Swallowed a Fly: Death by Insect

Swallowed a Fly: Death by Insect
Swallowed a Fly: Death by Insect

The days are filled with the plague-rattle clamor of cicadas. Dying locusts buzz and smear underfoot on the sidewalk, raising visions of scorpion-tailed locusts swarming out of the Pit of the Book of Revelation. It is an evil season….

What with locust resentment, the Zika virus, dive-bombing stink-bugs, and the fact that I am a tick-magnet, I am not an admirer of the Insect Kingdom.  Pocket your killing jars, or perhaps don your beekeeping coveralls and veils—today we’ll be pinning down some cases of Death by Insect.

Spider bites, bee-stings, and lethal centipedes may be taken as read, as may deaths from insect-vectored disease. I am more interested in what you might call the personal touch: deaths directly caused by insects with undeservedly benign reputations.

Flies, however, have long been regarded with suspicion in the medical community. One popular slogan stated, “Every fly is a messenger for the Angel of Death.” [Wilkes-Barre [PA] Times-Leader 24 April 1911]

The zoöphagic William Buckland is remembered for having eaten blue-bottle flies; he said that he found it difficult to decide which was the nastier dish: mole or fly. Buckland seems to have suffered no ill-effects, unlike the old woman of the whimsical rhyme, and these unfortunates:

Swallowed a Fly

St. Louis, Sept. 7. Eugene Dixon swallowed a fly Tuesday afternoon and died yesterday. He was playing in the kitchen and was laughing heartily at some incident which had happened when he swallowed the fly. About an hour afterwards he became so ill that it was necessary to call a physician. Notwithstanding the efforts of the medical attendant the child grew worse very rapidly and died in terrible agony. Worcester [MA] Daily Spy 8 September 1894: p. 3

Is there an explanation or did some juvenile illness coincide with the swallowed fly? Perhaps this story holds the answer:

FLY PAPER KILLS A MAN BY PROXY.

Daniel Miller, of Arcola, Swallows a Poisoned Insect and Dies.

Arcola, Ill., Sept. 21. The most singular case of poisoning that has ever occurred in this section happened last night. Dan Miller, aged 60, was eating supper, and accidentally swallowed a fly that had been on fly paper. Miller lived about three hours. Daily Inter Ocean [Chicago, IL] 22 September 1895: p. 5

Arsenic, commonly found in fly papers might explain the child’s “terrible agony.”

The Daily Mail delights in gruesome stories about the immense and disgustingly mobile creatures infesting human ears, eyes, and noses. Such things might have occurred even more frequently in the past when window-screens were less common and children spent more time out of doors.

KILLED BY A BEETLE IN HIS EAR

Atlantic City, Dec. 1 After suffering for months from headaches and acute pains in the head, Somers Braddock, 9 years old, did at the home of his parents here. Doctors had treated him and had failed to locate an apparent cause for his illness. An autopsy was performed and a dead beetle was found in one of the boy’s ears. Lexington [KY] Herald 2 December 1907: p. 8

Singular Death.

A labourer died on one of the flat boats on the Levee at New Orleans on the 8th, of a disease which baffled his physician. A post mortem examination took place, and upon examining his brain, it was discovered that an insect of about an inch long, known by the name of a centipede or a thousand legs, had crawled into his ear, causing thereby an excruciating death. Maine Cultivator and Hallowell Gazette [Hallowell, ME] 24 July 1841: p. 2

We must question whether this next dire and improbable story happened in this exact way or whether it has more in common with tales of reptiles said to inhabit the stomachs of unwary drinkers from springs.

CHILD KILLED BY A BEETLE

A correspondent writing from Ashley, pa., August 23, says: A post-mortem examination has just been held upon the body of a two years old child of Mr. Louis Schappert, a butcher residing in this place, which died a day or two since in great agony. It was taken suddenly and violently ill, and nothing could be administered that seemed to give any relief. Its body swelled to nearly twice its size, and it died vomiting blood. On the opening of the stomach of the child, the cause of the singular illness and death was discovered. In the coating of the stomach, with the huge horns firmly imbedded was an enormous stag beetle. The only explanation that could be given as to the manner of the insect getting into the stomach was that given by the child’s mother, who stated that the night the child was taken sick, and a few moments before the first symptoms, it had asked for a drink. The mother gave the child a drink from a cup containing water and sitting on a chair beside the bed. There is no doubt that one of these horned beetles had fallen into the cup while flying about the room, and the child drank it with the water. Eastern Argus [Portland, ME] 7 September 1871: p. 4

We’ve read before about Butterflies of Doom—black moths and winged insects as tokens of death.  This multi-colored angel of death played a more direct and deadly role as a child was

LURED TO DEATH BY BUTTERFLY

Child Reached For It and Was Killed by Fall From Fire Escape.

New York, June 15. Mary Fletcher, 6 years old, fell from the third floor fire escape at No. 1813 Amsterdam Avenue, yesterday afternoon, and was killed.

The child had been permitted by her mother to play on the fire escape. A large butterfly alighted on the brick wall near the child, and she made an attempt to catch it. In her excitement she fell through the opening. New Haven [CT] Register 15 June 1899: p. 8

The U.S. Bureau of Entomology made a shocking revelation about the Brown-tail moth.

MOTH CAUSES TUBERCULOSIS

Brown-Tail Variety Has Already Killed a Government Agent

(Washington Dispatch to New York World)

The announcement that a New England woman is seriously ill from the “brown-tail moth rash” is causing alarm in states where the pest is spreading. The bureau of entomology is making constant war on the brown-tail moth, but it is on the increase.

“We lost one of our men from the effects of the rash caused by the hair of the caterpillar going into his lungs and pores,” said Dr. L.O. Howard, chief of the bureau.

C.L. Marlatt, assistant chief of the bureau, said:

“The brown-tail moth exercises a very deleterious effect on health. The hair which cover the caterpillars of this moth are strongly nettling and not only are they so from accidental contact with a caterpillar which may fall on clothes, face, neck or hands from an infested tree, but also from the myriads of hairs which are shed by these caterpillars when they transform to the chrysalis state.

“Breathed into the lungs, the hairs may cause inflammation and become productive of tuberculosis. Thousands have suffered from brown rash. All of the assistants who have been connected with the government work with these pests in the New England states have been seriously poisoned. Two of them had to give up their work and go to the southwest to try to recover from pulmonary troubles, super induced by the irritating hairs of the brown-tail moth. The death of one man on the work was due to severe internal poisoning contracted in field work against larvae.

“This insect is a most undesirable neighbour, even if it were not responsible for great injury to orchards and ornamental trees.”

The brown-tail moth was imported by a florist in Somerville, Mass., twenty years ago, probably on roses from Holland or France. Its presence was not discovered until 1897, when it had made much headway.

Dr. Howard believes the moth can be killed out if the people will fight it. Evening Times [Grand Forks ND] 23 November 1911: p. 4

The caterpillar of the moth does cause skin irritation and breathing difficulties, but we cannot blame it for tuberculosis.

On the other hand, I recently saw a headline about a motorcyclist being choked by an inhaled moth. (In a related note, a dense swarm of mayflies caused multiple motorcycles to crash and closed a bridge in Pennsylvania.) What are the odds of that happening?

BOY KILLED BY MOTH

Flies Into His Mouth, Lodges in Windpipe and Prevents Breathing

Owensboro, Ky., Oct. 18. Almost instant death from swallowing a candle moth was the fate that befell 10-year-old Jessie Moore, son of George Moore, of Whiteville, this county. The moth passed into the boy’s windpipe, and altho a physician was in the house at the time, he could do nothing to save the child’s life.

