.’
‘Think of what, you two-legged goose?’
‘Pho, pho,’ said another man, ‘I knew him very well. I’m his cousin. Hilloa! what’s this? Who are you?’
A woman in tattered garments, but who still looked like a beautiful one, stood hesitatingly at the foot of the stairs.
‘Is this Mr. Shaw’s?’ she said. ‘Hush, Mary, hush! don’t my dear.’ ‘But I am hungry, mamma,’ said the little girl, who was holding her by a handful of her dress.
‘Oh, Mary—do not dear; we—we shall soon go home. Hush, dear, hush, hush! Is this Mr. Shaw’s?’
‘Yes,’ said a fat woman, ‘and who is you, pray?’
‘I—I saw an advertisement. I am his aunt Grace’s only child. My name is Mary Grantham. This is my only child. She—she is fatherless and has been so for many a day,’
‘What,’ cried a man, ‘are you the Mary he broke his heart about?’
‘Broke his fiddlestick,’ said the fat woman.
‘Good God, do I live to hear that!’ exclaimed the woman with the child.
‘You had better go up to the solicitor at once,’ whispered I. ‘Come, I will show his door,’
I made a way for her through the throng of persons, and we soon reached the chamber.
‘Here is another of Mr. Jordan’s relations, Mr. Shaw,’ said I, ‘I find you have had quite a levee.’
‘I have indeed, doctor. You must come at twelve o’clock, next Monday, madam, when the will of Mr. Jordan will be read by me to all around.’
‘I thank you, sir.’ She was about to leave the chambers, when I interposed.
‘Pardon me, madam,’ I said. ‘But as I was the only person with Mr. Jordan, at the time of his decease, I wish to ask you a question. If I mistake not, your name was the last that passed his lips. ‘Mary, my Mary,’ he said, ‘God knows that I loved you!’
She sank into a chair, and burst into tears.
‘You, then,’ I added, ‘are the Mary whom he loved. Ah, why did you not, if you can weep for him now, reciprocate the passion?’
‘I did love him,’ she cried; ‘God knows, and he, who is now with his God, knows how I loved him. But evil tongues came between us, and we were separated. He was maligned to me, and I was wearied by entreaties and tears, until I married another. She, who has turned me from him, and severed two hearts that would and should have been all the world to each other, confessed the sin upon her death-bed.’
‘Who was it?’ said Mr. Shaw.
‘His mother! From no other source could I have believed the tales I was told. But I did not then know enough of the world to think that there were mothers who could malign their own children. We were separated–my husband died, leaving me that last little one, of many. We are very, very poor—no one will help us—an acquaintance showed me the advertisement, and urged me to come—it was a false hope. But I find that there are strong arms and brawling tongues below, that I can not contend against.’
‘Never mind that,’ said the solicitor; ‘it is my duty to read the will on Monday, and as a relation it is your duty to attend at the same time. I tell you to have no expectations.’
I saw Mr. Shaw try to slip some money into her hand, and I saw a crimson flush come over her face as she said, ‘We can still work:’ and then, fearing she had been harsh to one who wished to be kind, she shook his hand in both of hers, and said. ‘God bless you, sir, I thank you from my heart.’
Bang, bang! came to the door of the chamber, a minute after Mary had left, and upon its being opened, a man of about six and thirty made his appearance.
‘Something advantageous!’ he gasped, for he was out of breath; ‘what—what is it? Give it me, give it me! How much? Good God, don’t let any body else have it. I’m his youngest brother—give it to me.’
‘If you will attend here at 12 o’clock on Monday, the will will be read.’
Bang, bang, bang!
‘I’m thoroughly besieged,’ said Mr. Shaw; ‘now, madam, who are you?’
‘Something advantageous,’ screamed a masculine looking woman;
‘I’m a relative—what is it? Come on, my dears. Here’s my five dear daughters, and my baby—come along.’
‘Be off with you,’ cried the younger brother.
‘Did you speak to me, you wretch,’ said the lady, and she planted a blow in his face that made him reel again. ‘Take that; I know you are a sneaking hound; you used to be called the chimpanzee in the family, you poor, scorched-up-looking bundle of cat’s-meat.’
Several more arrivals now took place, and poor Mr. Shaw was fairly bewildered. Sounds of contention arose on the staircase—shrieks from family combatants came upon our ears, and finally, I advised Mr. Shaw to paste a placard on the outer door of his office, on which was written,
‘The will of Mr. Jordan will be read here on Monday next, at twelve o’clock, precisely.’
The riot gradually subsided. The evening came on, and all the relations of the deceased had been and gone. Mr. Shaw and I supped together, and I promised to be with him punctually at twelve o’clock on Monday, for I was as curious as anybody could be to hear the will read, and at all events, anticipated a bustling scene upon the occasion. I was not doomed to be disappointed.
o o o o o
It is a habit of mine rather to be too soon than too late, and in the present instance I found it a most useful one, for I really almost doubt if I should have got into the chambers of Mr. Shaw at all, if I had been later than I was.
I had fairly to push Mrs. Mary Grantham in, despite a vigorous opposition; and a man stopped my own entrance, crying—
‘Who are you? What relation are you?’
‘His grandfather’s uncle,’ said I; ‘and if you don’t make way I’ll pull the nose off your face.’
It was well that Mr. Shaw occupied very spacious chambers, or otherwise he could not have accommodated one-half of the persons who came to the reading of the will; and never in all my life did I see such malignant looks pass from one to another, as shot from the eyes of the relations. It was a most pitiful picture of human nature.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ said Mr. Shaw; ‘ahem! ahem!’
There was a death-like stillness.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, I am commissioned to read to you the—the —what shall I call it?—it is hardly a will—of the late Mr. Jordan. No, it certainly ought not to be called a will, for a will, properly speaking, is a testamentary—”
‘Read, read, read!’ cried a dozen voices.
‘Well, ladies and gentlemen, I am glad to see you are all in respectable mourning.’
‘Except one,’ said the younger brother; ‘there’s his Mary, that he was so fond of. Oh, dear me! she only comes for what she can get.’
Mrs. Grantham burst into tears. There was a little shabby piece of black crape upon her arm, and another upon the arm of her child.
‘I—I could not,’ she said; ‘ I could not do more. God help me! I had not the means!
‘Read, read, read!’ cried all the voices.
‘Ahem!’ said Mr. Shaw, reading; ‘I, John James Jordan, being very poor, and having in vain called upon every relation I have in the world, for assistance, and found none, have to state that my heart was filled with bitterness and uncharitableness toward them. But still I think that they are not dead to all feeling; and this being my last will and testament, I desire that my debts, amounting to the sum of one pound, three shillings, and eight pence, be paid forthwith of my estate; that my funeral be strictly private, in Barnes churchyard, where I last parted with one whom I loved, but who has gone abroad, I am told; and to that one of my relations who will erect a tombstone, I bequeath—
‘Hark! will you!’ cried one; ‘be quiet. Go on—yes, yes. Oh: you wretch, where’s your feelings! Go to the devil!’
