Gloomy Coffin-Makers Go on Strike to Recover their Cheerfulness: 1903

The Coffin Maker Has a Just Kick.

Because the employees of two of the largest coffin factories in New York feel that they have the same right to laugh and be merry, in spite of their daily toil, that is given to the majority of mankind, they are out on strike. A thousand workmen have laid aside their tools and say they will not take them up again unless they are assured of a nine and one half-hour workday and a three-hour day on Saturday. They have been toiling among the coffins for ten hours six days a week. The more sensitive of the workmen complain that it makes them gloomy and melancholy to fashion tenements for the dead ten hours a day and right up to quitting time on Saturday. The somber associations of the coffin factory, they assert, are not easily got rid of, with the result that they do no recover their cheerfulness and attain a frame of mind to enjoy their leisure until late on Sunday, which curtails their pleasure and renders them undesirable associates for their friends. “A fellow can’t help thinking of his own end when he is hammering these dead boxes together, a striker is quoted as saying. “You get in the habit of wondering who is going to occupy the coffin and often you have a notion that it will be yourself. We’re not a gloomy lot naturally; all we want is an opportunity to be cheerful out of business hours.” The striking coffin makers will have the profound sympathy of professional joke writers, usually the most solemn and serious-minded of men. The right of the coffin maker to appreciate and enjoy the humor of the comic supplements in the Sunday newspapers is a sacred one, and if his hours of toll paralyze his power of laughter he has a perfect right to strike or choose another occupation, say undertaking. It is not, however, the usual thing for men to take seriously the duties with which they are most familiar. Only a short time ago an undertaker in a nearby city gathered up and put together the horribly mangled remains of a man who had been dashed to death by a fall over a cliff 500 feet high. While he worked he whistled, “There’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” And the majority of those, who day after day are thrown in contact with death and suggestions of the dark and narrow house speedily lose the innate sense of fear and awe that controls those who seldom contemplate the common end of man.

Salt Lake [UT] Telegram 25 June 1903: p. 4

Mrs. Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Readers with an curiosity about matters mortuary may find the following post on the girl shroud-makers of New York to be of interest. The young ladies, who seem a cheerful lot, mention the coffin department and how quickly they became used to working with these reminders of mortality. The article was followed by a discussion of shrouded spectres: shrouded ghosts and superstitions about the habiliments of death. You will also shudder at a recent post on phantom coffin makers as an omen of death.

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.

Other stories of funerary workers appear in The Victorian Book of the Dead, which can be purchased at Amazon and other online retailers. (Or ask your local bookstore or library to order it.) It is also available in a Kindle edition.

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.

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 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.

He’d Give His Right Hand: 1792

GREWSOME BEQUEST TO SON

Vindictive Englishman Left His Right Hand to Offspring with Whom He Had Quarreled.

Probably the most grewsome bequest ever named in a will was that made by Philip Thicknesse, a dissipated Englishman, who died in 1792. Some years before his death he had quarreled bitterly with his son, Lord Audley, and to spite him had placed on the outside of the family mansion a board bearing this inscription in large black letters:

“Boots and shoes mended, carpets beat, etc., by P. Thicknesse, father of Lord Audley.”
Finding he was about to die, he sent for his lawyer and drew up a will containing the following extraordinary clause: “I leave my right hand, to be cut off after my death, to my son, Lord Audley: I desire it may be sent to him, in hopes that such a sight may remind him of his duty to God, after having so long abandoned the duty he owed to a father who once so affectionately loved him.”

The dead man’s wishes were scrupulously carried out, and his severed hand, inclosed in a hermetically sealed casket, was forwarded to his son. There is no record as to how Lord Audley received his unwelcome legacy or how he disposed of it.

Elkhart [IN] Truth 15 October 1909: p. 5

Note: Grewsome was an alternative, even more common spelling of “gruesome” in the 19th c.