The boy and his father were sitting in front of a fire. The former had fallen asleep in his chair with his mouth slightly open. A large moth fluttering around a lamp on a table nearby suddenly flew into the boy’s open mouth. The father saw it and supposed that the boy would be awakened, but was alarmed when instead he became black in the face and was apparently thrown into convulsions. In an adjoining room with a smaller child of the Moore family was Dr. McDonald of Whitesville and he was quickly called into the room to see the boy, but the lad died in a few seconds. The moth had gone into the boy’s mouth and lodged squarely on top of the windpipe, completely shutting off his breath. Fort Worth [TX} Star-Telegram 18 October 1907: p. 11

I am not sure if this next item is just a fictional tale for the papers or whether night-moths are really such crack shots with a pistol. It sounds like an episode of House.

KILLED BY A MOTH.

Princess Caravella, a singularly lovable woman, had been entertaining a party of friends at dinner at the Caravella Palace in Naples, and, as she had promised, to attend a ball towards midnight, she went to her bedroom to lie down for a few minutes’ rest to refresh herself for the dance.

At 11 o’clock her maid entered the room to awake her, whereupon the Princess asked her to return a little later, and. twenty minutes afterwards, when she returned, the girl found her mistress still lying on her bed with scarcely a muscle of the face changed, but stone dead, with the mark of a tiny bullet in the region of the heart.

The maid’s shrieks quickly brought the Prince and the whole household to the room, and within ten minutes the judicial and police authorities arrived. It was clear that no stranger had fired the shot, since the bedroom was situated on the third floor, and no one had entered the gates of the palace between the hour of ten and midnight.

At length the Prince was arrested on a charge of having murdered his wife with the little pistol which lay by her side on the table, and one chamber of which was empty, colour being lent to the accusation by the fact that he was notoriously jealous.

His trial resulted in acquittal, partly in consequence of an extraordinary piece of testimony which was produced in court by one of the police officials. The testimony he related was this: A couple of days after the murder, on the removal of the seals from the door to the bedroom, he made a careful investigation of the apartment, and had found on the floor by the bedside one of those enormous night moths, the bodies of which are almost as thick as a man s thumb, and which abound in Italy. He declared that the moth’s wings were badly singed, as if it had flown against the candle that stood on the table by the bedside.

He produced the math in court, and then proceeded to point out to the judges that some of the powder on the insect’s wings was apparent on the black ebony and gold stock and trigger of the little revolver which had been found on the table with which the shooting had been done.

He then called the attention of the judges and the jury to the phenomenal facility with which the trigger yielded, and advanced the argument that the Princess had been killed by the night moth, which, he alleged, must have flown into the room, attracted by the candle-light, and falling with singed wings on to the table, had discharged the revolver in the violence of its contortions. Hastings Standard 18 July 1914: p. 1

These horrifying tales brought back childhood memories of reading about hapless South American villagers overwhelmed and eaten by army ants, leaving behind only skeletons.

Killed by Ants.

A broken-hearted mother, a peasant woman living near Schlang, Bohemia, is weeping over her discovery a few days ago refuting the popular belief that red and black ants, while a nuisance, are no menace to life or limb.

The woman, going out to labor in the fields after nursing her babe, laid the infant on the ground in the shade and went to work. After a while the child began to cry violently. The mother, thinking that it simply wished to be taken up, paid no attention to it.

The cries increased in violence at first, and then gradually died away, presently ceasing entirely. When the mother had finished her task and returned to her infant she at first thought it had been stolen. Her attention was attracted to a swarming heap of black ants, and on approaching was horrified to see one hand of the child sticking out of the mass of insects. The baby had ceased to breathe. Its eyes had been eaten out, and the insects, swarming into its throat, had literally choked it to death. Denver [CO] Rocky Mountain News 17 March 1902: p. 3

COUPLE KILLED BY ANTS

El Paso, Tex., Aug. 17. Jesus Gonzales and his wife, Maria, unknowingly camped on a nest of desert ants while crossing the country here and were so terribly bitten by the insects that they succumbed at the hospital later. Grand Forks [ND] Daily Herald 18 August 1908: p. 3

Reports of spider deaths almost always follow the same monotonous thread. Here are two of the more singular cases.

To demonstrate the potent character of molecular influence, I would refer you to an incident that occurred in San Francisco, Cal., where a lady, Mrs. Jervis, was bitten by a poisonous tarantula. She lingered for six months in continual agony, her blood literally drying up, till she was reduced to an absolute skeleton. Three months before her death her entire right side became paralyzed; yet, strange to say, the hand had a tendency to crawl, and the fingers incessantly moved like the legs of a spider. The encyclopaedia of death and life in the spirit-world, John Reynolds Francis p. 77-8

I’ve written before about people who died from accidentally swallowing spiders. This fellow apparently did not read the papers as he wantonly and deliberately ate three spider egg sacs.

A singular death, reported by a correspondent of the Louisville Courier-Journal occurred in Tishomingo County, Mississippi, a few days ago. Mr. Pennington, a stout healthy farmer, living about four miles from Iuka, had a slight chill last Sunday. The day before he was in excellent health. Monday morning he felt the approach of another chill and lay down on the bed. After lying awhile he remarked to a member of his family that he had heard it said that spider-webs “were good for chills,” and that he believed he would try the remedy, whereupon he rose from the bed and gathering from the wall or ceiling of the room a web in which were three “spider balls,” as they are called, swallowed them without more ado. Very soon his throat, lips and the whole of his face were greatly swollen by the action of the poison. Who has not seen hundreds of young spiders not so large as a pin-head, swarm from one of these balls when broken open? And who, but this ill-fated Mississippian would ever have thought of swallowing a spoonful of them as a remedy for the chills, or for anything else. Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 20 August 1870: p. 2

Potato bugs/beetles, while bad for the potatoes, do not usually bother people. Any explanations for this unusual case of insect toxicity?

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

I was surprised to find no human-roach fatalities. As a student I lived in a subterranean apartment infested with roaches the size of Medjool dates. They were an insolent, cowardly bunch, fleeing under the sofa at the flick of a light switch. I always feared they would swarm me in my sleep or perhaps burrow into my skull through the ear….

ROACH KILLED BIG COBRA

Monster Reptile Meets Death in a Most Unusual Way.

Rex, the king cobra at the Bronx Park, the largest reptile in captivity and the deadliest snake on earth, is dead.

He was murdered while he slept, in the most cowardly and atrocious manner—by a little black roach. The king of all snakes had suffered indignities for some weeks, and the ignoble way his earthly career was ended was the climax. Last Sunday a week ago Raymond L. Ditmars, the curator of reptiles at the Zoo, who had been noticing the irritability of Rex for more than a week, tempted him with a choice water snake, the prize dainty for a cobra. While Rex was swallowing this morsel he was held and a tumor cut from the left side of his jaw. If he had not been taken advantage of in this fashion he couldn’t have been overcome. He got well from the operation.

Rex ate only on Sundays, and this time of the year he slept most of the time between meals. Last Sunday he had a square meal and, snake-like, went to sleep. He did not stir after this meal.

Yesterday morning Keeper Charles Snyder, whose special pet Rex was, noticed that the snake was lying particularly still. When he poked him with a stick the snake didn’t move and Snyder investigated. Rex was dead. He hadn’t been sick and bore no marks of violence. This puzzled the keeper.

Dr. W. Reid Blair, the veterinarian, was called in to perform an autopsy. It was thought something the snake had eaten had disagreed with him, but the autopsy proved this theory unsound.

Upon further cutting up it was found that the cause of Rex’s death lay in his head. The head was cut open, and inside the brain was found a little black roach, still alive. This roach had bored into the cobra’s cranium. This is the first case of the kind on record. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 30 January 1910: p. 6

(For another unequal contest, here’s an eyewitness account about hummingbirds killed by praying mantes.)