‘Really, ladies and gentlemen,’ said I, ‘this is most indecorous.’
‘I bequeath,’ continued Mr. Shaw, ‘my dying blessing and forgiveness.’
Mr. Shaw then folded up the will and put it into his pocket, saying— ‘I wish you all good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I sold the few clothes and other matters he died possessed of, and paid for the funeral, and his debts; being myself minus one shilling and four pence, which I hope you will some of you pay.’
It is quite impossible by any words to fairly depict to the reader the appearance of Mr. Jordan’s relations at this moment. If the fabled Gorgon’s head had suddenly appeared, and transformed them all to stone, they could not have looked more completely paralyzed and panic-stricken.
‘A tomb-stone!’ shrieked twenty voices. ‘A tombstone!’
‘A tombstone!’ said Mr. Shaw. ‘A small one would not cost much. You could put on it a suitable inscription. Here lies—’
‘Lies here—never mind,’ said the brother. ‘Never mind. I—I—Oh, that’s all, is it.’
‘You are a humbug,’ said the masculine woman to Mr. Shaw, ‘and so was old stupid Jordan.’
‘Go to the deuce, all of you,’ shouted another; ‘a tombstone indeed.’
Mr. Shaw was wiping his spectacles.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to add,—’
‘Oh, stuff, stuff! Bother! A tombstone indeed; I shan’t stay another moment. An old thief. I wish a tombstone had been down his throat. Come on! Come on! It’s all a do.’
‘But, ladies and gentlemen.—’
They were quite deaf to the remonstrances of Mr. Shaw, and in a few moments the chambers were quite clear, with the exception of Mrs. Mary Grantham, who was sobbing bitterly. She then rose, and looked at me hesitatingly. Then she looked at Mr. Shaw, and she seemed to be struggling to say something. She placed her hand in her bosom, and drew forth a ring tied to a black ribbon, and then, with a convulsive effort she spoke.
‘This—this ring—it is my only valuable possession. It was given to me thirty years ago, by him who is now no more, my cousin John, who loved me. I have clung to it in pain and in sorrow, in difficulty and in distress; I have never parted with it. I seemed to be but only separated from him while I had it near my heart. But now, great distress forces me—to—to part with it. Will—will neither of you gentlemen buy it of me. I—I shrink from its going into the hands of utter strangers.’
‘Humph!’ said Mr. Shaw; ‘there are a couple of sovereigns for it.’
She took the money, and then, after one long, lingering look, and a fervent kiss at the ring. she laid it on the table. and tottered from the place. I was about to follow her, but Mr. Shaw held me back.
‘Hold! hold!’ he said.
‘You are a brute sir,’ said I. ‘Take your hands off me; I will buy the ring of you and give it back to her. It breaks her heart to part with it, I see,’
‘I shan’t part with it,’ he said; ‘you are a very hasty man, doctor.’
I was very angry, and bounced out of the office. I looked eagerly about for Mrs. Grantham, but could not see her. I walked hurriedly across the square, and as chance would have it. I went in the same direction she did. My first impulse was to speak to her, and my second thought was to follow her, and to see where she went. She crossed Holborn, and traversed some of the long streets that lead into the New Road, where she arrived at last, and finally paused at a stone-mason’s yard.
I could have shed tears at that moment, for now I felt why she had parted with her cherished ring. She stayed about a quarter of an hour at the stone-mason’s, and then she came out and walked slowly away. I did not follow her further, but I went into the mason’s yard, and said to him—
‘Did that lady give you an order?’
‘Why, yes, sir, such a one as it is. She has got me to do a stone for two pounds, and she’s paid me. I’m to meet her at the churchyard at Barnes to-morrow morning at nine o’clock with it. and put it up. It’s only to have on it the name of John James Jordan. and under that. ‘God bless him.’
I walked away with a sort of mist before my eyes, and it was an hour before I recovered my composure. ‘I will meet her,’ thought I, ‘at the grave of her last love, and I will be a friend to her, if she never have another in the world. She shall have her ring again, if I force it from the lawyer. She shall have it. I’ll go and get it now, at once.’
I suppose I looked in a very tolerable passion when I got back to Mr. Shaw’s chambers, for he got behind a table when he saw me, and said— ‘Come, come, no violence.’
‘Hark you, sir,’ said I; ‘you have got the ring. There’s your money. Give it me directly, sir. Mrs. Grantham, poor thing, is going tomorrow morning, at nine o’clock, to place a stone at the grave of Mr. Jordan, and I intend to be there and give her her ring.’
‘Oh! very well. Bother the ring. I don’t want it. It ain’t worth half the money I gave for it. There it is; don’t bother me.’
I took up the ring, then put down two sovereigns, and casting upon him a withering look, which, to tell the truth, he did not seem much to care about, I left the chambers.
o o o o o
A soft. damp, white mist covered up all objects, and made the air uncommonly raw and chilly, as on the following morning, just as the clock of the church at Barnes chimed the three-quarters past eight, I entered the churchyard.
The first thing I then did, was to fall over somebody’s grave, for I was looking for Mrs. Grantham, instead of minding where I was walking; and then a voice said—
‘There you go again, as violent as usual, doctor;’ and in the dim mist I saw Mr. Shaw, the solicitor, to my great surprise.
I was going to say something, but at the moment I was nearly knocked down again, by some one brushing past me. A gleam of sunshine came out, and the mist began to clear away, when a most singular scene presented itself. A few yards off was the grave of Mr. Jordan, and kneeling by it was Mary, his first love, with her child by her side. Mr. Shaw stood to my left, and at his feet there knelt a respectable looking young man—I recollected him as Mr. Shaw’s clerk.
“Good God! Richards,’ said Mr. Shaw, ‘is that you? What is the matter?’
‘Oh! sir,’ said Richards. ‘I have come to ask your forgiveness. The spirit of my poor old father stood by my bedside all night. Oh, God! oh, God! it was dreadful; and I knew what it was for. Oh! sir, forgive me. I—I peeped into the will, sir, while you went out to dinner—Mr. Jordan’s will—and—and I went round to all the relations, and sold the secret for two pounds a-piece, and—and—’
Mr. Shaw gave a jump that astonished me.
‘Doctor, doctor,’ he shouted; ‘for God’s sake run down the London road and bring the man with the gravestone. Oh! good gracious. Oh! d——n you, Richards. Ha! ha! ha! Oh! here he is. Oh! bless you for a prudent stone-mason; you shall get well paid for this job. Hip! hip! Hip!—hurrah!’
