Death Masks

very nasty oliver messel skull mask
Death Masks, Skull mask, c. 1920-29, Oliver Messel

I remember with loathing the plastic or rubber masks of my childhood Halloweens. The eye-holes never lined up, leaving the wearer blind, and the materials were thin enough that, if the nose wasn’t adjusted just so, the brittle plastic or clammy rubber would get sucked onto the face to the point of suffocation. Very dispiriting for young Halloween pleasure-seekers.

So, scarred by that autumnal trauma, I bring you grim tales of death masks—not of the cast plaster faces of the noble dead, but of Halloween disguises that spoiled the fun.

Mask-related accidents like these were sadly common.

Hallowe’en Mask Cause of Death

Cambridge. Her vision obscured by a mask she was wearing home from a Hallowe’en party, Helen Hillyer, 11, was struck and killed by an automobile. Lancaster [OH] Eagle-Gazette 29 October 1926: p. 2

Just as with the Fourth of July, the casualties and fatalities of Hallowe’en were chronicled in the papers the day after. In stories of this kind, the mangling and bloody injuries were often lovingly dwelt on by the journalist, perhaps as cautionary tales.


Blinded, She Stepped Before Car and Was Killed.

Was Playing Halloween Games With Companions.

Blinded by a mask which she was wearing while playing some Halloween games last night, Gertrude Bender, the seven-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Albert C. Bender of No. 512 St. Clair street ran in front of a St. Clair street car and was instantly killed.

The accident occurred in front of the little girl’s home, but her mother who was there did not know about it for some fifteen minutes. A number of neighbors finally told her. She is almost prostrated with grief.

Last night some fifteen children ranging in ages from six to twelve years were celebrating Halloween with games throwing corn and rapping on windows with tick tacks. Some of them finally bought some false faces at a near by store. It was while playing “blindman’s bluff,” that their little companion met her death.

She had started to run to a place of hiding and did not see the street car coming from the west because of the false face. The motorman tried to stop his car when it struck the little girl, but could not do so for over a hundred feet. He finally brought the car to a standstill in front of the little girl’s home and took the bleeding body from under the wheels. It was carried into the undertaking rooms of H. Beckenbaugh & Son at No. 512 St. Clair street where it was prepared for burial. It was found that the whole left side of her skull was fractured and the left leg broken above the ankle where the car wheel passed over it. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 1 November 1903: p. 17


Two Girls Were Instantly Killed Near Elizabeth, Pa.

Elizabeth, Pa., Oct. 31. Miss Maude Albon and Miss Agnes McGeary, aged 19 and 16 respectively, were instantly killed Friday night while en route to a Halloween festivity in the neighborhood by a Pittsburg, Virginia & Charleston train. The two girls, with Hilda McGeary, an elder sister of Agnes, had donned their Halloween masks in a spirit of fun and drove directly in front of the train, the masks interfering with their vision at the crossing.

Agnes McGeary was beheaded, her friend, Miss Albon, was badly mangled, and Hilda McGeary escaped unscathed. The Evening Bulletin [Maysville, KY] 31 October 1903: p. 1

Both pranksters and unmaskers might find themselves on the wrong side of the mask:

Quite a serious, if not fatal accident, occurred to A.J. Love, a young and promising student of the Normal School at Ada, O. At the school board-rooms Love put on a false face and entered the room of his fellow-student, John Stout, who, upon seeing the false face and ghost-like appearance of Love became frantically frightened, seized a chair and struck Love square across the eyes, breaking his nose and cutting his face frightfully. At present his face is badly swollen and he is lying unconscious. Repository [Canton OH] 16 April 1879: p. 1


Bridgeport Man Got Masculine Blow from Hallowe’en “Woman”

Norristown, Pa., Nov. 1 William Hesser, Jr., of Bridgeport, probably received fatal injuries in a Hallowe’en fight here last night.

It is said that Hesser attempted to raise the mask of what he supposed to be a girl because of the feminine attire, but a masculine arm shot out a blow that sent him on his head on the pavement.

The police are endeavouring to find his assailant. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 2 November 1903: p. 1

Some of the strangest death mask stories are not entirely related to the Hallowe’en season. Pranksters have always thought it funny to don sheets or hideous false faces, but, assuming these events occurred as described, there seems to have been a veritable massacre of the innocents via mask.


Muncy, Pa., Dispatch 26th.