Even though I have found no actual roach fatalities, there is this unsettling report, which suggests that the roaches were using the children as appetizers.

The following interesting letter from Mr. Herbert H. Smith, the collector and naturalist, gives a vivid picture of the roach nuisance in the tropics:

“Cockroaches are so common in Brazilian country houses that nobody pays any attention to them. They have an unpleasant way of getting into provision boxes, and they deface books, shoes, and sometimes clothing. Where wall paper is used they soon eat it off in unsightly patches, no doubt seeking the paste underneath. But at Corumba, on the upper Paraguay, I came across the cockroach in a new role. In the house where we were staying there were nearly a dozen children, and every one of them had their eyelashes more or less eaten off by cockroaches–a large brown species, one of the commonest kind throughout Brazil. The eyelashes were bitten off irregularly, in some cases quite close to the lid. Like most Brazilians, these children had very long, black eyelashes, and their appearance thus defaced was odd enough. The trouble was confined to children, I suppose because they are heavy sleepers and do not disturb the insects at work.  My wife and I sometimes brushed cockroaches from our faces at night, but thought nothing more of the matter. The roaches also bite off bits of the toenails. Brazilians very properly encourage the large house spiders, because they tend to rid the house of other insect pests. The Louisiana Populist [Natchitoches, LA] 12 February 1897: p. 4

Bed-bugs are hardly benign insects, but they seem to have grossly exceeded their brief in this case:

Killed by Bedbugs.

A remarkable case of the death of a woman was reported recently from Franklin township, Beaver County, Pa. The death occurred while the woman was suffering with a violent attack of headache, to which she has been subject for nearly three years. For the past three years she has been living in an old house which was badly infested with bedbugs. Shortly after moving into it she began to be troubled with a strange type of headache, which seemed to increase in violence with each returning attack until at times she was rendered unconscious by the severe pains, which she often described as resembling a heavy weight or pressure on the top of her head. The strange nature of the case and his inability to render aroused the attending physician’s curiosity, and with the consent of the bereaved husband, he cut open the skull after the woman’s death. He found firmly lodged on the top of the brain in a clotted mass, a large number of bed-bugs. How they got there baffles all who have heard of the case. The doctor has placed his strange find in alcohol and has sent an account of the case to a medical school in New York. Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 17 February 1888: p. 3

Naturally, I have to add the caveat that the sufferer, the physician, and the medical school are unnamed, in the time-honored manner of urban legend. And Harrisburg is a long way from Beaver County.

We began with flies, let us finish with maggots because while flies are the messengers of the angel of death, their maggots get you coming and going…. Maggots do have their place–in genuine corpses and possibly for cleaning out infected wounds. But they are a dreadful way to die.

EATEN BY MAGGOTS

PITIABLE CASE OF AN OLD MAN FROM BARBER COUNTY

A very pitiable case of an old man, friendless and unable to care for himself is at Dudley’s sanitarium on North Market street. About a week ago an old man drifted in here from Barber county. He stayed at a place on the corner of Harry and Hydraulic avenues and became very ill with diabetis [sic] and was unable to care for himself. He was removed to the city hospital and remained there two days. As he was absolutely penniless, the hospital could not afford to keep him and he was taken to the county jail. He was placed in a cell and made as comfortable as possible. As the man was helpless and unable to take care of himself, he was soon in a horrible condition. Yesterday a Mrs. Cox, who does much work among the poor classes, found him there and arranged to have him removed to the Dudley place. The men who moved him, had to protect themselves with handkerchiefs soaked in alcohol, while they washed and dressed him in clean clothing. It was found that he was practically being eaten alive by maggots. The sight was too horrible for some of the men to stand and they had to retire from the room. Many think that the city needs a hospital under police supervision where unfortunate cases like this can be cared for until arrangements can be made for a proper home for them. The Wichita [KS] Beacon 4 July 1899: p. 5

Many might think that a better class of pesticide was what was needed, to control the flies.

One might say that such things would not have happened to the gentleman above, if he had had someone to look after him. But maggots will find a way.

EATEN BY MAGGOTS Horrible Death of a Woman at Milwaukee.

Milwaukee, Wis., Aug. 13. Mrs. Anna Beatty, who lived with her family at Bay View, last evening, died a most horrible death. About two weeks ago a fly got into one of her nostrils, and it was some time before she was able to remove it, and when she did an itching sensation remained and her nose and throat began to swell. She became alarmed, and a week ago Sunday a physician was called. Since that time Mrs. Beatty had been suffering in a manner almost indescribable, and the doctors say a similar case is unknown to medical science. It is stated that soon after she was taken sick maggots were discovered in her nose and throat, and for several days Mrs. Beaty had been unable to swallow anything like food. Her death was the result of having been literally eaten up by maggots. She died in the greatest agony, and her affliction was a puzzle to the doctors. Upon examination of the body it was found that the partition of her nose was gone, a hole had been eaten through the roof of the mouth, the soft palate had disappeared, and the throat was frightfully eaten. St Paul [MN] Daily Globe 14 August 1890: p. 1

Other dire deaths by insect? “The worms crawl in; the worms crawl out…”  chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

See also The Death Bug of Chicago for a fanciful tale of insect death.

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.

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A Mourning Envelope and Paper Discuss a New Widow’s Grief: 1880

Black-bordered mourning stationery.
Black-bordered mourning stationery.

MOURNING STATIONERY.

“Dear me,” said the Paper, “I feel awfully queer—so stiff round the edges. What is this black band for?”

“Hush!” said the Envelope; “don’t you know? Her husband is dead.”

“Well?” said the Paper.

“Well,” said the Envelope, “how stupid you are. The black is mourning for him, that’s all.”

“Good gracious!” said the Paper; “does she do it like this? Do you suppose it comforts her to see a black edge on her stationery? How very funny!”

“It’s the proper thing to do, at any rate,” said the Envelope, sharply. “You haven’t seen the world, evidently.”

“But it is not my idea of grief,” persisted the Paper. “If I were sad I would go away from everybody and keep quiet.”

“You are very simple-minded,” said the Envelope. “Who would see you if you mourned like that? I knew a widow once who was very angry because she found a card with a wider black edge than her own. She said she had told Tiffany to send the widest that was made, and here was one wider. She almost cried, and measured the edges to make sure. That was grief, now.”

“Was it, indeed?” said the Paper. “Well, times have changed, I suppose. Once when a woman lost her husband her eyes were so full of tears that she could not see how to measure black edges. This is the age of reason, I am told. All feeling is treated as weakness and soothed away by ignatia.”

“Oh, people feel, I suppose,” said the Envelope, a little ashamed; “but, really, there are so many things expected of one now when one’s friends pass away, that there isn’t as much time for grief. Just look at our poor lady to-day. At nine the undertaker came upon a matter most painful. It was—well, the mountings on the casket. She was going to have hysterics, but couldn’t, because he was waiting for her decision. Then the florist came to know about the decorations for the house. Then Madam Lameau with boxes upon boxes of dresses, wraps, bonnets, etc., and although our lady did sigh when she saw the deep black—tears spoil crepe, you know, and madam quickly diverted her mind by showing Lizette how to drape the long veil becomingly. Then came the jeweler with the latest design in jet, and her diamonds have to be reset now, you know, in black claws. After this the mourning stationery was sent with the crest in black, and all sorts of cards and letters had to be written. Then the servants’ new mourning liveries and carriage-hangings were selected. When dinner was served, our lady was so exhausted by all this that she felt faint, and ate a really good dinner to sustain life. Now I should like to know what time she has had for grief, poor thing!”

