A Man of Vision: The Glass-Coffin Inventor

A recent article in the Guardian about what happens when urban cemeteries are full mentioned that in Kuala Lumpur and some other Asian cities, the urns of the dead are kept in mechanical columbaria. Specific individuals may be accessed at the touch of a button from the filing system. This reminded me of a piece from The Victorian Book of the Dead, about an inventor of glass coffins, a Man of Vision, creating not just glass coffins, but a vacuum seal to preserve the body, the design of the vaults to hold them, and a filing system for corpses. He even suggests a pleasant way to spend time with the dead.

COFFINS MADE OF GLASS

“It’s almost worthwhile dying to be buried in one of them,” said the inventor of a glass coffin yesterday to a Times reporter. Henry H. Barry, the speaker, who lives on Fifth street, just below Spruce has for many years interested himself in transparent systems of burial. After conceiving the glass casket he kept it a secret for a long while, until, on October 24th of last year, it was patented. He is searching for a capitalist and the reporter became one for the time being.

“Yes,” continued the inventor, “I believe the success of this thing is going to be immense. There is one San Francisco firm that will take thousands of the coffins to sell to Chinamen.” [to ship bodies back to China for burial.]

“What is the advantage of glass for domiciles of the dead?”

“In the first place, one has perfect preservation. Before being placed in the vial the patient is embalmed. I may say that the coffin is devised on the walnut shell principle, in two halves. After my customers are once securely packed in coffins I apply an exhaust pump, take out all the air and hermetically seal up the aperture. Then the thing is accomplished. I believe, sincerely, that the whole business will last through several generations. There is the advantage that no infectious disease can come through the glass. The flesh of the subject will preserve its natural tints and relatives and friends will be able to view the deceased for years to come.

“As a sanitary reform it is unparalleled,” he went on; “tenanted coffins can be piled up like any other merchandise anywhere and stay there for years. Some people might prefer to keep relatives in their own houses, nicely put away in the coffins. There is nothing objectionable about the idea. When buried in cemeteries there will be no exhalations whatever, and in case of the removal of graveyards, the coffins can be taken up and carted away with no more offense than would be given by so many kegs of nails.” “What are [sic] the dimension and shape of the coffin?” asked the reporter.

“They can be made of all sizes. The glass is three-eighths of an inch thick, and the coffin is oval with a concave top. It would not do to have it flat as with a vacuum inside it the glass would collapse.” “Wouldn’t they get smashed in cemeteries?” queried the incipient investor.

“On the contrary. We have a system of toughening the glass that makes it like iron. A spade struck against the coffin with a good deal of force will not break it. Body-snatchers would get their fingers cut, but that’s all right. I don’t legislate for ghouls. There is no end to the variations which can be made on these coffins. The glass can be clouded so that only the face is visible. It can be colored, or butterflies and weeping willows can be placed at intervals all over the surface. There are a thousand ways of ornamenting the exterior.”

“What will they cost?” was the next question.

“From seven up.  Seven dollars, I mean, of course. They could possibly be manufactured of such choice material and so beautifully etched as to cost as much as a thousand dollars each. I have often wished that at the time of President Garfield’s death I had had a glass coffin. I am sure it would have been used. I propose to form a company, with a capital of some half a million of dollars. No, sir, I will not sell you the patent outright, so it’s no use pressing me to do so. I have too much faith in its future for that. Another reason is that I am determined it shall not get into the hands of monopolists who will run up the price of coffins to a fancy figure. This casket was invented as much with the idea of benefitting the poor as anything else. Of course there will be money in it for me, and I suppose I shall have to accept whatever comes.”

Mr. Barry then proceeded to unfold the particulars of a remarkable scheme. He said that he had often heard a proposition discussed for excavating and constructing huge catacombs in this city for the reception of the dead. In that case, he thought, his invention would be invaluable. He called the scheme a “trust and safe deposit idea.”

