The Fatal Envelope: 1904

DEATH SCENE IN PLACE OF MONEY

Waiting Wife Across Sea to Get Picture of Husband in Coffin.

Friends in the New World Were Kinder Than Fortune.

A picture of her husband lying in his coffin will be received by the wife of Peter Weber of No. 89 1-2 Davenport street, in faraway Germany, instead of a long expected epistle containing money which would bring her to him. The photograph was taken yesterday in the rooms of a local undertaking establishment and will be forwarded to the wife.

The story of Weber is one of expectations which death with a relentless hand destroyed. Five months ago he came to this country, after vainly toiling for success in his native land. He had by economy gathered together sufficient funds to pay his expenses, but scrape as he would, eh could not gather sufficient to bring his faithful wife with him. At last she told him to go to the land of promise alone, and said that she would follow when he was able to send for her.

Weber came alone on his journey, he forfeited all his pleasure, and bought nothing but the sheer necessities of life. Each economy which Weber practiced instead of a hardship was a delight to him.

One day, his journey over, he reached Cleveland, and set about finding work at his trade of furrier. But the long journey and the few hours of relaxation had told upon Weber. The next morning when he attempted to rise from his bed, he fell back. The strange weakness which had seized him during the past few days, had him securely in its grasp. He was taken to lakeside hospital where the physicians diagnosed his illness as a severe attack of typhoid fever.

Repeatedly in his delirious moments, he raved of the sorrow which would come to his wife if he died and he spoke of the happy future which he had planned. But the end came Tuesday.

A few foreigners, little known to Weber, heard of the illness and had sent him to the hospital at their own expense, they too met the expenses of his funeral. A modest casket was purchased and the preparations completed for a simple burial. They also decided to send a picture of the casket, the flowers and her husband to Mrs. Weber. Yesterday a photographer was hired to go to the undertaking rooms.

The top of the casket was opened, the flowers placed at the foot and the friends gathered about the coffin. A flashlight was lit. The coffin was again closed and the photographer and the friends took their departure.

Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 7 April 1904: p. 12

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Photographing the dead was, of course, a common practice in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  It was a chance for one last look at the loved one; a chance to “secure the shadow, ere the substance fade.”

Mrs Daffodil understands the thoughtful impulse of Weber’s friends to show the bereaved wife that her husband did not die alone and friendless in a strange land. It was, no doubt, kindly meant. But Mrs Daffodil would not care to have been at the widow’s side when she opened the fatal envelope.

More on post-mortem photography may be found in The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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.

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

Taking Pictures of the Dead: An Interview with a Photographer: 1882

A lone grave on the battle-field of Antietam, Alexander Gardner, 1862 https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014646938/

For “Camera Day.”

[Originally published on 22 September 2013 https://mrsdaffodildigresses.wordpress.com/2013/09/22/taking-pictures-of-the-dead-an-interview-with-a-photographer-1882/ ]

A first-hand narrative from a photographer of the dead and how he came to such a vocation. This past week was the 151st anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, where this photographer had a grim experience.

GHASTLY PHOTOGRAPHIC EXPERIENCES.

[Sunday Mercury.] I’ve been engaged in taking pictures of the dead for twenty years or more, was the remark of a photographer of Philadelphia, as he arranged his camera to photograph the first corpse ever brought to a Philadelphia gallery for that purpose. A little coffin or casket was under the sky-light in a slanting position, supported by two chairs, and in it was the body of a fair-haired child, whose peaceful, smiling expression, despite the ghastly pallor of death, make it appear to be in tranquil sleep. The head lay in a perfect bed of flowers, and the waxen hands clasped held a spray of mignonette and two delicate tea rosebuds. The sun, shaded as it was by curtains, threw a bright glare over one side of the little dead face, leaving the other half in shadow. The tube of the camera was brought to the proper focus on the silent subject, and in a few seconds the negative was ready to go into the “dark room” and be prepared for printing in its chemical bath. No one was in the place except the proprietor, a solemn-faced undertaker and your correspondent. This is the first time, said the photographer, as he critically examined the negative, that I have ever been called upon to picture the dead in my own place, but this case was such a peculiar one that I could not refuse, although it would undoubtedly draw away custom if it were known. People have a foolish horror of death, you know, and would actually be afraid to come if they thought I had dead bodies here. It only took a moment, and there was really nothing awful about it. The mother, poor soul, will have something to look at and cry over now, and the speaker stopped, as the undertaker had turned the last screw in the lid of the coffin and was preparing to carry it out to the hearse again.

