Continuing our grewsome theme of burial alive is this proposal from Bridgeport, Connecticut, for an organization that would hold the bodies of the dead until they showed unmistakable signs of decomposition. In short, German waiting mortuaries: the Leichenhaus or Totenhaus. For whatever reason, these never caught on in America. I’m not sure if it was some inherent squeamishness in the American character, a reluctance to commit to the expense or the real estate, or a practical realization that while there were plenty of false alarm bells rung by the gases of decay in the Leichenhauser of Germany, no one ever got out alive.
A NOVEL SOCIETY
Bridgeport People Who Will Not Be Buried Alive if They Can Help It.
Bridgeport, Conn., Oct. 15. The first of next month a meeting will be held at the rooms of the Scientific Society to organize a Humane Burial society. One of the promoters of the scheme when asked as to the objects of the organization last evening said: “You may not know it perhaps, but in Bridgeport and all of the country, there are a great number of people who have a nervous dread that they may be buried alive. Probably I could name 100 of my personal acquaintances who cherish this awful fear, and there are plenty of cases to show that such an apprehension is not without foundation. What the projected society proposes to do is to take charge of the remains of deceased persons or those supposed to be deceased, and care for them for a sufficient length of time and under conditions which will make their being buried alive an impossibility. The awakening of public interest on this subject tis another one of our objects. To most people the idea of establishing such a society will doubtless seem very strange, and did I not know how many people in Bridgeport feel about the matter the same as myself I should hesitate about taking any active part in the movement.” The speaker was reminded that the danger of being buried alive was thoroughly discussed by the Scientific Society a few years ago, and that the weight of medical evidence introduced went to show that the apprehensions alluded to had in reality very little foundation.
“That is true,” was the response, “but that proves nothing. In fact the medical fraternity now virtually confess that none of the old accepted tests used to determine whether the vital spark is really fled or not, can be taken as conclusive. The absence of warmth in the body, the apparent absence of circulation, the eye test, the test with the mirror held before the respiratory organs, and in fact all the other familiar tests, have been proven defective in well authenticated cases. Sometimes by a lucky accident, and sometimes through an apparent excess of caution, persons pronounced by high medical authority to be dead have emerged from the trance condition which gave the simulation of death. Most of the best medical men will tell you today that the only positive proof of death, one that cannot lead to a mistake under any circumstances is the setting in of decomposition. The aim of the society about to be organized is to apply to our members and such others as we may accept the charge of, this only and absolute test. Such an object is worth working for even if it falls to the lot of only one in 10,000, or even one in 100,000, to suffer the terrible doom of being put under ground while alive. We know that many have suffered this fate; how many such cases there have occurred not known of, nobody knows. As I have said, the number deeply interested in this subject is more than would naturally be believed.”
New Haven [CT] Register 15 October 1885: p. 1
The unnamed spokesperson makes a good point about the medical profession’s uncertainty about the certainty of death. Despite modern medical advances, the controversy continues even today. My question is, did this plan to hold the bodies of the dead of Bridgeport ever get off the ground? I can find no evidence that it did, but perhaps they purchased a holding vault somewhere and began on a modest scale rather than the palatial Leichenhauser of Germany.
If you have dug deeper than I and know whether the corpse-holding organization was ever active, let me know at chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
After funeral services in the Episcopalian Church, in Eighty-second street, crowded with friends (among whom was the usual group of half a dozen ladies, who looked like pyramids of black crape…we had rather a long journey to the grave-yard on the further end of Staten Island, called the Moravian Cemetery, where the remains of Mr. Newman were to be buried.
[The narrator attends a séance on the same day and sees ghost of Mr. Newman.]
“Do you see me?” he asked in a whisper which all could hear. “Yes, William. It is indeed you. You know see that I was right in regard to this.” “Do you see me well?” and he advanced so as to bring his face under stronger light. “Yes, in all my experience I have never seen a materialized face more distinctly.” He held out his hand, and his warm, natural grasp pressed mine as I have pressed his in its icy coldness just about twelve hours before. “Have you any message for me to take?” I asked. “Tell her I still live. Tell her I LIVE”—(the capitals representing the strength of the emphasis thrown on the word)….”Tell my wife not to wear those hideous black things. Tell her to wear this. [shows white handkerchief.] And again: “Tell her not to look for me in the grave.” And again: “Tell her not to weep for me—tell her not to weep for me.”—the voice dying out as the form slowly disappeared.
That he was William H. Newman, not exactly as I was familiar with him in life, but as I had seen him beautiful in death six hours before, and through the preceding two days, with his parted white hair, his mustache and his white beard clipped to a rounded point, I positively affirm. Neither the medium nor any one present knew of my relations with him, nor my object in going to the séance. Of Spiritualism he knew nothing until he became himself a spirit. He had occasionally expressed the wish to accompany me to some good séance but the idea had never come to a practical head. He shared my own opinions about the common practice of black crape mourning, and, as a spirit certainly gave emphatic practical expression to them.
The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 13 February 1887: p. 13
Reliquary of the supposed skull of Mary Magdalene at the Basilica in Saint-Maximin
Heads of Their Dead.
Strange Custom Prevailing in a French Town.
Grewsome Sights That Horrify Strangers
Heads Stored in the Churches
[New York Recorder.]
Some very quaint curiosities of medieval antiquity belong to the traditions and customs of the monastic orders in different countries of Europe. The Capuchins, a branch of the decaying Franciscan Order, came into existence as late as 1525, and derived their title from the Italian name of a large cowl attached to the frock of rough frieze at the back of the neck. They never amassed great wealth or lived in such ease and luxury as some other friars had done; and the traveler in Italy at the present day will find them not unpopular in rural districts. Visitors to Rome are often tempted—it is a matter of taste—to inspect a ghastly display at the Church of the Capuchini. The mummies of deceased priors and the skulls of a multitude of defunct brethren of that community are ranged along the walls. It may have been only the fantastic whim of a gloomy-minded superior at a particular date which established this dismal fashion of commemorating the dead by so questionable a decoration, but the same kind of exhibition is presented in Sicily, at the Capuchins’ Convent of Monreale, a few miles from Palermo. There is a city in the heart of a civilized country where every year the heads of many persons are cut off and placed in little boxes. It seems like a barbarous custom, even though the people have long been dead when they are decapitated. But the people of that city, even though they
HAVE BURIAL RITES
So different from any in the world, see nothing out of the way in it, and in doing as they do believe that they show a deeper and more lasting love for the departed than those who simply bury their dead, erect a tombstone, and then in many instances forget all about them.
The ghastly custom has been in vogue for more than a hundred years in the town of Annecy, which is in the Department of Haute Savoie, in the south of France. It is one of the most picturesque cities of Lower France and nestled at the foot of the Lake of Annecy, within a short distance of Geneva. The surrounding country is made up of scenery of the most marvelous beauty, while the lake, which is nine miles long and only two in breadth, is never ruffled by storms and presents always a mirror-like surface. Thousands of tourists every year visit the town to sail upon the celebrated lake, 1,400 feet above the level of the sea.
But of the many who visit the place and who look with great interest at the church in which the relics of St. Francis de Sales are preserved, at the old castle which was formerly the residence of the Counts of Geneva, and at the nearby iron mines, there are few who know anything of those heads which have been accumulating these many years. For the people have been held up to public scorn before now, and they do not care to talk with strangers about their custom, which is usually misunderstood.
These people bury their dead in the ordinary way, but after the lapse of a few years, when the bodies are reduced to dust, the bones are dug up with ceremonies similar to those under which they are buried. All relatives and friends
ATTEND THE DISINTERMENT
And are present when the skull is separated from the other bones. These second ceremonies at the grave over, the cortege moves on, preceded by a priest with the skull, to the church in which the skull is finally placed.
In the early days this receptacle was merely a wooden box, roughly made, punctured with many holes. But as the years have gone by and the custom has grown, many changes have been made in the original idea. Just as in the ordinary burial there are caskets for the rich and for the poor, so, also in Annecy there are the skull receptacles to suit any extravagance or to satisfy the ideas and devotion of mourning widows, of disconsolate parents or of poetic lovers.
In the structure, quite close to the church, which has been erected for the purpose, there are now piled coffins without number of every shape, size and character. Some that have been the work of years are of oak, massive and fantastically carved. Others are made of pure silver and sparkle with rare gems. Some thought of wood, are bound with precious metals, which form a scroll work of unique design and exquisite workmanship. There are others, too, that are made to represent shrines, and some are counterfeit presentments of famous churches of the world, showing tall spires, Gothic archways, windows of stained glass, pillars and passages, all with the greatest regard to perfection of detail.