“We should have a vast system of vaults,” he explained, “in which coffins would be placed. Spaces could be reserved for families. Here, in a stall, would be a father; by his side his wife; on the upper shelf the grandmother and grandfather, and above that the other ancestors. Each coffin would have a number at its foot, and catalogues would be issued giving the names of the occupants, for instance, ‘Henry Jones, 241.’ Above the vaults would be a suit of elegant reception rooms into which visitors would be invited. They could sit down and call for, say, ‘No. 241.’ An attendant would go down stairs, slide the casket indicated up on to a little barrow, come back again and leave it with them as long as they liked. They could look at it, have it taken to its shelf when they were through, and return home. A certain amount of rent would, of course, have to be exacted. What do you say of going into the enterprise? It will ‘take’ assuredly. There are a lot of other millionaires thinking the matter over, so you had better decide at once. Good afternoon. Let me hear from you in a few days.” Philadelphia Times

Jersey Journal [Jersey City, NJ] 29 March 1883: p. 2

Of course glass coffins weren’t really new–Alexander the Great was said to be buried in one and there were reports of ancient Egyptian coffins made of glass, but perhaps the vitrified faience inlays were what was being described. Glass coffins were the resting places of many sacred corpses or parts thereof, of spouses kept above ground for inheritance purposes, and of fairy-tale princesses. It’s the up-to-date sales-pitch with all the add-ons that sets this maker and his inventions apart. You might say Barry was thinking outside the box.

Another article gives Barry’s glass coffin patent date as 24 October 1882, but I haven’t been able to locate it. I’m also really quite perturbed that I cannot find an image of a glass coffin I thought I’d saved–it was a lovely purple-ish color and molded with dragonflies, like a piece made by Lalique. Search for “glass coffins” and pretty much all you find are the waxen cadavers of dictators and saints.

Other early filing systems for human remains? Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Thanks to Michael Robinson for sending me the Guardian article.

Most of the post above appears in The Victorian Book of the Dead, 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 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.

The Girl in the Car: 1903

woman in coffin 1876 American Enterprise. Burley's United States centennial gasetteer and guide

Ghost Editor, Fort Worth Telegram

Dear Sir: I had never been a believer in the supernatural prior to the occurrence of the incident which gives rise to my story, but the facts which I am about to relate had the effect of purging the skepticism that had hitherto prevailed in my mind regarding such matters.

During the year of 1903 I was employed as an express messenger on the Fort Worth-Texarkana run.

One night there was transferred to my car from the western division a coffin containing a corpse consigned from El Paso to Schenectady, N.Y., and while this is no unusual traveling companion for an express messenger, the night in question was one which prompted thoughts of the supernatural, gloomy with a stillness in the air that foretold the approach of a heavy storm.

Being absorbed with routine matters which demanded my attention, little time was given to thought of the contents of the pine box lying in a far corner of the car. Vivid flashes of lightning and the ominous aspect of the sky made it plain that the elements would soon be warring. Being forty-five minutes late out of the last station passed and due in Longview at midnight, we were traveling at a rapid rate with an endeavor to make up the time lost. The air of the car being somewhat close, I stepped to the door and threw it half open. Simultaneously a blinding flash of lightning, accompanied by a crash of thunder, made me start back involuntarily from the open door. Before I could recover my composure, a gust of wind swept thru the car, extinguishing every light. I sprang to the open door and slammed it together, avoiding a deluge of rain that fell as the sluice gates of heaven had been opened. Turning quickly with a view to relighting my lamps, a flash of lightning revealed to me the form of a girl about twenty years of age standing in the center of the car. In my astonishment, thinking that my imagination had served me with an illusion, I waited for a second flash that again revealed the form of the girl, and while my gaze was limited to the momentary glare, I took in every detail of her figure and dress. She was attired in a brown street dress with long gloves to match, and her dark hair fell loose in a mass around her shoulders, contrasting strongly with the paleness of her face. For a moment I could scarcely move. My first thought was of how this girl could have gained entrance to my car while the train was moving at the rate of forty miles an hour. Another lightning flash showed the girl advancing toward me with her arms outstretched in a imploring attitude. My glance in this brief second also reverted to the farther par of the car, and to my horror observed the lid of the coffin thrown to one side and now standing open. This was the first time that I had associated the form of the girl with the supernatural, and my senses seemed to leave me as I dashed to the door and slammed it violently ajar. As I did, something seemed to pass me, and vanish out into the storm, followed by a wailing cry that even now at times rings thru my ears. I staggered back from the door from which I had sought to plunge and fell heavily to the floor of my car.