I thought, to be sure, that Mr. Shaw must have gone mad. There was a man looking over the railing of the church-yard, with a spade on his shoulder; to him Mr. Shaw said—
‘Five guineas for that spade.’
The man thought he was mad, and tried to run away; but he dropped the spade; and in another moment Mr. Shaw’s coat was off, and he was digging away like fury.
‘Where’s the stone!’ he cried: ‘bring the stone. That’s right. Poke it in—prop it up. That’s the thing—all’s right. Here we are. Another knock. All’s right—all’s right.’
‘Lor!’ said the stone-mason, as he lifted up his hands; ‘look there!’
I looked in the direction he indicated, and there, to my astonishment, I saw arriving, carts, coaches, cabs, and wheel-barrows, and each containing a tombstone. A regular fight ensued at the entrance of the churchyard; and engaged in the fight I recognized the relations of Mr. Jordan. Heavens, how they cuffed each other!
‘Hold!’ cried Mr. Shaw; ‘you are all too late, although you had information you ought not to have had. There is already a stone on Mr. Jordan, and placed, too, by the only one who knew not what you all know. Listen to the conclusion of the will—‘And to that one of my relations who will erect a tombstone to my memory, I bequeath my blessing and forgiveness, and eighty thousand pounds in bank stock.’ ‘Madam,’ to Mrs. Grantham, ‘I congratulate you.’
‘And there’s your ring.’ said I; ‘Mr. Shaw, let us shake hands; I understand you now.’
‘Ha! ha!’ said Mr. Shaw, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, you had better all of you keep the tombstones for yourselves. You can get the name altered, for if you don’t, I’m very much afraid you will not find them
The Cincinnatus, Vol. 1, 1857: pp. 31-40
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil does so like a happy ending…. Except, possibly for Mr Shaw’s clerk, who will, it seems likely, lose his situation. And possibly for the greedy relatives, although, to be fair, tombstones can be easily altered or even re-sold to recoup their losses. One predicts that some of the tombstones will be soon needed, as Mr Jordan’s volatile relations succumb to chagrin-induced apoplexies.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.
Continuing our grewsome theme of burial alive is this proposal from Bridgeport, Connecticut, for an organization that would hold the bodies of the dead until they showed unmistakable signs of decomposition. In short, German waiting mortuaries: the Leichenhaus or Totenhaus. For whatever reason, these never caught on in America. I’m not sure if it was some inherent squeamishness in the American character, a reluctance to commit to the expense or the real estate, or a practical realization that while there were plenty of false alarm bells rung by the gases of decay in the Leichenhauser of Germany, no one ever got out alive.
A NOVEL SOCIETY
Bridgeport People Who Will Not Be Buried Alive if They Can Help It.
Bridgeport, Conn., Oct. 15. The first of next month a meeting will be held at the rooms of the Scientific Society to organize a Humane Burial society. One of the promoters of the scheme when asked as to the objects of the organization last evening said: “You may not know it perhaps, but in Bridgeport and all of the country, there are a great number of people who have a nervous dread that they may be buried alive. Probably I could name 100 of my personal acquaintances who cherish this awful fear, and there are plenty of cases to show that such an apprehension is not without foundation. What the projected society proposes to do is to take charge of the remains of deceased persons or those supposed to be deceased, and care for them for a sufficient length of time and under conditions which will make their being buried alive an impossibility. The awakening of public interest on this subject is another one of our objects. To most people the idea of establishing such a society will doubtless seem very strange, and did I not know how many people in Bridgeport feel about the matter the same as myself I should hesitate about taking any active part in the movement.” The speaker was reminded that the danger of being buried alive was thoroughly discussed by the Scientific Society a few years ago, and that the weight of medical evidence introduced went to show that the apprehensions alluded to had in reality very little foundation.
“That is true,” was the response, “but that proves nothing. In fact the medical fraternity now virtually confess that none of the old accepted tests used to determine whether the vital spark is really fled or not, can be taken as conclusive. The absence of warmth in the body, the apparent absence of circulation, the eye test, the test with the mirror held before the respiratory organs, and in fact all the other familiar tests, have been proven defective in well authenticated cases. Sometimes by a lucky accident, and sometimes through an apparent excess of caution, persons pronounced by high medical authority to be dead have emerged from the trance condition which gave the simulation of death. Most of the best medical men will tell you today that the only positive proof of death, one that cannot lead to a mistake under any circumstances is the setting in of decomposition. The aim of the society about to be organized is to apply to our members and such others as we may accept the charge of, this only and absolute test. Such an object is worth working for even if it falls to the lot of only one in 10,000, or even one in 100,000, to suffer the terrible doom of being put under ground while alive. We know that many have suffered this fate; how many such cases there have occurred not known of, nobody knows. As I have said, the number deeply interested in this subject is more than would naturally be believed.”
New Haven [CT] Register 15 October 1885: p. 1
The unnamed spokesperson makes a good point about the medical profession’s uncertainty about the certainty of death. Despite modern medical advances, the controversy continues even today. My question is, did this plan to hold the bodies of the dead of Bridgeport ever get off the ground? I can find no evidence that it did, but perhaps they purchased a holding vault somewhere and began on a modest scale rather than the palatial Leichenhauser of Germany.
If you have dug deeper than I and know whether the corpse-holding organization was ever active, let me know at chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
As I was researching The Victorian Book of the Dead, I ran across the now-forgotten art of the crape threat. The hanging of crape on the door was a well-known and terrifying symbol for death in a household. Some pranksters used crape to taunt or to tease—a young barber’s friends hung crape on his shop while he was away, as an unfunny practical joke, terrifying his sweetheart. One jilted suitor stole crape from another house and nailed it to the door of the woman he had hoped to marry. Crape was also a deadly serious threat, used, for example, in the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, where the wife of a non-union miner was threatened with rocks and bullets through her window and crape on the doorknob.
In a similar vein we find the miniature coffin threat, a much subtler method of intimidation than waving a gun in someone’s face. While small coffins were sometimes used in student or fraternal organization ceremonies, and to symbolize dashed hopes or wishes for an opponent’s demise in political parades, generally if you found a miniature coffin in the mail or on your doorstep, you were in very real trouble.
CONTENTS OF NOTE
Miniature Coffins and Threat leads To Two Deaths in Anderson
Anderson, July 16. What is supposed to have caused the killing of T.F. Ramey and Tom Hayes, and caused the arrest of Barney Ramey, the 18-year-old son of Tom F. Ramey, and W.L. Hayes, Ed Wilson, George L. Wilson and Allen Emerson, is a small coffin-like box, a crude, but effective imitation of a model coffin in which a note was left. The box and the note were left on the doorstep of Sante Bagwell, a relative of the dead man, Ramey.
