She Paid the Bill: 1900

white hearse with ponies

She Paid the Bill.

“No, I haven’t any news of importance for you,” said M. J. Cullen, the undertaker, “but I can tell you a mighty nice little story, the truth of which my books will verify. It is about the noble action of a little girl who came to me about fifteen years ago. She was then about twelve years of age, and despite the fact that her outward appearance suggested parental negligence, she appeared to have a noble and honest heart. It was about seven o’clock of a cold July evening when she walked into my office almost frozen and crying bitterly. She asked to see me, and when I made myself known she stopped crying and told me a very pitiful story, that would soften the heart in the coldest of persons.

She said she lived near my stable; that her father was a drunkard and her mother was dead. She and a little brother seven years of age, of whom she thought the world, were cared for by the neighbours when the father was on a spree, and despite the father’s misconduct the little girl could not be induced to leave him. She kept the house and prepared the meals. She bore her lot philosophically and tried to be happy, but her whole peace of mind was almost wrecked when after about two weeks’ sickness her little brother died. He was her pet, and the two were much attached to one another.

She again burst into tears, and between heavy sobs she said that on account of her father’s evil ways there was no money in the house, and she did not know how her little brother could be buried. She had been told that the city would bury the remains, but when she looked into the manner in which such a burial would be performed—that the coffin would be a plain pine box and that instead of a hearse a waggon would take him to the cemetery she became almost frantic, and would not allow it. She then pleaded with me to bury her brother. She wanted him to have a white coffin, a white hearse, with white horses, and his remains to be taken to the cemetery. Crying bitterly, she said, ‘I will give you my word of honor to pay you as soon as I get the money.’

I was much touched by the story, and went to the home of the child and there learned the truth of her statement. The dead boy was laid on the bed, which was neatly made up by the little girl. I immediately took charge of the funeral, and complied with the every wish of the child; I never expected pay, and, although I thought of the story for some time after, I never expected to see the child again.

Not long since, while seated in my office, a handsome, well-dressed young lady entered, and, addressing me by name, called me aside. She asked me if I remembered her, and I was compelled to acknowledge my ignorance. Imagine my surprise when she told me of a little ragged child of fifteen years ago. ‘I am that little girl,’ she said, ‘and I have come, according to promise, on my word of honor to pay you the bill.’ ‘I looked over the books and found the account, and she paid it. She was married well, and her husband is a prominent and prosperous business man.”

Pauper burials and the interment of the dead in large cities, Frederick Ludwig Hoffman, 1919

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: For the poor, a pauper’s burial in Potter’s Field was as much to be shunned as going to the Workhouse. We have seen how unfortunates beggared themselves providing “decent” funerals for their loved ones and paid sums they could ill-afford into burial clubs, the resulting insurance money covering perhaps only part of the costs of a proper burial.

Here is what Mr. Wild, an undertaker, testifying about conditions in the London slums, says about the disbursement of those funds:

In benefit societies and burial clubs there is generally a certain sum set aside for the burial, which sum is, I consider, frequently most extravagantly expended. This arises from the secretary, or some other officer of the club being an undertaker. When a death takes place the club money is not paid directly: it is usually paid on the club or quarterly night following. The member dying seldom leaves any money beyond the provision in his club to bury him, consequently the widow or nominee makes application to the secretary, who tells her that he cannot give any money to purchase mourning for herself and family until the committee meets; this may be three months after the death; but, says the secretary, “give me the funeral, I will advance you a few pounds upon my own account;” so that the widow is obliged to submit to any charge he may think fit to make. I do not mean to be understood that this is always the case—I am sorry to say it is of frequent occurrence.

Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Classes, Edwin Chadwick, 1843

Decades later, the fleecing of the bereaved poor continued:

The following is typical of what happens almost every day. A father of four children, who was insured for £7 died. The widow informed an undertaker who called at the house that she was unable to make the funeral arrangements until she had received the money. ‘Do not let that trouble you,’ said the man. You can pay when convenient.’

“The widow is still wondering how the cost of the funeral amounted to exactly £7. The secret is that the insurance agent communicated the news of the death and the amount of the policy to the undertaker, at the same time drawing the usual commission for his trouble.

“When the woman returned from the ceremony she had not a penny left in the world, and for long her children have been pinched with the want of food. How long shall these men be allowed to fleece the poor in life and rob them in death?”

Star 28 October 1905: p. 4

The young lady who found a kindly undertaker to trust her for his fees was fortunate indeed!

For other stories of undertakers and mortuary mishaps, Mrs Daffodil is pleased to recommend The Victorian Book of the Dead.  See also this previous post on the funeral arrangements for the son of a poor widow.

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 Heartless Wife: 1850

Black silk plaid mourning gown (possibly another gown dyed and with the trimmings removed) c. 1850 https://www.augusta-auction.com/component/auctions/?view=lot&id=4676&auction_file_id=8
Black silk plaid mourning gown (possibly a previously-made gown dyed and with the trimmings removed) c. 1850 https://www.augusta-auction.com/component/auctions/?view=lot&id=4676&auction_file_id=8

Going Into Mourning

A few weeks ago, our friend Clark was lying sick with the bilious fever. The attack was severe, and he believed death was near. One morning he awoke from a short sleep, to hear a hurried and smothered conversation in the adjoining room, in which his wife took part. The first words that Clark caught were uttered by his better-half.

