ONLY A PAUPER.
The Dundee Advertiser of Wednesday says–On Sunday evening a man. named Peter Fyffe, about 60 years of age, a flax-dresser by occupation, and residing in Irvine-square, Bell-street, died very suddenly. Between-nine and ten o’clock he was apparently in his usual state of health, but soon after that he became ill, and died shortly before eleven o’clock. His sister, Widow Keillor, with whom he resided, being in poor circumstances, applied to Mr. Jack, the inspector of poor for the parish of Dundee, to bury the corpse of her brother, which he at once agreed to do, and the funeral was fixed for Tuesday afternoon. Widow Keillor says–“A coffin was brought to the house about one o’clock to-day (Tuesday) by two men. It was long enough, but it was neither deep enough nor wide enough to contain the corpse. The men, when they saw that the coffin was not large enough, commenced to make the body of my brother fit it. One of the men put his knee on my brother’s breast and pressed with all his might, in order to make the corpse go into the coffin. The bones of my brother’s right arm cracked, and, although I could not say positively that it was broken, it seemed very like it. The whole bones of his body seemed crushed. It was impossible, notwithstanding all the exertions of the men, to make my brother’s body fit the coffin, which, burst. When it was seen that the body would not go into the coffin they went away for another one, which they brought; and when my brother’s body was taken out of the coffin, a considerable quantity of blood was in it. The second coffin exactly fitted my brother’s corpse, and when it was brought to the house one of the men said he admitted that the first coffin was too little. I felt very much shocked at the way in which the men crushed my brother’s corpse into the coffin, which was much too small, and Mrs. Keith, and Mrs. Fraser, and Mary Taylor remonstrated with the men, and told them that if they did not use the body rightly they would complain to the authorities.” This statement Mrs. Keillor declared was true, and not in the least exaggerated; and when our reporter read it over to Peter Devine (weaver), Helen Henderson (millworker), Agnes Imrie (millworker), and Barbara Henderson (sack-sewer), who were all in the house, and who stated that they saw the whole proceedings, they corroborated it in every particular.
Liverpool [Merseyside, England] Mercury 15 April 1865: p. 5
Other newspapers added the following details:
One woman exclaimed—“God pity me, to see a man of such respectability as he was in his day come to that, and be treated so miserably at his latter end.” Several of the neighbours with whom our reporter spoke on Tuesday night substantiated statements which the deceased sister had volunteered.
Mrs Keillor added that the parochial authorities sent a good hearse to convey her brother’s remains to the Eastern Cemetery, and she accompanied the remains to their last resting place, where, in her own words, she said—“I did what perhaps never a woman did before—I put the head of the coffin in the earth.”
We are satisfied that it is neither with the knowledge nor approval of the Chairman, Committee, or higher officials of the Parochial Board, that any such proceedings as narrated above had occurred. It is imperative however, that such instructions be at once given as will prevent any repetition of them, and nothing is so likely to effect this as taking the matter from the region of street rumour into public notice by the press.
The Western Flying Post or Sherborne and Yeovil Mercury [Sherborne, Dorset, England] 25 April 1865: p. 8
An investigation before the Parochial Board was held into the circumstances of this incident:
ILL-TREATMENT OF A CORPSE.
An examination took place before the Parochial Board Committee yesterday, in reference to the alleged ill-treatment of the corpse of Peter Fyffe, flaxdresser, Irvine Square, Bell Street, by the undertaker employed by the Parochial Board. Mr Francis Molison occupied the chair; and there were present–Messrs Niven, Guthrie, Mills, Ness, Morrison, Lorimer, Isdale, and Low.