“Don’t say no time for grief!” said the Paper, rustling with indignation; “say no soul for it, and you will be nearer the truth. When a woman can choose bonnets and jewelry, her husband lying dead in the house, there is not much sadness in her heart. I see that she needs the black-edged paper to express herself. She might as well give up all this miserable farce and enjoy herself at once. Let her give a ball instead of a funeral, and show her diamonds in their new claws.”

“Oh, dear me, do hush!” said the Envelope.  “A ball in crepe and jet jewelry; you are not even decent; you don’t seem to understand things at all.”

“I don’t, that’s true,” said the Paper, “and I hope I never will; when women have got to mourning by sending out black edges and wearing the latest thing in jet, I give them up. I never shall understand.”

“Emotional people always make difficulties for themselves,” said the Envelope, coldly. “I accept things as they are, and adapt myself—Hush! she is coming, and crying, too, I declare, after all.”

“Well, really, Lizette,” said a voice broken with sobs, “you are very thoughtless. How should I remember, in my distracted state, to say twelve-buttoned gloves? and here they are only six-buttoned; it is too bad. But every one takes advantage of me now. I am alone—forlorn—desolate,” and the sobs redoubled.

“Poor thing,” said the Envelope.

“What hopeless grief” said the Paper. “I pity her.”

Arthur’s Home Magazine, Volume 48, 1880

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Such surprisingly scathing social commentary from stationery! Mrs Daffodil trusts that the Hall stationery will keep its opinions to itself, but one had no notion that stationery could be so censorious.

This is an excerpt from The Victorian Book of the Dead, now available at Amazon and other online retailers, and for Kindle. 

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.

 

Dressing the Hair of the Dead: 1888

dressing the hair The manual on Barbering 1906

DRESSING THE HAIR OF THE DEAD.

A Professional Talks About Her Uncanny Occupation.

‘I was only 12 years old,’ said a prominent lady hair-dresser of this city, ‘when I was called on by the friends of an old lady who had died to come and dress her hair.’

‘And did you go?’

‘No; I ran and hid myself under a bed and stayed there a whole afternoon. Although I loved her and had often dressed her hair when she was alive, I could not bear the idea of doing it after death. But I have done many heads since for dead persons, and, while I do not like it, I have a professional pride in making them look well for the last time.’

‘It must be very distasteful to you.’ ‘

‘Not always. It comes in the way of my business, and naturally my employees shrink from going. Sometimes we have a call through the telephone to come to such a number and dress a lady’s hair. One of the young ladies will be sent with curling irons, pomades, hair-pins and other things, only to find that the lady is a corpse. The girl will not nor cannot undertake it, and I go myself. There is only the front hair to crimp and arrange becomingly. One day last week I dressed Mrs __’s hair for the last time. She was young and very pretty, and looked as if asleep. The hair does not die, so that it is easily arranged. When it is a wig or crimped I have it sent to the store, and when it is dressed, take it to the house and put it on. Let me tell you something that happened lately. A lady died in this city who wore a grey wig. I dressed it and put it on. You can just think how surprised I was when, a couple of weeks later, a member of the family came in here and tried to sell it to me. She said they had taken it off just before the casket was closed for the last time.’

‘And did you buy it?’

‘Buy it? Certainly not. It is not very long since a man came in and offered me a number of switches of different shades and colour. I would not buy them, and sent for a policeman, as I thought he had probably stolen them. But as it turned out, they came from an undertaker’s and were the unclaimed property of strangers who had been given pauper burial.’

‘Is it customary to dress the hair of the dead?’

‘It is. I have some customers who have exacted a solemn promise from me that I will dress their hair when they die and make it look natural and becoming. I have even been sent for by those who had only a few hours to live and taken my instructions from their dying lips.’

‘Is the process the same as with the living?’

‘Just the same, except that I do not arrange the back hair in all cases. But sometimes the hair is dressed entirely, just as it would be for an evening party. And I frequently furnish new switches, crimps, or bangs, at the request of relatives who want no pains spared.’

‘And are you not afraid?’

Madame shrugged her handsome shoulders.

‘It is a lonesome task,’ she said, ‘and it certainly does make me nervous. Once the corpse opened her eyes and looked at me as a lady who was holding a lamp went out of the room in a moment, leaving me with a lock of hair in the crimping-pins. A gust of wind blew the door after her, and I was in the dark alone with the dead women. I think if she had not opened the door just at the moment she did I should have fallen insensible,’—

Detroit [MI] Free Press 1 January 1888: p. 4

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil does not have a high opinion of either the intelligence or the moral scruples of the repellent relatives who offered to sell the dead lady’s wig to the hairdresser. They might at least have dyed it so that it was less recognizable, or, more sensibly, taken it to a different coiffeuse, if they needed to offset funeral expenses.

Wigs and chignons for the living were, however, often made of what was termed “dead hair,” or hair cut from corpses. These corpses might be unfortunates from the Workhouse or paupers destined for Potter’s Field; working girls of the streets, murderers or their victims.  If not a black market, it was certainly sub-fusc.  Medical men issued stern warnings about the diseases and insects that might be found in “dead hair,” and argued for prohibiting any hair except that from the living in hair-pieces. These warnings were widely ignored. In 1911, for example, hair from Chinese who died in the Manchurian plague, was being imported by Germany and England without so much as a murmur from the trade authorities.

For more mortuary professions for ladies, please see this link, and this, about a lady undertaker. You will find more information on the popular and material culture of Victorian mourning in The Victorian Book of the Dead, by Chris Woodyard and under the “Mourning” tab on this blog.

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.

O, Death Where Is Thy Bling?

Mrs "Diamond" Johnson's extravagant tombstone.
O, Death, Where Is Thy Bling? Mrs “Diamond” Johnson’s extravagant tombstone.

In looking at the popular culture of funerals and death for The Victorian Book of the Dead, I’ve noticed a minor trend in reporting on über-extravagant burials. The Gilded Age was a golden age for the conspicuous consumption of coffins and other funerary goods. Undertakers were quizzed about (and did not hesitate to volunteer) sumptuary details, such as Mrs Van Gilding had a genuine mahogany casket, rather than rosewood veneer, the coffin fittings were real silver, rather than plate, and that the lining fabric cost $12 a yard. This inspired a sort of arms-race, except with funeral trappings as opposed to deadly weapons. Keeping up with the Boneses….

TOMB

To Hold Safe Her Gems

Mrs. “Diamond” Johnson Will Be Buried With Her Jewels.

An Impregnable Grave Built to Baffle Any Attempt at Robbery.

[Norwich (Conn.) Cor. New York Herald.]

Mrs. Mary Tuttle (“Diamond”) Johnson, formerly a resident of this city, now of Chicago, for whom a conservator was recently appointed by request of her husband and sons, has had a remarkable grave constructed in her lot in Yantic Cemetery, destined to receive her body. It is the most costly, massive, unique and elaborate one in this state.

Mrs. Johnson purchased her cemetery lot some time ago and had her grave made. She is haunted by an overmastering dread of graveyard ghouls and robbers and she had barely completed her grave when she decided that it was not strong enough to baffle a possible assault after her body had been committed to it.

With a corps of skilled professional workmen she went to work at once to reconstruct and immensely strengthen it, carrying on the work clandestinely in order to forestall opposition on the part of her conservator and her watchful husband and sons. The result of her craftiness and the dispatch and dexterity of her workmen was that she not only accomplished her project without betraying her design, but so neatly that there is not an outward token to indicate to a casual observer that the old grave had ever been disturbed.

GRAVE SEEMS IMPREGNABLE.

The grave is in many respects the most remarkable and wonderfully contrived one probably in New England. Apparently it is impregnable to assault.