THE CAMERA ON THE BATTLE-FIELD.

My first experience in photographing the dead, resumed the photographer, as the hearse rattled away from the door, was on the battle-field of Antietam. It was a warm September morning, three days after the great fight. I had a boy with me to assist in preparing the chemicals. He only worked for an hour. With boyish curiosity he went poking about, and picked up an unexploded shell. He was then on the bank of the creek about half a mile off. I never knew how it happened, but the bomb exploded, and almost blew him to pieces. A little darkey came up to where I was waiting for the boy’s return, and completely unnerved me by shouting: “Say, boss, de red-headed gemmen has done gone and blowed hisself up wif a shell!” He was a bright, intelligent boy, and I felt his loss keenly, but I pressed the negro boy into service, and went to work.

It would be useless to go over the scene of that carnage again; to tell of the ghastly after-sights of that awful fight which made so many widows and orphans. I was nervous and excited, and you can depend it did not tend to quiet my nerves when I unwittingly planted one leg of the camera stand on the chest of a dead Union drummer-boy. By some means he had been partly buried in a patch of soft soil. Nothing was visible but the buttons on his blouse and one foot. I changed my position rather hastily. A “dark room” was improvised by hanging army blankets from the limbs of a low tree; and after taking four negatives, I packed up my traps and started for Philadelphia. It was a slow and dangerous journey, but I made it in safety, and went to work printing pictures. They sold like wildfire at fifty cents and one dollar each. I was nearly two thousand dollars in pocket in less than two weeks, and determined to repeat the programme after the next big battle. It came with Fredericksburg. My anxiety to get a view of the field after the retreat of the Union army led to trouble. I was captured by three Confederate stragglers and taken down the Rappahannock in a rowboat. They suspected me to be a spy, I suppose, and the photographic apparatus merely a blind. At any rate the valuable camera, chemicals, glass and everything else were dumped into the river. I was taken before General Lee, personally, and charged with being a Union spy. No explanation availed anything; it was not even believed that I was a photographer. One of General Lee’s staff—I think his name was Murray—proposed that I should be tested. An aide-de-camp galloped off and procured the necessary apparatus, and I photographed the rebel general and his entire staff, on a day cold enough to freeze the words in a man’s mouth. The officers were evidently impressed with the idea of my innocence. A short consultation followed, and then General Lee himself said to me: “Sir, it appears that you are simply engaged in earning a livelihood, and, I believe, honestly. You are at liberty.” I was blindfolded, put back in the boat, and landed within twenty miles of where Burnside had his winter quarters. From that day to this I never knew where I was. Here is the picture of Lee and his staff, and the photographer exhibited the faded likeness, which had probably saved his life.

FRIGHTENED BY A SUPPOSED CORPSE.

After the battle of Gettysburg, he resumed, it became very common for photographers to go to the front. They all appeared to be making money, and I finally made up my mind to try it again. The three days’ fight at Spotsylvania Court House was the last battle-field I ever saw, or want to see again. I arrived there before General Grant had driven the enemy into Richmond. Many of the dead had been removed, but there were still many bodies on the field—enough, in fact, to make a good picture, I thought. I never took it. After getting the best site to have the sun on a half-dozen dead soldiers and two abandoned cannon for the central figures of the picture, I covered my head with the cloth and brought the tube to bear on the group. I had just got the proper focus when a most startling incident occurred. I saw the arm of a supposed dead man lift high in the air and then fall. The day was mild, beautiful and sunny. Everything was as still as death, except the faint booming of a far distant cannon. I dropped the cloth and ran forward to where the dead soldiers lay. There was not the least sign of life in any of them. Decomposition had set in, except in one of them, a dark-haired young man wearing the gray uniform of the Confederacy. He was dead, to all appearance, and a ragged bullet-hole in his forehead precluded any other idea. Thinking it was only imagination, I went back to the camera to make another attempt. No sooner had I lifted the cloth to put over my head than I saw the arm lift up a second time. There could be no mistake. Again I approached the dead men, and looking first at the young man who seemed to have met death later than his companions, I plainly saw a tremor in his fingers. Quickly I bent over him, and placing my hand on his forehead found it clammy and cold. He was not dead, but dying. I spoke, and his eyelidstrembled in a sort of unconscious recognition of the presence of the living. I heard a faint flutter of the breath, and saw the shadow of a smile hover for a moment about the lips. Then came a long-drawn sigh, a weak gurgle in the throat, and the soldier boy was dead.