David Gorrie was the first witness examined. He deponed that he was assistant-inspector, and stated that a woman called on him for a funeral order on Monday, between twelve and one o’clock. She produced a certificate from the registrar that the death was properly registered. He gave an order to the contractor for such funerals, Mr James Lindsay. The deceased was not a pauper on the roll. The woman told him that they wanted to bury the corpse immediately; but he told her it could not be buried for twenty-four hours. The order was then given her by him. James Lindsay was unable to be in attendance, and the next witness was
David Lindsay, son of Mr Lindsay, the contractor. He deponed that two women came to his father’s shop about four o’clock on Monday, with air order from the Inspector of Poor, for him to bury the deceased Peter Fyffe. They stated that they wished the funeral to take place immediately; but he said that it could not be done till next day. They said that deceased was an ordinary sized man; and he did not think it necessary to go and measure the body, but made an ordinary sized coffin. Next day, he went up about twelve o’clock for the funeral taking the chest with him. He found the body lying on the door, covered with rags. There was blood lying on the floor beside it. It appeared to him that the blood had come from the mouth. They lifted the body into the coffin; but found that although the coffin was long enough, it was too narrow. They tried to put the body into the coffin. They then put the lid upon the coffin, and screwed it at the bottom and the top. They found=that it would not close at the sides, the coffin being too narrow and being thus forced out. The body seemed to have swollen. They did not crush or push the body in any way, or injure it, or break any ot the bones. They found that the coffin was too small, and took it out. They then took back the small coffin and made a new one, large enough. They went back about five o’clock with the coffin, and the funeral was carried through. He denied that any ill usage whatever had been given to the body, but admitted that the first coffin was too small. If he had taken the measure of the body, it would have been all right. In this there was some fault. When the lid was put on the first coffin, he merely pressed the sides to get the lid on. The lid broke, but the corpse sustained no ill usage.
Robert Lindsay, another son of the contractor, was examined. He generally corroborated his brother s evidence, and denied that the corpse was injured, or that any inhumanity was used towards it. The contractors often got ill-usage from folks in the discharge of their duty. The women in this house seemed to be worse of drink. There was one man in the house, and he and the women said the coffin was too small. They were not squeezing nor pressing in the body, but the women in the house called upon them to put on the lid, in consequence of the strong smell that was in the house. It was scarcely bearable. He was satisfied that no injury was done to the body through putting it into the first coffin. There was blood about the mouth before they touched it, and that was not caused by the restriction of the body.
The following is a copy of Mr Lindsay’s contract with the Parochial Board:– “Dundee, 17th March, 1861.
“To the Committee of the Parochial Board
“Gentlemen, I hereby offer for the interment of paupers—
Under 12 years, . . . 10s Above 12 years, . . 17s 3d
From the first charge, 6s has to be paid for ground, and 3s for juveniles.
The Chairman said no member of the committee supposed but what the interment of the paupers was conducted in the same way as the interment of any other class, and that the bodies were measured in the ordinary way.
Margaret Fyffe or Keillor, sister of the deceased, deponed that she lived in the same flat with him. Shortly after the death of her brother, about eleven o’clock on Sunday night, some police officers came in. They said they would send a doctor, but none came. Her brother was quite well during Sunday. He took his supper heartily that night. She went to the Registrar and got his death registered next morning. She then went to the undertaker, Mr Lindsay, with an order she got from Mr Jack. She told him to come immediately and coffin the corpse. He said he would not come till next day at twelve o’clock. He came next day, but the coffin was too little. He tried to put in the body, but it would not go in. They pressed in the arms and forced down the body. She heard something crack; it was either the coffin or the body. She thought they ought not to have brought such a small coffin. They tried to put on the lid, but those in the house insisted on their taking out the body, and the contractor did so, and took away that coffin and came back some time after with a bigger one, and the funeral took place.
Mrs Fraser was next examined. She was a neighbour. She saw Lindsay come with the coffin. She told him it was too small and too thin. It might have been long enough, but it was too narrow. The body was swollen, and they could not put it into the coffin. They screwed out the top end of the coffin and tried to force in the arms. They forced them down by the side, and put their knee on the lid of the coffin to force it down. She heard something crack. It was either the arm of the man or the coffin that cracked. She thought they were improperly using the corpse. She went along with Ira Keillor to Lindsay on the night before the funeral, when the order had been got from the Inspector of Poor. She told him the condition of the body, and that it would require to be measured, because it was very large. The contractor did not come to measure it, and took up a small coffin. She described the treatment of the body. She thought the contractor acted wrong in forcing in the body in the wav he did.
Mrs Keith said she saw Peter Fyffe after he died. She heard Lindsay told to come and inter the body. Lindsay said the usual hour was twelve o’clock, and that he would come next day. She did not recollect him being told that the body required to be measured. She was present when the body was put into the first coffin. She saw that it was too narrow. She also saw them pressing it in. She heard something crack. It was either the coffin or the body.