What the note contained has been a matter of speculation and the Daily Mail has received a copy of the note as it was found in the coffin.
Sante Bagwell: We want to give you some straight business talk. You know the kind of house you are keeping and the trouble you are causing in the neighborhood and in families and we have stood for it as long as we are going to. This thing has been due six months. There are fifty men who say they will see a better neighborhood. You can get out, or be took out. The Abbeville [SC] Press and Banner 20 July 1921: p. 3
Angry that Tom Ramey had accused them of sending the coffin, Tom Hayes and four other men came to the Ramey home and began beating him. Mrs. Ramey begged them to stop and when one of the men went to hit her, son Barney Ramey shot Tom Hayes and killed him. Ramey was also shot by one of the intruders and died the next day. The men boasted to Mrs. Ramey that they had money and connections so that the law couldn’t touch them. Barney Ramey was arrested for shooting Hayes, but was acquitted after just 22 minutes’ deliberation. Incidentally, although I assumed that most of the coffins I read about were inch-to-foot scale—dollhouse size–in this case, the “miniature” coffin was 18 inches long.
In this next story, whether or not Mrs Glazier really was cuckolding her husband, the coffin (the story is ambiguous as to whether it was a full-sized one or a miniature) was a heartless taunt, much as a gangster might send a wreath to a rival to say, “I’m gunning for you.”
A FATAL JOKE
A Wife’s Paramour Sends a Coffin to the Husband, Which Causes His Death.
[Boston Spec. to North American.]
A weird story of a coffin and the delirium it caused the invalid, for whose remains it was intended, comes from the town of Ipswich. Payson Glazier and his wife, with their two children, lived in Linebrook, near Ipswitch. Aaron Sanborn is a neighbor whose attentions to Mrs. Glazier have created more or less talk. A few weeks ago tomorrow there arrived at the Glazier house a coffin bearing a silver plate marked with the name Payson Glazier. The latter at that time was in perfect health. Mr. Glazier destroyed the coffin by smashing it with an ax and reported that Sanborn was responsible for the ghastly joke, if joke it was.
Glazier betrayed the utmost uneasiness over the episode, and when he fell sick with what was called typhoid fever his ravings were all about the coffin. He imagined that the coffin had some connection with his sickness. The other day he died, raving to the end about the coffin. Mrs. Glazier continues to receive and apparently to encourage the attentions of Sanborn, who has a wife living. There is some talk of Glazier having been poisoned, but no evidence to show it. Sanborn refuses to talk about the coffin, and Ipswich is discussing the sensation from all points of view. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 4 May 1890: p. 17
Our Friends, the Cranks, also contributed coffin threats when their world views deemed them necessary.
FINDS COFFIN MODEL IN MAIL
Military Secretary at Denver Startled by Package from Crank
Denver, Colo. Nov. 7. When Lieutenant Colonel Thomas F. Davis, military secretary of the department of the Colorado, United States army, opened his mail a few days ago he came across a large brown registered envelope, sent from Cripple Creek, and addressed to the army headquarters, Denver. It weighed perhaps half a pound.
The colonel opened it hurriedly and then jumped. For out of the envelope fell the model of a coffin, cut from a cigar box, and covered with black satin which had been cut and pasted on with mucilage.
The coffin was written over with strange devices and a couple of sheets of writing paper, scrawled over from top to bottom with daggers and skulls and cross-bones. Visions of bombs like Jacob Schiff got and of the Black Hand and of the Ku-Klux clans flitted across his brain as he rang for an orderly and a pail of water. [An “infernal machine” had been mailed in September to Jacob Schiff, an American financier. The package was stolen from a mailbox by a boy, so the plot was foiled.]
Further examination proved the package to be less dangerous than it looked. The writing was unsigned, and accepting that the package was sent from Cripple Creek, there was nothing to show who or what the sender was. The greater part of the writing was unintelligible, although here and there enough could be made out to show that the writer, evidently insane, had a fancied grievance against the army, and was threatening it with annihilation. The coffin, he explained, was sent to hold the general staff when he got through with them.
Colonel Davis returned the package to the postal authorities, marking on the cover, “Not intended for army headquarters,” and coffin and all are now in possession of the registry department. Post office inspectors are making an investigation of the affair. The sender is believed to be a harmless crank, although the orderlies at headquarters have received instructions to take no chances with queer looking individuals who visit headquarters in the next few weeks. Omaha [NE] World Herald 8 November 1906: p. 6
Voudou was a popular and exotic subject for late-19th-century newspaper stories, both fictional and non-fictional, so readers would have had a nodding acquaintance with fetish charms and spells. Keep in mind that the journalists of this period were far from politically correct; the characterization of the “ignorant negro,” is, sadly, too often found in stories of African Americans and anomalies.
AN EMBLEM OF DEATH
A Miniature Coffin, Containing the Image of a Man, Found Under Strange Circumstances—Voudouism or Kuklux?
There still remains a relic of barbarism among the colored population of this city, which time and religion can only exterminate—a firm belief in fetish charms and obi. [obeah]. By the strange combination of toe nails, claws, intestines, hair and the like, the ignorant negro firmly believes that he can place an enemy under the spell of voudouism, or by having the “obi” on their person, like Achilles, they are invulnerable. Old negroes, men and women, that make voudouism a business, are looked upon by their race with awe, and their behests, no matter how preposterous, are implicitly obeyed, for fear of coming under the evil eye. At about one o’clock Friday morning, a strange and mysterious thing was found at the door of P. Dufour’s undertaking establishment, on Royal street, near St. Philip, which can be construed into an attempt at
A Fetish Spell,
Although were it in the country, and Mr. Dufour a carpet-bagging official, the circumstance would be termed “intimidation by the kuklux.”
At the hour above mentioned, Sergeant Baveroft, of the Third Precinct, noticed a candle dimly burning on the doorsteps of Mr. Dufour’s store, and thinking some of the night hawks were at work, the Sergt. Grasped his revolver and stealthily approached the spot. As he neared the place a strong gust of wind extinguished the candle, which had the effect of convincing the sergeant that it was indeed burglars plying their avocation. With a bound he jumped on the step, and by the expiring spark of a wax candle, to his horror, he saw
A Tiny Coffin,
Fringed around with black; the lid slightly pushed back, exhibited the image of a man made of some kind of red material.
Brought face to face with death in miniature, the Sergeant, no matter what his feelings were, exhibited no emotion but quietly raised the coffin and carried it to the Third Precinct Station.