“On that ground,” said she, “I object to mourning!”

“Yes,” replied another, “but the world looks for it—it is fashionable, and one might as well be out of the world as out of the fashion.”

“Here,” thought Clark, “is a nice wife. She thinks I am about to die—to be planted, if I may use the expression, in the cold earth, and yet she refuses to go in mourning for me. Ah, me!”

“Now that I am here, perhaps I had better take your measure.”

“The unfeeling wretch!” exclaimed Clark, “to think of sending for a dressmaker before I am dead! But I’ll cheat her yet! I’ll live in spite!”

“Well,” mused the wife, “I believe you may measure me. I will let you buy the trimming, and let it be as gay as possible.”

“What heartlessness,” groaned Clark. “Woman-like, though. One husband is no sooner dead than they set about entrapping another. I can scarcely credit it.”

“Of course you will have a flounce?”

“Two of them; and as the body is to be plain, I wish you to get wide gimp to trim it.”

“How will you have the sleeves trimmed?”

“With buttons and fringe.”

“Well—well—this beats all,” sighed poor Clark.

“When do you want the dress?” inquired the mantua-maker.

“I must have it in three days. My husband will then be off my hands, and I shall be able to get out!”

“Oh, horrible—horrible!” ejaculated the sick man; “I am only half dead, but this blow will kill me.”

His wife heard him speak, and ran quickly to his bedside. “Did you speak, my dear?” said she, with the voice of an angel.

“I heard it all, madam,” replied Clark.

“All what, my dear?”

“The mourning—gay dresses—fringe—every thing. Oh! Maria—Maria!”

“You rave!”

“Do you take me for a fool?”

“Certainly not, my dear.”

“You expect me to be out of the way in three days, do you?”

“Yes, love; the doctor said you would be well in that time.”

“What means the dress?”

“It is the one you bought me before you were taken sick.”

“But you were speaking of mourning!”

“We were talking of Mrs. Taperly.”

“Oh, is that it?”

“Yes, love. You know she is poor, and her family is large, and it must inconvenience her very much to find mourning for them all. On this ground alone, I oppose it.”

“So—so—that’s it, is it? I thought you were speaking of me, and it distressed me. Let me beg of you to be more careful for the future.”

Clark was out in three days, and he now laughs at the matter, which then appeared so horrible.

The Brooklyn [NY] Daily Eagle 7 May 1850: p. 4

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  One quite understands the gentleman’s distress. Taken in the context of a dying husband, the lady’s remarks would have seemed the height of social depravity, although, to judge from the many jocularities surrounding “Merry Widows” in the papers, such things were not uncommon. And fringe, although popular on early 1850s gowns, was certainly not approved for mourning.

Of course, there was also merit to Mrs Clark’s opposition to the wearing of mourning, although she seems to regard it as the purview of those fortunate enough to be able to afford it. It is true that the practice weighed most heavily on the poor as this Spiritualist publication wrote:

 How sadly out of place, then, are the milliner and the dressmaker, the trying on of dresses and the trimming of bonnets. There is something profane in exciting the vanity of a young girl by fitting a waist, or trying on a hat, when the corpse of a father is lying in an adjoining room. It is a sacrilege to drag the widow forth from her grief to be fitted for a gown, or to select a veil. It is often terribly oppressive to the poor. The widow, left desolate with a half dozen little children, the family means already reduced by the long sickness of the father, must draw on her scanty purse to buy a new wardrobe throughout for herself and her children, throwing away the goodly stock of garments already prepared, when she most likely knows not where she is to get bread for those little ones. Truly may fashion be called a tyrant, when it robs a widow of her last dollar. Surely your sorrow will not be questioned, even if you should not call in the milliner to help display it. Do not in your affliction help uphold a custom which will turn the afflictions of your poorer neighbour to deeper poverty, as well as sorrow. The Spiritual Magazine, Vol. 5, January 1870: p. 28

Mrs Daffodil has previously posted about the sartorial excesses of enthusiastic widows in “The Mourner a la Mode,” “The Mourning Boudoir,” and a cutting dialogue between pieces of mourning stationary over their mistress’s grief or lack thereof.  The latter two pieces and similar stories of the happily bereaved, as well as widow jokes and discussions of funerary excess 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.

 

Hell-wain Spotting:

white hearse Street Railway Review 1891
Child’s trolley hearse, 1891 Mexico

[Originally published 1 November 2016 at HauntedOhiobooks.com]

Dia de los Muertos begins today. I hope you have your ofrendas decorated and have laid in a good supply of sugar skulls and marigolds. Although I’ve previously told ghost stories about dead nuns and sinister ravens and corpse-confessors to celebrate, this year I’d like to visit the fascinating world of Hispanic street-car hearses. They are perhaps, not strictly speaking hell-wains, the common carrier for the souls of the damned, but rather vehicles for Purgatorial passage. (Incidentally, I had thought about calling this post “A Streetcar Named ‘The Crier.’” There was a funeral street car in Baltimore christened “Dolores.”)