Helen Henderson was present when the body was put into the first coffin. It was long enough, but it was too narrow about the shoulders. They lifted the arms and placed them across the breast. They endeavoured to press them down by the sides. They then put on the lid; Mr Lindsay put his knee on the lid to screw it down, and something cracked. Those in the house complained that they were ill-using the body, and they took it out, and took away the coffin, and brought a new one.
Mary Taylor, a neighbour, deponed that she was at the door of the room, and saw the contractor put the body in the coffin. She saw the coffin was too narrow, and that after the body was put into it, it was taken out again, and a new coffin taken up.
Peter Devine was in the house when Fyffe was coffined. He helped Lindsay to put the body into the coffin. The coffin was too small, and they pressed the body down into it. The arms were first put across the breast, and then forced down the sides. They then put on the coffin lid, and screwed it down at the top and the bottom; and, after trying to screw out the sides, could not get it done owing to the coffin being too narrow, and the sides being forced out. Mr Lindsay put his knee on the head of the coffin to screw it down, when the lid broke. Either the body or the arms cracked. He thought that they were trying to force the body into the coffin. He had been in the habit of seeing bodies screwed into coffins. It was the practice for the undertaker to put his knee on the lid of the coffin before screwing it down. This was a usual practice.
At the close of the above examination, the Chairman said that this was the first complaint against Mr Lindsay, and he had conducted on an average 280 funerals a-year for the last three years. The terms which were allowed Mr Lindsay were what he himself proposed. He did not think they could come to any finding in the meantime, but that an adjournment could take place till Mr Lindsay could attend.
This was unanimously agreed to.
The Courier and Argus [Dundee, Tayside, Scotland] 15 April 1865: p. 3
Within two days, the same paper was deploring the state of parish funerals–and leveling a very thinly veiled accusation of murder.
The investigation which has been instituted by the Parochial Committee of Management into the circumstances attending the funeral of Peter Fyffe has disclosed a state of things, the existence of which was not before suspected, and will not be suffered to continue. The investigation is as yet incomplete, and there are some contradictions in the evidence, but enough is certainly known to render it necessary that an alteration in the system should take place. The Parochial authorities contract with Mr Lindsay for the performance of funerals which are conducted at the expense of the parish. They pay the prices which were proposed by the undertaker, and though the charges are small, we must suppose they were sufficient to remunerate the tradesman for his cost and trouble. The Parochial Committee had no idea that pauper funerals were managed in any essential respect differently from those of other poor people. Of course they did not expect that they would be carried out with such ceremony and “circumstance” as those of the rich or well-to-do; and, probably, if they thought of that part of the subject at all, they did not suppose that the same delicate attention to the feelings of survivors would be displayed as when corpses are carried from handsome mansions to the “narrow home,” which is the final resting place of all. There is, and we fear there always will be, a rougher, not to say ruder, and a less ceremonious manner adopted toward the poor than is exhibited toward the wealthy. As the world is, and as average men are, that is inevitable. Ceremonious formality implies the devotion of time, and attention, and care. The well-off can pay for it and buy it; but the poor cannot afford the outlay, and have to do without what is in fact a marketable commodity, just as they have to do without funereal feathers and other trappings. All that people who know what the world is are perfectly aware of; but no one acquainted with the Chairman of the Parochial Board and the gentlemen who compose the Committee of Management, could for a moment believe that they thought the funerals paid out of the funds under their control, were marked by any circumstances showing the slightest disregard for the impulses which make most men regard death as sacred, and cause the corpse of the poorest to be treated, if not with tenderness, with decent respect. If they had imagined that was possible, we may be sure they would have provided against it ; and the promptness with which the pending investigation has been set on foot, and the fairness with which it has been conducted, are guarantees that whatever is amiss will be fully remedied. The defect in the system appears to have been that when parish coffins were ordered, they were made by guess without the corpse having been measured. That method may answer in the majority of cases, because there is an average of size; but it is necessary to provide for exceptions. The way taken to do that was, it seems, to ask the person bespeaking the coffin if the corpse was of an ordinary size? There is some dispute as to what was done in that respect, in this instance. The assistants of the undertaker say they were told a common sized coffin would be sufficient. On the other side, it is averred they were informed the body was large and swollen, and that an extra large coffin would be