As a general thing the receptacles are made but for one skull, but some that are intended for an entire family have little compartments, each bearing an engraved plate, where the skulls of the family members will be placed after death. Very often a bereaved husband will have a coffer designed for the skull for a loved wife, with the necessary space left for the reception of a second skull, so that in death as in life they may be near each other.
In each of these boxes there are curious apertures, made in the shape of a heart. Sometimes they appear in the front of a miniature cathedral window, sometimes rudely cut in the side of a wooden box; but they are always there and are supposed to give light and air, though the contents of the coffers have long ceased to require either. Through these openings the grinning skulls can be seen perfectly well, a gray and senseless mass within the shrine. Upon each box there is the inscription which tells whose head it is which lies within, and sometimes tells of the life and death of the owner, his joys and his sorrows. Sometimes, where people are too poor to buy even the plainest sort of a coffer—and it is not considered a disgrace in this respect to be poor—a skull stands in ostentatious humility upon the coffer of some dead neighbor, with nothing but a label stuck upon it to tell whose it is. There are many other skulls standing quite alone and uncovered, from which the covering has
DROPPED AWAY WITH AGE
But these unprotected skulls are looked after just as carefully, and are regarded just as reverently, as those that are inclosed in the richest casket that can be made.
It is a strange sight to see those who mourn their dead, sitting in the dark chamber and holding the skull box in their hand, or kneeling beside it to pray, now and again pressing their lips to the little holes in the side of the coffers.
Just how the curious custom of burial which is used nowhere else in the world except in this little city came to be employed even tradition tells in a confused sort of way. There are some who say that the churchyard, when the town was smaller than it is to-day, became crowded and that the people, desiring all their dead to be interred in one place, decided upon this idea. By others it is said that there was a learned man who once dwelt there who convinced people that the brain, being the seat of reason and the abode of deepest feeling, if there was any thought or consciousness left after death, it must be connected with the head, so the decision was arrived at to have the skulls always where they could be seen.
It is not often that strangers are permitted to look upon these relics of the dead even if they know of their existence, but when they are, the sight is so unusual as to horrify them. But to the good priests who accompanies the visitor it is different. For this priest explains about these silent neighbors to whom he is accustomed that there is less harm in empty skulls than in the living heads and scheming brains of those by whom we are surrounded in life.
The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 14 March, 1896: p. 11
A number of skulls were reported to have been sent by the local museum to the Exhibition of Anthropological Sciences at the Universal Exhibition of Paris, a collection of objects contributed by “anthropologists of all nations.” However, there is no way of knowing if they were actually skulls from the church.
I’m reminded of the charnel houses in Germany and Austria like this one at Hallstatt, where denuded skulls are displayed, painted with the names and dates of former owners. Some are also painted with fanciful floral wreaths or with snakes writhing from empty eye sockets.
The article above is a unique and curious report of a long-forgotten custom with what seems to be an origin story muddled either by the locals or the journalist. But before we lose our heads over it, I must tell you that this is (to the best of my knowledge) a single source story. I can find nothing in the guidebooks or histories and if this story was copied by any other newspapers in the same format, I’ve not found them.
Initially I wondered if it was a misapprehension of a relic storehouse. Yet most relic chambers were swept away by the French Revolution and the article is clear that bodies were still being dug up and the skulls encased in the church.
Are the skulls still on display? Or [shudder] is the custom still followed? Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
A recent article in the Guardian about what happens when urban cemeteries are full mentioned that in Kuala Lumpur and some other Asian cities, the urns of the dead are kept in mechanical columbaria. Specific individuals may be accessed at the touch of a button from the filing system. This reminded me of a piece from The Victorian Book of the Dead, about an inventor of glass coffins, a Man of Vision, creating not just glass coffins, but a vacuum seal to preserve the body, the design of the vaults to hold them, and a filing system for corpses. He even suggests a pleasant way to spend time with the dead.
COFFINS MADE OF GLASS
“It’s almost worthwhile dying to be buried in one of them,” said the inventor of a glass coffin yesterday to a Times reporter. Henry H. Barry, the speaker, who lives on Fifth street, just below Spruce has for many years interested himself in transparent systems of burial. After conceiving the glass casket he kept it a secret for a long while, until, on October 24th of last year, it was patented. He is searching for a capitalist and the reporter became one for the time being.
“Yes,” continued the inventor, “I believe the success of this thing is going to be immense. There is one San Francisco firm that will take thousands of the coffins to sell to Chinamen.” [to ship bodies back to China for burial.]
“What is the advantage of glass for domiciles of the dead?”
“In the first place, one has perfect preservation. Before being placed in the vial the patient is embalmed. I may say that the coffin is devised on the walnut shell principle, in two halves. After my customers are once securely packed in coffins I apply an exhaust pump, take out all the air and hermetically seal up the aperture. Then the thing is accomplished. I believe, sincerely, that the whole business will last through several generations. There is the advantage that no infectious disease can come through the glass. The flesh of the subject will preserve its natural tints and relatives and friends will be able to view the deceased for years to come.
“As a sanitary reform it is unparalleled,” he went on; “tenanted coffins can be piled up like any other merchandise anywhere and stay there for years. Some people might prefer to keep relatives in their own houses, nicely put away in the coffins. There is nothing objectionable about the idea. When buried in cemeteries there will be no exhalations whatever, and in case of the removal of graveyards, the coffins can be taken up and carted away with no more offense than would be given by so many kegs of nails.” “What are [sic] the dimension and shape of the coffin?” asked the reporter.
“They can be made of all sizes. The glass is three-eighths of an inch thick, and the coffin is oval with a concave top. It would not do to have it flat as with a vacuum inside it the glass would collapse.” “Wouldn’t they get smashed in cemeteries?” queried the incipient investor.
“On the contrary. We have a system of toughening the glass that makes it like iron. A spade struck against the coffin with a good deal of force will not break it. Body-snatchers would get their fingers cut, but that’s all right. I don’t legislate for ghouls. There is no end to the variations which can be made on these coffins. The glass can be clouded so that only the face is visible. It can be colored, or butterflies and weeping willows can be placed at intervals all over the surface. There are a thousand ways of ornamenting the exterior.”
“What will they cost?” was the next question.
“From seven up. Seven dollars, I mean, of course. They could possibly be manufactured of such choice material and so beautifully etched as to cost as much as a thousand dollars each. I have often wished that at the time of President Garfield’s death I had had a glass coffin. I am sure it would have been used. I propose to form a company, with a capital of some half a million of dollars. No, sir, I will not sell you the patent outright, so it’s no use pressing me to do so. I have too much faith in its future for that. Another reason is that I am determined it shall not get into the hands of monopolists who will run up the price of coffins to a fancy figure. This casket was invented as much with the idea of benefitting the poor as anything else. Of course there will be money in it for me, and I suppose I shall have to accept whatever comes.”
Mr. Barry then proceeded to unfold the particulars of a remarkable scheme. He said that he had often heard a proposition discussed for excavating and constructing huge catacombs in this city for the reception of the dead. In that case, he thought, his invention would be invaluable. He called the scheme a “trust and safe deposit idea.”
“We should have a vast system of vaults,” he explained, “in which coffins would be placed. Spaces could be reserved for families. Here, in a stall, would be a father; by his side his wife; on the upper shelf the grandmother and grandfather, and above that the other ancestors. Each coffin would have a number at its foot, and catalogues would be issued giving the names of the occupants, for instance, ‘Henry Jones, 241.’ Above the vaults would be a suit of elegant reception rooms into which visitors would be invited. They could sit down and call for, say, ‘No. 241.’ An attendant would go down stairs, slide the casket indicated up on to a little barrow, come back again and leave it with them as long as they liked. They could look at it, have it taken to its shelf when they were through, and return home. A certain amount of rent would, of course, have to be exacted. What do you say of going into the enterprise? It will ‘take’ assuredly. There are a lot of other millionaires thinking the matter over, so you had better decide at once. Good afternoon. Let me hear from you in a few days.” Philadelphia Times
Jersey Journal [Jersey City, NJ] 29 March 1883: p. 2
Of course glass coffins weren’t really new–Alexander the Great was said to be buried in one and there were reports of ancient Egyptian coffins made of glass, but perhaps the vitrified faience inlays were what was being described. Glass coffins were the resting places of many sacred corpses or parts thereof, of spouses kept above ground for inheritance purposes, and of fairy-tale princesses. It’s the up-to-date sales-pitch with all the add-ons that sets this maker and his inventions apart. You might say Barry was thinking outside the box.
Another article gives Barry’s glass coffin patent date as 24 October 1882, but I haven’t been able to locate it. I’m also really quite perturbed that I cannot find an image of a glass coffin I thought I’d saved–it was a lovely purple-ish color and molded with dragonflies, like a piece made by Lalique. Search for “glass coffins” and pretty much all you find are the waxen cadavers of dictators and saints.