An examination showed that the image was surrounded by a powder emitting a very pungent odor, which upon being inhaled by the curious officers caused them to feel as if the hand of sleep was gently pressing down their eyelids. Who put it there, or who went to the expense of money and labor to make this strange present, and what was the object, is yet a mystery, as no person for several hours previous had been seen in the vicinity. New Orleans [LA] Times 20 February 1875: p. 3
Does anyone more well-versed in Voudou ritual than I know the meaning of the red figure and the soporific powder?
Of course, such spells might backfire.
A St. Louis negro woman, arraigned in a police court for assailing her husband, proved that he had made a miniature coffin and inscribed it with her name, that being the voudoo mode of consigning her to the devil. She argued that such an outrage justified her in chastising him. The Daily Astorian [Astoria, OR] 20 April 1879: p. 3
While the target of the coffin found by the New Orleans police officer was a mystery, usually the point was clear to the recipient. There are frequent reports in the papers and in Congressional hearings about African Americans terrorized by coffins containing miniature nooses left on their property by the Klan or similar groups who made it clear what the consequences would be if the families did not clear out.
NEGRO IS WARNED BY COFFIN, NOTE
Monroe County Resident Told to Leave Community, He Reports to Police.
A sinister warning, composed of a note ordering him to “leave Georgia,” placed in a miniature wooden coffin, sent an excited Monroe county Negro to Macon police authorities Saturday afternoon.
The Negro, Whitman James, 52, lives near Montpelier Springs, about 17 miles from Macon.
James said he awoke at daylight to find the small coffin on his front porch in front of the door. On top of the coffin was the following message, written with pencil on tablet paper:
“Warning (printed in large letters across the top.) This is your warning to leave Georgia by Saturday. Your boys must go to. Or suffer.”
The small coffin had been expertly made. [Were these available commercially? Did you just walk into the undertaker’s showroom and ask for one? Was this a home crafts project for the kiddies?] It was of plain board, in an oblong shape, and had been lined inside much in the manner of regular coffins. It was about two feet long and about six inches wide in the widest part.
James hoped that the Macon police could examine the coffin and find its maker through fingerprints, but when it was learned that the coffin had been handled by many persons, Chief Ben T. Watkins shook his head doubtfully.
The chief held hope, however, that the hand writing would prove an important clew…
The Negro said that he “hadn’t done nothin’ wrong” in his whole life of 52 years, spent in the Montpelier Springs community, and did not know of any enemies.
He said he heard the clock “strike every hour” Friday night, and didn’t look forward to sleeping soundly Saturday night. He did not intend to leave the community if he had to stand guard every night with a gun, he said. Macon [GA] Telegraph 8 January 1933: p. 10
A high-profile example comes from 1915, when the family of Governor Charles Whitman of Rhode Island was sent letters threatening the kidnap and murder of the Whitman baby and packages containing daggers and miniature coffins with plates bearing the names of the Governor and his wife, one containing a message saying that they would soon need a full-sized coffin. As District Attorney, Whitman successfully prosecuted a New York City Police Lieutenant named Becker for the murder of Herman Rosenthal, a gambling house operator. While Governor, Whitman signed Becker’s death warrant and saw him executed. Becker’s supporters sent the threats and coffins when Whitman refused to stop the execution. [See Mike Dash, Satan’s Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, and New York’s Trial of the Century (Reprint, New York: Three Rivers Press, 2008).]
Jilted lovers also used the miniature coffin for spite or revenge.
DOLL POPPED FROM MINIATURE COFFIN
Washington, Jan. 7 A miniature coffin is not considered an acceptable Christmas gift for a young lady nor an attractive addition to Christmas tree decorations, according to the Rev. Harry Spencer, pastor of the Congress Heights Methodist Episcopal church, who today swore out a warrant for the arrest of Byron Sutherland.
Mr. Sutherland is charged with breaking up the recent Sunday School Christmas tree party by mixing in with the other gifts this gruesome donation, which, it is alleged, he had addressed to Miss Elizabeth Spalding, a pretty teacher in the Sunday school.
Sutherland denied that he was the sender, but Mr. Spencer has the word of the messenger who brought it to the church.
Miss Spalding unwrapped a large package which had the appearance of being a dozen long-stemmed roses, but, instead of roses, a two-foot coffin greeted her eye. When she lifted the cover a rubber doll leaped out. Columbus [GA] Daily Enquirer 8 January 1911: p. 5
Is it just my perverse imagination that sketches an entire lurid backstory for Mr. Sutherland and Miss Spalding involving furtive meetings, tearful recriminations, and criminal operations?
Other examples of threats with miniature coffins? And what, if any, relationship is there between coffin threats and the so-called “fairy coffins” of Edinburgh’s Arthur’s Seat? Enclose answers in a tiny Fisk patent burial case and send to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com. You can read more about the art of crape threats in The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available for Kindle.
BY HENRY R. HATHERLY. Medical Officer of Health, Lenton.
I should not presume to call the attention of your readers to the possibility, not to say probability, of infection being disseminated by the use of hired mourning clothes, if it were not that this possible source of infection appears to have been altogether overlooked by sanitarians and health officers.
My attention was first called to this subject some time since. I was visiting a poor person’s child suffering from scarlet fever; the case was an isolated one in the midst of a densely populated neighbourhood and my efforts were at once directed to the discovery of the source of infection. On investigation I could only find one likely source of infection, viz., that an aunt of the child had been to the funeral of a scarlet-fever patient, had returned home with the mourning clothes on, and had taken the child on her knees to nurse it. The aunt unhesitatingly attributed the infection to having neglected to exchange her mourning for her every day clothes. In fact the original idea that mourning clothes could convey infection was hers not mine. I am not inclined to place much reliance upon the opinions of the working classes on sanitary matters, especially when such opinions are the results of attempts to reason, but, when such people do not reason or attempt to reason, a sort of natural instinct will often lead them to very accurate conclusions. I have no doubt that in this particular instance the woman was right; knowledge of the social customs of her own class led her to detect a source of danger which I had not until then suspected. By a few questions I elicited the fact that the practice of hiring mourning clothes for funerals was common amongst the working classes in my district.
By subsequent inquiries I ascertained the following facts:
That palls, scarves, hoods, and other mourning finery are hired from the undertakers.
That certain shopkeepers hire out mourning dresses and suits.
That the practice of borrowing clothes from one another prevails largely amongst the poorer classes.
I can vouch for these three practices being common in my district, and have little doubt that similar customs will be found to exist in other poor districts, by anyone sufficiently interested to inquire.
If a modern Asmodeus could follow the travels of some of these hired garments, he might introduce us to some strange scenes and to some strange people, we might see some of the darkest phases of human misery, some of the most grotesque forms of expressing sorrow for the dead, and some of the most unwholesome social customs; the sanitarian might have many strange facts disclosed bearing more or less upon public health.