Walter, the two-year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. William Priest, died to-day of convulsions, the result of a fright sustained last evening.

Seven-year-old Margaret Colley, a neighbor’s child, wearing a hideous false face, rushed into the room where Mr. and Mrs. Priest were playing with their baby, and when the little one caught sight of the frightful-looking face he shrieked with fright.

The immediate removal of the false face failed to pacify him in the least. Convulsions soon followed, continuing during the night and until noon to-day when the little one died. The Charlotte Observer 29 January 1897: p. 3

Although, which came first, the shock or untreatable meningitis?


Hideous False Face Throws Baby Into Spasm and Spinal Disease.

Edward, the 16-months-old son of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Fisk, of Elgin, Ill., is critically ill of a spinal disease through to have been caused by extreme fright. The infant’s recovery is exceedingly doubtful.

The case is a peculiar one. Recently an eight-year-old lad, Harry Shaw, who is a friend of the Fisk family, concealed his face behind a hideous mask and abruptly entered the Fisk home. The infant was terribly frightened. He was thrown into convulsions, spasm following spasm. Later the spine became affected and the child has been in a semiconscious state ever since.

The attending physician, Dr. McCornack, fears that if the child lives he will be either an invalid or imbecile and perhaps both.

Young Shaw was in the habit of spending much time amusing his younger playmate. He had been calling upon older lads with the disguise and had derived great sport therefrom, and had no thought of the effect the hideous mask would have upon so young a child.

The Fisk child’s father is a member of the Elgin fire department. He has been given leave of absence from his duties and is in constant attendance upon the bedside of his sick child.

The mask causing such sad results was one of the most hideous affairs imaginable. It was flaming red, with long hooked nose, protruding chin and generally devilish expression. Grand Forks [ND] Daily Herald 1 March 1898: p. 3

Or possibly some insect-borne disease of the summer.

On a recent visit to the Maryland Hospital, we learned some particulars of a melancholy case of the loss of reason from sudden fright. The subject is a male child, about eight years of age, named John H. Frisbee, the son of a respectable widow lady residing at Fell’s Point, whose phrenological developments seem intended for the elaboration of elevated intellectual conceptions, and whose physiognomy is eminently qualified to give them that expression which the tongue cannot give. And yet the intellect of that noble looking child has been irremediably destroyed by some silly trifler with a false-face! by whom he was frightened some time last summer. The child, at the time, fell suddenly down, and for two weeks exhibited little or none of his former liveliness, and finally his mind gave way entirely, and though he was kept some time in the hospital, no cure could be effected, and he is now in the care of his mother, in a state compounded of idiocy and madness. Balt. Sun. The Adams Sentinel [Gettysburg, PA] 2 December 1839: p. 4

I’ve written before on people said to have been scared to death. Convulsions are often mentioned as the symptoms of a fatal shock or as the cause of death.

At Bowling Green, Kentucky, a short time since, Miss Rochester, daughter of W.H. Rochester, died of fright, occasioned by a rude boy having run after her on her way to school, with a mask or false face on him. She ran, in her fright, into a pond of water, whence she was carried to her father’s house, where—when nature was exhausted by frequent convulsive or apoplectic fits, she expired: aged 5 years and 5 months. Illinois Weekly State Journal [Springfield IL] 2 November 1833: p. 1

This mask prank led to a lawsuit.

Singular Suit for Damages. The case of David Elton vs. George L. Hughes came on for trial in the County Court at Pottsdam, Pa., on Monday 3d inst. It seems that Hughes, either to gratify a private pique, or for some mischief, procured a horrible looking mask and on a Sunday evening, when Miss Jane Eaton, plaintiff’s daughter, was returning, unattended, from conference, he appeared before her with this mask upon his face, which so frightened the young lady that she fell senseless to the earth; and it gave her nerves such a shock that she was confined to her room for several weeks, and at once time it was thought she could not survive. It was for the expense attendant upon the sickness of Miss Jane, and for her services during sickness, that plaintiff now sought redress. For the defence, it was contended that plaintiff had not made out his case, inasmuch as he had not proved that the mask was used by defendant for the express purpose of frightening plaintiff’s daughter. Defendant might have used the mask for his own amusement, and it was certainly not against the law for a man to put on a mask, if he was in such a humor. The jury, however, thought the defendant was too old a child to be amused by playing with a mask and gave plaintiff $200 damages—a very proper verdict. American and Commercial Daily Advertiser [Baltimore MD] 18 June 1839: p. 2

In this case, it sounds like the grieving father brought a civil suit for wrongful death.