While trolley hearses were used in the United States, there did not seem to be as much enthusiasm about the idea as there was in Mexico and South America where they were seen as a modern innovation and a symbol of progressive government policies towards the poor, offering various levels of service and conveying the bodies of paupers to the grave without charge.

Despite the egalitarian public’s fondness for private funeral trains and carriages in the United States, the press seemed fascinated by this “class system” of Mexican funerals.  The trolley funerals were often the subject of “curious customs from our neighbors to the south” articles, complete with the casual racism of the time.  I’ll caution you that there will be a bit of overlap with the articles here because I’m a completist when it comes to documenting mortuary history.

Here we see how the trolley hearses did not start out as a program of government beneficence, but as a capitalist venture.

first class funeral car
First-class funeral car, 1884

FUNERALS ON STREET CARS

When the street-car line was first opened in [the City of] Mexico an enterprising stockholder, Senor Gayosso, bought up all the hearses in the city. He then had funeral cars built for the tracks and procured the sole right to prepare passengers and haul them to their last resting-place. He is to-day one of the wealthiest men in Mexico. The first-class funeral cars for adults are built of fine black wood. A raised part is in the center of the car on which the coffin is placed. A canopy, exquisitely finished, covers the entire car, the sides being artistically draped. From four to eight beautiful black horses, with long, black plumes in their heads, haul this strange car.

The two drivers are dressed in fine black suits, gloves and high silk hats, bound with wide crepe bands. The coffin is placed on the rest prepared for it, and all around and over flowers are placed. Following this comes a train of cars with the friends. The windows are draped with white crepe and the doors with black. A funeral train will average twenty cars and more, if it is a person of wealth who has died. But in the hundreds who follow a body to the grave cannot be found one woman or child.

I have asked the reason why no women ever attend funerals in Mexico. It is against the rules of society. Mr. Gayosso says women are not allowed to go to funerals because they cry too much. However, a wife cannot go to her husband’s funeral, nor can a mother follow her babe to its grave.

There is a similarity in all the funeral cars. Those for children are white, drawn by white horses. Those for the poor are, like other things in this world for the poor, cheap and shabby. The poor Indian can have a funeral-car and two passage tickets for fifty cents by applying to the police. He can even hire a plain, unpainted coffin to carry the dead to the grave. Once there, the body is wrapped in a serape and consigned to a grave which has been rented for from two to five years. At the end of that time the grave is opened and the bleaching bones are cast into a corner kept for that purpose, where they lay bleaching in the hot Southern sun, exposed to the gaze of the public.

Funerals cost from fifty cents to $2,000. One of the prettiest customs in Mexico is the universal respect which greets a passing funeral. Every man, from the millionaire to the poor, half-clad peon, takes off his hat until the sad train is passed. Well-dressed senoras bow their head and silently cross themselves, while the Indian women kneel in prayer. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 21 May 1887: p. 15

Even today “Agencias Funerarias Gayosso” appears to be one of the most prominent funeral directors in Mexico.

cheap funeral car, Mexico Street Railway Review 1891
The cheapest class of funeral car, except for the multi-compartmented one for pauper funerals. 1891

Among the poor, there was a custom of carrying the coffin to the cemetery by hand or on the head.

The Mexicans have a queer way of burying the dead. The corpse is tightly wrapped in century plant matting, and placed in a coffin rented for about twenty-five cents. One or two natives, as the case may be, place the coffin on their heads and go in a trot to the grave, where the body is interred, and the coffin is then returned. The wealthy class use the street cars as hearses, and the friends follow behind the cars on foot. Evening News [San Jose, CA] 23 February 1889: p. 3

elaborate street car hearse mexico city 1923
1923 street car hearse in Mexico City

The funeral trolleys were quite the lucrative business.

FUNERAL SERVICE.

The story of the splendid street car service given the city of Mexico would hardly be complete without giving a short description of the funeral service. There is a special department for this service, which is very much used, and which earns, I am told, about $400 per day. For this service the old horse cars are used to a good advantage. The company controls the funeral service of the city, whether it be by electric car, horse car or carriage, and it is prepared to furnish any kind of service upon short notice given at their office.

With few exceptions the funerals from the city to the cemeteries are conducted by the street railway company, either first-class, second-class or free, the cost varying with the amount of decoration used on the cars. It is not an uncommon sight to see five or six funerals leaving the public square, following one another on the street railway tracks, each with from one to three cars. Some have great quantities of beautiful flowers and ornamentation and others have none.

The funeral car is generally a motor car, but sometimes it is pulled by mules. It is painted and trimmed in black or white. All are single-truck cars, with four square posts supporting the roof at the corners of the car body, forming a parallelogram, say 12 feet long by the usual width of the car. Between the posts on the floor of the car is a raised portion upon which the casket and many of the flowers are placed. The friends of the dead are carried in one, two or three trailers or horse cars. I have seen as many as two trailers filled with floral decorations.