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 on Twitter @hauntedohiobook. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

The Charming Widow Worked the Mourning Racket: 1885

Womens mourning ensemble 2021, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 29 August 2021, <https://ma.as/75188&gt;

THE CHARMING WIDOW
How She Worked the Mourning Racket on the Dry Goods Manager.

Burlington Hawkeye

She was pretty and sweet, so much so that the several clerks nearly broke their necks in struggling to see who would be the one to wait on her, but she ignored them all, and, sitting down on a stool, drew from her pocket a handkerchief which she held in readiness for application to her eyes, and sent for the manager. He soon came up to the lady, who, with the handkerchief to one eye, flashed the other brilliant or at his and told her story thusly:


“Mr. B___, Charley, my husband (sob), is dead, and I have no suitable (sniffle) mourning. I came down to see (gulp) if you would trust me for a (sob) mourning outfit” (sniffle). Here the other eye was hid behind the handkerchief, while a kind of cold chill shudder passed over her.

“But, my dear madam, I don’t know you. I would be rather departing from our rules to comply with your request,” replied Mr. B___, politely. “How much of a bill did you wish to buy?”
“I want (sob) everything as nice (sniffle) as I can get (sob)—about two (another sniffle) two hundred dollars, I (sob) guess.”

“I am sorry, but as you are a stranger to me I shall have to decline unless you can furnish security or come recommended by someone know to us.”
“Do you (sob) know Mr. (two sobs) Mr. Richfellow?” (Two sniffles.)

“Yes, madam, I know him. Do you think he would guarantee the payment of the bill?”
“I don’t (sob) want (sniffle)—want you to (sniffle) ask him (sniffle), because I am going (two sniffles) to marry him (sob) when my (sob) mourning has expired.” (Sob.)

“Well, in a case of that kind, of course we will trust you; we can present the bill to him after your marriage.”

“Oh thank you (brightening up), thank you; indeed that will be all right. Now I want a box of black gloves, number six and a half; fourteen yards of cashmere, thirty yards of crape cloth, twelve yards of veiling, two boxes of black silk hose (number eight), and the necessary trimmings. Please fix it up nice. Don’t you think I will look nice in mourning?”
Mr. B___ looked into her eyes, his heart began to jump, and, thinking discretion the better part of valor, he assured her that her order would be filled, and the lady departed smiling. Mr. B__, after the lash of the pretty widow’s eyes, would have filled a thousand dollar order and paid it out of his own pocket. He is bald-headed.

Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 9 May 1885: p. 11

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 on Twitter @hauntedohiobook. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

What the Cemetery Superintendent Sees: 1896

Forest Hills Cemetery gateway, Roxbury, Massachusetts, 1905

QUEER THINGS IN SILENT CITIES

What the Superintendent Sees.

Pathetic, humorous, and strange incidents are continually occurring in cemeteries. The public never hears of them because the cemetery superintendent isn’t often a talker. He doesn’t tell things unless he is asked. The stories of some happenings he declines to relate, regarding them as professional secrets. Above all, he of course never mentions names. The burying ground is one of the greatest places on earth to study character. The superintendent knows it and he is a most proficient student. His practiced eye detects the alleged mourner who simulates his grief, and in a moment he spots the financial skinner who is either cheese-paring expenses or making a spread to impress funeral participants to such a great extent that the display may be a sort of financial investment. In most cases friends and relatives who are not sincere mourners make strong and clever attempts at deceiving observers. Some, however, do not care, and family feuds are ofttimes carried to the side of the grave.

There was recently an instance of a woman laughing and chatting like a parrot a few minutes after the burial of a child. Then there are cases in which the wounds of sorrow made by the deaths of friends or relatives are so deep that the bereaved ones never recover. Some of this class visit and decorate the graves of their dead every day in the year, rain or shine. There are others, however, wounded just as deeply, who cannot bear the cemetery, but sit at home and suffer in silence.

The Curious and Superstitious.