Amongst the very poor, comforts and even necessaries during life have to make way for the requirements of a decent burial. I have frequently been surprised at the inconsistent display of pomp at the funeral of a pauper, who had died in the workhouse, but whose relatives shrank from the last disgrace of a pauper funeral. How to reconcile the so-called ‘ decent burial’ to very limited means is a social problem which has been solved by the mutual kindly feeling of the poor towards each other in times of trouble, and by the practice of hiring instead of buying mourning. To the initiated a good funeral need cost but a very small sum.
It is not my wish to expatiate upon the desirability of simple and inexpensive funerals, especially for the very poor, but rather to show that many mysterious outbreaks of infectious disease may be accounted for by the practices alluded to above.
Such a train of circumstances as the following are far from infrequent in my district: one or more members of the same family are afflicted with scarlet fever, measles, or some other infectious disease, a bed is made up in the ordinary day room for convenience of the mother who has other duties besides those of nurse to perform. One child dies and arrangements are made for a funeral. The guests assemble clothed in hired or borrowed mourning in the very room where another living child is still a centre of infection. The funeral over, the mourning is returned to the owners and lenders without disinfection. This is not a fanciful case, and I could multiply examples if there were any advantage in so doing.
Having now pointed out a possible, and in my opinion a very probable and frequent source of infection, I will briefly refer to the practical question which more immediately concerns the medical officer of health, viz., how to guard against the danger. This question is not so easily answered as might at first sight appear. The 126th clause of the Public Health Act gives ample legal powers, but legal proceedings should be the last resource of preventive medicine.
In some districts hospitals exist to which infectious cases can be removed, and means of disinfection are provided at the public expense, but a vast number of sanitary authorities have not hitherto taken any steps in either direction.
Assuming that means of isolation and disinfection are both provided, the next difficulty, probably the greatest, is to prevail upon the poorer classes who are most concerned to avail themselves of them. A singular affection is often developed by illness towards those who in health may have been sadly
neglected; parents refuse positively to allow their children to be removed from their care, and cannot be persuaded to part with them for a time, however much it may be for their own good. This circumstance I frequently observed during the last small-pox epidemic. About two years since I was required to visit a woman who had just been delivered, and I had the greatest possible difficulty in procuring the removal of a child suffering from malignant scarlet fever, who was actually in the same bed.
Again, as regards disinfection, there seems to be a want of faith in its efficacy, perhaps, with too good reason in many instances. Poor people will run any risk of infection rather than sacrifice useful garments. They are fully alive to the value of clothing, but are sceptical as to the value of disinfection. It seems to me, therefore, that whatever system of disinfection is adopted, the materials submitted must be neither injured nor destroyed.
If compulsory powers as regards isolation and disinfection were exercised, especially at the very inopportune time of a funeral, they would be met by concealment and a secret stubborn resistance. A woman who candidly admitted to me that her son’s trousers had been out at funerals for a fortnight, would not have made such an admission had I previously explained to her the possible penalties which might have been incurred under the 126th section of the Public Health Act. I believe that one or two successful prosecutions would render it almost impossible in a district to obtain the necessary evidence for future ones.
I hold strongly that the first steps towards stamping out the spread of any infectious disease should be taken by the sanitary authority. Means for isolation and systematic thorough disinfection ought to exist in every district and combination of small districts. Then undertakers and second-hand clothes dealers ought to be cautioned against lending or selling any clothing likely to have become infected, and prosecuted if wilfully careless. The private lending system amongst neighbours and friends would be still a difficulty; free disinfection (without injury to the garments) might be urged by handbills or other means. I trust that these few remarks, however crude and imperfect, may suffice to direct the attention of other health officers to the subject of mourning clothes as a source of infection, and I think it more than probable that in addition to ordinary zymotic disease, some forms of skin and parasitic disease, and even venereal disease, may be traced to funeral customs amongst the lower classes.
The Sanitary Record, Vol. 6, 1877 pp. 67-8
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil dislikes contradicting a district Medical Officer, but fears that Dr Hatherly’s education has been neglected if he believes it likely that venereal diseases may be acquired from hired garments. Nothing is impossible in this world, (and Mrs Daffodil can, regrettably, envision a person with inadequate undergarments donning hired trousers) but although small-pox and the plague have been passed via textiles, the likelihood of catching the pox from a mourning veil is so slight as to be non-existent. Dr Hatherly, with his contempt for the reasoning powers of the lower classes, seems to have a bee in his (mourning) bonnet.
Even the “lower classes” felt pressure to conform to the rituals of “upper-class mourning.” Households often went into debt to furnish themselves with proper mourning costume and there was much clucking from the philanthropic classes over mourning excesses committed in the name of propriety. However, some widows were bullied into compliance, as in this example:
A superior servant, a mere girl, married a house-painter. Within a year of the event the husband fell from a ladder and was killed. The poor little widow bought a cheap black dress and a very simple black straw hat to wear at the funeral. Her former employer, who had much commended this modest outlay, met the girl a few days later swathed in crape, her poor little face only half visible under the hideous widow’s bonnet complete with streamers and a veil… She explained that her neighbours and relations had made her life unbearable because she did not want to wear widow’s weeds and at last she had to give in. “They said that if I would not wear a bonnet, it proved we were never married,” she sobbed. Funeral Customs, their Origin and Development, Bertram S. Puckle, (London: T. Warner Laurie, 1926)
Mourning warehouses and hired clothing were not the only ways to aquire mourning dress. Lou Taylor, in her admirable book, Mourning Dress, A Costume and Social History, tells of a simple black wool dress, shawl and bonnet, which the Dockers Union, London, loaned out to members’ widows from 1880 to 1914.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.
See this link for an introduction to The Victorian Book of the Dead, a collection about the popular culture of Victorian mourning, featuring primary-source materials about corpses, crypts, and crape. Various excerpts from the book may be found on this site under the topic of “mourning.”
In my recent look at superstitions, gamblers are often described as the “most superstitious” of folk. The papers of the past took much pleasure in interviewing card-sharps and casino habitués about their pet hoodoos, which might involve, for example, a lucky elephant watch fob or a gambler’s horror of an onlooker’s foot on his chair. But, realistically, what are the odds that I would give you a post on such penny-ante gambling superstitions when there are charms and omens involving death or body parts to be had?
Omitting the well-known “Dead Man’s Hand” and the “death futures” insurance taken out on the lives of famous people like Queen Victoria and King Edward VII, we find that trinkets associated with execution or suicide were cherished by gamblers.