When the train reached Longview the baggage man climbed into my car and discovered my condition. A stiff drink of whisky brought me back to my normal senses and I recited my story.

After the lamps had been re-lit, a promptly investigation was made of the box in my car, which was found intact and strongly nailed.

Various opinions were presented by my train associates, and I caught  some of them winking knowingly.

I carefully noted down the address and destination of the coffin and the name of the consignor. A few days later I wrote to Schenectady requesting of the consignor a description of the corpse, and a week later received an answer describing in both feature and figure the girl whom I so fully described to my fellow workers the night of the visitation. I answered this letter, confiding my interest in the matter, with the request to be advised if the lady had formerly worn a brown dress, receiving a reply in the affirmative and to the effect that it was in this she had died from heart failure thru climbing a flight of stairs at a hotel in El Paso.

Do I believe in ghosts/ Well, I have another occupation than that of express messenger. Yours truly,

W.K.T. SCOTT

Fort Worth [TX] Star-Telegram 13 December 1907: p. 6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  A nice, shuddersome story!  One can readily understand the narrator’s resignation from his occupation after such an uncanny encounter.

After the American Civil War, when embalming became more widespread, it was commonplace to ship corpses via the rails. The Wells Fargo company was one of the first in this field; they found an ingenious and heartless way to exploit the deaths of consumption patients.

AN INDUSTRY IN CORPSES
How an Express Company and an Undertaker Whack Up on Consumptives.

The Wells-Fargo Company does some queer things in the way of business, but the strangest perhaps is a new line, worked up by one of the shrewdest agents of the country at Denver. Colorado is a sort of last chance of consumptives, and pretty generally they die there. Most of them are supplied with money from home in regular installments, so when they die not enough coin is found among their effects to pay an undertaker. Undoubtedly many of them would be buried by the county, but right here’s where the company gets in.

It has a contract with an undertaker who takes charge of the body, embalms it, and gets it all ready for shipment. Then the Fargo agent wires to the agents in the towns from which the deceased received letters. If any relatives can be found it is a sure thing, and nine times out of ten enough friends can be found to put up a check for the undertaker’s charges and transportation. When this has been done the body is shipped to the friends or relatives by fast train, and turned over by the agent. The company makes a fat annual profit out of this melancholy business–“the corpse industry,” they call it—it is a good snap for the undertaker, and this county is saved just so many dollars. Many a time there have been three to four corpses at once in the company’s “cooling room” at Denver awaiting notice from friends in just this way. It is a cold day when W.F. & Co., can’t discover a new way to turn an honest penny.

The Pittsburg [PA] Dispatch 19 July 1891: p. 18

Mrs Daffodil thanks Chris Woodyard for that diverting Wells Fargo anecdote, which appears in her book, The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition.

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 visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

The Pauper’s Coffin: 1865

Pauper’s coffin and wheeled hand-cart bier, Saltmarshe Chantry of Howden Minster, 1664 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pauper%27s_coffin_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1624985.jpg  Richard Croft / Pauper’s coffin

ONLY A PAUPER.