The bane of a graveyard is the curiosity-seekers and the superstitious. People of the former class have a morbid love for funerals that is ghoulish. They gloat over the grief of the mourners, and feast their eyes on the face of the corpse if they get an opportunity. The abnormal appetite of these people seems never satiated. Their faces are so familiar to cemetery-keepers that they are missed if they neglect to attend a single funeral. Superstitious people are still plentiful. They wouldn’t enter a burying ground at night for a million dollars, and many of them wouldn’t go into a vault even in the daytime, not even if they were accompanied by an electric arc light and a cannon. A few days ago a remarkable superstition came to light at Graceland. One of the managers was walking in a driveway when he was approached by an old woman, tottering and bent with age. In one hand she carried a crumple strip of paper. Approaching, she said: “I’m looking for an open grave, sir. Can you tell me where to find one?”

“Yes, there is one right straight north of here—the seventh lot,” was the reply. “But why do you want to find an open grave?”

‘Well, you know, one of my granchillern’s got the scarlet fev’r, an’ I’ve writ the name of the disease on this here piece of paper. If I kin just drop the paper in an open grave, where it’ll git buried, the disease’ll leave the chile an’ go down in the grave.”

When asked for a look at the paper, she unfolded it and held it out. On the scrap was scrawled in a lead pencil, “skarlit fevr.” When the old woman was handed back her slip she hurried to the grave. The man watched her. When she reached the hole she stopped for a moment, and seemed to be muttering some incantation over the opening. Then she stretched her arm out straight over the middle of the grave, with the back of her hand down. In a moment her fingers, which had been tightly closed, opened. The light breeze lifted the “skarlit fevr” charm from her palm. It fluttered in the air an instant, and fell into the grave. The poor old creature was satisfied. With a contented, feeble smile, she turned and hurried away as fast as possible.

Wax Flowers and Coffin Plates.

Very frequently the family of the deceased removes the name plate from the coffin and has the flowers which were used preserved by dipping them in wax. The flowers are made in the form of a wreath. The silver plate is placed in the middle and the whole is placed in a glass case to be hung In the parlor. Then, after some one comes along and makes the remark that it is “mighty bad luck to have such a thing in the house,” the relatives take down the case and carry the plate to the cemetery and ask the superintendent to have the body taken up that they may put the plate back on the coffin. This has happened so often at every cemetery that the employes do longer smile when the superstitious man with the plate wants a coffin exhumed.

At Oakwoods cemetery there is a remarkable and apparently inexplicable mystery, for many years the authorities there have been finding candles just inside the great high iron fence which surrounds the grounds. In every instance the candle has been lighted and extinguished at once before any of the tallow has melted. Sometimes three candles are found bound together by a strip of a linen handkerchief. They are always found so close to the fence that whoever left them evidently reached between the iron bars and dropped them within. Scores of the candles have been found, and Superintendent Drew always has a fresh drawer full in his office. Many guesses have been hazarded as to the cause of the strange practice. The theory which seems most plausible is that it is a hoodoo charm performed by negroes the night of the burial of one of their kin.

Is the Grave Secure?

Quite frequently people ask cemetery superintendents to open the graves so that they may see if the corpse has not been stolen or disturbed. This is especially the case when graves are very much sunken. It is very seldom that the authorities will listen to the request. The suspicions are almost invariably groundless and explanations are made to the friends showing them the uselessness of disinterment. Body-snatching is almost unknown in in these days. The only cases that may occur are when the deceased has been taken away by some unusual disease which scientist would like to investigate. For all ordinary scientific study the hospitals and poor-house furnish an abundance of bodies. Sometimes before the coffin is lowered into the grave some mourner is already figuring on having the corpse exhumed before very long to see if it has been disturbed. One day at Oakwoods a mourner, who was unwilling to trust the records, walked the fence and scratched a cross on the railing opposite the grave which was in the single grave section. In a few weeks he came back and wanted the grave opened. He was so persistent that Superintendent Drew consented. The man wanted the grave opened which was exactly opposite the notch. The records and chart showed the grave of the gentleman’s relative was next to the one which he wished opened. He kicked up a great row, but the superintendent stood by his records and opened the grave indicated on the chart. It was the right one. The mourner had not been careful in making his mark, and had placed it a little to one side and directly in front of another grave, only a foot away. The coffin was taken up. The dead had not been disturbed and the man was satisfied.