Russian variant of the superstition. Reported March 27th, 1880
The hangman is permitted to trade upon the superstition still current in Russian society, respecting the luck conferred upon gamesters by the possession of a morsel of the rope with which a human being has been strangled, either by the hand of justice or by his own. Immediately after young M’Cadetzky had been hanged, only the other day, Froloff was surrounded by members of the Russian jeunesse dorée, eager to purchase scraps of the fatal noose; and he disposed of several dozen such talismans at from three to five roubles apiece, observing with cynical complacency that “he hoped the Nihilists would yet bring him in plenty of money.” The Warner Library, Vol. 17, 1917
The ladies were quite as avid as the men to acquire gruesome charms.
Some years ago Louise, Duchess of Devonshire and the late duke were walking on the seashore at Eastbourne when there was washed in at their feet the hand of a negro which apparently had been cut off at the wrist. On one of the fingers was a ring of Oriental workmanship. The duchess had this ring removed and has kept it as a talisman ever since. She has worn it at Monte Carlo when she has had on “a little bit” at the tables and also when she played bridge.
Hangmen from time to time receive letters from women of position offering them sums of money for locks of hair or buttons from the garments of their victims. They make the stipulation that these must not be removed until after the culprit is dead. It seems that in the lore of the superstitious the ghastly object has no significance if taken in life. Even more intensely appreciated is a coin which has been rubbed on the dead body of an executed. This, it is said, will bring almost fabulous wealth to the possessor. Those who gamble are ready with any price for such a memento. In England, at any rate, there are overwhelming difficulties in getting possession of such, indeed it is only the personal friends of the governors of the prisons where executions take place or the hangmen who can secure them. Columbus [GA] Daily Enquirer 27 November 1910: p. 7
One man who had a remarkable run of luck at Monte Carlo last year ascribed it all to a franc which he wore on his watch chain. This coin had a grim history, for it was the only piece of money found on the body of a gambler who committed suicide in the grounds of the Casino after losing his entire fortune at the gaming tables. The Chickasha [OK] Daily Express 14 August 1901: p. 3
It is interesting how the gamblers in the following story are shocked, shocked! that anyone would rob a grave for a lucky charm. I imagine them uneasily fingering their unsavory talismans in their pockets as they spoke to the reporter.
DEAD WOMEN’S FINGERS.
They Are Not Particularly Sought After by Gamblers.
According to a story that comes from Cincinnati, says the Chicago News, a woman’s grave there was lately desecrated by a gambler for the purpose of getting the forefinger of the woman as a guaranty of good luck.
“I never heard such a story before,” said a well-known gambler. “Gamblers are superstitious, but not in this way that I have ever heard of. They have a mortal fear of pennies, and will often throw them away, thinking that the copper brings them bad luck. In the game of faro bank coppers are generally used and pennies are considered as omens of evil if carried in the pockets.
“It is just the same with old pocket-knives or anything that may be thought unlucky. They would sooner fling half their possessions into the river than run the chance of losing a game. It is sometimes very amusing to see how these superstitious notions prevail, but I suppose they are so well established that they are taken quite seriously.
“Then gamblers make a great deal of how they take their seats at a table and whether they are accosted by anyone while they are playing. If you put our foot upon a gambler’s chair while he is playing he would call you a hoodoo and probably black your eye for your, a such a thing is counted unlucky.”…[S]aid another gambler, on reading the dispatch, “It was a pretty tough job to undertake, even for a gambler. I wonder how any man could do it. He was a tough character, I’ll bet.”
“The man must have been crazy,” chimed in a third. “Some gamblers have their superstitions, but on the whole they are pretty much like other men. They don’t, as a rule, act in such an outrageous manner as this. I fancy the man was off the square a bit.” Salina [KS] Daily Republican 23 January 1892: p. 3
Enthusiastic amateurs aside, bereaved relatives seemed to regularly get permission to dig up graves in order to locate lottery tickets. Inspiration for the 1961 film Mr. Sardonicus…?
Corpse Exhumed to Obtain Prize Lottery Ticket
Brussel, Sept. 10. A romance has just been unfolded in connection with the recent Brussels lottery. For some time the chief prize of $40,000 was unclaimed, and the identity of the winner as just been established in a remarkable manner.
It appears that a young Belgian, aged 19, had purchased a ticket for the lottery, and shortly afterwards he was killed while at work through a stone falling on him. A few days before the result of the lottery was announced he was buried, according to custom, in his Sunday clothes. Some weeks passed and no claimant came forward for the first prize. Then the young man’s friends remember that he had a lottery ticket in the waistcoat pocket of his best suit, and an application was forwarded to the authorities for permission to have the body exhumed. After the usual official delay, the request was granted, and as was expected, the winning ticket was found in the dead man’s clothes. The relatives are now claiming the money. The Oregon Daily Journal [Portland, OR] 11 September 1910: p. 49
Did the newspapers delight in these stories merely as species of urban legend? A parallel case was reported in 2014 when a woman dug up her father’s coffin in search of his “real will.” I’m betting that at least some of these gruesome exhumations actually occurred. They accurately reflect the very real wardrobe shortages of the poor and working classes. Let us have two more.
MISSING LOTTERY TICKET.
FOUND IN A GRAVE
Madrid, January 4. A widow named Colila learned that her husband had bought a fifth share in a lottery ticket, which had won six thousand sterling. Failing to find the ticket, the widow obtained an exhumation order, and found it in the pocket of a waistcoat in which her husband was buried. Press, 6 January 1925: p. 7
Just as the undertaker’s men were about to a coffin at Paris in which lay the body of a man who, according to Continental custom, was dressed in his best clothes for burial, his widow noticed sticking out of his coat pocket a fractional lottery ticket. To her astonishment on examining the ticket she found that it had drawn the third prize in the Christmas lottery, entitling the holder to a very large sum. Auckland [NZ] Star, 10 March 1928: p. 3
Lotteries, particular those held at Christmas, were a tradition throughout Europe and many arcane methods were devised for picking the lucky numbers. In this case, the death of Emperor Napoleon III spurred wild plunges on the numbers of his life.