The Dundee Advertiser of Wednesday says–On Sunday evening a man. named Peter Fyffe, about 60 years of age, a flax-dresser by occupation, and residing in Irvine-square, Bell-street, died very suddenly. Between-nine and ten o’clock he was apparently in his usual state of health, but soon after that he became ill, and died shortly before eleven o’clock. His sister, Widow Keillor, with whom he resided, being in poor circumstances, applied to Mr. Jack, the inspector of poor for the parish of Dundee, to bury the corpse of her brother, which he at once agreed to do, and the funeral was fixed for Tuesday afternoon. Widow Keillor says–“A coffin was brought to the house about one o’clock to-day (Tuesday) by two men. It was long enough, but it was neither deep enough nor wide enough to contain the corpse. The men, when they saw that the coffin was not large enough, commenced to make the body of my brother fit it. One of the men put his knee on my brother’s breast and pressed with all his might, in order to make the corpse go into the coffin. The bones of my brother’s right arm cracked, and, although I could not say positively that it was broken, it seemed very like it. The whole bones of his body seemed crushed. It was impossible, notwithstanding all the exertions of the men, to make my brother’s body fit the coffin, which, burst. When it was seen that the body would not go into the coffin they went away for another one, which they brought; and when my brother’s body was taken out of the coffin, a considerable quantity of blood was in it. The second coffin exactly fitted my brother’s corpse, and when it was brought to the house one of the men said he admitted that the first coffin was too little. I felt very much shocked at the way in which the men crushed my brother’s corpse into the coffin, which was much too small, and Mrs. Keith, and Mrs. Fraser, and Mary Taylor remonstrated with the men, and told them that if they did not use the body rightly they would complain to the authorities.” This statement Mrs. Keillor declared was true, and not in the least exaggerated; and when our reporter read it over to Peter Devine (weaver), Helen Henderson (millworker), Agnes Imrie (millworker), and Barbara Henderson (sack-sewer), who were all in the house, and who stated that they saw the whole proceedings, they corroborated it in every particular.

Liverpool [Merseyside, England] Mercury 15 April 1865: p. 5

Other newspapers added the following details:

One woman exclaimed—“God pity me, to see a man of such respectability as he was in his day come to that, and be treated so miserably at his latter end.” Several of the neighbours with whom our reporter spoke on Tuesday night substantiated statements which the deceased sister had volunteered.

Mrs Keillor added that the parochial authorities sent a good hearse to convey her brother’s remains to the Eastern Cemetery, and she accompanied the remains to their last resting place, where, in her own words, she said—“I did what perhaps never a woman did before—I put the head of the coffin in the earth.”

We are satisfied that it is neither with the knowledge nor approval of the Chairman, Committee, or higher officials of the Parochial Board, that any such proceedings as narrated above had occurred. It is imperative however, that such instructions be at once given as will prevent any repetition of them, and nothing is so likely to effect this as taking the matter from the region of street rumour into public notice by the press.

The Western Flying Post or Sherborne and Yeovil Mercury [Sherborne, Dorset, England] 25 April 1865: p. 8

An investigation before the Parochial Board was held into the circumstances of this incident:

ILL-TREATMENT OF A CORPSE.

An examination took place before the Parochial Board Committee yesterday, in reference to the alleged ill-treatment of the corpse of Peter Fyffe, flaxdresser, Irvine Square, Bell Street, by the undertaker employed by the Parochial Board. Mr Francis Molison occupied the chair; and there were present–Messrs Niven, Guthrie, Mills, Ness, Morrison, Lorimer, Isdale, and Low.

David Gorrie was the first witness examined. He deponed that he was assistant-inspector, and stated that a woman called on him for a funeral order on Monday, between twelve and one o’clock. She produced a certificate from the registrar that the death was properly registered. He gave an order to the contractor for such funerals, Mr James Lindsay. The deceased was not a pauper on the roll. The woman told him that they wanted to bury the corpse immediately; but he told her it could not be buried for twenty-four hours. The order was then given her by him. James Lindsay was unable to be in attendance, and the next witness was