Flower Thieves.

The only kind of thieves and robbers that bother the burying ground is the flower thief. She, for this brand of thief is almost invariably of the feminine gender, comes with the blossoms in the springtime and she haunts graveyards all summer long unless she is detected. Decoration day before last, at Mount Greenwood Cemetery, two enterprising flower sellers and stealers had a narrow escape from being mobbed. A man drew up a wagon filled with potted plants near the station. Great crowds were getting off the train and he sold flowers right and left. Although he was selling them by the dozen on every hand, for some strange reason his supply seemed no smaller at the end of an hour than when he began. Presently, when the salesman’s wife was caught stealing flowers in the cemetery, his never-decreasing supply of floral goods was no longer a mystery. As fast as the purchased flowers were placed on graves the wife stole them and carried them back to the wagon. When caught she was surrounded by a crowd of a thousand people and came near receiving rough treatment.

Superintendent Rudd of Mount Greenwood is one of the oldest and most experienced cemetery managers in Chicago. The many years he has been in his present position have given him great experience with the general public.

“I could tell you things which you would scarcely believe,” said Mr. Rudd.

“Incidents transpire in cemeteries which if told exactly as they occurred would receive little credence. One thing which would occasion great surprise is the little real sorrow and grief caused by death.

Grief Arithmetically Measured.

 “Most husbands are not hurt very much by the death of their wives. I don’t think over 20 per cent really feel badly wounded at heart when they hear the clods fall on the coffin lid. Wives are less heartless. About 40 per cent of wives, twice as many as the husbands, care considerably when their life partners are buried. Very few care when old people die. But when a mother leaves her child in the ground there are few instances when her heart is not almost broken. We once had a striking exception. A mother had just buried the third of her children who had died in quick succession of scarlet fever. The husband and wire had come from the grave to my office and were waiting for some papers. Tears were rolling down his cheeks, but the woman laughed and talked as if she were at a reunion in a beer garden. Finally the poor man could bear it no longer. Raising his clinched fist and cursing her, he advanced toward his wife and told her if she didn’t shut her mouth he would shut it for her.

“I remember one young man whose grief at the burial of his wife was heartrending. He screamed and cried until be could be beard clear across the hill. He threw himself on the coffin, and when it was lowered he tried to jump into the grave. Friends held him, and he was taken away almost fainting. Within a month the young man married again.

No Waking the Last Sleep.

“Very often in the winter husbands place their dead wives in the vault, and In the spring bring out wife No. 2 to see No. 1 put in the ground. Once an undertaker had occasion to open a coffin which was in our public vault. It was in the depth of winter, and the thermometer was below zero. The corpse looked very life-like, and after the undertaker went away he made some little remark about it. The little remark was repeated. It grew like a weed. It was enlarged and exaggerated until it was told over the entire neighborhood that a woman in a trance lay buried in the vault. The gossips did not stop to think that the body had been frozen solid for nearly a month. These stories, by the way, about people being buried alive are mostly manufactured for sensational purposes. I never heard of an authentic case, and I never met any one else who ever did.

Tricks of the Social Faker.

“Some queer and peculiar things are done out here by money ‘skinners.’ Who are thinking of saving every penny as much as they are of their grief. Two or three of the mourners will come out before the funeral and express their doubts as to whether we have a lot good enough for them. Then they conclude to place the remains in the vault temporarily.