Strange Estate Left by a Farmer’s Child.

Republic Special.

Rochester, N.Y., Aug. 24. Letters of administration have been applied for by Thomas Partridge of Penfield on the state of his daughter Mary. The application states that the estate consists of an action for $10,000, which he is bringing against Mrs. Terrill of Penfield, on account of his daughter’s death. The story behind this peculiar litigation is this:

Mrs. Terrill is a neighbour of the Partridges and had shown an intense dislike for Mary Partridge, a child 10 years old. One day last December, it is claimed, that Mrs. Terrill put on a hideous false face and called at the home of the Partridges. Little Mary answered the bell, and as she opened the door Mrs. Terrill thrust her head, covered with the painted mask, toward the child and shrieked. “Now, I’ve got you. I will take you away.” Then she ran away to her own home. The child Mary fell to the floor in convulsions caused by fright and being delicate and of an extremely sensitive nature, she never recovered. The convulsions continued at intervals until her life was exhausted and she gradually wasted away. Her death occurred on July 30 last, from nervous exhaustion. The St. Louis [MO] Republic 26 August 1900: p. 15

I have not found the resolution of the case. Although young Mary was a long time dying from the fright, given the animus of Mrs. Terrill,  possibly Mr. Partridge would have had a good case for second-degree murder.

Several years ago I did a post on the macabre mirth of the vintage Hallowe’en. This was a star item:


Paint Melted and Caused Girl’s Death by Blood Poisoning.

ORANGE, N.J., Nov. 13. Little Freda Henke, the fourteen-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Otto Henke of 24 Church Street, this city, is dead at her home as a result of blood poisoning contracted by wearing a papier mache mask at a Hallowe’en party she recently gave a number of her young friends.

At the party all the children wore masks, and there was much romping. The perspiration on the girl’s face melted the paint on the mask and this contaminated an abrasion on her upper lip. New York Times 14 November 1902.

There were numerous reports of children killed by poisonous dyes in candy. Those same toxic colors were used to dye decorations and color masks.

Poisoned by False Face

George Watkins of North Scranton, is in a serious condition at his home as the result of blood poisoning, sustained by wearing a Hallowe’en false face. Watkins was dressed in a fantastic garb Hallowe’en and as part of the disguise wore a paper false face. The mask became wet and the poisonous dye percolating through the paper soaked into the skin on his face. Wilkes-Barre [PA] Times 23 November 1906: p. 12


Goldie Wiggins, aged 4, daughter of George Wiggins, of 92 West Second Street, died last night at her parents’ home, the result of poisoning contracted Halloween night. The little one, while enjoying the festivities of the night in question, wore a mask. She ate an apple without removing the mask [??], and in so doing the supposition is that a portion of the coloring matter of the mask found its way into the child’s stomach. Despite the best of medical attention the child failed to rally, and death ensued. The parents of the child are prostrated over the affair. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 3 November 1903: p. 9

Today parenting magazines and police departments issue annual warnings about the perils of face-masks, and recommend face-painting as a safer substitute, although recently this mother had a warning about that as well.

This vintage case had a much worse outcome.


Society Girl Dies of Blood-poison Resulting from Use of Grease Paints.

Appleton, Wis., March 16. Word was received in Appleton today announcing the death in Chicago yesterday from blood poisoning of Miss Mary Schmidt, an instructor in chemistry in a Black Creek, Wis., school, who on Jan. 23 last, attended a leap year masquerade disguised as Satan and after the party was unable to remove the mask of home made grease paints.

The girl was kept at home for several weeks after the party and Outagamie and Calumet county physicians attempted to remove the paints. Later she was taken to Chicago for treatment. Duluth [MN] News-Tribune 15 March 1908: p. 1 and The Times Recorder [Zanesville OH] 17 March 1908: p. 2

A cautionary tale, indeed.

So don’t forget to vet those masks for visibility and that face-paint for purity.  I’ve given up the idea of going as Satan for trick-or-treat and will instead be causing panic in the neighborhood by flitting around in Victorian mourning attire as “Sexy Woman in Black.”

Other lethal holiday masks or pranks? chriswoodyard8 AT

Death Masks The Woman in Black: Victorian widow's weeds, c. 1907.
Death Masks The Woman in Black: Victorian widow’s weeds, c. 1907.