David Lindsay, son of Mr Lindsay, the contractor. He deponed that two women came to his father’s shop about four o’clock on Monday, with air order from the Inspector of Poor, for him to bury the deceased Peter Fyffe. They stated that they wished the funeral to take place immediately; but he said that it could not be done till next day. They said that deceased was an ordinary sized man; and he did not think it necessary to go and measure the body, but made an ordinary sized coffin. Next day, he went up about twelve o’clock for the funeral taking the chest with him. He found the body lying on the door, covered with rags. There was blood lying on the floor beside it. It appeared to him that the blood had come from the mouth. They lifted the body into the coffin; but found that although the coffin was long enough, it was too narrow. They tried to put the body into the coffin. They then put the lid upon the coffin, and screwed it at the bottom and the top. They found=that it would not close at the sides, the coffin being too narrow and being thus forced out. The body seemed to have swollen. They did not crush or push the body in any way, or injure it, or break any ot the bones. They found that the coffin was too small, and took it out. They then took back the small coffin and made a new one, large enough. They went back about five o’clock with the coffin, and the funeral was carried through. He denied that any ill usage whatever had been given to the body, but admitted that the first coffin was too small. If he had taken the measure of the body, it would have been all right. In this there was some fault. When the lid was put on the first coffin, he merely pressed the sides to get the lid on. The lid broke, but the corpse sustained no ill usage.

Robert Lindsay, another son of the contractor, was examined. He generally corroborated his brother s evidence, and denied that the corpse was injured, or that any inhumanity was used towards it. The contractors often got ill-usage from folks in the discharge of their duty. The women in this house seemed to be worse of drink. There was one man in the house, and he and the women said the coffin was too small. They were not squeezing nor pressing in the body, but the women in the house called upon them to put on the lid, in consequence of the strong smell that was in the house. It was scarcely bearable. He was satisfied that no injury was done to the body through putting it into the first coffin. There was blood about the mouth before they touched it, and that was not caused by the restriction of the body.

The following is a copy of Mr Lindsay’s contract with the Parochial Board:– “Dundee, 17th March, 1861.

“To the Committee of the Parochial Board

“Gentlemen, I hereby offer for the interment of paupers—

Under 12 years, . . . 10s Above 12 years, . . 17s 3d

“James Lindsay.”

From the first charge, 6s has to be paid for ground, and 3s for juveniles.

The Chairman said no member of the committee supposed but what the interment of the paupers was conducted in the same way as the interment of any other class, and that the bodies were measured in the ordinary way.

Margaret Fyffe or Keillor, sister of the deceased, deponed that she lived in the same flat with him. Shortly after the death of her brother, about eleven o’clock on Sunday night, some police officers came in. They said they would send a doctor, but none came. Her brother was quite well during Sunday. He took his supper heartily that night. She went to the Registrar and got his death registered next morning. She then went to the undertaker, Mr Lindsay, with an order she got from Mr Jack. She told him to come immediately and coffin the corpse. He said he would not come till next day at twelve o’clock. He came next day, but the coffin was too little. He tried to put in the body, but it would not go in. They pressed in the arms and forced down the body. She heard something crack; it was either the coffin or the body. She thought they ought not to have brought such a small coffin. They tried to put on the lid, but those in the house insisted on their taking out the body, and the contractor did so, and took away that coffin and came back some time after with a bigger one, and the funeral took place.

Mrs Fraser was next examined. She was a neighbour. She saw Lindsay come with the coffin. She told him it was too small and too thin. It might have been long enough, but it was too narrow. The body was swollen, and they could not put it into the coffin. They screwed out the top end of the coffin and tried to force in the arms. They forced them down by the side, and put their knee on the lid of the coffin to force it down. She heard something crack. It was either the arm of the man or the coffin that cracked. She thought they were improperly using the corpse. She went along with Ira Keillor to Lindsay on the night before the funeral, when the order had been got from the Inspector of Poor. She told him the condition of the body, and that it would require to be measured, because it was very large. The contractor did not come to measure it, and took up a small coffin. She described the treatment of the body. She thought the contractor acted wrong in forcing in the body in the wav he did.