The day of the funeral everything is imposing. The coffin is rosewood, or covered with plush or broadcloth, and there is a long line of fine carriages. Some time after the funeral the mourners will slip out to the cemetery, buy a single grave in the poorest, cheapest spot, and, without buying the $3 pine coffin-box, bury the casket in the ground. I remember well a heart-broken husband who came out to the cemetery to buy a lot and make arrangements for his wife’s funeral. The poor fellow could not restrain his feelings. Two big tears glistened in his eyes, and his voice quivered. He looked up at me through his glistening tears and said:

“‘Yes. It’s hard to (sob) bear. An’ it’s an awful (sob) trial (sob) to come out (sob) here and select this (sob) lot. I was wo-wonderin’ if you (sob) co-couldn’t gimme a little discoun-count for cash.’ (Long-continued sobbing.)

“I had another experience with a mourner of much the same character. ‘Now, I’ll tell you,’ he said, ‘there are going to be a lot of swell, rich people out here at my wife’s funeral tomorrow. They don’t any of ’em own lots here, but when they come out tomorrow and see what a magnificent place you’ve got they may buy. Well, you know, of course I’m sort of bringing ’em out here, and maybe you might sell ’em some lots several, perhaps and well. I didn’t know but you might feel like giving me a little commission on all the lots you might sell to any of em.”

Repentance and Black Stockings.

“A widower came to my foreman once with a proposition that had never been heard of before. Several months previous the man had buried his wife. He was a cheese-parer on money matters, and, I guess, he saved all he could on funeral arrangements. At the funeral, of course, only the face was exposed. The rest of the body could not be seen, and no one but the widower knew how well or how poorly it was arrayed. Evidently he got to thinking the matter over and decided he hadn’t given his dead wife a square deal. Well, sir, he came to my foreman with a long pair of black stockings, and wanted his wife taken up so that be could put them on her.”

All of the large cemeteries have had more or less experience with people who have been so unfortunate as to lose a limb. One day a man from Pullman appeared at Mount Greenwood with a tiny coffin, about nine inches long, under his arm. He had in the coffin two of his fingers which had been cut off by a buzz saw. Instead of throwing them away or burying them in his back yard he brought them to the graveyard, purchased a lot, and buried the fingers. Several years ago a woman, living on the South Side, had a leg amputated. It was buried in a family lot. Recently the woman died. Her relatives had the leg taken up and placed in the coffin. They said they did it so that she would be perfect in heaven.

Some Recent Legislation.

Cemetery people all over the state are laughing at the ridiculous law passed by the Legislature in regard to the use of wire designs for holding flowers. The law makes it unlawful for these designs to be used in any way a second time.

“It is one of the most laughable things 1 ever heard of,” said Superintendent Rudd. “I presume the law was passed on the theory that the wire might become infected with contagion. Of course that is preposterous, especially if the designs are repainted. I guess if the truth were known it would be found that some manufacturers had some new design they wanted to get on the market. Perhaps they persuaded the Legislature to cripple the old designs.”

Daily Inter Ocean [Chicago, IL[ 21 June 1896: p. 23

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 on Twitter @hauntedohiobook. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Predicting His Own Death: 1879

A Sharp Game by Creditors.

Among the many manias that have run for the past few years, prominently, stands the one of old men predicting their death. Some time ago, says the Little Rock Gazette, we published an article of an old man that lived out on the Mount Ida road. This man foretold the hour when he would die, and true to the prediction, he died. Men, during the past year, have died in every state in the same manner. This has been carried to such an extent that when a man says, ‘I am going to die at ten minutes past three next Monday,’ his relatives immediately begin to make arrangements for the funeral.