Its floor is a huge smoothly chiseled slab of Rhode Island granite, weighing more than a ton, while a similar gigantic slab of stone, which weighs 2,700 pounds and can be handled only with the aid of a derrick, forms its cover.

The walls of the grave are of cemented pressed brick, solid as adamant, and as thick and enduring seemingly as those of a modern fort.

Mrs. John is greatly pleased with the remodeled tomb, and convinced that after her body is placed between this two ponderous granite slabs it will be absolutely secure.

Not long ago Mrs. Johnson had a magnificent granite monument erected on her cemetery lot at a cost of $18,000, which is said to be the most ornate, unique and expensive private mortuary memorial in New England. It is a lofty, shapely shaft, handsomely polished and carved, bearing the allegorical figures, also superbly sculptured, of Faith, Hope and Charity. The monument was erected by famous granite cutters of Westerly, R.I.

Mrs. John’s ruling passion is an immoderate fondness for diamonds, on account of which the title of Mrs. “Diamond” Johnson

WAS POPULARLY BESTOWED

On her more than a quarter of a century ago. At all times she is a-glitter with the gems from head to foot, and she rarely appears in public with less than $25,000 to $50,000 worth of them displayed on her person.

It is said to be her intention to have her fabulous store of jewels buried with her body, a fancy that may account, in part, for her determination to make her tomb absolutely impregnable to grave robbers….The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 26 December 1896: p. 8

The tomb, which is pictured at the head of this post, seems to be a different one than currently stands in Yantic Cemetery, and the vault built so secretly seems to have disappeared altogether, but the rich and eccentric (or their heirs) often changed their minds about monuments.

Mrs. Henry Hiller also changed her mind and had a second set of wildly expensive caskets made for her husband and herself. You can’t take it with you, but Mrs. Hiller really did give it her best try.

Mrs. Henry Hiller's Coffin and tomb.
Mrs. Henry Hiller’s Coffin and tomb.

A CONNOISSEUR IN COFFINS

Mrs. Hiller Spends Twenty Thousand Dollars For Her Own Burial Robe

[Boston Special to New York World.]

The eccentricities of the late Dr. Henry Hiller and wife, of Wilmington, Mass., whose fad was magnificently carved and luxuriously upholstered burial caskets, have been described in the World already. The doctor’s funeral took place a year ago to-day and the corpse was carried to its last resting place in a silk-lined, gold-plated, elaborately carved casket of solid mahogany, enclosed by another casket no less extravagantly appointed. Six richly caparisoned coal-black Percherons in gold-mounted harness, each attended by a colored groom, carried the casket to the temporary vault. There the doctor’s body has been guarded night and day by a grim old watchman. A $500 lamp standing in front has shed its bright rays in the path of possible body-snatchers or grave desecrators, and every morning the faithful widow has gone to see that everything about the place was all right.

Not satisfied with the ghostly magnificence of a year ago, the widow has been at work on the construction of new caskets, one for her husband, the other for herself, which easily surpass in magnificence and grotesqueness of ornamentation any thing of the kind the world has ever seen. Each casket is in two parts—the casket proper and the sarcophagus. The material in all four is solid mahogany, imported specially from South America. The upholstering inside is as elaborate as money could make it. Corded silk of the value of $10 a yard is the material used. The lids are made of separate panels, highly polished, richly carved and fastened by solid gold hinges with knobs of solid gold for opening them. The doctor’s new casket is fastened by a heavy brass door of Gothic design, having a knob made of six pounds of solid gold. On the panels are solid gold tablets, inscribed with the doctor’s favorite passages of Scripture, such as “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” “Blessed are they that die in the Lord.”

Standing at the head of the coffin is a figure of the doctor built out of solid mahogany and reduced to a height of eighteen inches. About him are the figures of four angels welcoming him to Paradise. Mrs. Hiller’s coffin, on the other hand, has her figure recumbent on the lid, with three angels ministering to her and the doctor kneeling beside her with his right arm supporting her head. But the most remarkable feature of this remarkable burial casket is the carving on one of the side panels. The sculptor has drawn a sketch of a landscape, showing at intervals a meadow, a river, a hill, a forest, a valley, and, last of all, a mountain, at the apex of which is a white cross. Clinging to the cross is a naked cherub, and behind another cherub, and then another, until twenty-three are counted climbing toward the cross. During the twenty-four years of her married life, Mrs. Hiller says she bore her husband twenty-three children, none of whom lived. The procession up the mountain, she says, perpetuates the memory of her little ones.

Mrs. Hiller has also had made for herself a burial robe, of which it may be truly said that it beggars description. The dress-maker completed it after four months’ labor and an outlay of $20,000. The robe is made of white ottoman silk, corded heavily. There is also a wilderness of white silk lace running in perpendicular panels and tucked and gathered and fluted until it stands out to a distance of five inches. There are other panels of white surah of the most expensive manufacture. Between the panels of silk and lace are intermediate panels constructed solely of daisies made in France of pure silk after a design bought in Boston for $40. It is estimated that 5,000 of these daisies are sewed into this gown. The robe opens in front and is fastened by upward of 200 solid silver hooks designed like a serpent’s head.

The total outlay by Mrs. Hiller will be not far short of $500,000. The mausoleum will be of hammered granite. In the four walls will be gilt windows, through which it is planned to have rays of colored light enter, a different light to each window, which, blending, will fall upon the caskets resting side by side within. The caskets will stand each on four huge brass legs and chairs of magnificent design will be in the mausoleum for the accommodation of sight-seers. Mrs. Hiller will soon hold a reception for the exhibition of the caskets, the invitation to which is a picture of a coffin with “Admit one,” written beneath.

Mrs. Hiller says Queen Victoria sent to her for all the American papers that contained notices of the doctor’s funeral. When she had read them she said that Mrs. Hiller was the only woman who had surpassed Her Majesty in doing honor to a dead consort. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 21 December 1889: p. 11

A little more detail on the coffins, which sound like an artistic nightmare with their jumble of figures and mythologies.

The Hillers have spent $10,000 on their new coffins, which are beauties of mechanical and artistic skill. Each casket consists of two parts, or, in other words, each body will have two coffins. The inner coffin is composed of mahogany, made air-tight by being completely enveloped in copper. It rests within the outside casket on two elegant brass supports which represent the big paws of a lion.

It is on the outside casket, however, that the most lavish expenditure has been made. This is of mahogany also, the interior being lined with copper, the mountings of the latter being noticeably fine. Every panel contains a group of figures, and it is here the beauties of the carver’s art are made apparent.

Every figure is carefully and accurately made, and stands out in bold and striking relief. Each panel and its figures must have provided weeks of labor. To enumerate the symbols and figures which the artist has imparted with a living flourish to the receptacle of the dead would be to rehearse the names of all the familiar reproductions of the animate and inanimate in decorative art. A lion rampant here, a fierce-fanged griffin, birds of every species, fishes, flowers, plants, trees, the bow and arrow, &c., while in central positions are seen Flora and Ceres, cherubs blowing trumpets, angels tuning harps, Apollo with his lyre, Jupiter with thunderbolts, Neptune with his trident, &c., The caskets have been constructed at Dr. Hiller’s house. He says he has been offered $50,000 by a prominent showman to exhibit them. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 20 November 1887: p. 12

Dr. Hiller died in 1888 and was interred with much pomp. Mrs. Frances Hiller died in May of 1900. She had married her coachman, Peter Surrette, who, at her request, changed his name to Henry Hiller. He waived all rights to her estate, which was said to be worth $500,000. The funeral was a spectacle, with over 2,000 people turning out to stare at the much-vaunted casket, which rode on what looked like a crape-draped float from a morbid parade.