Other early filing systems for human remains? Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Thanks to Michael Robinson for sending me the Guardian article.
Sor Francisca Teresa de Jesús lying in state. Dead nuns in Hispanic convents were laid out with floral crowns signifying the crown of righteousness. banrepcultural.org
On this day when the dead are celebrated and remembered with the ofredas of Dia de los Muertos or the liturgy of an All Souls’ service, I thought it would be pleasant to recall the Legend of the Obedient Dead Nun. Nuns, of course, take vows of poverty, chastity, and, most importantly, of obedience. A nun’s Superior stands as Christ’s representative on earth and she must be obeyed as one would obey God Himself. It can be a most difficult vow to keep—particularly if you are dead.
IT was after she was dead, Senor, that this nun did what she was told to do by the Mother Superior, and that is why it was a miracle. Also, it proved her goodness and her holiness—though, to be sure, there was no need for her to take the trouble to prove those matters, because everybody knew about them before she died.
My grandmother told me that this wonder happened in the convent of Santa Brigida when her mother was a little girl; therefore you will perceive, Senor, that it did not occur yesterday. In those times the convent of Santa Brigida was most flourishing—being big, and full of nuns, and with more money than was needed for the keeping of it and for the great giving of charity that there was at its doors. And now, as you know, Senor, there is no convent at all and only the church remains. However, it was in the church that the miracle happened, and it is in the choir that Sor Teresa’s bones lie buried in the coffin that was too short for her—and so it is clear that this story is true. The way of it all, Senor, was this: The Senorita Teresa Ysabel de Villavicencio—so she was called in the world, and in religion she still kept her christened name—was the daughter of a very rich hacendado of Vera Cruz. She was very tall—it was her tallness that made the whole trouble—and she also was very beautiful; and she went to Santa Brigida and took the vows there because of an undeceiving in love. The young gentleman whom she came to know was unworthy of her was the Senor Carraza, and he was the Librarian to the Doctors in the Royal and Pontifical University—which should have made him a good man. What he did that was not good, Senor, I do not know. But it was something that sent Sor Teresa in a hurry into the convent: and when she got there she was so devout and so well-behaved that the Mother Superior held her up to all the other nuns for a pattern —and especially for her humility and her obedience. Whatever she was told to do, she did; and that without one single word.
Well, Senor, it happened that the convent was making ready, on a day, for the great festival of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe; and in the midst of all the whirring and buzzing Sor Teresa said suddenly—and everybody was amazed and wonder-struck when she said it— that though she was helping to make ready for that festival she would not live to take part in it, because the very last of her hours on earth was almost come. And a little later—lying on her hard wooden bed and wearing beneath her habit the wired shirt of a penitent, with all the community sorrowing around her— Sor Teresa died just as she said she would die: without there being anything the matter with her at all!
Because of the festival that was coming, it was necessary that she should be buried that very night. Therefore they made ready a comfortable grave for her; and they sent to the carpenter for a coffin for her, and the coffin came. And it was then, Senor, that the trouble began. Perhaps, because she was so very tall a lady, the carpenter thought that the measure had not been taken properly. Perhaps, being all so flurried, they really had got the measure wrong. Anyhow, whatever may have set the matter crooked, Sor Teresa would not go into her coffin: and as night was near, and there was no time to make another one, they all of them were at their very wits’ end to know what to do. So there they all stood, looking at Sor Teresa; and there Sor Teresa lay, with her holy feet sticking straight out far beyond the end of the coffin; and night was coming in a hurry; and next day would be the festival—and nobody could see how the matter was going to end!
Then a wise old nun came to the Mother Superior and whispered to her: telling her that as in life Sor Teresa had been above all else perfect in obedience, so, probably, would she be perfect in obedience even in death; and advising that a command should be put upon her to fit into her coffin then and there. And the old nun said, what was quite true and reasonable, that even if Sor Teresa did not do what she was told to do, no harm could come of it— as but little time would be lost in making trial with her, and the case would be the same after their failure as it was before. Therefore the Mother Superior agreed to try what that wise old nun advised. And so, Senor—all the community standing round about, and the candle of Nuestro Amo being lighted—the Mother Superior said in a grave voice slowly: “Daughter, as in life thou gavest us always an example of humility and obedience, now I order and command thee, by thy vow of obedience, to retire decorously within thy coffin: that so we may bury thee, and that thou mayest rest in peace!”
And then, Senor, before the eyes of all of them, Sor Teresa slowly began to shrink shorter —to the very letter of the Mother Superior’s order and command! Slowly her holy feet drew in from beyond the end of the coffin; and then they drew to the very edge of it; and then they drew over the edge of it; and then they fell down briskly upon the bottom of it with a sanctified and most pious little bang. And so there she was, shrunk, just as short as she had been ordered to shrink, fitting into her coffin as cozily as you please! Then they buried her, as I have told you, Senor, in the comfortable grave in the choir that was waiting for her—and there her blessed shrunken bones are lying now.
From Legends of the City of Mexico, Collected by Thomas A. Janvier, New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1910
The illustration shows Sor Francisca Teresa de Jesús lying in state after her death. [Photo from banrepcultural.org.] There is a genre of Hispanic paintings called Monjas Coronadas, depicting nuns in elaborately embroidered cloaks, huge floral or jeweled crowns, carrying candles, flowers, and religious figures. It was bridal raiment and it could never be too fine: these brides were marrying the King of Heaven and must reflect His Glory. When they died, the nuns were laid in state in the choir, again crowned with flowers symbolizing the crown of righteousness awaiting them in Heaven.(2 Timothy 4: 8)
In Monjas Coronadas, Profesion y muerte en Hispanoamerica virreinal, by Alma Montero Alarcon, there are photos of excavations of nuns’ graves at the Convent of the Incarnation, Mexico City. These show the wire frameworks for the elaborate floral crowns the nuns wore on their days of Profession and on their deathbeds still in place on the skulls. (I have tried in vain to find images online; the photos in the book are under copyright.) The images are, as the nuns would have been the first to point out, a stark reminder that all things pass:
¿Ves la gloria del mundo? Es gloria vana; nada tiene de estable, todo se pasa.
St. Teresa of Avila
Feliz Dia de los Muertos!
SOURCE: Monjas Coronadas, Profesion y muerte en Hispanoamerica virreinal, Alma Montero Alarcon, Museo nacional del Virreinato, 2008
A case of Banshee haunting that is somewhat unusually pathetic was once related to me in connection with a Dublin branch of the once powerful clan of McGrath.
It took place in the fifties, and the family, consisting of a young widow and two children, Isa and David, at that time occupied an old, rambling house, not five minutes’ walk from Stephen’s Green. Isa seems to have been the mother’s favourite–she was undoubtedly a very pretty and attractive child–and David, possibly on account of his pronounced likeness to his father, with whom it was an open secret that Mrs McGrath had never got on at all well, to have received rather more than his fair share of scolding.
This, of course, may or may not have been true. It is certain that he was left very much to himself, and, all alone, in a big, empty room at the top of the house, was forced to amuse himself as he best could. Occasionally one of the servants, inspired by a fellow-feeling–for the lot of servants in those days, especially when serving under such severe and exacting mistresses as Mrs McGrath, was none too rosy–used to look in to see how he was getting on and bring him a toy, bought out of her own meagre savings; and, once now and again, Isa, clad in some costly new frock, just popped her head in at the door, either to bring him some message from her mother, or merely to call out “Hullo!” Otherwise he saw no one; at least no one belonging to this earth; he only saw, he affirmed, at times, strange-looking people who simply stood and stared at him without speaking, people who the servants–girls from Limerick and the west country–assured him were either fairies or ghosts.
One day Isa, who had been sent upstairs to tell David to go to his bedroom to tidy himself, as he was wanted immediately in the drawing-room, found him in a great state of excitement.
“I’ve seen such a beautiful lady,” he exclaimed, “and she wasn’t a bit cross. She came and stood by the window and looked as if she wanted to play with me, only I daren’t ask her. Do you think she will come again?”
“How can I tell? I expect you’ve been dreaming as usual,” Isa laughed. “What was she like?”
“Oh, tall, much taller than mother,” David replied, “with very, very blue eyes and kind of reddish-gold hair that wasn’t all screwed up on her head, but was hanging in curls on her shoulders. She had very white hands which were clasped in front of her, and a bright green dress. I didn’t see her come or go, but she was here for a long time, quite ten minutes.”
“It’s another of your fancies, David,” Isa laughed again. “But come along, make haste, or mother will be angry.”
A few minutes later, David, looking very shy and awkward, was in the drawing-room being introduced to a gentleman who, he was informed, was his future papa.