I opened his coat. An old-fashioned daguerreotype of a gray-haired lady, a pack of cards and a Catholic prayer-book I found wrapped up in a small Confederate flag. On the fly-leaf of the book was written, “Henry Barnes MacHenry. From his mother.” The poor fellow had evidently lain where he fell for two or three days, suffering from the tortures of hunger and thirst. Earlier attention might have saved him. The incident, simple as it may seem to you, frightened me. I went home, and for a year devoted myself to regular photography.

A GHASTLY KIND OF BUSINESS.

Business grew dull, and I got poor. The war had just about ended, when one day, when pushed to my wits’ end for money, I was struck with an idea which I have followed out successfully ever since. The death columns of the morning papers were carefully gone over, and when the funeral was advertised from an humble neighborhood I was usually sure of a five dollar bill. I visited the houses and offered to photograph their dead. Out of a dozen visits I would probably get one job. In a couple of years my reputation grew, and now I am almost as frequently sent for as the minister. Only last May a messenger came from a West Philadelphia family for me to photograph their dying father.

When I got there he was too far gone and I had to wait. Half an hour after the old gentleman had breathed his last, and before he became stiff, we had him sitting in a chair, with his eyes held open with stiff mucilage between the lids and brow, and his legs crossed. He made a very good picture. I once photographed two children—sisters—who had died the same day of diphtheria. They were posed with their arms about each other’s necks. An Irish family, living in the southern part of the city, called on me about two years ago to take a picture of their dead son—a young man—with his high hat on. It was necessary to take the stiffened corpse out of the ice-box and prop him up against the wall. The effect was ghastly, but the family were delighted, and thought the hat lent a life-like effect. Sometimes, and at the suggestion of the family, I have filled out the emaciated cheeks of dead people with cotton to make them look plump. The eyes are nearly always propped open with pins or mucilage, but when people can afford to engage an artist it is an easy matter to paint the eyes afterward. Another time I took a picture of a dead man who had been scalded to death. It was a full-length photograph, and an artist was engaged to fill out the burns on the face and then make a copy in oil. For that piece of work I got $50, and I think he got no less than $500.

TAKING THE DEAD FROM THE TOMB.

I recall an instance, continued the photographer, which is probably the most remarkable thing ever related. Two young men came into my place in the winter of 1874 or 1875, I forget which, and said they wanted a photograph of their dead father, whose body was in the family receiving vault awaiting interment in the spring. They cautioned me that their step-mother was violently opposed to having her husband’s body taken from the vault for such a purpose, and that she daily visited the place of sepulture to prevent any such attempt. It was agreed that I should engage a couple of men to assist in taking the body out, and another to keep watch for the widow. We went to the vault early in the morning to avoid the woman, who usually made her visit after twelve o’clock. It took some time to get the body properly posed against the side of the vault, and then it began to drizzle. We threw a horse blanket over the coffin and retreated to the shelter of a tree. About noon the sun came out, and I hurriedly prepared to secure the negative. The camera had just been placed in position when our sentinel came running breathlessly in, with word that the widow was nearly at the entrance to the cemetery gate, a quarter mile distant. It did not take a moment to restore the corpse to the coffin, screw on the lid, and carry all back to the vault. I packed up my kit, and with the two men got out of another gate. Four months after that one of the sons came to me with a most remarkable story. He said his step-mother had lost her reason. When the dead man’s body was exhumed in the spring in the presence of the widow, she insisted on having the coffin opened. The corpse was found partly turned over and the lining of the coffin disarranged. The widow went into hysterics, under the impression that her husband had been buried alive. The stepsons tried to reassure her, and finally confessed that they had authorized the taking up of the body to have it photographed, but the explanation came too late. The woman’s reason was affected, and she could not understand that in our haste to escape we had turned the corpse on its side.