The pageant quickly degenerated into a fantasist’s farce: In truth, Mrs. Hiller had borne not 23, but three children—one of whom survived. The $50,000 casket turned out to have cost $2,000 and the $500,000 mausoleum with solid-gold knockers was never actually built, leaving only the original stone receiving vault, where Dr. Hiller slept, to receive the remains. The cast couchant lion pedestals (the “brass legs” mentioned above) that were to have held the caskets, proved too tall for the small vault and were discarded in a corner. Mrs. Hiller’s casket and the new one for her husband had been stored in an outbuilding and were not in the best of condition. But eventually Dr. and Mrs. Hiller were wrestled into their new sarcophagi, and the door, which had fallen into the tomb when the workmen uncovered it, was permanently bricked up. Several years later, cemetery authorities decided that the Hiller vault spoiled the look of the  cemetery entrance. They demolished the vault and had the mahogany caskets, still in good condition, buried in the ground. Sic transit gloria mundi

Other examples of funerary excess? Detailed photos of the Hiller coffins? Send engraved on a silver (solid, not plate, mind…) coffin plaque to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Portions of the post above 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.

See this link for an introduction to this 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 hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her latest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Cholera Jokes

Cholera searching for his big clown shoes. Illustration of Cholera being spread by Miasma, by Robert Seymour
Cholera searching for his big clown shoes. [Illustration of Cholera being spread by Miasma, by Robert Seymour]
The theory about rats being exonerated for their role in spreading the Black Death, with plague gerbils now being blamed—a premise for a Monty Python sketch if ever there was one—made me think about another type of Black Death: the cholera. And from there it all went downhill to the brief survey you see before you, not about certain fortean phenomena associated with the pandemics, nor gruesome incidents arising from the disease’s horrible mortality, but about–cholera jokes.

The disease was (and is) no laughing matter. It was dubbed “The Black Death” for the blackened faces of dehydrated victims, some of whom died within hours. Six massive pandemics were reported up through the early part of the 20th century and the disease still kills over 100,000 people a year. The fact that jokes could be made about such a hideous threat is a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit, or, realistically, the usual denial and gallows humor triggered by trauma.

There was much controversy over cholera’s source and it was this ignorance that caused so much terror. It was believed to be caused by eating watermelons, pineapples, or other fresh fruit; by over-indulgence in alcohol; and from drinking chilled water in the summer. Pork was also implicated. Miasma theory suggested that bad air or stenches were to blame for disease and that bad odors signaled the presence of cholera. Immigrants from Eastern Europe were regarded with the gravest suspicion. Even the great Pasteur had no real answers. In 1892 his advice for staying well was “Keep the abdomen warm, avoid fruit, bad water, and chances of contagion.”

Some doctors suggested boiling everything eaten or drunk: a humorous story from the 1880s told of a man who insisted that his wife boil pancakes and ice and burn her “Hamburg lace” and “Brussels carpets” for fear of invasion by foreign microbes.  In 1914 a reporter claimed that the Austrian military was white-washing their coal to avoid contagion from Russian prisoners-of-war. How, exactly, that was supposed to help, remains a mystery. Panic over cholera was as pervasive as that seen in recent Ebola outbreaks. It was said that fear of the disease alone killed many of the victims.

A man who had been sentenced to death at Vienna, was offered a full pardon, if he would consent to pass the night in the bed of a person who had died of cholera. In about four hours he was seized with vomiting, violent cramps, and all the symptoms of cholera. Ultimately, by medical assistance, his life was saved. His astonishment was unbounded when he was informed that the bed was perfectly pure. The Daily Dispatch [Richmond, VA] 13 November 1855: p. 4 

Such uncertainty and panic, naturally, led to many dubious preventatives and remedies of all descriptions.

SOME CHOLERA DISINFECTANT.

A Cincinnati local was presented, during the hot weather, with a sample of a “deodorizer and cholera disinfectant,” with a request to notice it. He says he noticed it as soon as he smelt it, and thus relates the sequel:

Didn’t wish to terrify the family by the ostentatious display of cholera precautions of an extraordinary nature, so we took our patent deodorizer home secretly, concealed under our coat.

Terrible commotion in the street-car. The windows were thrown up hastily, handkerchiefs applied furiously to noses, and a general application of camphor gum, of which each one had a supply in his pocket. Profane fellows swore at the Board of Health for not cleaning the streets. One was sure it was in the gutters: another thought it was in the air; a toper, half drunk, said he was satisfied “it was in the (hic) water.”

“I’ll tell you what it’s in,” said a gloomy man, eyeing us suspiciously.

“What?” the passengers shrieked, with one voice:

It’s in the car!”

With a wide yell, they jumped up at once and tumbled out, leaving us all alone, and monarch of all we deodorized.

Got into the house unperceived, and deposited the disinfectant in the cellar, and then hurried back to the office. There was a good deal of it about our clothes, so much so that one or two men who owed us borrowed money avoided us altogether. Felt emotions in the region of the stomach, that were disagreeably suggestive. Got a little alarmed, and concluded to deodorize the disinfectant, which we did with a glass of brandy. Felt a little better ourself, but began to feel alarmed about the effect of that disinfecting; compound upon the family. Hurried home — found the house shut up, and nobody in. Terrible smell about the house — neighbors all terrified. Asked one of them where my family was, and he said they had gone down to the bone-boiling district, to get out of the smell!

Opened the door, but had to close it again, the smell was so bad. Went around to the back yard, and saw the rats leaving in great precipitation. A neighbor suggested that a candle be lowered down the chimney, to test the foulness of the air before the house was opened. Saloons in the neighborhood doing an immense business in the sale of brandy and whisky. Flannel belts in demand. A country-woman with a load of watermelons mobbed and driven back. Arrival of a police officer, who arrested us for keeping a nuisance on our premises. Explanations made, and we are paroled until the house can be opened. Burnt some pitch on the front doorstep  and were then enabled to get to throw up the windows. Whew! neighbors said they preferred cholera.

The disinfectant is nearly abolished now, and family back again, enjoying their usual health, they say they don’t wish to be disinfected any more. Boston [MA] Journal 13 October 1866: p. 2

As an aside, the disease had ravaged Savannah, Georgia in July of the same year, so this wasn’t an “off year” for cholera.

Physicians were one source of cholera humor.

Nibs: Peculiar feature about this epidemic of cholera in Europe, Nobs.

Nobs: What’s that?

Nibs: Why, the more the disease spreads, you see, the more it is contracted. The Medical Brief, Vol. 22, 1894

“How do you  like your new French doctor?”

“Well, I told him I had cholera, because I didn’t know how to say dyspepsia in French, and I’m afraid he has not given me the right remedies.” Wit and Humor of the Physician, Henry Frederic Reddall, 1906

When cholera broke out, there was often difficulty in finding gravediggers; sometimes four or five men would be needed to be successively hired before a grave could be finished. One Ohio gravedigger seems to have kept his nerve and his sense of humor:

When the body of Hillary Neil, who was the first citizen of Xenia [OH] to die with the cholera, was taken to the cemetery, Mr. Cline, not having received notice in sufficient time, did not have the grave ready to receive it. One of the men who accompanied the corpse grew impatient at the delay, and stepping up to Mr. Cline said: “Can’t you keep a few graves dug ahead, and not wait till a man dies, and you get an order before you begin the work, and thus keep us waiting?” “Certainly,” replied Mr. Cline, “if you will take the measure of the people before they die; and if you think that a good idea, I will just take your measure right here, and when they haul you out, will put you in without delay.” This put a quietus upon his enthusiasm, and he did not leave his measure. History of Greene County: Together with Historic Notes on the Northwest, R. S. Dills, 1881

The Hartford Courant told this story in 1869:

Cholera fenced in. — You have noticed the flaming handbills setting forth the virtues of a cholera remedy, that are posted by the hundreds on the board fence enclosing the ground on Main Street, where Roberts’ opera house is being erected. Well, there was a timid countryman, the other day, who had so far recovered from the ‘cholera scare’ as to venture into the city with a horse and wagon load of vegetables; and thereby hangs a tale. He drove moderately along the street, when he suddenly spied the word ‘Cholera,’ in big letters on the new fence, and he staid to see no more. Laying the lash on to his quadruped, he went past the handbills like a streak of lightning, went—’nor stood on the order of his going’ — up past the tunnel, planting the vegetables along the entire route, — for the tail-board had loosened, — hardly taking breath, or allowing his beast to breathe, till he reached home at W___.