David seems to have taken a strong dislike to him from the very first, and to have foreseen in the coming alliance nothing but trouble and misery for himself. Nor were his apprehensions without foundation, for, directly after the marriage took place, he became subjected to the very strictest discipline. Morning and afternoon alike he was kept hard at his books, and any slowness or inability to master a lesson was treated as idleness and punished accordingly. The moments he had to himself in his beloved nursery now became few and far between, for, directly he had finished his evening preparation, he was given his supper and packed off to bed.
The one or two servants who had befriended him, unable to tolerate the new regime, gave notice and left, and there was soon no one in the house who showed any compassion whatever for the poor lonely boy.
Things went on in this fashion for some weeks, and then a day came, when he really felt it impossible to go on living any longer.
He had been generally run down for some weeks, and this, coupled with the fact that he was utterly broken in spirit, rendered his task of learning a wellnigh impossibility. It was in vain he pleaded, however; his entreaties were only taken for excuses; and, when, in an unguarded moment, he let slip some sort of reference to unkind treatment, he was at once accused of rudeness by his mother and, at her request, summarily castigated.
The limit of his tribulation had been reached. That night he was sent to bed, as usual, immediately after supper, and Isa, who happened to pass by his room an hour or so afterwards, was greatly astonished at hearing him seemingly engaged in conversation. Peeping slyly in at the door, in order to find out with whom he was talking, she saw him sitting up in bed, apparently addressing space, or the moonbeams, which, pouring in at the window, fell directly on him.
“What are you doing?” she asked, “and why aren’t you asleep?”
The moment she spoke he looked round and, in tones of the greatest disappointment, said: “Oh, dear, she’s gone. You’ve frightened her away.”
“Frightened her away! Why, what rubbish!” Isa exclaimed. “Lie down at once or I’ll go and fetch mamma.”
“It was my green lady,” David went on, breathlessly, far too excited to pay any serious heed to Isa’s threat. “My green lady, and she told me I should be no more lonely, that she was coming to fetch me some time to-night.”
Isa laughed, and, telling him not to be so silly, but to go to sleep at once, she speedily withdrew and went downstairs to join her parents in the drawing-room.
That night, at about twelve, Isa was awakened by singing, loud and plaintive singing, in a woman’s voice, apparently proceeding from the hall. Greatly alarmed she got up, and, on opening her door, perceived her parents and the servants, all in their night attire, huddled together on the landing, listening.
“Sure ’tis the Banshee,” the cook at length whispered. “I heard my father spake about it when I was a child. She sings, says he, more beautifully than any grand lady, but sorrowful like, and only before a death.”
“Before a death,” Isa’s mother stammered. “But who’s going to die here? Why, we are all of us perfectly sound and well.” As she spoke the singing ceased, there was an abrupt silence, and all slowly retired to their rooms.
Nothing further was heard during the night, but in the morning, when breakfast time came, there was no David; and a hue and cry being raised and a thorough search made, he was eventually discovered, drowned in a cistern in the roof.
The Banshee, Elliott O’Donnell, 1920
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The author, Mr O’Donnell, who helpfully appends his lengthy Irish pedigree in an appendix, says that his clan, like so many others, has its own unique banshee. Mr O’Donnell tells us more about this supernatural entity:
The name Banshee seems to be a contraction of the Irish Bean Sidhe, which is interpreted by some writers on the subject “A Woman of the Faire Race,” whilst by various other writers it is said to signify “The Lady of Death,” “The Woman of Sorrow,” “The Spirit of the Air,” and “The Woman of the Barrow.”
It is strictly a family ghost, and most authorities agree that it only haunts families of very ancient Irish lineage. Mr McAnnaly, for instance, remarks (in the chapter on Banshees in his “Irish Wonders”): “The Banshee attends only the old families, and though their descendants, through misfortune, may be brought down from high estate to ranks of peasant farmers, she never leaves nor forgets them till the last member has been gathered to his fathers in the churchyard.”
Mr O’Donnell further states that each clan has its own, unique banshee, each with its own peculiar manner of expression:
As a rule, however, the Banshee is not seen, it is only heard, and it announces its advent in a variety of ways; sometimes by groaning, sometimes by wailing, and sometimes by uttering the most blood-curdling of screams, which I can only liken to the screams a woman might make if she were being done to death in a very cruel and violent manner. Occasionally I have heard of Banshees clapping their hands, and tapping and scratching at walls and window-panes, and, not infrequently, I have heard of them signalling their arrival by terrific crashes and thumps. Also, I have met with the Banshee that simply chuckles–a low, short, but terribly expressive chuckle, that makes ten times more impression on the mind of the hearer than any other ghostly sound he has heard, and which no lapse of time is ever able to efface from his memory.
For another Banshee story at the Haunted Ohio blog see this link.
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.
The last instance of this insight into the future which we shall cite from Mr. Pavin Phillips’s highly suggestive and interesting communication, is the record of an incident of the character referred to which occurred to him himself, in the year 1848, upon his return home after several years’ absence. “A few days after my arrival,” he states, “I took a walk one morning in the yard of one of our parish churches through which there is a right of way for pedestrians. My object was a twofold one: firstly to enjoy the magnificent prospect visible from that elevated position ; and secondly, to see whether any of my friends or acquaintances who had died during my absence were buried in the locality. After gazing around me for a short time, I sauntered on, looking at one tombstone and then at another, when my attention was arrested by an altar-tomb enclosed within an iron railing. I walked up to it, and read an inscription which informed me that it was in memory of Colonel__. This gentleman had been the assistant Poor Law Commissioner for South Wales, and while on one of his periodical tours of inspection, he was seized with apoplexy in the workhouse of my native town, and died in a few hours. This was suggested to my mind as I read the inscription on the tomb, as the melancholy event occurred during the period of my absence, and I was only made cognisant of the fact through the medium of the local press. Not being acquainted with the late Colonel , and never having even seen him, the circumstances of his sudden demise had long passed from my memory, and were only revived by my thus viewing his tomb. I then passed on, and shortly afterwards returned home. On my arrival my father asked me in what direction I had been walking? I replied,
‘In the churchyard, looking at the tombs, and among others I have seen the tomb of Colonel __, who died in the workhouse.’ ‘That,’ replied my father, ‘is impossible, as there is no tomb erected over Colonel__’s grave. At this remark I laughed. ‘My dear father,’ said I, ‘ you want to persuade me that I cannot read. I was not aware that Colonel was buried in the churchyard, and was only informed of the fact by reading the inscription on the tomb.’ ‘Whatever you may say to the contrary,’ said my father, ‘ what I tell you is true, there is no tomb over Colonel __ ‘s grave.’ Astounded by the reiteration of this statement, as soon as I had dined I returned to the churchyard, and again inspected all the tombs having railings round them, and found that my father was right. There was not only no tomb bearing the name of Colonel , but there was no tomb at all corresponding in appearance with the one I had seen. Unwilling to credit the evidence of my own senses, I went to the cottage of an old acquaintance of my boyhood, who lived outside of the churchyard gate, and asked her to show me the place where Colonel lay buried. She took me to the spot, which was a green mound, undistinguished in appearance from the surrounding graves. Nearly two years subsequent to this occurrence, surviving relatives erected an altar-tomb, with a railing round it, over the last resting-place of Colonel , and it was, as nearly as I could remember, an exact reproduction of the memorial of my day-dream….
“Second Sight and Supernatural Warnings” Notes and Queries, 10 July 1858
John Henry Ingram, in The Haunted Homes and Family Traditions of Great Britain, tells us that Mr Pavin Phillips was a “well-known contributor to Notes and Queries.” The earlier part of Phillips’ communication to that journal recounts several other stories of visions and sounds of phantom funerals, as well as ghostly coffins that had occurred among the members of the Phillips family and their servants. Ingram speculates that the area itself, Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire, was haunted. I’ve written about phantom funerals on several occasions; they do seem to be location specific. Oddly, they are usually either seen or heard–not both.
As for other phantom tombstones, they are relatively rare in (non-fictional) paranormal history. I wrote about a young woman who dreamed of her own tombstone, complete with a specific date, in The Victorian Book of the Dead. It is a truly unsettling story. There is a classic fictional story called “August Heat,” by William Fryer Harvey on the same theme. Other examples of phantom or prophetic tombstones? Enclose in a nice wrought-iron railing in the Gothic taste and send to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Dear Sir: I had never been a believer in the supernatural prior to the occurrence of the incident which gives rise to my story, but the facts which I am about to relate had the effect of purging the skepticism that had hitherto prevailed in my mind regarding such matters.
During the year of 1903 I was employed as an express messenger on the Fort Worth-Texarkana run.