Photographic Times and American Photographer, Volume 12, J. Traill Taylor, Editor, 1882

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: This gripping narrative contains several popular themes of the era: dying Civil War soldiers, post-mortem photography, and burial alive. The mistaken placing of the tripod on a drummer boy’s corpse, the “dead” soldier’s moving arm, and the descent into madness of the obviously disliked stepmother are thrilling touches. And it is always useful to get a professional’s tips on how to make a dead body seem alive using common household items.

This excerpt and more on post-mortem photography may be found in The Victorian Book of the Dead. 

For a piece on the myth of standing post-mortem photographs see this post, Dead Man Standing.

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.

Grandmere Jeanneton: 1884

“GRANDMERE JEANNETON.”

I was smoking my after-dinner cigar and reading Figaro on the esplanade in Strasbourg, when I was accosted by an old woman who inquired in French for the nearest photographer. She wore the common dress of the Alsatian peasant, and her dusty shoes indicated a long foot journey, but under her linen head-dress fell her white hair round a face that, sunburnt and wrinkled and wearing traces of recent tears, yet was so beautiful in its expression of tender goodness and touching resignation not unmixed with a certain pride, that I involuntarily addressed her as “Grandmere,” and forgetting that I had promised a friend to await his arrival, offered to guide her to her destination.

On the road she told me her simple story. She was a widow, and lived prior to the French-German war with her married son in a village, fifty miles from Strasbourg. They were well-to-do peasants before the enemy invaded their little village; but one morning they woke to find the Prussians encamped in their fields and making themselves perfectly at home. More troops arrived the next day and the following, until the quiet village was a big camp, where the enemy heaped up the stores needed for the siege of Strasbourg.

One dark night the camp was alarmed and a magazine containing among other stores a considerable quantity of powder was found on fire, and there was no doubt that it was the work of the inhabitants. Accordingly the next morning six of the most prominent or most patriotic of the inhabitants were brought before the Prussian commander, and after a short examination that proved nothing, without further trial, were shot in the square in front of the village church. The widow’s son was one of the six victims, and his wife, who became frantic with grief over his death, was the next morning found lifeless on his grave, thus leaving her infant son to the sole care of his grandmother.

The old woman now centered all her hope and all her affection in the little boy, and as he grew up she was fully repaid, for he loved his grandmother with an intensity often found in children who die young a love that was alone equaled by his veneration of his dead parents, his adoration of “la belle France” and his hate of the Prussians, for the old woman, who loved her country dearly, and never forgot that her husband fell fighting for it at “Solferino,” and that her son was killed by its enemies, instilled, perhaps unconsciously, both feelings in his young breast.

One day, when the boy was 10 years old, a Prussian official who inspected the village school was struck with his beauty and serious air, and addressed a question to him in German respecting his parents. “The Prussians killed them,” answered the boy in French. The official colored, and in a rebuking tone asked the boy why he didn’t speak German. “Because it is the language of my country’s enemies,” answered the boy fearlessly.

The official ordered him in arrest, and he was shut up in a chamber above the school-room, where he remained until night, when he boldly leaped from the window to the ground and, as he fell in a thick copse, escaped unhurt. The boy now fairly flew to his grandmother’s house, but as he was afraid of being seen and brought back to the school if he followed the road, he crossed in through the fields behind the village.

It was in the harvest and the grapes were ripe, so old Martin, the owner of the choicest grapes in the village, kept watch with a loaded shot-gun over his precious treasures. Softly he walks over the field behind the wine-press, when he hears something force its way through the grapevines. He stops and cocks his piece. He will now catch the thief who robs him of his biggest grapes. The moon is behind the clouds, out he sees the outline of a person running fast through the vines. “Halt!” he commands but the person never heeds him. He raises his gun–a flash–a scream–a fall of a body among the grapes, and when the old man arrives on the spot, he finds instead of the supposed grape thief a little curly-haired boy whose life is fast ebbing away with the blood that flows out and mixes with the crushed grapes; his black eyes are already fixed and glassy and it is with a faltering voice he whispers: “Give my love to grandmother and tell her– father! mother! I am coming”–his hands grasp the vines tighter, he raises himself to a sitting posture, the moon coming from behind the clouds shines on the wine leaves in his curly hair, a cry rises in his throat: “Vive la belle France!”–he sinks back, his eyes closed, and the orphan boy is gone.