Several days ago an old man named Robertspear, living about ten miles from this city, called his family together and remarked; ‘Wife, children, next Monday at precisely one o’clock I am going to die. I would rather remain, but the summons has arrived,’ The first storms of grief were violent. The wife and children gathered themselves into each others’ arms and wept. The news soon spread around the neighborhood, and people came in to console the family. Bill collectors came in and the old gentleman promised to pay all his debts on the following Saturday at twelve o’clock. He continued to work on the farm, but was much depressed, and at night would pray loud prayers and sing sorrowful hymns. Sunday night the household, supplemented by friends who always take great delight in gloomy occasions, seemed to be a well organized camp-meeting.

The old gentleman for the first time expressed his willingness to go. Yesterday was his appointed time. At nine o’clock the old man dressed himself, took up his Bible and began reading. At ten o’clock he sang a hymn, and at eleven he bestowed blessings on his family. Shortly before twelve six men came in and presented bills, bills that had been ‘stood off’ from time to time. He paid every cent, ate a light dinner, and lay on his bed. The collectors stood around and waited. The hands on the clock indicated 12.50. A minister who had just arrived sang softly and spoke to the old gentleman consolingly. Five minutes to one. An affecting scene between the old man and his wife. The clock struck one.

The old gentleman groaned. One of the bill collectors burst out in a hearty laugh, ‘Here, old man,’ said another, ‘get out of the bed. We saw that you were not going to pay those bills, so we notified you of your death. I hid in the woods at night, and told you as you passed. Come, get out.’ The old man, so mad that he could hardly see, kicked off the sheet and got up. His wife remarked, ‘You fellows think you are mighty smart,’ and straightened the cover. The minister cast a look of reproach at the collectors, and, with a disappointed expression, went away. The old man is well.

The Catoctin Clarion [Mechanicstown MD] 18 September 1879: p. 1

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 on Twitter @hauntedohiobook. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

She Wanted to Be a Widow: 1889

She Made a Pretty Widow, c. 1890

Perhaps the queerest of tales is that of a young lady who had just attained her majority, and with it the unrestricted control of 100,000 dollars. This young lady’s sole desire was to become a widow. Weeds are so becoming. What is so interesting as a young bewitching widow, with a handsome fortune? Accordingly, to obtain the desirable result, she engaged the services of the real estate agent who managed her property to procure an accommodating moribund husband. The agent set to work, and, with the aid of a friendly physician (every apothecary and sawbones is a physician here), a suitable subject was found in the person of a destitute printer, who was supposed to be dying of whisky and consumption.

After a little inducement the dying man consented, knowing that he was on the verge of the grave, the prospect of being decently buried overcoming any repugnance he might have felt at such an unnatural wooing, and by his orders the fair would-be widow was asked to name the day. Thereupon the next day there was presented at the bed of the bridegroom the bride and a widowed friend, the dying man’s mother, the real estate agent, the doctor, and a Justice of the Peace. The blushing bride having satisfied herself that the man she was about to take for better or worse “would soon be where the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest,” shyly consented to be united according to the Statute in such cases made and provided by the accommodating Justice, and without bestowing another look on her newly-acquired husband, the fair bride left the room, having left sufficient coin of the Republic to pay the present living expenses and the future funeral charges, which she fondly hoped would be at early date.

Time passed, however, and still the bride remained a wife, and not a widow, and days merged into weeks and weeks into months, and the lady was reminded of the existence of a husband by the frequent demands on her purse. At last, her patience being exhausted, she determined to visit her husband to ask him why he persisted in living, and when he intended to be ready to be measured for his coffin. With that intent she proceeded to take the train for ‘Frisco, her residence being Oakland, and just as she was stepping into the carriage, someone stepped in front of her with outstretched arms, and said, “Frankie, my darling, I have found you at last.” Frankie (the lady) took a good look at the speaker; it was her husband. She was too cool to faint that, of course, goes without saving, but her voice, husky with emotion, trembled as she said, “What, not dead yet”

“No,” replied her husband, “I have quite recovered. They told me they did not know your address.”