One night there was transferred to my car from the western division a coffin containing a corpse consigned from El Paso to Schenectady, N.Y., and while this is no unusual traveling companion for an express messenger, the night in question was one which prompted thoughts of the supernatural, gloomy with a stillness in the air that foretold the approach of a heavy storm.
Being absorbed with routine matters which demanded my attention, little time was given to thought of the contents of the pine box lying in a far corner of the car. Vivid flashes of lightning and the ominous aspect of the sky made it plain that the elements would soon be warring. Being forty-five minutes late out of the last station passed and due in Longview at midnight, we were traveling at a rapid rate with an endeavor to make up the time lost. The air of the car being somewhat close, I stepped to the door and threw it half open. Simultaneously a blinding flash of lightning, accompanied by a crash of thunder, made me start back involuntarily from the open door. Before I could recover my composure, a gust of wind swept thru the car, extinguishing every light. I sprang to the open door and slammed it together, avoiding a deluge of rain that fell as the sluice gates of heaven had been opened. Turning quickly with a view to relighting my lamps, a flash of lightning revealed to me the form of a girl about twenty years of age standing in the center of the car. In my astonishment, thinking that my imagination had served me with an illusion, I waited for a second flash that again revealed the form of the girl, and while my gaze was limited to the momentary glare, I took in every detail of her figure and dress. She was attired in a brown street dress with long gloves to match, and her dark hair fell loose in a mass around her shoulders, contrasting strongly with the paleness of her face. For a moment I could scarcely move. My first thought was of how this girl could have gained entrance to my car while the train was moving at the rate of forty miles an hour. Another lightning flash showed the girl advancing toward me with her arms outstretched in a imploring attitude. My glance in this brief second also reverted to the farther par of the car, and to my horror observed the lid of the coffin thrown to one side and now standing open. This was the first time that I had associated the form of the girl with the supernatural, and my senses seemed to leave me as I dashed to the door and slammed it violently ajar. As I did, something seemed to pass me, and vanish out into the storm, followed by a wailing cry that even now at times rings thru my ears. I staggered back from the door from which I had sought to plunge and fell heavily to the floor of my car.
When the train reached Longview the baggage man climbed into my car and discovered my condition. A stiff drink of whisky brought me back to my normal senses and I recited my story.
After the lamps had been re-lit, a promptly investigation was made of the box in my car, which was found intact and strongly nailed.
Various opinions were presented by my train associates, and I caught some of them winking knowingly.
I carefully noted down the address and destination of the coffin and the name of the consignor. A few days later I wrote to Schenectady requesting of the consignor a description of the corpse, and a week later received an answer describing in both feature and figure the girl whom I so fully described to my fellow workers the night of the visitation. I answered this letter, confiding my interest in the matter, with the request to be advised if the lady had formerly worn a brown dress, receiving a reply in the affirmative and to the effect that it was in this she had died from heart failure thru climbing a flight of stairs at a hotel in El Paso.
Do I believe in ghosts/ Well, I have another occupation than that of express messenger. Yours truly,
Fort Worth [TX] Star-Telegram 13 December 1907: p. 6
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: A nice, shuddersome story! One can readily understand the narrator’s resignation from his occupation after such an uncanny encounter.
After the American Civil War, when embalming became more widespread, it was commonplace to ship corpses via the rails. The Wells Fargo company was one of the first in this field; they found an ingenious and heartless way to exploit the deaths of consumption patients.
AN INDUSTRY IN CORPSES
How an Express Company and an Undertaker Whack Up on Consumptives.
The Wells-Fargo Company does some queer things in the way of business, but the strangest perhaps is a new line, worked up by one of the shrewdest agents of the country at Denver. Colorado is a sort of last chance of consumptives, and pretty generally they die there. Most of them are supplied with money from home in regular installments, so when they die not enough coin is found among their effects to pay an undertaker. Undoubtedly many of them would be buried by the county, but right here’s where the company gets in.
It has a contract with an undertaker who takes charge of the body, embalms it, and gets it all ready for shipment. Then the Fargo agent wires to the agents in the towns from which the deceased received letters. If any relatives can be found it is a sure thing, and nine times out of ten enough friends can be found to put up a check for the undertaker’s charges and transportation. When this has been done the body is shipped to the friends or relatives by fast train, and turned over by the agent. The company makes a fat annual profit out of this melancholy business–“the corpse industry,” they call it—it is a good snap for the undertaker, and this county is saved just so many dollars. Many a time there have been three to four corpses at once in the company’s “cooling room” at Denver awaiting notice from friends in just this way. It is a cold day when W.F. & Co., can’t discover a new way to turn an honest penny.
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.
The first some of a series of ghastly tales for the month of Hallowe’en.
The Haunted Vicarage
We had been engaged eight years, Martin and I, ever since I was seventeen and he twenty four and the ‘living’ for which we have been patiently waiting had not yet been offered to him. Martin was still a hard-working curate in the smoky town where my father resided, and those kind friends who are always ready to play the part of Job’s comforters began to ‘hope that Eleanor’s long engagement would end in marriage after all.’
Great, therefore, was our satisfaction when a country vicarage was offered to Martin. The nomination came so strangely too. The living had first been offered to one of his college friends, a much older man than Martin, but as Mr Brown wrote to say that he felt that a younger man would do better justice to the work of a scattered country parish, and that he had therefore mentioned Martin to his friend the patron ,who was ready to offer him the living, it is needless to say this offer was thankfully accepted. The income was a fair one, at least to our modest views, and both of us looked forward to a residence in the country as only dwellers in a murky town are capable of doing. We felt quite touched by Mr Brown’s self-abnegation in declining Heathhurst for himself, at least until we saw the place.
I am writing now of the days of my youth, some fifty odd years ago Travelling was then a more difficult and expensive business than it is nowadays, and our slender means did not justify our making a long journey by coach to ‘prospect’ our new abode before settling there. Martin had agreed to take the furniture of the Vicarage at a valuation from the executors of the former incumbent (who had been an old bachelor and an invalid, and had resided as little in his parish as possible without provoking episcopal censure), and the price asked for ‘plenishing’ was so very moderate that Martin was willing to risk paying it without inspection of the articles named. Our quiet wedding, followed by a few weeks’ honeymoon at the seaside, then took place, and we left for our new home.
Both of us were looking forward to a life of activity and usefulness. We reached Heathhurst with some difficulty —it appeared to be off the track of every line of coaches; but at last our post-chaise lumbered into the village at the close of a summer’s day. My first impression of the place was that of dampness. The straggling village was low-lying and even on this July evening mist gathered heavily over the sluggish stream which meandered through the valley. The church stood on slightly higher ground, and the Vicarage nestled against the churchyard wall. As its name implies, Heathhurst was surrounded by magnificent woods, now gay with the glory of their summer foliage, but this added to the prevailing dampness of the atmosphere. As we found in our subsequent excursions in the neighborhood, the soil abounded in what the country folk called ‘ground springs,’ unexpected little water courses which bubbled up after rain, and converted a portion of the woods and pastures into veritable morasses. The scenery around was pretty, but as I looked at my new home I understood why Mr Brown, who had attained an age when people consider the possibility of rheumatism, was so willing to transfer Heathhurst to his ‘dear young friend.’
However, here we were, and both young and strong, and ready to make the best of things. The Vicarage was a roomy old house, and its furniture was of a solid old-fashioned description, far better than we had expected to find it. Martin would have abundant exercise for his zeal in bringing his parish into something like decent order, to judge from the neglected condition in which poor old Mr Hamilton had allowed it to fall, and after the first shock of arrival (and disillusion) was over we set ourselves resolutely to work. Sanitary science was less studied some half-century ago than it is now, and even the discovery that the churchyard itself formed, as it were, one side of our kitchen (the house being built against the churchyard wall) did not alarm us on health grounds, though the circumstance explained the persistent damp which oozed through the kitchen wall on this side. We had brought an old servant with us from my father’s house, and this maid and a girl from the village comprised our domestic staff.
For the first few weeks we were both so busy, I unpacking and arranging within doors, Martin organising his parish arrangements, that we had no time to think of other matters, But as we became settled in the home I noted a dejection in our faithful maid’s demeanor. One day when I was remarking how Mr Hamilton had neglected the parish, Sarah ‘spoke out,’ as she phrased it.
‘Oh, ma’am, ’tis easy to talk of neglection, but as Susan says, ‘tisn’t everyone as can live at Heathhurst Vicarage.’
Susan was the rosy -cheeked village girl imported to assist our factotum.
‘The house is rather damp, certainly,’ I said; ‘but so is all the neighborhood. We keep up good fires, and we are all well enough.’
‘Ah, I wish it was nothing more than damp that’s wrong here,’ sighed Sarah.