“And it was me–me alone–who murdered him,” complained the grandmother when she concluded her tale. Her eyes were dry, but the muscles round the corner of her mouth worked convulsively and there was a great sob in her throat. “It was all my fault, the result of my unforgiveness; holy Mary have mercy–” and the old woman ran the black beads of her rosary through her fingers, murmuring her prayers.

We arrived shortly after at our destination, the atelier of a French photographer, with whom I was slightly acquainted. I introduced my companion to him, and he, after offering her a seat, addressed some questions to her about her picture. She looked at him with wonder, and finally replied that she only wanted a picture of her boy. “Ah!” said the photographer, “a little boy, very good, where is he!” A tear dimmed the old woman’s black eye, and for answer she pointed up to heaven. “Oh!” exclaimed my friend, “dead! I do not like to photograph dead bodies, but still as monsieur brought you here I will make an exception; when did your little boy die?”

“When the grapes ripen he will have been gone a year,” replied the grandmother.

“But, my dear,” began the photographer, perplexed, when I interrupted him, and taking him aside told him the old woman’s story and how she had walked fifty miles on her old legs to procure a likeness of her dead grandchild.

“But, my dear fellow, what can I do? I am grieved, upon my word I am; but what would you have me do? I can’t photograph angels!”

A noise of romping children was now heard and two boys, about 8 and 10 years old, came running into the atelier, crying at the top of their voices: “Oh, papa, voici!”

“Hush, children!” said the parent, “go away; I am busy,” and the happy boys disappeared laughing in the next room. A sudden idea struck me and turning to the old woman, who looked wistfully at the door through which the boys escaped, I asked her if she had kept any of her little boy’s clothes. “Indeed I have, monsieur!” she answered. “I have kept everything belonging to the little dear,” and opening a bundle she carried with her she continued: “Here is the best dress and (her voice sunk to a whisper) the last I ever saw him wear.”

I now took the photographer aside and made him acquainted with my plan for “photographing angels,” and after obtaining his promise of carrying out my instructions I persuaded the grandmother to leave her grandson’s clothing in the atelier and follow me to an inn, where I left her to the care of the buxom hostess.

Two days after the photographer sent for her and on her arrival handed her a picture at sight of which the old woman began crying freely. “My boy! my own darling boy! It is the clothes I spun every thread of myself and his pretty curly hair but why does he cover his face so? Won’t he look at me?” she asked suddenly, looking up from the picture that represented a little boy kneeling in a chair with his folded hands before his face.

“Oh!” remarked the photographer, “he is saying his prayers.”

“Yes, yes, I know! he is praying for his poor old grandmere. Oh, my darling boy!” and the great tears rolled down her wrinkled cheeks. “God and our lady bless you, messieurs!” said she when she grew calmer. “I am now going to pray by my boy’s grave until I follow him;” and refusing all aid for her trip home, but pressing her newly found treasure fast to her brave old heart, “Grandmere Jeanneton” left us.

As to the picture, our readers have of course all guessed that the photographer dressed his oldest boy in the poor peasant boy’s clothes; and who would not practice such a deception to see the tears that rolled down Grandmere Jeanneton’s aged cheeks?

The Argos [IN] Reflector 25 December 1884: p. 1

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Mrs Daffodil was formerly in service in the household of Mrs Marrowfat, the society medium and shudders at the impostures by which that clever lady enriched herself at the expense of the desolate and sorrowing. And yet, somehow, Mrs Daffodil cannot bring herself to condemn the photographer who gave such consolation to the aged Grandmere who had lost everything.

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.

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

Dead Man Standing

Dead Man Standing. Le Transi de Rene de Chalon
Dead Man Standing. Le Transi de Rene de Chalon

While I am a huge fan of Le Transi de René de Chalon, at the Church of St. Étienne, Bar-Leduc, France, seen above, the sad reality is that a corpse is a limp pile of meat. “Dead weight” is no mere expression. The dead cannot stand by themselves.