Mrs Keith said she saw Peter Fyffe after he died. She heard Lindsay told to come and inter the body. Lindsay said the usual hour was twelve o’clock, and that he would come next day. She did not recollect him being told that the body required to be measured. She was present when the body was put into the first coffin. She saw that it was too narrow. She also saw them pressing it in. She heard something crack. It was either the coffin or the body.

Helen Henderson was present when the body was put into the first coffin. It was long enough, but it was too narrow about the shoulders. They lifted the arms and placed them across the breast. They endeavoured to press them down by the sides. They then put on the lid; Mr Lindsay put his knee on the lid to screw it down, and something cracked. Those in the house complained that they were ill-using the body, and they took it out, and took away the coffin, and brought a new one.

Mary Taylor, a neighbour, deponed that she was at the door of the room, and saw the contractor put the body in the coffin. She saw the coffin was too narrow, and that after the body was put into it, it was taken out again, and a new coffin taken up.

Peter Devine was in the house when Fyffe was coffined. He helped Lindsay to put the body into the coffin. The coffin was too small, and they pressed the body down into it. The arms were first put across the breast, and then forced down the sides. They then put on the coffin lid, and screwed it down at the top and the bottom; and, after trying to screw out the sides, could not get it done owing to the coffin being too narrow, and the sides being forced out. Mr Lindsay put his knee on the head of the coffin to screw it down, when the lid broke. Either the body or the arms cracked. He thought that they were trying to force the body into the coffin. He had been in the habit of seeing bodies screwed into coffins. It was the practice for the undertaker to put his knee on the lid of the coffin before screwing it down. This was a usual practice.

At the close of the above examination, the Chairman said that this was the first complaint against Mr Lindsay, and he had conducted on an average 280 funerals a-year for the last three years. The terms which were allowed Mr Lindsay were what he himself proposed. He did not think they could come to any finding in the meantime, but that an adjournment could take place till Mr Lindsay could attend.

This was unanimously agreed to.

The Courier and Argus [Dundee, Tayside, Scotland] 15 April 1865: p. 3

Within two days, the same paper was deploring the state of parish funerals–and leveling a very thinly veiled accusation of murder.

PARISH FUNERALS.