Then came out a long story. It appeared that the proximity of the churchyard was supposed to be objectionable, not on grounds of health, but for other causes. Some occupants of the burial ground–notably a certain squire deceased many years back were said to ‘walk,’ or at least to rest uneasily in their graves. Knocks and sighs, and other unpleasant sounds were said to be heard in the Vicarage kitchen, especially during the autumn and winter months and these occurrences prevented any good cook consenting to tenant the servants’ premises, and were said to have induced Mr Hamilton to spend so much of his time at a place ten miles away, driving in on Sunday to perform the usual church services.
Summer waned early that year, and the winter came in unusually wet and windy. There was much illness in the village, and Martin was overworked visiting the sick. We, too, were busy at home, for the local doctor lived a long way off, and Sarah’s experience was often of value in carrying out his directions regarding invalids. She and I were often out all day, tramping long distances to carry nourishing food and simple medicines to our poorer parishoners.
There was literally no society at Heathhurst. The population consisted of a few farmers and their laborers, the former being little better educated than the latter. Ten miles away was a pretty country town, but we seldom went there, as we had not conveyance, unless we borrowed or hired a farmer’s gig. A great depression sometimes settled on me as I sat in the Vicarage parlour and looked over the damp, dripping landscape. It rained almost continuously for weeks, and I contracted a chill which clung about me and affected my health. Then—was it fancy?—I began to think that there really were odd noises in the house. Susan had occupied all her hours of leisure in relating various ghost stories, local and otherwise, to Sarah, who conscientiously retailed them to me with all the certainly of unquestioning faith. Then Susan herself discovered that she was ‘feared to remain at the Vicarage come the winter,’ and departed to seek another service.
Martin, who had scoffed at the story of ghostly visitation, asserted that it was the dullness, not the noises, that led Susan to weary of her place, and to enter the service of an adjoining farmer, where as he remarked, ‘the girl has all the farming men to flirt with, and no old servant like Sarah to scold her.’
But anyway Susan left, and we had great difficulty in supplying her place, finally being reduced to take an orphan from a distant workhouse, who couldn’t be expected to indulge in the luxury of ‘nerves.’ Betsy was a stolid-looking young person with an abnormal appetite; but the Vicarage kitchen was too much for her after a week or two. She came to me one morning in floods of tears beseeching to be sent back to the workhouse. ‘For them knocks and groans behind the kitchen wall, ma’am, is more than I can stand.’
‘It’s the old Squire,’ remarked Sarah, grimly; ”tis his vault that lies nearest to our kitchen, and I tell Betsy it’s a warning to her—as tells so many lies every day—to see how the wicked do not rest even in their graves,’
‘He’ll bust in some day, I know he will,’ sobbed Betsy, ignoring the personal application of Sarah’s remark. ‘Please, ma’am, you and master is very good to me, and I never had such a sight of good victuals before, but I can’t—I can’t abear them noises.’
‘What are the noises like?’ I asked, for though, sitting alone in the evening when Martin had been called out to baptise a dying child or visit a sick person, I often fancied I heard odd sounds, they were not of the distinct and terrible kind described by Betsy.
‘He rummages about in his grave,’ sobbed the girl, ‘and he sighs, and he groans, and then he raps, raps, raps agin our wall.’
‘Sarah, you cannot believe all this?’
‘I believes my ears,’ remarked Sarah, ‘and hearin’ what I have about Squire Parsons I don’t wonder he does sigh and groan. Beggin’ your pardon, ma’am, I don’t hold that reading any form of words over a grave makes the wicked rest easy in it.’
Sarah was, as I have before remarked, a sturdy Methodist, and only attended our church because there was no other place of worship within ten miles. The woman was superstitious, and yet courageous, but her superstition was more infectious than her courage, believed in the restlessness of the defunct Squire as firmly as did the New English Puritans in the certain existence of the Salem witches, and was prepared to confront the perturbed spirit as Cotton Mather did the supposed emissaries of Satan.
‘If the Squire comes, he comes,’ said Sarah, with grim resolution.
‘I’m thankful to say I’m better prepared, having been converted many years ago, to see a ghost than Betsy is. But it’s my thinking that the old Squire is obliged to keep his own side of the wall while pious folks are in the kitchen, and it’s just that makes him so mad. Now, if Betsy sat there alone, seeing that Betsy tells lies, which is one of the greatest of sins—‘
But Betsy was not inclined to put her virtue to the test, and departed back to the union, nor did we attempt to supply her place.
Sarah was willing to face the noises alone. I think Martin, fully occupied out of doors, scarcely thought about the matter as I did. He believed that the Vicarage, like all old houses, was full of odd noises probably due to rats which were exaggerated by the superstitious fears of the servant. But to myself, now out of health, and a good deal alone owing to Martin’s multifarious occupations in the parish the ‘fancy’ which I might have laughed at in days of health and spirits became a real terror. I myself had never heard the full noises; they only occurred in the kitchen itself but I thought about them, and dwelt on the subject till I became so unwell and nervous that Martin urged me to go to my father for a visit to recruit myself. But I would not leave my husband, neither was I strong enough to undertake a long journey at this time of year. The local doctor prescribed tonics, and asked if I had no friends who could come and stay with me and cheer me up. But I had led a very retired life owing to my father’s bad health I had no sisters, and my few girl friends were now married and scattered. My stepmother—I had lost my mother in infancy—was a kind woman, but too much occupied with father to be able to pay a visit.
Martin and the Doctor comforted themselves with the reflection that by-and-by more cheerful noises than the supposed knocks and groans might resound in the old Vicarage.
‘Of course Mrs Fleming is inclined to be nervous and fanciful just now,’ said the Doctor to my husband, ‘but when the baby comes we shall hear no more of the noises in the kitchen. That superstitious old servant of yours will be too busy to notice them.’
Kind and devoted as Sarah was, I could hardly have had a worse companion at this time. Strong in her religious convictions, she sat day after day in her kitchen, like a sentinel on guard, singing hymns in a cracked voice in the evening, and apparently deriving a grim enjoyment from the very idea that she was carrying on a successful struggle with the restless sinner on the other side of the wall. But I, ailing and lonely in the parlour above, would shiver and cower with nervous terror as I fancied I caught some sound, like a knock or a sigh, which might be the wind, and might be the Squire.
One evening in December—how well I remember it still!—a veritable tempest raged and shook the house. Martin had been summoned to the deathbed of a parishioner at a distance, and so bad was the weather that I had urged him to accept the proffered offer of a bed at the house, instead of returning through the winter night. He had been reluctant to leave me so long, but finally consented; indeed, he could hardly have found his way back in the storm of wind and rain. I was so solitary that, little as I liked the idea of entering the kitchen, I made up my mind to descend and speak to Sarah, whom I found tranquilly knitting by the fire. The kitchen looked so cheerful in the ruddy glow of the logs that I lingered awhile after I had given the order which I had made the pretext for my visit. Suddenly ‘rap, rap, rap’ sounded loudly on the wall behind me, followed by a long-drawn gurgling sound. I screamed with terror, but Sarah was calm.
‘Eh, ma’am, but he’s worse than ever to-night,’ she remarked ‘I’m thinking maybe ’tis the day of the month when he died, or something like that; but I never mind.’ But here the noise recommenced, so loudly and wildly that even the resolute woman grew pale. ‘Come away, come away, Miss Eleanor,’ she exclaimed, clutching my arm; but as she spoke came a rending sound; the wall of the kitchen burst open, a rush of water filled the room, and oh horror! a large black coffin sailed out of the aperture in the wall, and fell with a crash on the floor! I knew no more!
I was ill for many, many weeks, they told me afterwards, and Martin expected to lose his wife as well as his child. When I gradually awoke to consciousness I was not at the Vicarage, but at the house of a kindly neighbour, where the doctor had advised my being carried as soon as I could be moved on a mattress.
It was long before I recovered the shock of that awful night; long before I could even hear the explanation of that terrible apparition. It was a simple enough story after all. The churchyard, like the rest of the neighbourhood, had its ‘ground spring.’ One of these had sprang up in the vault of the wicked Squire, and actually floated the coffin, for years when the spring was full the water had been striving to burst through the wall, and the leaden coffin had acted as a kind of battering-ram. Hence the odd noises (always worst at the wettest times of the year), hence the terrible catastrophe.
We never returned to Heathhurst Vicarage. A friend of my father happened to have a living fall in his gift, which he offered to Martin, and some months after my illness we removed to the pretty south-country Rectory where I have passed the rest of my days, first with my husband, then with my son. Homebury Rectory has been ‘noisy’ enough during the last half century, tenanted by our merry healthy children and grandchildren; but the ‘knocks’ were of a different description from those that froze our blood at Heathhurst.