Naturally there are a few exceptions such as persons struck by lightning or electrocuted and the mummified, frozen, or heavily embalmed (see below). Rigor might occasionally occur in a way to temporarily allow a corpse to remain freakishly upright. But there are many vintage anecdotes about Resurrection men baffling the law by smuggling corpses sitting upright in a carriage—the corpse of Baroness Marie Vetsera was said to have been removed from Mayerling in this manner–or inconveniently dead men being “walked” as if they were drunk as in this story:

 

GRIM RUSE TO REMOVE A DEAD BODY.

The New York police are investigating a ghastly incident, which is alleged to have occurred in connection with the death of Mr Goodale, of Watertown, New York State, a well-known millionaire. While visiting New- York last month Mr Goodale died suddenly in an apartment in Forty-seventh Street, where he was dining with a friend and two women. The landlady refused to allow the undertaker’s hearse to take away the body, asserting that it would injure the reputation of the house. Mr Goodale’ s physician and. the coroner were summoned, and the latter, it is said, agreed to keep the matter secret to prevent a possible scandal. Mr Goodale’s companion is said to have then sent for another friend, and late at night the two men, arm-in-arm with the corpse, walked to the nearest cab-stand. During their grim journey they pretended that the dead man was only intoxicated. They staggered about the pavement and addressed jocular remarks to the corpse. Although the streets were crowded with people coming from the theatres, the deception was never noticed, When the cab was reached, the body was placed in it and conveyed to the undertaker’s, a generous gift sealing the driver’s lips. Star 6 April 1905: p. 2

Fair enough. But even with exceptions, it is nearly impossible to get the dead to stand on their own two feet without considerable assistance from the living. Which brings me to a point of considerable annoyance.

Recently this article on post-mortem photographs was published by the BBC. Now, rightly or not, I still have this nostalgic vision of the BBC as home of quality journalism, received pronunciation, and gravitas. But the BBC should be ashamed of itself for printing a piece that looks like it had been researched on Buzzfeed or its ilk. The article claims as post-mortems photographs of persons who are patently not dead, states that an obvious pre-mortem of a dying woman has had its eyes painted open, does not cite sources except a single mention of an Australian library, and, most damningly, repeats a canard that has been refuted again and again, about the dead being propped in a standing position for a post-mortem photo. [This site covers the question so well, I’m not sure why I’m bothering…] But indulge me while I rail against this beloved Victorian mortuary falsehood,  with little hope that it will make the slightest difference to those who Believe.

I will warn those of you with sensitive stomachs or advanced degrees, that I am all about the primary source.

Here’s the gist: Somewhere the fanciful idea got started that some dead Victorians were photographed in a standing position, supported by metal propper-uppers. If you can see the base of a metal stand behind a Victorian photographic subject, it means the subject is really and truly dead.

This is patently absurd and there are many sites out there that will patiently explain why it is absurd. Here’s one of the best. As that site points out, the metal stands pictured were headrests to keep the head of a subject still for a long photographic exposure—lightweight articles that could not physically support the dead-weight of a corpse. But, of course, the notion of the standing dead is a fun fact that many people just love and Ebay sellers, who may be ignorant or exploitive, repeat the old lie in listing after listing of “post-mortems,” no matter how blatantly lively the actual subject.

Would actual contemporary sources help to dispel this fantasy?

Looking at nineteenth-century medical/forensic texts, we see much excitement that post-mortem photographs will aid in identifying the unknown dead. Those commercial photographers who specialized in “securing the shadow ere the substance fade,” generally wanted to show a corpse in repose; “not dead, but sleeping.” The recumbent position, in coffin or on a chaise longue, was essential to the illusion.

Forensic photographers had no such illusions. It was obvious that a) dead people can look remarkably dead and b) a positive ID was much more likely if the person was posed like a living person.

One of the most famous pioneers in post-mortem photography for the identification of the unknown dead was Dr. Nicolas Minovici, who used a variety of special techniques to bring les inconnues back to life.

 

Photographing the Dead for Identification.