An English magazine not long since described some of the curious theories and superstitions which prevail among devotees of the lottery and the gaming-table, regarding “lucky numbers.” There are traditionally fortunate and unfortunate combinations, and there are also newer favorites, based very often on figures connected with the chronology of famous men. The career of Napoleon III. would seem to be considered by gamblers a specially successful one, for since his death they have been betting furiously on all numbers supposed to bear a relation to sundry pivotal events of his life. In Vienna, in Milan, in Rome, the newspapers notice this universal rage among regular patrons of the lottery for staking their fortunes on Napoleonic numbers; and, what is also curious, these numbers have in several instances turned out lucky. Thus, in a late Vienna paper we read that “the death of the Man of Sedan has brought good luck to the old women of this city who give themselves up with unquenchable passion to the lottery.” At the last drawing, as the paper goes on to say, the numbers most eagerly seized upon were 3, for Napoleon III.; 65, for his age; 20, for his birthday, it falling on the twentieth of the month; 90, as the highest number in the lottery, hence interpreted to signify “emperor;” and finally 52, the year of his accession to the throne. To the joy of all the old lottery-gossips, the luck fell on these numbers, 3, 20, and 90. At Rome the death of Napoleon III. has furnished new combinations for all the devotees of the lottery. At Milan the same infatuated class have “pointed a moral” of their own from the event—a moral quite different from the one extracted by sermonizers. They have been playing heavily on number 20 (a gold Napoleon being worth twenty francs), and on number 13, which latter, as the proverbially unlucky one, is interpreted to mean the ex-emperor’s death. On the first drawing after his death these two numbers proved to be the lucky ones of the lottery, and it was then found that there had been a great number of winners. Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Volume 11, April 1873
In Sicily, lottery numbers were chosen by dream symbolism and prayers to dead relatives, saints, and executed criminals.
The petitions of most lottery-players are addressed to the souls of executed criminals, a kind of devil-worship not easy to explain. A favourite soul is the Anima Pia (pious soul), who was executed in the seventeenth century. These souls in purgatory have need of the prayers of the living, who threaten to withhold them if no help is vouchsafed. The Anima Pia is propitiated by a lighted lamp placed on four evenings in the four different corners of a room. Lottery-numbers are then revealed in a dream, and strict secrecy imposed on the person who dreams them.
Witchcraft is also invoked by the gamblers as well as the saints. Persons believed to know of winning numbers are called subjects, and are possessed by a spirit. A certain priest and three monks, long since dead, are still famous for having made the fortunes of several individuals. The system of numbers used by the cabalists is very complicated and confusing, the figures being mixed intricately and one standing for another. A more simple way is to play the numbers attached to various events, objects, or personages. If some one plays in the lottery with the assistance of Saint Lucia, for instance, he plays twenty-four for her eyes and the date of the day on which he buys his ticket. On the Day of the Dead (November 2nd) fire is the figure of the tomb, thirteen of the wax candles, and twenty-five of the mass. There are special numbers for every saint’s day or other holiday; and there are numbers belonging to the special attributes of the saints, as for example, to Saint Anthony’s pig or Saint Joseph’s staff….Poor women pray to their dead relations before going to bed. Mommino, the writer of the articles from whom these facts are drawn, knew a woman who, only a year ago, refused to take flowers to the family tomb on All Souls’ Day, because none of her dead relations had ever revealed winning numbers to her in a dream. “They forget me,” she said, “so I will forget them.” Macmillan’s Magazine, Volume 75, 1897
Venetians had a really gruesome method for seeking lucky lottery numbers.
In Venice not long ago a lottery drawing gave rise to the opening of coffins, in order that the sign of a lucky number might be detected in the eye or on the lips of the corpse. Shrouds, dusty and covered with mould, were examined for traces of writing that might lead to the sought-for knowledge, and new-born infants were closely inspected for birthmarks that would reveal the secret, while it is said that ladies of birth and education wore their dresses with the insides turned out, in order to propitiate the god of the wheel. In Naples a begging monk was fallen on by two footpads, and, failing to tell them the lucky number, was beaten so severely that he afterwards died. Otago [NZ] Witness 14 October 1897: p. 43
There is a curious superstition in Venice that if a stranger dies in a hotel the number of his room will be lucky at the next lottery. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 16 January 1898: p. 17
This next article is meant to reassure readers as to the prudent character of the future Sovereign of Great Britain, unlike those common gamblers who carried skeletal hand mascots to the gaming tables.
[Edward] The Prince of Wales is quite a frequenter of Monte Carlo and one of its luckiest players in a moderate way, for my bold prince is none of your plungers. His winnings at Monte Carlo and other gaming tables have assisted him in no small degree toward keeping the family pot boiling. Some two or three years ago he made a coup which enabled him to satisfy the demands of some of his most important creditors. He possesses the gambler’s disposition par excellence, being neither too timid nor too bold, too trusting nor too credulous, too pessimistic nor too optimistic He has none of the common gambler’s superstition, and does not believe in any signs, omens, or mascots. The latter is something that all the regular habitués of Monte Carlo religiously pin their faith to. And it is amusing to see the character of the mascots on which they rely. Some of them suggest very strongly the uncanny things which the witches in “Macbeth” drop into their cauldron. Any portion of a corpse is highly esteemed as a mascot, such, for instance, as a little finger bone, or a small piece of a toe joint. One Portuguese player recently aroused much envy by carrying about with him the skeleton hand of one of his countrymen who had been murdered in a quarrel at the card table. If the mascot comes from one who has committed suicide its mascotism is supposed to be doubly powerful. The last time Sarah Bernhardt was here she had for her mascot the head of one of her favorite parrots, who had strangled himself by getting that same head between the bars of his cage, though whether accidentally or with suicidal intent no coroner’s jury ever determined. The Deseret [UT] Weekly, Volume 46, 1893
I’ll fold with one of the more gruesome stories of gambling luck. This comes from an eerie tale of Monte Carlo superstition and synchronicity called “That’s funny. Not a grain of lead,” over at Mrs Daffodil’s blog.
Crack! a sudden shot broke through the great room and everybody who was not watching a stake rushed into a corner, where some unknown plunger had just taken the last plunge into eternity by blowing out his brains. The attendants collected from every corner and formed a hedge round the dead man. Quickly and soundlessly they began moving him out by a side-door, while gamblers picking up their stakes ran to dip a finger in his blood for luck. In five minutes he had disappeared as though he had fallen off a liner into a boiling sea. Monte Carlo cannot afford to have scandals on the premises any more than any well-established and well-connected institution, and is generally more successful than others in concealing them. Blood is soon mopped up, especially if the passers believe that it is a charmed fluid. The roulette ball was soon spinning round again, and the only trace of the tragedy was the struggle of a dozen gamblers to sit where the suicide had been sitting all the afternoon. It was a superstition that the dead gambler’s spirit does not leave the rooms immediately with death, but remains to avenge his ill luck on the bank; and against the unknown forces of the underworld even the bank cannot win…. Scribner’s Magazine, Volume 72, Edward Livermore Burlingame, Robert Bridges, Harlan Logan, editors, 1922
It is an uncanny echo of crowds surging round the scaffold with their handkerchiefs to sop up the blood of martyrs, broken on the wheel.
After this was published, Undine of Strange Company sent me this account of a lottery superstition from the Hull [UK] Packet, 19 August, 1828. She saw my lady fingers and raised me a decomposed, severed head. We have a winnah!