The patron of that latter living, who was a kindly and liberal man, was so horrified at the occurrence which so nearly cost me my life that he pulled down the old Vicarage and rebuilt it on higher ground, so that the present vicar’s family are not exposed to the risk of the irruption of coffins into their kitchen. But I shall never forget my residence in that haunted Vicarage home fifty years ago.
Southland Times 18 June 1892: p. 5
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: A salutary lesson, indeed, about the importance of well-drained soil. Modern builders would surely not be so careless as to abut a kitchen against a churchyard wall with all its attendant unpleasant effluvia. Mrs Daffodil does not usually attend the cinema, but she has been told that this story echoes the plot of a “horror” film called Poltergeist, which exaggerated the number of coffins and pictured mummified corpses emerging from their graves. One coffin was certainly bad enough for the unfortunate Eleanor.
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.
The Dundee Advertiser of Wednesday says–On Sunday evening a man. named Peter Fyffe, about 60 years of age, a flax-dresser by occupation, and residing in Irvine-square, Bell-street, died very suddenly. Between-nine and ten o’clock he was apparently in his usual state of health, but soon after that he became ill, and died shortly before eleven o’clock. His sister, Widow Keillor, with whom he resided, being in poor circumstances, applied to Mr. Jack, the inspector of poor for the parish of Dundee, to bury the corpse of her brother, which he at once agreed to do, and the funeral was fixed for Tuesday afternoon. Widow Keillor says–“A coffin was brought to the house about one o’clock to-day (Tuesday) by two men. It was long enough, but it was neither deep enough nor wide enough to contain the corpse. The men, when they saw that the coffin was not large enough, commenced to make the body of my brother fit it. One of the men put his knee on my brother’s breast and pressed with all his might, in order to make the corpse go into the coffin. The bones of my brother’s right arm cracked, and, although I could not say positively that it was broken, it seemed very like it. The whole bones of his body seemed crushed. It was impossible, notwithstanding all the exertions of the men, to make my brother’s body fit the coffin, which, burst. When it was seen that the body would not go into the coffin they went away for another one, which they brought; and when my brother’s body was taken out of the coffin, a considerable quantity of blood was in it. The second coffin exactly fitted my brother’s corpse, and when it was brought to the house one of the men said he admitted that the first coffin was too little. I felt very much shocked at the way in which the men crushed my brother’s corpse into the coffin, which was much too small, and Mrs. Keith, and Mrs. Fraser, and Mary Taylor remonstrated with the men, and told them that if they did not use the body rightly they would complain to the authorities.” This statement Mrs. Keillor declared was true, and not in the least exaggerated; and when our reporter read it over to Peter Devine (weaver), Helen Henderson (millworker), Agnes Imrie (millworker), and Barbara Henderson (sack-sewer), who were all in the house, and who stated that they saw the whole proceedings, they corroborated it in every particular.
Liverpool [Merseyside, England] Mercury 15 April 1865: p. 5
Other newspapers added the following details:
One woman exclaimed—“God pity me, to see a man of such respectability as he was in his day come to that, and be treated so miserably at his latter end.” Several of the neighbours with whom our reporter spoke on Tuesday night substantiated statements which the deceased sister had volunteered.
Mrs Keillor added that the parochial authorities sent a good hearse to convey her brother’s remains to the Eastern Cemetery, and she accompanied the remains to their last resting place, where, in her own words, she said—“I did what perhaps never a woman did before—I put the head of the coffin in the earth.”
We are satisfied that it is neither with the knowledge nor approval of the Chairman, Committee, or higher officials of the Parochial Board, that any such proceedings as narrated above had occurred. It is imperative however, that such instructions be at once given as will prevent any repetition of them, and nothing is so likely to effect this as taking the matter from the region of street rumour into public notice by the press.
The Western Flying Post or Sherborne and Yeovil Mercury [Sherborne, Dorset, England] 25 April 1865: p. 8
An investigation before the Parochial Board was held into the circumstances of this incident:
ILL-TREATMENT OF A CORPSE.
An examination took place before the Parochial Board Committee yesterday, in reference to the alleged ill-treatment of the corpse of Peter Fyffe, flaxdresser, Irvine Square, Bell Street, by the undertaker employed by the Parochial Board. Mr Francis Molison occupied the chair; and there were present–Messrs Niven, Guthrie, Mills, Ness, Morrison, Lorimer, Isdale, and Low.
David Gorrie was the first witness examined. He deponed that he was assistant-inspector, and stated that a woman called on him for a funeral order on Monday, between twelve and one o’clock. She produced a certificate from the registrar that the death was properly registered. He gave an order to the contractor for such funerals, Mr James Lindsay. The deceased was not a pauper on the roll. The woman told him that they wanted to bury the corpse immediately; but he told her it could not be buried for twenty-four hours. The order was then given her by him. James Lindsay was unable to be in attendance, and the next witness was
David Lindsay, son of Mr Lindsay, the contractor. He deponed that two women came to his father’s shop about four o’clock on Monday, with air order from the Inspector of Poor, for him to bury the deceased Peter Fyffe. They stated that they wished the funeral to take place immediately; but he said that it could not be done till next day. They said that deceased was an ordinary sized man; and he did not think it necessary to go and measure the body, but made an ordinary sized coffin. Next day, he went up about twelve o’clock for the funeral taking the chest with him. He found the body lying on the door, covered with rags. There was blood lying on the floor beside it. It appeared to him that the blood had come from the mouth. They lifted the body into the coffin; but found that although the coffin was long enough, it was too narrow. They tried to put the body into the coffin. They then put the lid upon the coffin, and screwed it at the bottom and the top. They found=that it would not close at the sides, the coffin being too narrow and being thus forced out. The body seemed to have swollen. They did not crush or push the body in any way, or injure it, or break any ot the bones. They found that the coffin was too small, and took it out. They then took back the small coffin and made a new one, large enough. They went back about five o’clock with the coffin, and the funeral was carried through. He denied that any ill usage whatever had been given to the body, but admitted that the first coffin was too small. If he had taken the measure of the body, it would have been all right. In this there was some fault. When the lid was put on the first coffin, he merely pressed the sides to get the lid on. The lid broke, but the corpse sustained no ill usage.
Robert Lindsay, another son of the contractor, was examined. He generally corroborated his brother s evidence, and denied that the corpse was injured, or that any inhumanity was used towards it. The contractors often got ill-usage from folks in the discharge of their duty. The women in this house seemed to be worse of drink. There was one man in the house, and he and the women said the coffin was too small. They were not squeezing nor pressing in the body, but the women in the house called upon them to put on the lid, in consequence of the strong smell that was in the house. It was scarcely bearable. He was satisfied that no injury was done to the body through putting it into the first coffin. There was blood about the mouth before they touched it, and that was not caused by the restriction of the body.
The following is a copy of Mr Lindsay’s contract with the Parochial Board:– “Dundee, 17th March, 1861.
“To the Committee of the Parochial Board
“Gentlemen, I hereby offer for the interment of paupers—
Under 12 years, . . . 10s Above 12 years, . . 17s 3d
From the first charge, 6s has to be paid for ground, and 3s for juveniles.
The Chairman said no member of the committee supposed but what the interment of the paupers was conducted in the same way as the interment of any other class, and that the bodies were measured in the ordinary way.
Margaret Fyffe or Keillor, sister of the deceased, deponed that she lived in the same flat with him. Shortly after the death of her brother, about eleven o’clock on Sunday night, some police officers came in. They said they would send a doctor, but none came. Her brother was quite well during Sunday. He took his supper heartily that night. She went to the Registrar and got his death registered next morning. She then went to the undertaker, Mr Lindsay, with an order she got from Mr Jack. She told him to come immediately and coffin the corpse. He said he would not come till next day at twelve o’clock. He came next day, but the coffin was too little. He tried to put in the body, but it would not go in. They pressed in the arms and forced down the body. She heard something crack; it was either the coffin or the body. She thought they ought not to have brought such a small coffin. They tried to put on the lid, but those in the house insisted on their taking out the body, and the contractor did so, and took away that coffin and came back some time after with a bigger one, and the funeral took place.
Mrs Fraser was next examined. She was a neighbour. She saw Lindsay come with the coffin. She told him it was too small and too thin. It might have been long enough, but it was too narrow. The body was swollen, and they could not put it into the coffin. They screwed out the top end of the coffin and tried to force in the arms. They forced them down by the side, and put their knee on the lid of the coffin to force it down. She heard something crack. It was either the arm of the man or the coffin that cracked. She thought they were improperly using the corpse. She went along with Ira Keillor to Lindsay on the night before the funeral, when the order had been got from the Inspector of Poor. She told him the condition of the body, and that it would require to be measured, because it was very large. The contractor did not come to measure it, and took up a small coffin. She described the treatment of the body. She thought the contractor acted wrong in forcing in the body in the wav he did.