There are also two magnificently furnished and fitted cars called “Carrozas” for extraordinarily fine funerals. These cars cost upward of $10,000 each and have a place in front for the casket, with seats behind for the people. Women never attend funerals in this country. They also have 20 electric and 8 horse “Carrozas,” which are used for first and second class funerals, according as may be required and are decorated to suit for extra expense. The original cost of such a car is $3.75 silver, trailers being paid for at the same rate,

This service saves the people many thousands of dollars annually and at the same time is worthwhile to the railway company.

The free car for funerals when people are unknown or die absolutely destitute is quite another thing; instead of being entirely open it is entirely closed, with doors on one side opening from top to bottom. There are four doors, with three compartments to each (like pigeonholes), there being 12 places in each car. In each one of these places a body is placed, either in a common board coffin or sewed up in a blanket. The latter cars are furnished at the exact cost of running, twice per day. The service is paid for by the government. Electric Railway Review, Volume 19, 14 March 1908: p. 326

The trolleys were even mentioned in the papers and in guidebooks as one of the not-to-be-missed tourist attractions of Mexico City. I was interested to note that the information on trolley-hearses from an 1899 guide to Mexico was copied practically word-for-word by a 1911 travel book—a long run of popularity.

1st class funeral motor body for Brazil trolley hearse
st Class Funeral Motor Body for Guinle & Company of Bahia, Brazil (Photo #2613, Order #15901–Ordered March 16, 1907, Delivered June 15, 1907) This photo depicts an open, ornate funeral car with a platform for a casket at the center of the car, draped in black cloth. The sides of the car have heavy black drapes held open with tiebacks, and there are four black plumes on each corner of the roof.. http://www2.hsp.org/collections/manuscripts/brill/inventory.html

MEXICO’S TROLLEY FUNERALS

Train of Electric Hearses and Mourners’ Cars One of the Sights.

City of Mexico, June 27.

The elaborate funeral processions which, winding gay-colored through the streets, are a feature of most Spanish-American countries, are unknown here. The electric trains are used for all funerals and the procession following the dead to the place of burial is as modern and up to date as it can be. The electric trains of Mexico are well built and run, their direction being in the hands of Americans and Englishmen. One of the main lines runs to the principal cemetery of the city and along this all the funerals go.

The company has a contract with the city under the terms of which a special burial car, containing coffins for twelve bodies, calls daily at the hospitals and public institutions to take the city charges who have died to the city cemetery. Under the contract with the city the trolley company furnishes the hearse and the car crew, and the undertakers are city employes. The funeral car is a plain black car with little ornamentation.

The company has for private use several cars ranging in elaborateness from a plain style, for which a small charge is made, to a very elaborate one, the price of which puts it beyond the reach of all but the well-to-do.

All the cars are so constructed that they can be run off the tracks and over the pavements to the house from which the body is to be taken. When the coffin is secured the car is drawn by horses back to the nearest track, where it make the necessary electric connection.

Of late the government has been repaving the streets with asphalt. It has been found that dragging the heavy funeral cars over this is ruinous to the pavement and soon another arrangement will be necessary. The trolley company intends to have a central funeral station designated, into which the electric hearses can run on spurs and to which the dead will be taken in vehicles provided for that purpose. A familiar sight on the trolley line to the cemetery is a funeral train made up of an electric hearse, with a trailer for the mourners; another hearse, with another body, another trailer, with another party of mourners, and so on. The trains run at the same speed as other electric vehicles.

Many of the hearses are elaborately embellished with statuettes, carved work, plumes, torches and similar emblems of mourning. The trolley company finds the business profitable and it is growing all the time. Grand Rapids [MI] Press 27 June 1903: p. 10

This pretty picture of funereal efficiency was rather marred by darker reports of ill-maintained tramways, which caused derailments and the spilling of corpses into the street. The admirable plan to collect pauper corpses from the hospitals with Prussian precision was tempered by the reality that the trolley did not always run on time and there were both backlogs of rotting bodies at the cemeteries and complaints by the dismayed populace of naked and decomposing bodies and body parts being run through the middle of Mexico City during the day. In addition, in 1904 there were complaints that a pulqueria across the street from the Panteon Civil de Dolores was patronized by mourners and trolley drivers, who then drove recklessly through the cemetery.

The Mexican Civil War caused the destruction of many trolley lines. The article below suggests that the Mexican trolley-hearse was on the wane. Note that the headquarters of the Mexico Tramways Company was in Canada, perhaps a remnant of those “Englishmen” who were said to have built and run it in 1903.

FUNERAL TRAINS IDLE

Toronto, Ont., Jan. 24. At his desk in Toronto, an official of the Mexico Tramways Company recently noted statistics showing that the street car hearse business in Mexico City had been dropping off gradually during recent years. Hence, an order has gone forth from the Toronto headquarters of the Mexican city’s street car system that its “funeral trains” no longer are to be operated. Times-Picayune [New Orleans LA] 25 January 1931: p. 20

It seems as though trolley-hearses still ran in San Francisco through the late 1920s. Does anyone know the date of the latest use of a trolley hearse either in Mexico or the United States? Bier-heads welcome. Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

For a really fascinating look at the historical care of the dead in Mexico City, see “The Cadaverous City: The Everyday Life of the Dead in Mexico City: 1875-1930.”