required. We cannot decide between these conflicting accounts. The coffin was, it is said, made of an average size, and taken to the house of death. That was on the Tuesday. A miserable place, it appears, that house was. The dead man had not been a pauper; but it is clear that, so far as comforts were concerned, he had been far worse off than those who are supported out of the rates in the Poorhouse. The body was on the floor, covered with rags. Blood was about it, and the undertaker’s assistants think the fluid had come from the mouth. The corpse was swollen so that a larger coffin than ordinary was wanted. That was soon perceived, and directly it became evident the coffin ought to have been taken away and a larger one procured. There will be no difference of opinion about that. But an attempt was made to force the body into the coffin. There is a dispute as to the degree of violence which was used; but that there was some violence no one who reads the report of the enquiry can doubt. It may be, very probably is, an exaggerated statement, that the bone of one of the arms or any other bone was broken; but that force which ought not to have been applied was exerted, is not to be disputed. The proof is that, on the admission of the persons who took the coffin, the lid is shown to have been broken. It was, we hope and believe, the noise of the creaking of the lid which led to the impression that a bone had been fractured. Some allowance must be made for the undertaker’s men. They had an unpleasant, we might say a disgusting, duty to perform. It is said the stench was almost unbearable ; and it is not unlikely they were urged by the bystanders to get the lid on as quickly as possible, as well as impelled by their own sensations to get through their noisome task as soon as they could; but nothing in the circumstances could justify the attempt to thrust the body into the coffin, obviously too narrow for it, by using a degree of force, which, if it did not crack bones, broke the lid. Such things must not be suffered to be repeated. When the body could not be pressed in, because, whatever violence the corpse might have been able to have borne, the coffin would not stand it, that was done which ought to have been done at first. The body was replaced on the floor, and, without any undue delay, another and larger coffin was procured. Between the time when the small coffin was taken away and the larger one brought, there was ample opportunity for the relatives of the deceased to have examined the body, and ascertained if it had sustained any injury, but we do not hear that that was done, and if it was, we have not the result before us. If it was not, we must infer indifference on the part of others than the undertaker’s men. If it was, we may dismiss as an exaggeration the allegation that bones were broken. We will not anticipate the decision at which the Committee will arrive as to this particular case; but for the future we cannot doubt it will be provided that bodies shall be measured before coffins are made. That is necessary to prevent the possibility of scenes which should not be allowed to occur in the homes of the poorest, or even of the most worthless. We owe it to our common human feelings to see that the dead are treated decently and respectfully.
But this case suggests to us reflections on something beside the conduct of the undertaker’s men. We are tempted to ask the question–How did Peter Fyffe die? a question which appears to us, at least, as important as the other–How was Peter Fyffe buried? We do not know that the finding an answer to that question can be said to be within the province of the Parochial Committee; but the matter is one which should recommend itself to them as well as others in their capacity of citizens. We gather from the statement of the sister of the deceased, that he appeared quite well on the Sunday and took a hearty supper, and that at eleven o’clock he was dead. What did he die of? There does not seem to have been any medical man present, either before or after death. We do not hear what were the symptoms of the illness, nor what remedies, if any, were used, nor who, if anybody, saw the man die. The sister registered the death on the Monday morning. What account did she give to the Registrar. What disease is set down in the books as that of which Peter Fyffe died? Couple this uncertainty with the facts that on Tuesday the body was horribly swollen, and that there was blood about it and upon the floor on which it rested among rags; and it seems to us there is something else to be enquired into than the way in which the funeral was conducted. We do not point to any specific suspicions. We know nothing more of the facts than is disclosed in the evidence; but when a man is said to have been well at supper-time and dead at eleven o’clock, when no doctor was called into him, and a registrar’s certificate obtained, and the corpse, swelled and bloody, buried within two days of the death, we cannot help asking the question, “How did Peter Fyffe die?” In England the facts would render the summoning of a coroner’s jury certain. Here we have no coroners, but surely such a case is one that ought not to be suffered to pass by in silence. For all we know, enquiry might lead to a perfectly satisfactory result, but enquiry of some kind there certainly should be.
The Courier and Argus [Dundee, Tayside, Scotland] 17 April 1865: p. 2
And there, as far as I can see in the papers, the matter ended.
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.