Mrs Keith said she saw Peter Fyffe after he died. She heard Lindsay told to come and inter the body. Lindsay said the usual hour was twelve o’clock, and that he would come next day. She did not recollect him being told that the body required to be measured. She was present when the body was put into the first coffin. She saw that it was too narrow. She also saw them pressing it in. She heard something crack. It was either the coffin or the body.
Helen Henderson was present when the body was put into the first coffin. It was long enough, but it was too narrow about the shoulders. They lifted the arms and placed them across the breast. They endeavoured to press them down by the sides. They then put on the lid; Mr Lindsay put his knee on the lid to screw it down, and something cracked. Those in the house complained that they were ill-using the body, and they took it out, and took away the coffin, and brought a new one.
Mary Taylor, a neighbour, deponed that she was at the door of the room, and saw the contractor put the body in the coffin. She saw the coffin was too narrow, and that after the body was put into it, it was taken out again, and a new coffin taken up.
Peter Devine was in the house when Fyffe was coffined. He helped Lindsay to put the body into the coffin. The coffin was too small, and they pressed the body down into it. The arms were first put across the breast, and then forced down the sides. They then put on the coffin lid, and screwed it down at the top and the bottom; and, after trying to screw out the sides, could not get it done owing to the coffin being too narrow, and the sides being forced out. Mr Lindsay put his knee on the head of the coffin to screw it down, when the lid broke. Either the body or the arms cracked. He thought that they were trying to force the body into the coffin. He had been in the habit of seeing bodies screwed into coffins. It was the practice for the undertaker to put his knee on the lid of the coffin before screwing it down. This was a usual practice.
At the close of the above examination, the Chairman said that this was the first complaint against Mr Lindsay, and he had conducted on an average 280 funerals a-year for the last three years. The terms which were allowed Mr Lindsay were what he himself proposed. He did not think they could come to any finding in the meantime, but that an adjournment could take place till Mr Lindsay could attend.
This was unanimously agreed to.
The Courier and Argus [Dundee, Tayside, Scotland] 15 April 1865: p. 3
Within two days, the same paper was deploring the state of parish funerals–and leveling a very thinly veiled accusation of murder.
The investigation which has been instituted by the Parochial Committee of Management into the circumstances attending the funeral of Peter Fyffe has disclosed a state of things, the existence of which was not before suspected, and will not be suffered to continue. The investigation is as yet incomplete, and there are some contradictions in the evidence, but enough is certainly known to render it necessary that an alteration in the system should take place. The Parochial authorities contract with Mr Lindsay for the performance of funerals which are conducted at the expense of the parish. They pay the prices which were proposed by the undertaker, and though the charges are small, we must suppose they were sufficient to remunerate the tradesman for his cost and trouble. The Parochial Committee had no idea that pauper funerals were managed in any essential respect differently from those of other poor people. Of course they did not expect that they would be carried out with such ceremony and “circumstance” as those of the rich or well-to-do; and, probably, if they thought of that part of the subject at all, they did not suppose that the same delicate attention to the feelings of survivors would be displayed as when corpses are carried from handsome mansions to the “narrow home,” which is the final resting place of all. There is, and we fear there always will be, a rougher, not to say ruder, and a less ceremonious manner adopted toward the poor than is exhibited toward the wealthy. As the world is, and as average men are, that is inevitable. Ceremonious formality implies the devotion of time, and attention, and care. The well-off can pay for it and buy it; but the poor cannot afford the outlay, and have to do without what is in fact a marketable commodity, just as they have to do without funereal feathers and other trappings. All that people who know what the world is are perfectly aware of; but no one acquainted with the Chairman of the Parochial Board and the gentlemen who compose the Committee of Management, could for a moment believe that they thought the funerals paid out of the funds under their control, were marked by any circumstances showing the slightest disregard for the impulses which make most men regard death as sacred, and cause the corpse of the poorest to be treated, if not with tenderness, with decent respect. If they had imagined that was possible, we may be sure they would have provided against it ; and the promptness with which the pending investigation has been set on foot, and the fairness with which it has been conducted, are guarantees that whatever is amiss will be fully remedied. The defect in the system appears to have been that when parish coffins were ordered, they were made by guess without the corpse having been measured. That method may answer in the majority of cases, because there is an average of size; but it is necessary to provide for exceptions. The way taken to do that was, it seems, to ask the person bespeaking the coffin if the corpse was of an ordinary size? There is some dispute as to what was done in that respect, in this instance. The assistants of the undertaker say they were told a common sized coffin would be sufficient. On the other side, it is averred they were informed the body was large and swollen, and that an extra large coffin would be required. We cannot decide between these conflicting accounts. The coffin was, it is said, made of an average size, and taken to the house of death. That was on the Tuesday. A miserable place, it appears, that house was. The dead man had not been a pauper; but it is clear that, so far as comforts were concerned, he had been far worse off than those who are supported out of the rates in the Poorhouse. The body was on the floor, covered with rags. Blood was about it, and the undertaker’s assistants think the fluid had come from the mouth. The corpse was swollen so that a larger coffin than ordinary was wanted. That was soon perceived, and directly it became evident the coffin ought to have been taken away and a larger one procured. There will be no difference of opinion about that. But an attempt was made to force the body into the coffin. There is a dispute as to the degree of violence which was used; but that there was some violence no one who reads the report of the enquiry can doubt. It may be, very probably is, an exaggerated statement, that the bone of one of the arms or any other bone was broken; but that force which ought not to have been applied was exerted, is not to be disputed. The proof is that, on the admission of the persons who took the coffin, the lid is shown to have been broken. It was, we hope and believe, the noise of the creaking of the lid which led to the impression that a bone had been fractured. Some allowance must be made for the undertaker’s men. They had an unpleasant, we might say a disgusting, duty to perform. It is said the stench was almost unbearable ; and it is not unlikely they were urged by the bystanders to get the lid on as quickly as possible, as well as impelled by their own sensations to get through their noisome task as soon as they could; but nothing in the circumstances could justify the attempt to thrust the body into the coffin, obviously too narrow for it, by using a degree of force, which, if it did not crack bones, broke the lid. Such things must not be suffered to be repeated. When the body could not be pressed in, because, whatever violence the corpse might have been able to have borne, the coffin would not stand it, that was done which ought to have been done at first. The body was replaced on the floor, and, without any undue delay, another and larger coffin was procured. Between the time when the small coffin was taken away and the larger one brought, there was ample opportunity for the relatives of the deceased to have examined the body, and ascertained if it had sustained any injury, but we do not hear that that was done, and if it was, we have not the result before us. If it was not, we must infer indifference on the part of others than the undertaker’s men. If it was, we may dismiss as an exaggeration the allegation that bones were broken. We will not anticipate the decision at which the Committee will arrive as to this particular case; but for the future we cannot doubt it will be provided that bodies shall be measured before coffins are made. That is necessary to prevent the possibility of scenes which should not be allowed to occur in the homes of the poorest, or even of the most worthless. We owe it to our common human feelings to see that the dead are treated decently and respectfully.
But this case suggests to us reflections on something beside the conduct of the undertaker’s men. We are tempted to ask the question–How did Peter Fyffe die? a question which appears to us, at least, as important as the other–How was Peter Fyffe buried? We do not know that the finding an answer to that question can be said to be within the province of the Parochial Committee; but the matter is one which should recommend itself to them as well as others in their capacity of citizens. We gather from the statement of the sister of the deceased, that he appeared quite well on the Sunday and took a hearty supper, and that at eleven o’clock he was dead. What did he die of? There does not seem to have been any medical man present, either before or after death. We do not hear what were the symptoms of the illness, nor what remedies, if any, were used, nor who, if anybody, saw the man die. The sister registered the death on the Monday morning. What account did she give to the Registrar. What disease is set down in the books as that of which Peter Fyffe died? Couple this uncertainty with the facts that on Tuesday the body was horribly swollen, and that there was blood about it and upon the floor on which it rested among rags; and it seems to us there is something else to be enquired into than the way in which the funeral was conducted. We do not point to any specific suspicions. We know nothing more of the facts than is disclosed in the evidence; but when a man is said to have been well at supper-time and dead at eleven o’clock, when no doctor was called into him, and a registrar’s certificate obtained, and the corpse, swelled and bloody, buried within two days of the death, we cannot help asking the question, “How did Peter Fyffe die?” In England the facts would render the summoning of a coroner’s jury certain. Here we have no coroners, but surely such a case is one that ought not to be suffered to pass by in silence. For all we know, enquiry might lead to a perfectly satisfactory result, but enquiry of some kind there certainly should be.
The Courier and Argus [Dundee, Tayside, Scotland] 17 April 1865: p. 2
And there, as far as I can see in the papers, the matter ended.