“Safely there, he rushed wildly into the midst of his household, exclaiming,

“‘O, wife, wife, they have got the cholera in Hartford, and have fenced it in.'”  The Funny Side of Physic, Addison Darre Crabtre, M.D., 1880

You cannot have everything, as the man said when he was down with small-pox and cholera, and the yellow fever came into the neighbourhood. (1881)

 A physician wrote Sir Henry Halford:

Dear Sir, I was the first to discover Asiatic cholera and communicate it to the public. (1906 joke book)

During the prevalence of the cholera in Ireland, a soldier, hurrying into the mess-room, told his commanding officer that his brother had been carried off two days before by a fatal malady, expressing his apprehensions that the whole regiment would be exposed to a similar danger in the course of the following week.

“Good heavens!” ejaculated the officer, “what then did he die of?”

“Why, your honor, he died of a Tuesday.” Gems of Irish Wit and Humor, 1906

 A little girl being sent to the store to purchase some dyestuff, and forgetting the name of the article, said to the clerk, “John, what do folks dye with?” “Die with? Why, cholera, sometimes,” replied John. “Well, I believe that’s the name; I want three cents’ worth.” The Revolution 29 December 1870

Cholera and Watermelon

During the camping of the First Regiment at Santa Rosa, the pickets found considerable difficulty in preventing the men absenting themselves without leave, a circumstance for which the mint juleps of the town bar-rooms and the large contingent of pretty Santa Rosa girls—small blame to them—were chiefly accountable. One particularly sultry evening, while the sentinels were pacing their beats with their tongues fairly hanging out of their mouths with heat, and wondering whether the pirates in the mess tent would drink every last drop of beer before the “relief” came, one of the guards observed a private approaching, who was staggering along under the combined load of much conviviality and an enormous watermelon under each arm.

“Who goes there?”

“Er—hic—er fren,” responded the truant.

“Advance, friend, and give the countersign.”

“Hain’t got no—hic—countersign,” amiably replied private; “but I’ll ‘er—hic—give yer er—hic—warmellin.”

Pretty soon the officer of the day came round, and said to the sentinel, who was absorbed in munching a huge piece of watermelon stuck on the end of his bayonet.

“Did Perkins pass you just now?” “Yes, sir.” “Did he give the countersign?” inquired the lieutenant, taking a bite himself, as the man presented arms.

“Well, no, sir,” said the sentinel, confidentially; “the password was ‘Cholera,’ but he said ‘Watermelon,’ so I passed him and put the other half in your tent.”

“Did, eh?” mused the officer. “Hum! Watermelon, eh? Well, I guess that was near enough!” San Francisco Post.

Salt Lake [UT] Tribune 16 October 1884: p. 3

Other tasteless cholera jokes? No lemons, please. Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

I’ve previously written on “The Plague Shawl” and the spread of disease through textiles. Also on the Disease Elemental.

Undine, from Strange Company, who knows her forteana AND her bad poetry, writes in with this absolutely brilliant cholera poem:

THE MELON

[New York Star.]

Who started the cholera?

I, said the Melon,

I am the felon.

From warmth of a torrider

Country than Florida

I carried the cholera;

We sailed to Marseilles

With favoring gales,

And from there we went on

To visit Toulon.

Where next do we go?

Just wait; time will show,

But it will not be long

Ere the Germans will find

That cholera loves

A trip on the rind.

Daily Illinois State Journal [Springfield, IL] 27 August 1884: p. 2

 

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. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

A Stiff Drink

death with drinkers

Inspired by the story of a woman taking her dead husband on a “rolling wake” Alaskan road-trip, preserved in ice from the local fisheries, I present some vintage fizz about stiff iced drinks.

Took the Ice Off a Corpse.

Charlotte, N.C., June 13. The guests of the Phoenix hotel at Winston, rose in revolt against George W. Kittelle, the proprietor of the hotel, a few evenings ago, because they learned that the ice used in their iced tea and other cool drinks had been first utilized in cooling a corpse. The result is that Kittelle’s troubles multiplied, and the news has just come of his assignment. It was claimed that a rubber sheet was between the ice and the body, and that the cooling material was not therefore injured in any way, but was as pure as ever. The guests could not see it that way, however. The corpse in question was known in life as Charles Johnson. Daily Illinois State Journal [Springfield, IL] 14 June 1895: p. 1.

We might assume that this was just a tasteless joke (although the hotel and the man are real) but there was apparently a certain amount of laxness in this area. I’ve seen several references in the medical literature to the following practice:

As an illustration are cited cases in which the ice used to preserve bodies dead from contagious disease was emptied out on the public street…. Medical Record 1891: p. 263 

No doubt for the children playing in the streets to pick up and suck.

And here’s a poem with a twist. Memorize it! recite it at parties! I guarantee you’ll have your audience shaken and stirred.

A Stiff Drink.

One reason I stopped drinking.

Said the man from Lafayette,

Is no matter what you call for

You can’t tell what you get.

It was in July of ninety-four.

While traveling in the West,

I witnessed what I’ll not forget

‘Till I am laid to rest.

 

The run was long and tiresome,

The scenery not sublime.

So a game of cards was started,

Just to pass away the time.

The players, four in number.

Were traveling men, I think;

Two sold liquor, one cigars,

And one sold printers’ ink.

 

Across the aisle a stranger sat

Who hadn’t much to say.

He smoked when the cigars were passed

And calmly watched the play.

“Tell you what,” said the liquor man:

“In my case I’ve something nice.

We’d have a most delicious drink

If I only had some ice.”

 

“I’ll get the ice,” the stranger said

And he started for the door.

He soon returned with a basketful

And placed it on the floor;

The drummer then mixed up a drink,

And I tell you it was fine.

It made us all quite sociable

And the stranger was right in line.

 

Several trips the stranger made

And of as many drinks had a share.

He finally came with a basket full

And said it was all he could spare.

“It’s just like this” the stranger said,

And his voice was low and deep;

“I’ve got a corpse in the baggage car.

And I’m afraid the thing won’t keep.”

H. W. Sparks.

The Globe-Republican [Dodge City, KS] 5 March 1896: p. 3

Can anybody top these stories of stiff drinks? Pour it on: chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Thanks to Michael Robinson for the Alaskan story.

For chilling stories of the perils of undertakers with ice-boxes, see this post.

Brian C. sent some variants of the “corpse on ice” theme and a cautionary tale for travellers.

Here are some variants of “The Corpse in The Cask/Tapping the Admiral” that are related to “A Stiff Drink.”

Graham Seal, Great Australian Urban Myths, rev. ed. (Sydney: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 72.

One hot day in the desert the passengers on the Meekatharra Mail were relieved by the kindness of the guard bringing everyone a drink of ice water. As the day got hotter and the air drier, the passengers continued to quench their thirst with glasses of ice water provided by the guard. But after a few hours, the welcome chilled fluid stopped coming. As the guard passed along the passageway on his duties, a thirsty passenger inquired why the ice water had dried up.