The London Lancet states that the coroner has on two recent occasions commented on the unsatisfactory character of the photographs of the unidentified dead taken by the police authorities. It adds that Doctor Miniovichi [Minovichi] has contributed a valuable report on this subject from his experience as director of a Medicolegal Institute of Bucharest. He describes his method in the Archives d’Anthropologic Criminelle. He substitutes artificial eyes and gives a natural appearance to the lids by means of lead foil or by pinning them to the eyeball with small pins. The jaws are drawn together with threads, and the face drawn to a natural expression by means of pins, evacuating accumulations of gas by means of incisions in the scalp or mouth. He gives photographs of the various steps in photographing the dead and states that he was able in one case to fully establish the identity by means of the photograph, the body having been in the water for six weeks. Physician and Surgeon: A Professional Medical Journal, Volume 28, 1906

You can read about Dr. Minovici’s artifices and see before and after photographs of some shockingly decayed and disfigured corpses in the Archives. It is not for the faint-of-heart, but our weeper-trimmed hats must be off to Dr. Minovici—he worked astonishing transformations on bodies that seemed beyond humanity.

Minovici describes and illustrates the chairs and supports he used to photograph corpses. Here, for example is a corpse in a special posing chair.photographing cadavers 2

photographing chair

The table [fig. 5] was also used—it tipped over; the body was fastened at neck and crotch; then the table was set upright.

Here is another table to hold the body upright, used in the morgue at Geneva:

This table and its accompanying text really ought to put paid to the notion that a corpse could be stood on its feet for a photograph.

table for photographing cadavers

An illustration of a table/litter used for photographing corpses. It could be laid flat, or adjusted to hold the body upright. The inventor recommended clamping the head of the corpse “otherwise a slow sinking of the body occurs which renders photography very difficult, especially if a long exposure is required….

“The author [Dr. H.T. Gosse] has obtained excellent results with this apparatus, which is cheap and easily put together. He has employed it especially in the identification of unknown bodies deposited in the Morgue at Geneva, and since the introduction of this method the mean of the corpses classified as unknown has fallen from forty to five or six per cent.” The Photogram, Volume 5, 1898

What did commercial photographers have to say about their post-mortem subjects’ poses? Looking at interviews with photographers who did such work, we find statements like “The photographer lifted the little corpse out of the coffin and stood it up in a chair. The nurse held it in position and a flashlight picture was made.” And when a photographer was called to take a photo of a dead coachman whose widow insisted he be photographed on the box: “So we carried him out to the stable, tied him on the box in full livery, with the lines and whip in his hands, and photographed him.” The Topeka [KS] Daily Capital 18 July 1885: p. 3

This particular artist also mentions that he has taken photographs of persons in coffins and on beds, while children were placed in parents’ arms or set up in chairs. But there is no mention of standing poses for the dead or of using a headrest to support them, as, indeed, there is no mention in any of the photographic journals or photographers’ accounts I’ve seen.

Rube Burrow, notorious train-robber, post-mortem
Rube Burrow, notorious train-robber, post-mortem

 

A popular sub-genre in post-mortem photography was images of the corpses of notables or outlaws photographed out of doors, usually in a coffin set on its end. The corpse of Manuel Morales, who threw a bomb at King Alfonso of Spain and his wife, and shot himself while trying to escape, was photographed “in a standing position, the body held up by two men.” British Journal of Photography, Vol. 53, 1906

I’ve run across two references to photographing the standing dead, one this frozen body:

An Irish family, living in the southern part of the city, called on me about two years ago to take a picture of their dead son—a young man—with his high hat on. It was necessary to take the stiffened corpse out of the ice-box and prop him up against the wall. The effect was ghastly, but the family were delighted, and thought the hat lent a life-like effect. Photographic Times and American Photographer, Volume 12, J. Traill Taylor, Editor, 1882 [The “ice-box,” as I’ve written about in these pages, was meant to freeze the corpse solid.]

A western “tent photographer” noted a cultural difference:

I was tenting in an Arizona town and quite a number of Mexican children died. These people are quite fond of pictures, and seem to like corpse ones if they have none taken in life. Most of them in the town I was in preferred having them standing, so I ordered them to place the corpse against the back of a chair and tie it thus outside of their doby house in the sun; and I will say that a standing corpse picture looks much better than one lying down. “Nine Years a Tent Photographer,” E.A. Bonine, Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin, 1898.

There are also photographs of show mummies, like Elmer McCurdy or “John Wilkes Booth,” embalmed with tissue-stiffening potions, such as this one:

 

MODERN EMBALMING

“How do you embalm now; what chemicals are used?” “Oh, there are a number of processes. Dr. Chaussier had the body thoroughly emptied and washed in water and kept it saturated in corrosive sublimate. The salt gradually combines with the flesh, gives it firmness and prevents decay, and in process of time the flesh becomes as hard as wood. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 3 August 1885: p. 8

An Ohio undertaker named Pearce kept an embalmed corpse as a specimen of his work:

The “subject” has now done service for a period of three years and the proprietor confidently expects that it will last as long as he remains in business.