The investigation which has been instituted by the Parochial Committee of Management into the circumstances attending the funeral of Peter Fyffe has disclosed a state of things, the existence of which was not before suspected, and will not be suffered to continue. The investigation is as yet incomplete, and there are some contradictions in the evidence, but enough is certainly known to render it necessary that an alteration in the system should take place. The Parochial authorities contract with Mr Lindsay for the performance of funerals which are conducted at the expense of the parish. They pay the prices which were proposed by the undertaker, and though the charges are small, we must suppose they were sufficient to remunerate the tradesman for his cost and trouble. The Parochial Committee had no idea that pauper funerals were managed in any essential respect differently from those of other poor people. Of course they did not expect that they would be carried out with such ceremony and “circumstance” as those of the rich or well-to-do; and, probably, if they thought of that part of the subject at all, they did not suppose that the same delicate attention to the feelings of survivors would be displayed as when corpses are carried from handsome mansions to the “narrow home,” which is the final resting place of all. There is, and we fear there always will be, a rougher, not to say ruder, and a less ceremonious manner adopted toward the poor than is exhibited toward the wealthy. As the world is, and as average men are, that is inevitable. Ceremonious formality implies the devotion of time, and attention, and care. The well-off can pay for it and buy it; but the poor cannot afford the outlay, and have to do without what is in fact a marketable commodity, just as they have to do without funereal feathers and other trappings. All that people who know what the world is are perfectly aware of; but no one acquainted with the Chairman of the Parochial Board and the gentlemen who compose the Committee of Management, could for a moment believe that they thought the funerals paid out of the funds under their control, were marked by any circumstances showing the slightest disregard for the impulses which make most men regard death as sacred, and cause the corpse of the poorest to be treated, if not with tenderness, with decent respect. If they had imagined that was possible, we may be sure they would have provided against it ; and the promptness with which the pending investigation has been set on foot, and the fairness with which it has been conducted, are guarantees that whatever is amiss will be fully remedied. The defect in the system appears to have been that when parish coffins were ordered, they were made by guess without the corpse having been measured. That method may answer in the majority of cases, because there is an average of size; but it is necessary to provide for exceptions. The way taken to do that was, it seems, to ask the person bespeaking the coffin if the corpse was of an ordinary size? There is some dispute as to what was done in that respect, in this instance. The assistants of the undertaker say they were told a common sized coffin would be sufficient. On the other side, it is averred they were informed the body was large and swollen, and that an extra large coffin would be required. We cannot decide between these conflicting accounts. The coffin was, it is said, made of an average size, and taken to the house of death. That was on the Tuesday. A miserable place, it appears, that house was. The dead man had not been a pauper; but it is clear that, so far as comforts were concerned, he had been far worse off than those who are supported out of the rates in the Poorhouse. The body was on the floor, covered with rags. Blood was about it, and the undertaker’s assistants think the fluid had come from the mouth. The corpse was swollen so that a larger coffin than ordinary was wanted. That was soon perceived, and directly it became evident the coffin ought to have been taken away and a larger one procured. There will be no difference of opinion about that. But an attempt was made to force the body into the coffin. There is a dispute as to the degree of violence which was used; but that there was some violence no one who reads the report of the enquiry can doubt. It may be, very probably is, an exaggerated statement, that the bone of one of the arms or any other bone was broken; but that force which ought not to have been applied was exerted, is not to be disputed. The proof is that, on the admission of the persons who took the coffin, the lid is shown to have been broken. It was, we hope and believe, the noise of the creaking of the lid which led to the impression that a bone had been fractured. Some allowance must be made for the undertaker’s men. They had an unpleasant, we might say a disgusting, duty to perform. It is said the stench was almost unbearable ; and it is not unlikely they were urged by the bystanders to get the lid on as quickly as possible, as well as impelled by their own sensations to get through their noisome task as soon as they could; but nothing in the circumstances could justify the attempt to thrust the body into the coffin, obviously too narrow for it, by using a degree of force, which, if it did not crack bones, broke the lid. Such things must not be suffered to be repeated. When the body could not be pressed in, because, whatever violence the corpse might have been able to have borne, the coffin would not stand it, that was done which ought to have been done at first. The body was replaced on the floor, and, without any undue delay, another and larger coffin was procured. Between the time when the small coffin was taken away and the larger one brought, there was ample opportunity for the relatives of the deceased to have examined the body, and ascertained if it had sustained any injury, but we do not hear that that was done, and if it was, we have not the result before us. If it was not, we must infer indifference on the part of others than the undertaker’s men. If it was, we may dismiss as an exaggeration the allegation that bones were broken. We will not anticipate the decision at which the Committee will arrive as to this particular case; but for the future we cannot doubt it will be provided that bodies shall be measured before coffins are made. That is necessary to prevent the possibility of scenes which should not be allowed to occur in the homes of the poorest, or even of the most worthless. We owe it to our common human feelings to see that the dead are treated decently and respectfully.