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 Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.



Poisoned Stockings: Something Was Afoot

little boy striped stockings
Poisoned Stockings: Something was Afoot Striped stockings like this child’s were implicated in cases of poisoning.


Today’s post blends two of my interests: costume history and poisons.

Something strange was afoot in the 1870s and 1880s: fashionable people were being poisoned by their stockings. It all began with the new aniline dyes and an innocent vogue for brightly colored and striped stockings, which opened new vistas for ladies wishing to highlight a well-turned ankle.

Serious objection is made to the new style of stockings in which the stripes run lengthwise. It takes too much mud to show the full pattern.

Cleveland [OH] Leader 12 January 1876: p. 3


Poison Two Young Ladies and an Arrest Follows.

Ben Rabenstein, a pack-peddler, some time ago, sold to Mrs. Ben Raeder, on Wilstach Street, near Liberty, some red stockings, which he guaranteed to be fast colors. Mrs. Raeder’s two daughters, Lillie, aged 16, and Amelia, aged 15, wore the stockings to a picnic in Cumminsville last Saturday. The next morning they suffered from a violent itching, followed by eruptions where the stockings had chafed the skin. Their condition rapidly grew worse, until now they are in a terrible state. Mrs. Raeder went to see “Squire Tyrrell about it, and had a warrant issued for Rabenstein’s arrest.

Cincinnati [OH] Post 6 August 1892: p. 2

Poisoned by Red Stockings

Boston, Ind., Dec. 20. Both legs of Miss Eva Dooly were amputated at the knee last night. The amputation was made necessary by the poisoned condition of her limbs resulting from the wearing of red stockings.

Leavenworth [KS] Herald 22 December 1894: p. 1

Was this some sort of Borgian conspiracy? Was there a mad poisoner at work? I have neither the wit nor the chemistry to speculate about specific lethal agents in these deadly articles of dress, although in the 60 or so articles I have read, arsenic, prussic acid (as bought by Lizzie Borden to “clean her sealskins”—a nice euphemism for patricide.), and mercury are all either mentioned as possible dyes or mordants (dye fixatives). Red dyes, highly popular for stockings, were never color-fast and needed a fixative. The answer to these crimes of fashion lies in the very prosaic balance sheet. Some articles on the subject mention the cheapness of the toxic ingredients as the reason for their use.

The following article was syndicated widely in 1875 and makes very clear the blisters provoked by the poison arose along the lines of the colored stripes on the stockings.

Poisoned Stockings

The recent introduction and extended use of colored or striped stockings, and the evil effects experienced by the wearers of them, have served to direct the attention the physician and analysist to the question of the dyes used in coloring them. The Pall Mall Gazette, in noticing the evil effects of wearing colored hose, cites several instances where the first symptoms were intense irritation in the skin of the feet, swelling and an inflamed appearance; then an outbreak of watery blisters of all sizes, from groups of the size of hemp-seed to single blisters on the sole of the foot larger than a five-shilling piece. The condition was accompanied by general feverishness, rigors, loss of appetite, and a sensation of pervading malaise. In a sever attack the patient was rarely able to walk for three weeks, and after one attack passes off it was often followed by another of a milder type. In one case a gentleman was obliged to wear cloth shoes for upward of eight months, and with other patients the system has been so impregnated with the poison that blisters have re-appeared at intervals, not only on the feet, but on the hands, ears, etc., for more than three years. There was no doubt as the to cause and method of this blood-poisoning, for the blisters first came in stripes corresponding to the colored strips on the stockings, and the laundresses complained of the irritation and inflamed condition of their hands after washing these poisoned articles. A Scotch lady who suffered from a like cause brought a successful suit against the firm which supplied her with the goods, and it was formally announced by them that henceforth the use of arsenic in the composition of the dyes would be discontinued. Although having no wish to appear as “alarmists,” yet it is evident that the occasion is one calling for watchful care on the part of both purchases and manufacturer. As we have suggested above, these facts are worthy of special consideration at present. For, where the fashion of wearing striped stockings will, without doubt, soon be confined to gentlemen alone, yet the use by them of questionable colors may result in the disastrous effects above described.

Iowa State Reporter [Waterloo, IA] 20 October 1875: p. 6

It was sometimes difficult to find a statute under which to charge sellers of poisoned stockings.