The body in question has been in the very warmest workroom of his establishment all this while and the leatherlike flesh of the corpse is totally free from odor or putrefaction…Formaldehyde, a product of wood alcohol and a comparatively recent product, is the fluid ..used for the desiccation of the body in question. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 17 October 1897: p. 19

An Atlanta doctor went the leathery corpse preparers one better:

 

SECRET

Taken From Nature

Atlanta Doctor Discovers a Certain Method

Of Transmuting Human Bodies Into Stone.

Placed in a Case That is Made Air-Tight

And Treated With Chemicals, the Principal one Being Silicon Dioxide in a Liquid Form

Atlanta, Ga., July 18. A process of preserving human bodies, known to the ancient Egyptians, lost, sought for in vain by chemists and alchemists for more than 2,000 years, has been discovered by Dr. Arnold Rosett, of Atlanta.

Unlike the method practice by the priests who laid the Pharaohs in their sculptured sarcophagi, the process of Dr. Rosett is not one of mummification, but turns human flesh into heavy white stone… Dr. Rosett can change, and has changed in his laboratory, human bodies and parts of human bodies into glistening silicon in from four to six months. The length of time varies with the condition for the subject at the time of death, the character of the drugs given in the last illness having much to do with determining the length of time necessary for the chemicals used to work upon the flesh. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 19 July 1903: p. 9

Perhaps it was stories of petrified corpses or articles on embalming that suggested that a body could be stiffened enough to stand with only the negligible support of a headrest. But it is obvious from accounts by forensic post-mortem photographers, doing work where a standing portrait was most desirable, that an apparatus more substantial than a simple headrest was necessary to put the dead back on their feet.

And yet…. There is this poignant woodcut, taken from a photograph which accompanies a report on the autopsy of a toddler with Pott’s Disease.

child corpse suspended from head rest

After death, a photograph, from which the accompanying woodcut was obtained, was taken by Mr. Mason, of Bellevue Hospital, by simply suspending her in a head rest. Transactions of the International Medical Congress, Seventh Session, 1881

Theories as to why, in the face of so little evidence, the myth of the standing corpse persists? Or proof (Buzzfeed doesn’t count) that it isn’t a myth. chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.

This conclusive, meticulously-researched article on several Victorian post-mortem photography myths was just sent to me by the author, Edward Clint. Do read and share it!

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 newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

A Living Woman Photographed in Her Coffin: 1883

sarah bernhardt in coffin
Actress Sarah Bernhardt posed, living, in her coffin, c. 1873

A Living Woman Photographed in Her Coffin.

A young woman of intelligence and culture, having a great dislike to the heathenish custom of inviting the motley mob at a funeral to view the corpse, expressed the wish that when her funeral took place no one should be allowed to look at her. One of Miss B’s family, in order to turn the dismal subject into a joke, remarked that her friends would be very much grieved if they could not see such a beautiful corpse. “Oh, I may be old and ugly then,” she said and sighed. It seemed so ludicrous that a young girl should wish to die before she was old so as to make a handsome corpse and yet not wish to be seen that her father said: “You had better rent a coffin, have made a becoming shroud and have your photograph taken, when you can decide whether or not you care to be gazed upon.” This idea so tickled this maiden fair, who was aching for something novel, that she proposed at once to carry out the plan. The horror of the photographer but made Miss B. more desirous of seeing herself resting on satin cushions, clad in a snow-white robe, bordered with swan’s down–a lily clasped in her hands. When this startling photograph reached me a tear trembled for one moment in my heart, but did not rise to my eye, ere I thought, as lovely in death as in life, no wonder her afflicted family wish to preserve the likeness of such a corpse. Then, turning the card over to see where a perfect work of art was taken, what is my astonishment to read, in Miss B.’s own handwriting: “Please do not ask to see me after I am dead. This is better than the reality.” Boston Courier.

The Alabama  Courier [Athens AL] 2 August 1883: p. 4

 

 

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 newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.