‘Sorry,’ replied the guard, ‘I thought we’d better not drink any more – the body’s beginning to show through the ice.’

The Railroad Gazette. New York, 8 Sept 1882, p. 555. Quoted in B.A. Botkin & Alvin F. Harlow, eds., A Treasury of Railroad Folklore (New York: Bonanza Books, 1953), p. 431.

Where He Got the Ice

There was a party of gentlemen the other day on a train on one of the roads coming into Nashville, and none of the party being strictly temperance men, one of the crowd suggested a drink. Another wanted to know where to get it. All seemed willing, but the day was warm, very warm. At last the fourth man in the party said he had a bottle of fine “cock-tail,” which he would furnish if anybody could get ice. A fellow passenger remarked that he would do that if they would share with him. He left the car and came back with plenty, which was duly used. As a matter of course, in a short time another drink was proposed and the ice man kindly requested to furnish that necessary article to a cocktail, but with his mouth watering for a drink and every look one of longing, he said: “Gentlemen, I want the drink, and I could furnish the ice, but I am afraid if I take any more off the corpse it will spoil.”

Bennett Cerf, Try and Stop Me (1944). In Bennett Cerf’s Bumper Crop, vol. 1 (Garden City: Garden City Books, n.d.), p. 536.

My friend swears that he is the hero of the story of the four chance acquaintances who launched a bridge game on a mid-summer run of the Empire State Limited. They ordered frequent rounds of drinks, but finally the steward reported that the ice had run out. “I think I know where I can get some,” volunteered my friend, and supplied the party until the train was well past Schenectady. “I’m afraid this is the last pitcherful,” he said then. “If I take one more cube of ice, the body won’t keep till Buffalo.”

http://expressbuzz.com/news/deleterious-temptations/162152.html [URL no longer valid]

Express Buzz [India] | 3 April 2010

 Deleterious temptations?

Lisa Mahaptra

[…] Says Poonam Bachhav, microbiologist and chief of the water testing lab at the Institute of Health Systems, “We have tested a lot of samples of water taken from various street food vendors from around the city, and 80% of the time we discover that the water is unsuitable for drinking.” And then there’s ice. Stories that the ice used by street food vendors comes from the morgue might be more urban legend than fact, but the reality isn’t all that much of a step up. Ice is usually manufactured in locations many of which are at quite a distance from the city. So even if one ignores that few ice manufacturers follow all the rules and regulations set by the health ministry, the fact remains that the ice is transported in filthy conditions only to arrive at a store where it is just lying on the grimy floor, covered in rice husk, what appears to be sawdust, and what not. “We haven’t received many samples of ice for testing, but of those that we have received, most are unwholesome”, says Poonam Bachhav. “I think it is very unadvisable to eat or drink anything served by street vendors.” […]

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.

 

Such a Very Little Coffin: 1901

beautiful detail boy in coffin

“JACKY”

[Pall Mall Gazette.]

“Yes, Miss, I’m glad the Society can send me and Baby to the ‘Ome for a bit; but won’t you walk upstairs?”

So spoke Mrs Hunt, a sad-looking young woman with a quiet voice, to the girl standing beside her, and they began to toil up the many stairs of a model lodging-house. At last Mrs Hunt stopped at one of the doors, but before turning the handle she hesitated a moment and said, “You know I lost my Jacky yesterday. You won’t mind, will you?” And then she led the way into the dingy little top back room.

The girl glanced around almost nervously, for this was one of life’s realities that she had never met before; but there was nothing alarming in the sight of the little coffin resting on two chairs. Yet, somehow it made her feel strange, perhaps because it was such a very little coffin. Mrs. Hunt, however, did not seem to notice the addition to her furniture, for she asked abruptly, “Will they want me to take slippers to the “Ome, for I ‘aven’t got none,” and her voice was quite composed, though a trifle dull and hard. So the girl pulled herself together and a serious discussion followed as to the advisability of buying cheap shoes in the Edgware Road, or of getting a second-hand pair “off a friend.”

But all the while that she was speaking, the girl could not keep her eyes from wandering every now and then towards that other corner of the room, and suddenly she began to realise with astonishment that the coffin, though small, was made of polished oak with silver-plated fittings, and it rested on small black draperies. And then the girl remembered that she had seen a baby downstairs decked out in crape and black ribbons, and she knew that this must be Jacky’s baby sister. How could this mother be so very foolish? For Mrs Hunt was a widow, who supported herself and her little ones by doing mangling. If she worked all day and the greater part of the night she could not hope to earn more than eight or nine shillings a week. And yet she could afford to indulge in high-class funerals.

And as the girl thought on these things her heart hardened, and she deemed it her duty to give the woman a few words of advice on the subject of her extravagance. But the words would not come. For somehow that inconvenient little lump in her throat would return when she thought of this woman’s desire to honour her dead even at the cost of starving. She could almost hear her say, “Has my little boy had so many luxuries that you grudge him a decent burial?” And the girl could not speak.

Now, when she had turned to go, and had even laid her hand on the door, Mrs Hunt said suddenly, almost harshly, “Perhaps you’d like to see ’im.” And before the girl could reply, the lid of the coffin was drawn back.

What! Was that still little form that white face, almost terrible in its loveliness—was that the noisy, dirty imp she had seen not many days before? I seemed incredible. She remembered in wonder that she had tried to bring herself to kiss the face that had been almost repulsive in its filth and ugliness; and had tried and had failed. And now she would fain have knelt and have pressed her lips to the little white hand, humbly, reverently, as to something sacred. She would not dare now to touch the face that she had turned from in disgust; it looked so white, so pure, he would have feared to defile it. “Defile!” Yes, that was the word that kept beating itself on the girl’s brain as she stood there looking down. “Undefiled, undefiled, a little child undefiled.”

And where were now her sapient remarks as to the desirability of cheap funerals for the poor? Gone, utterly gone. She was indeed stricken dumb and stood there silently gazing, her eyes wet with tears. And at last, as many before her have done when the feelings of their littleness is borne home to them, she unconsciously used the words of another: words, old indeed, but true for all time, for all men—

“For of such is the kingdom of Heaven.”

But some one heard her. There was a sudden sob, a sound as of the breaking of an ice of distrust and despair, and the mother turned away, her shoulders heaving, her face buried in her apron; and a cry rang out, an exceedingly bitter cry:

“Oh, I wants ‘im! ‘E weren’t much to nobody but me, but I loved ‘im an’ I wants ‘im!”

And this is how it came to pass that the inquiry officer of a certain society failed in her important duty of advocating thrift and economy among the London poor.

Star, 26 January 1901: p. 1

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: One likely possibility that the young inquiry officer did not consider is that many of London’s poor subscribed to Burial Societies. In the 1840s there were over one hundred Burial Societies in London alone. A small sum paid weekly–from a half-penny to a penny and three half-pence and twopence in 1844–ensured that the all-important decent funeral would be within reach.  The pauper funeral held as much horror for the Victorian poor as the Workhouse and was to be avoided at all cost.

It was found in 1907 that eighty-three per cent of all English decedents carried insurance. The authors of that study added severely, “It would seem that the insurance policy lure prompts to funeral extravagance, and that the pitiless extortions consequently exacted from the poor by a certain class of undertakers aggravates needlessly the anguish of the bereaved, and calls for indignant protest from the public upon whom, in some instances, the victims immediately thereafter become a charge.” Preventable Death in Cotton Manufacturing Industry, Arthur Reed Perry, 1919

For more information on the popular culture of Victorian mourning and death, Mrs Daffodil recommends The Victorian Book of the Dead, by Chris Woodyard, also available for something called a Kindle.  Mrs Daffodil understands the principle of paper-making using wood-pulp, but fails to see where kindling comes into it.

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.