 

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.

Making Death Masks: 1912

William McKinley death mask
William McKinley’s death mask, 1901. DC Public Library Commons

RENE BACHE’S BUDGET

HOW DEATH MASKS OF CELEBRITIES ARE MADE

CLARA BARTON THE LATEST OF A LONG LINE THUS IMMORTALIZED.

U.S.J. Dunbar, the National Museum’s Sculptor, and His Weird Work—Masks of Priceless Historic Value—Why a Life Mask of Every President Ought to Be Made—The Masks of Presidents Lincoln and McKinley.

Washington, D.C., June 15.

When Clara Barton died, the other day, a death mask was made of the face of this most famous women by the sculptor of the National Museum, U. S. J. Dunbar, who has probably done more of that kind of work than any other man living. Among other masks he has obtained recently were those of “Fighting Bob” Evans, senator Carter of Montana, and the multimillionaire copper king, Thomas J. Walsh, whose daughter married Edward B. McLean, the present owner of the historic Hope diamond.

Custom has decreed that each president shall leave behind him in the white house a painted portrait of himself. It would be at least equally desirable that “life masks,” which are made in the same way as death masks, should be preserved of all the presidents, not only because of their historic value in themselves, but more importantly for the help they would give to sculptors in the production of accurate busts and statues. The same remark may be said to apply to other distinguished men. So far as death masks are concerned, it is entirely customary nowadays for the surviving relatives of a person who has been eminent in any walk of life to receive applications for permission to make such a reproduction of the features of the defunct—the idea being either that the family may wish to buy it, or that it may be of value for sculptural purposes.

It is not unnatural that many people should refuse; or that, having declined, they should be sorry afterward that they did so. Only a short time ago, when Justice Harlan died. Mr. Dunbar asked the privilege of making a mask of the great jurist. The family was unwilling, however, having beard of a case where injury was done by the process, the skin of the face being badly torn. Of course, anything may be bungled, but there is not the slightest danger of accident of the kind when the work is done by an expert.

McKinley’s Death Mask.

President McKinley died Saturday, September 14, 1900. At once on bearing the news, E. L. A. Pairsch, a New York sculptor, wired secretary Cortelyou for permission to make a death mask, and, the request being granted, took a train for Buffalo, arriving there at 9 p. m. the same day. He took the mask at the Milburn residence the next morning, at 7 o’clock, 29 hours after life had become extinct. It was delivered to Mr. Cortelyou at the white house on the following Tuesday, and is now preserved in a glass case at the National Museum.

The mask looks wonderfully like the sculptured face of Napoleon, whom the original in life was considered so markedly to resemble. It lies on a cushion of purple velvet—the face being inclined slightly forward, as if the head were reposing on a pillow—and wears the peaceful expression and slight suggestion of a smile which are characteristics of the faces of the dead.

In regard to this matter, Mr. Dunbar expressed some very interesting ideas. For one thing, he states that the expression assumed by the face of a dead person is merely the physical result of attitude. If a dead man be left lying on his face, or on his side, for a number of hours—as may easily happen in case of a murder, or even of sudden death in a lonely place—his features will become set in a distorted way, and may even assume a look of horror. Thus one reads occasionally that an individual who has met his fate through violence “still wears a terror-stricken expression” — the implication being that the latter reflects the state of his feelings at the moment of his demise.

The fact is, however, that if the individual thus tragically done to death had promptly been laid flat on his back, his face would have assumed an entirely peaceful expression. The facial muscles, after life has departed, are absolutely inert, and, responding to the influence of gravity, fall into position accordingly. People ordinarily die in bed; the body is placed on its back, and, when the head is in this attitude, all the muscles of the face smooth themselves out. Those of the forehead and about the mouth which by their contraction express anxiety or pain are wholly relaxed, giving the look of a “peace that passeth all understanding,” so sadly familiar to us all.

Why the Dead Smile.

The beginning of a smile in a living person, is a relaxation of the muscles at the corners of the mouth. Hence it is that the face of a dead person wears usually a slight smile—a smile of a peculiar kind, inscrutable, as if of knowing at last all that has been in life so mysterious and puzzling. But it is an expression happily suggestive of an unutterable calm, devoid of suffering.

It happened a few years ago that the wife of a retired admiral in the navy, residing in Washington, was thrown out of her carriage and killed. Incidentally, her face was much disfigured. Her husband had no portrait of her, and so got Mr. Dunbar to make a cast of her left hand, wearing the wedding ring—this being afterward reproduced in marble.

The making of such casts of dead people’s hands, or of hands and arms, is not at all uncommon. One was taken by Mr. Dunbar from the right hand of chief justice Waite, of the United States supreme court, and another of the hand of Frederick Douglass, the-famous negro statesman…. In two instances, also, he has made casts of women’s feet, because they were unusually beautiful, and surviving relatives wished to preserve them.