You can imagine the fair one’s feelings. After a stormy interview and a refusal by the husband of a substantial sum to permit a divorce, a compromise was affected, whereby the lady was to furnish so much a month to the husband for his needs, —meaning whisky, of course—and after two or three months of unlimited quantities of the aforesaid needs, death claimed the victim who had so nearly escaped him. And the fair widow furnished with unbecoming cheerfulness the necessary funds to inter her dear departed and now, the object of her life being attained, she is turning the heads of all young eligible men with her ravishing widow’s weeds. But enough of this. I know your readers will say I have been romancing, but I can assure them that the lady is now residing in Oakland, and has taken no steps whatever to contradict the story on the contrary, she is quite proud of her exploit. Funny taste, is it not?

Waikato Times, 14 September 1889: p. 6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It is rare to find a young woman (particularly one in possession of such a large fortune) who knows her own mind so well. Not for her the siren-song of young and handsome. It is not entirely dissimilar to those young persons, poor in worldly goods, but bountifully equipped with feminine charms, who calculatingly marry elderly millionaires, although in those cases, the young persons crave the money rather than the weeds.  One must admire the young lady’s coolness, if not her kindly heart.

The bewitching widow was something of a cliché in popular mortuary literature:

We could hardly conceive how it was possible the head could think of the fashion of a bonnet if the heart were breaking, We for a long time supposed that the matter lay entirely with the milliner, but we were undeceived once by having to carry a mourning bonnet back, intended for a young and pretty widow, because it was not becoming, and another, as the funeral did not occur for two days thereafter, was forthwith made that suited to a charm. The Spirit Messenger, R.P. Ambler, Editor, 14 June 1851: p 361

and

It is in questionable taste for a young and pretty widow to wear her mourning after she has become reconciled to the death of her first husband and is quite willing to marry a second. A widow still wearing her weeds, and at the same time carrying on an animated flirtation with some new admirer, is a sight to make the gods weep…To angle for a second husband with the weeds worn for the first, because they are becoming, is a thing that should be forbidden by law. Social Customs, Florence Howe Hall, (Boston: Dana Estes & Co., 1911)

For more on mourning customs and bewitching widows, see The Victorian Book of the Dead, as well as this story, “The Widow’s Baby,” and “The Mourner a la mode,” a satirical poem about a fashionable widow.

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.

Mourning and the Divorcee: 1904

 

Peter Robinson family and complimentary mourning

A woman who has divorced her husband would be guided by circumstances as to wearing mourning for him. Should he have married again and left a widow, it would be too absurd for two women to be wearing weeds for him; but if it should be thought advisable, in the interests of children, or for any other reason, for the woman who divorced him to wear mourning, she should do so, though without any exaggerated advertisement of regret. The children would wear mourning for their father, and it would be in singularly bad taste if their mother were not to don black and avoid colours until their period of mourning had expired. But a woman who has been divorced has no right to wear mourning for her former husband.

Women who are separated from their husbands have, in the same way, to be guided by a number of considerations as to whether they shall wear weeds or merely what is called “complimentary mourning” on the death of the man. An incident that occurred to a lady may be related as showing how difficulties may arise when a couple are separated. She had been living abroad with one of her sons for some years, and meanwhile her husband had formed a temporary union in England with some one else. This latter lady died, and a notice of her death, as wife of Mr. So-and-so, appeared in a great daily paper.

The real wife returned to England, knowing nothing of this, and was met in the street one morning by an old friend who, on seeing her, threw up his hands in amazement, as well he might. “Why!” he said, “I read of your death in the paper, and sent a wreath to your funeral!” When the recreant husband died, the real wife had to wear mourning for him in order to vindicate her position in the eyes of her world. Otherwise, her acquaintance might have believed her to be merely one of the transient ladies who, after the separation, had shared her husband’s home.

Etiquette for Every Day, Mrs Humphry, 1904: pp. 416-418

 

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 on Twitter @hauntedohiobook. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.