Dr. Edson, of New York, says the Philadelphia Ledger, has discovered an ingenious method of bringing to account in court the dealers in stockings poisoned by dye-stuff. There is no law, it appears, directly applying to such cases, so the Health Officer proposes to have the dealers charged with selling poisons without a label. It is a very “taking” scheme, but would hardly hold if a Philadelphia lawyer should be engaged for the defense.

Brownstown [IN] Banner 17 December 1885: p. 2

I have seen cases from as far afield as Japan and France. Few of the victims are reported to have died although many were brought to the point of death (at least according to the papers), like this child.

Poisoned Stockings.

A Startling Case–Serious Sickness of a Four-Year-Old Boy

From the Utica Observer, March 4.

Yesterday morning an Observer reporter was informed that the four-year-old boy of a widow lady living in the Third ward was seriously ill and that the cause of the little fellow’s sickness was thought to be his poisoned stockings. It was ascertained that the case was in charge of Dr. Charles B. Tefft, and to him the reporter applied for information. He was told that the cause of the boy’s sickness probably lay in the fact that his stockings were died [sic] brown by the use of picric acid, but that experiments to be made in the evening would determine that point. The case was this:

Last Sunday the little fellow put on a pair of brown woolen stockings. Yesterday morning he was taken very ill. He commenced retching and vomiting and a yellowish hue commenced spreading all over his body. When Dr. Tefft was called the little fellow was suffering great pain. Dr. Tefft confesses that after an examination he was unable to see why the boy should be sick until his eye fell on the boy’s brown stockings, when the thought flashed over him that the newspapers were probably right, and that there was poison in them. He had them removed at once, and fond that the boy’s legs were fairly yellow. He then had the mother test the stockings, and she declared that they were very bitter. (!!!) The mystery of the poor little fellow’s illness was explained.

Dr. Tefft on reading upon the subject of picric acid, found that it would produce the same symptoms as those exhibited by the boy. This morning the stockings were put to a thorough test. A piece was cut from one of them and placed in hot water for a moment. Then placing it between the teeth a very bitter taste was perceptible, so bitter that it irritated the end of the tongue. The pair of stockings were then placed in the water. On wringing them the water immediately became discolored, assuming a yellowish tinge which could not be mistaken. There is no doubt that the picric acid in the matter used to color the stockings produced the boy’s sickness. At one time the little fellow was very near death, but he is now recovered. His yesterday’s attack was his first serious illness, but it is noted that during the time he has worn the stockings he has been afflicted with diarrhea, headache, and stomachache.

The stockings were not a cheap pair. They were as nicely made and of as nice a shade as any. But their effects are dangerous. This picric acid is not used alone for purely brown stockings. It is also used to dye striped hose in which that color appears. But all brown stockings are not poisoned. Some of them are manufactured by honest dealers who disdain to make use of picric acid on account of its cheapness, because they know its deadly effects. There is one sure test to apply to detect its presence. Stockings dyed with it, placed between the teeth and against the tongue, impart a bitter taste, which cannot be mistaken. Ladies or others about to purchase brown stockings would do well to apply this test before buying.

Wheeling [WV] Register 13 March 1876: p 3

The image of ladies licking stockings before purchase is a diverting one. A brief scan of internet sources reveals that the primary use for the fatal picric acid is in munitions and explosives. I leave the question of exploding clothing for another post.

And, finally, RIP young Gertrude Thornton, one of the few named victims of death by poisoned stockings:

Gertrude Thornton, aged six years, daughter of A.G. [G. Alfred] Thornton, of Port Jarvis, N.Y., recently died of pyaemia, or blood poisoning, resulting from the wearing of stockings colored in “old gold” and brown. Over a month ago the child was coasting, and, being thickly clad, her feet became warm, and when her shoes were taken off it was found that the coloring of the “old gold” and brown in the feet of the stockings had been absorbed into the warm flesh of the feet, leaving the stockings almost white. The girl soon began to show symptoms of poisoning. Her limbs became swollen and discolored, and she suffered the most excruciating agony for thirty-eight days. She would scream at times with pain, and during the whole time of her sickness there was hardly a day without the keenest suffering. As the end drew near, her limbs and hips grew swollen and mortified, and all the body except the face showed the deadly poison. A half hour before her death she sank into a comatose state, and never regained her consciousness. The utmost skill of Dr. Van Etten could not check the ravages of the poison.

Owyhee Avalanche [Silver City, ID] 18 March 1882: p. 1


Portions of this post appear in The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition.

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

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