The sculptor does not use a death mask as a model after which to make a slavish copy for bust or statue. It helps him by measurements, and by preserving such details as wrinkles and the outline of the hair where the latter meets the face. But the main thing gained by it is the reproduction of the bony structure, which does not alter after death, as the muscles do. In some cases a skull is actually modeled from the mask, by measurements of the latter, and upon this the muscles are anatomically laid, in clay, with the help of photographs of the living man, if any are procurable. By such means, with the employment of adequate skill, a counterfeit presentment of remarkable accuracy is obtained—fundamentally mechanical, that is to say, but supplemented in the finishing processes by the artistic talent of the sculptor, for the production of lifelike expression.

The famous Houdon bust of Washington, by far the most satisfactory existing likeness of that great man, was made from a life mask—which, of course, is much more desirable for the purpose than a death mask. Houdon, a French sculptor of celebrity, was asked by Dr. Franklin to come to this country for the purpose of taking the mask; he did so. and, before his departure, made a mask also of Franklin himself, which is represented today by a bust in the possession of the American Philosophical society, in Philadelphia. How much more valuable these are, historically speaking, than any ordinary sculptured likeness is obvious enough, inasmuch as they present to view the very features of the two men, molded direct from the originals.

Making a Life Mask.

A life mask is made substantially in the same way as a death mask, the person to be “taken” lying flat on his back while the operation is being performed. But there is this difference, that breathing must be provided for; and the immortal Washington, while the plaster of paris was waiting to “set” on his face, had to get his supply of air through a small glass tube inserted in one nostril—the tube being provided with a flange to prevent it from falling out.

In later days a quill has been used more commonly for the «same purpose. But it is not really necessary, for, if the work be carefully and skillfully performed, one nostril may be left free of plaster, the substance being merely smeared around it. The “subject” is always cautioned to be very careful not to breathe through his mouth; for, if he should do so, some of the moist plaster might be carried into the opening of his windpipe, and hardening there, choke him to death.

Abraham Lincoln went through this rather distressing operation on two occasions. The first time was in 1860, when it was performed by a Chicago sculptor, Leonard W. Volk. He had then no beard. Casts were made at the same time of both his hands, clenched into fists, and one of them holding a rod. Again, 60 days before he was assassinated, another life mask was made of him by Clark Mills, of Washington. He then wore the chin beard which is so familiar as a feature of his physiog­nomy. Both of these masks, and the hands as well, are now preserved in the National Museum. They are not, however, the only existing copies, whereas the mask of McKinley is unique, the mold having been destroyed immediately after it was taken.

One reason why a life mask, or, next best, a death mask, is so desirable from the viewpoint of the sculptor, is that the two sides of nobody’s face are exactly alike. The sides of the mouth differ, and the eyes are not alike, as one may see by observing any photographic portrait that shows the full face. The proportions of the two sides of a face always differ somewhat, and the sides of the nose are invariably more or less unlike.

Noses Turn to Right.

Walking along the street, any observant person may notice that 99 of every 100 people he meets have noses that turn markedly to the right. Now and then is seen a nose that turns decidedly to the left. It will be found that in these exceptional instances the owners are nearly always left-handed. Now why should this be so? Mr. Dunbar thinks it is because of the fact, which he says is beyond question, that right-handed persons use the muscles on the right side of their faces much more than those on the left side. On the other hand, left-handed individuals make much more use of the muscles on the left side. This would tend to pull the nose in the corresponding direction. It may be, however, that the constant use of the handkerchief for wiping and blowing the nose, even from early childhood, has something to do with the matter. But there is no doubt that in a great majority of faces the right side is the more expressive side. A curious fact, attributable to the cause of which Mr. Dunbar speaks, is that one—anybody, that is to say—begins to smile first on one side of the mouth. Thus it happens that in a full-face photograph the person represented is often grave on one side of the face and slightly smiling on the other—this being due to the effort at a beginning of a smile which is made in response to the photographer’s suggestion to “look pleasant.” Sleep has often been called the “sister of death,” though not so appropriately as most people imagine. Not only does the face of a sleeper lack the pallor of death, but the facial muscles are alive and do not relax like the inert muscles of the dead. Hence it is that the expression of the face of a sleeper is not in the least like that of the same individual when life has departed.

Is a Simple Process.

The process of making a death mask is simple enough. To begin with, the face is covered with vaseline, and a silk thread is laid along from the top of the head to the neck, for the purpose presently to be described. Then a thin coat of plaster-of-paris is applied all over the face with a soft brush, including the ears. It is deemed important to include the ears because they have a great deal to do with expression—much more, indeed, than is commonly supposed.

This first coat of plaster is allowed to “set” partly. It fills all the interstices, preserving the wrinkles and other details. More of the material is not put on at first because its weight would cause the face muscles to sag. The second coat of plaster is made to cover not only the face, but also the hair, the latter requiring to be reproduced merely in a rough way. Before it “sets,” the silk thread is pulled out, so as to divide the plaster mass into two halves, making it easy to remove afterward. When hard, it is taken off, and the halves when fastened together form a perfect mold of the face. A cast made from this mold is the death mask. After greasing the inside of the mold with vaseline, the fluid plaster is poured in and made to spread itself over all parts of the inside of the mold. Pieces of burlap saturated with the same fluid are then introduced, and over these more plaster is poured. As soon as the stuff has become hard the mask is detached from the containing mold, and requires only a little touching up, to remove irregularities, in order to make it a perfect reproduction of the face of the person. It will be understood, of course, that the burlap is to render the mask less fragile.

When, during the French revolution the human fiend Marat was murdered in his bathtub ‘by Charlotte Cordray, the famous Mme. Tussaud, eager to procure so valuable an addition to her collections, went immediately to the house and took a death mask of the victim. This was no very extraordinary performance for her, inasmuch as she had been accustomed day after day to be on hand at the guillotine and to take masks from the heads of important personages as fast as they dropped into the fatal basket—a task which may be said to have had a certain important usefulness, inasmuch as thereby the physiognomies of many individuals of historic note were preserved.

El Paso [TX] Herald 14 June 1912: p. 23

For a post on Halloween deaths by mask, see Death Masks.

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.

Mourning Clothes as a Source of Infection: 1877

birmingham mourning warehouse 1877

MOURNING CLOTHES AS A SOURCE OF INFECTION.

BY HENRY R. HATHERLY. Medical Officer of Health, Lenton.

I should not presume to call the attention of your readers to the possibility, not to say probability, of infection being disseminated by the use of hired mourning clothes, if it were not that this possible source of infection appears to have been altogether overlooked by sanitarians and health officers.

My attention was first called to this subject some time since. I was visiting a poor person’s child suffering from scarlet fever; the case was an isolated one in the midst of a densely populated neighbourhood and my efforts were at once directed to the discovery of the source of infection. On investigation I could only find one likely source of infection, viz., that an aunt of the child had been to the funeral of a scarlet-fever patient, had returned home with the mourning clothes on, and had taken the child on her knees to nurse it. The aunt unhesitatingly attributed the infection to having neglected to exchange her mourning for her every day clothes. In fact the original idea that mourning clothes could convey infection was hers not mine. I am not inclined to place much reliance upon the opinions of the working classes on sanitary matters, especially when such opinions are the results of attempts to reason, but, when such people do not reason or attempt to reason, a sort of natural instinct will often lead them to very accurate conclusions. I have no doubt that in this particular instance the woman was right; knowledge of the social customs of her own class led her to detect a source of danger which I had not until then suspected. By a few questions I elicited the fact that the practice of hiring mourning clothes for funerals was common amongst the working classes in my district.

By subsequent inquiries I ascertained the following facts:

  1. That palls, scarves, hoods, and other mourning finery are hired from the undertakers.
  2. That certain shopkeepers hire out mourning dresses and suits.
  3. That the practice of borrowing clothes from one another prevails largely amongst the poorer classes.

I can vouch for these three practices being common in my district, and have little doubt that similar customs will be found to exist in other poor districts, by anyone sufficiently interested to inquire.

If a modern Asmodeus could follow the travels of some of these hired garments, he might introduce us to some strange scenes and to some strange people, we might see some of the darkest phases of human misery, some of the most grotesque forms of expressing sorrow for the dead, and some of the most unwholesome social customs; the sanitarian might have many strange facts disclosed bearing more or less upon public health.

Amongst the very poor, comforts and even necessaries during life have to make way for the requirements of a decent burial. I have frequently been surprised at the inconsistent display of pomp at the funeral of a pauper, who had died in the workhouse, but whose relatives shrank from the last disgrace of a pauper funeral. How to reconcile the so-called ‘ decent burial’ to very limited means is a social problem which has been solved by the mutual kindly feeling of the poor towards each other in times of trouble, and by the practice of hiring instead of buying mourning. To the initiated a good funeral need cost but a very small sum.

It is not my wish to expatiate upon the desirability of simple and inexpensive funerals, especially for the very poor, but rather to show that many mysterious outbreaks of infectious disease may be accounted for by the practices alluded to above.

Such a train of circumstances as the following are far from infrequent in my district: one or more members of the same family are afflicted with scarlet fever, measles, or some other infectious disease, a bed is made up in the ordinary day room for convenience of the mother who has other duties besides those of nurse to perform. One child dies and arrangements are made for a funeral. The guests assemble clothed in hired or borrowed mourning in the very room where another living child is still a centre of infection. The funeral over, the mourning is returned to the owners and lenders without disinfection. This is not a fanciful case, and I could multiply examples if there were any advantage in so doing.

Having now pointed out a possible, and in my opinion a very probable and frequent source of infection, I will briefly refer to the practical question which more immediately concerns the medical officer of health, viz., how to guard against the danger. This question is not so easily answered as might at first sight appear. The 126th clause of the Public Health Act gives ample legal powers, but legal proceedings should be the last resource of preventive medicine.

In some districts hospitals exist to which infectious cases can be removed, and means of disinfection are provided at the public expense, but a vast number of sanitary authorities have not hitherto taken any steps in either direction.

Assuming that means of isolation and disinfection are both provided, the next difficulty, probably the greatest, is to prevail upon the poorer classes who are most concerned to avail themselves of them. A singular affection is often developed by illness towards those who in health may have been sadly

neglected; parents refuse positively to allow their children to be removed from their care, and cannot be persuaded to part with them for a time, however much it may be for their own good. This circumstance I frequently observed during the last small-pox epidemic. About two years since I was required to visit a woman who had just been delivered, and I had the greatest possible difficulty in procuring the removal of a child suffering from malignant scarlet fever, who was actually in the same bed.

Again, as regards disinfection, there seems to be a want of faith in its efficacy, perhaps, with too good reason in many instances. Poor people will run any risk of infection rather than sacrifice useful garments. They are fully alive to the value of clothing, but are sceptical as to the value of disinfection. It seems to me, therefore, that whatever system of disinfection is adopted, the materials submitted must be neither injured nor destroyed.

If compulsory powers as regards isolation and disinfection were exercised, especially at the very inopportune time of a funeral, they would be met by concealment and a secret stubborn resistance. A woman who candidly admitted to me that her son’s trousers had been out at funerals for a fortnight, would not have made such an admission had I previously explained to her the possible penalties which might have been incurred under the 126th section of the Public Health Act. I believe that one or two successful prosecutions would render it almost impossible in a district to obtain the necessary evidence for future ones.

I hold strongly that the first steps towards stamping out the spread of any infectious disease should be taken by the sanitary authority. Means for isolation and systematic thorough disinfection ought to exist in every district and combination of small districts. Then undertakers and second-hand clothes dealers ought to be cautioned against lending or selling any clothing likely to have become infected, and prosecuted if wilfully careless. The private lending system amongst neighbours and friends would be still a difficulty; free disinfection (without injury to the garments) might be urged by handbills or other means. I trust that these few remarks, however crude and imperfect, may suffice to direct the attention of other health officers to the subject of mourning clothes as a source of infection, and I think it more than probable that in addition to ordinary zymotic disease, some forms of skin and parasitic disease, and even venereal disease, may be traced to funeral customs amongst the lower classes.

The Sanitary Record, Vol. 6, 1877 pp. 67-8

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil dislikes contradicting a district Medical Officer, but fears that Dr Hatherly’s education has been neglected if he believes it likely that venereal diseases may be acquired from hired garments. Nothing is impossible in this world, (and Mrs Daffodil can, regrettably, envision a person with inadequate undergarments donning hired trousers) but although small-pox and the plague have been passed via textiles, the likelihood of catching the pox from a mourning veil is so slight as to be non-existent.  Dr Hatherly, with his contempt for the reasoning powers of the lower classes, seems to have a bee in his (mourning) bonnet.

Even the “lower classes” felt pressure to conform to the rituals of “upper-class mourning.” Households often went into debt to furnish themselves with proper mourning costume and there was much clucking from the philanthropic classes over mourning excesses committed in the name of propriety. However, some widows were bullied into compliance, as in this example:

A superior servant, a mere girl, married a house-painter. Within a year of the event the husband fell from a ladder and was killed. The poor little widow bought a cheap black dress and a very simple black straw hat to wear at the funeral. Her former employer, who had much commended this modest outlay, met the girl a few days later swathed in crape, her poor little face only half visible under the hideous widow’s bonnet complete with streamers and a veil… She explained that her neighbours and relations had made her life unbearable because she did not want to wear widow’s weeds and at last she had to give in. “They said that if I would not wear a bonnet, it proved we were never married,” she sobbed.  Funeral Customs, their Origin and Development, Bertram S. Puckle, (London: T. Warner Laurie, 1926)

Mourning warehouses and hired clothing were not the only ways to aquire mourning dress. Lou Taylor, in her admirable book, Mourning Dress, A Costume and Social History, tells of a simple black wool dress, shawl and bonnet, which the Dockers Union, London, loaned out to members’ widows from 1880 to 1914.

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.

For more about mourning costume, ritual, and oddities see  The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition.

See this link for an introduction to The Victorian Book of the Dead, a collection about the popular culture of Victorian mourning, featuring primary-source materials about corpses, crypts, and crape. Various excerpts from the book may be found on this site under the topic of “mourning.”

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

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

MOURNING STATIONERY.

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

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

“Well?” said the Paper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Poor thing,” said the Envelope.

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

Arthur’s Home Magazine, Volume 48, 1880

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

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

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

O, Death Where Is Thy Bling?

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

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

TOMB

To Hold Safe Her Gems

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

An Impregnable Grave Built to Baffle Any Attempt at Robbery.

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

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

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

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

GRAVE SEEMS IMPREGNABLE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

WAS POPULARLY BESTOWED

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

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

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

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

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

A CONNOISSEUR IN COFFINS

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

[Boston Special to New York World.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portions of the post above appear in The Victorian Book of the Dead, which can be purchased at Amazon and other online retailers. (Or ask your local bookstore or library to order it.) It is also available in a Kindle edition.

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

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