But this case suggests to us reflections on something beside the conduct of the undertaker’s men. We are tempted to ask the question–How did Peter Fyffe die? a question which appears to us, at least, as important as the other–How was Peter Fyffe buried? We do not know that the finding an answer to that question can be said to be within the province of the Parochial Committee; but the matter is one which should recommend itself to them as well as others in their capacity of citizens. We gather from the statement of the sister of the deceased, that he appeared quite well on the Sunday and took a hearty supper, and that at eleven o’clock he was dead. What did he die of? There does not seem to have been any medical man present, either before or after death. We do not hear what were the symptoms of the illness, nor what remedies, if any, were used, nor who, if anybody, saw the man die. The sister registered the death on the Monday morning. What account did she give to the Registrar. What disease is set down in the books as that of which Peter Fyffe died? Couple this uncertainty with the facts that on Tuesday the body was horribly swollen, and that there was blood about it and upon the floor on which it rested among rags; and it seems to us there is something else to be enquired into than the way in which the funeral was conducted. We do not point to any specific suspicions. We know nothing more of the facts than is disclosed in the evidence; but when a man is said to have been well at supper-time and dead at eleven o’clock, when no doctor was called into him, and a registrar’s certificate obtained, and the corpse, swelled and bloody, buried within two days of the death, we cannot help asking the question, “How did Peter Fyffe die?” In England the facts would render the summoning of a coroner’s jury certain. Here we have no coroners, but surely such a case is one that ought not to be suffered to pass by in silence. For all we know, enquiry might lead to a perfectly satisfactory result, but enquiry of some kind there certainly should be.

The Courier and Argus [Dundee, Tayside, Scotland] 17 April 1865: p. 2

And there, as far as I can see in the papers, the matter ended.

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. 

The River Resurrectionist: 1879

Death rowing on the Thames, 1858

THE CORPSE-HUNTERS

The Strange Fishing Excursion of a New York Reporter

Drifting in Search of the Dead

The River Resurrectionist and His Queer Calling

The Romances of the New York Waters

[New York Dispatch.]

“Candidly now, Mr. Walker, don’t you find corpse-hunting a dismal calling?”
“As you say, sir, it ain’t the most cheerfullest business in the world. But somebody’s got to do it, and why not me?”
“You have been at it a good while?”
“Nigh onto twenty year.”

“And you like it?”

“Well, I don’t hanker after it to break my heart. But I don’t see much differ between fishing for whales or dead men, likewise women, ‘cept that dead men makes the least trouble. If you want to, you can have a seat in my boat to-night and jedge for yerself. That is, if you are lucky, for the

STIFFS HAS RUN VERY LIGHT LATELY.”

Mr. Zachary Walker spoke as if he was discussing a run of menhaden or shad, and in a voice that seemed to proceed sepulchrally from some phonographic mechanism buried in his stomach. He sat in the back room of a South-street saloon, which looked like a vault in an Egyptian pyramid as befitted such a rendezvous. It was eleven o’clock on the dark and airless light of Monday last, and, as Mr. Walker expressed it, “as hot as the hinges of perdition and as black as the Earl of Hell’s Jack-boots.” But in spite of the heat that gentleman was so wrapped up in a heavy pea-jacket that he bore a singularly close and most appropriate resemblance to a mummy. As if this was not enough, he was drinking hot rum and spice.

“It fetches the sweat,” he explained to the Dispatch representative; “and you’ve either got to fetch sweat or the sweat’ll fetch you.”

Mr. Zachary Walker’s theory, amounting in fact to a rooted belief, is, that as long as a man’s pores are open he is safe from danger of any human ill. Consequently he never permits his to close or “shut pan on him,” as he phrases it. For years he has been famous among those who know him for never imbibing any beverage but hot spiced rum. Water he never drinks.

“And neither would you, sir,” he said to the reporter, “if you seen them in it which I see twenty year. Ugh!”

“’TAIN’T A CANNONBILL.”

Conducted by his perspiring friend, whose progress in the darkness was marked, even in the unsavory waterside odors hanging fetidly over the wharves, by the rank, sour reek of sweat, the Dispatch representative stumbled out on the wharf next to Fulton Ferry. A ghostly young man in a checked jumper started suddenly out of the darkness at the end of the pier. He had a little lantern in whose light he showed to be so soaked and slimy with perspiration that he might just have been fished out of the river. His humid countenance wore a dissatisfied expression, and he grumbled;

“Well, I thought you never was a coming.”

“Never’s a longer day than you ever see yet, Dave,” returned Mr. Walker, casting off the painter of an unseen boat from a ring on the string-piece.

“We’ve most lost the tide, we have, and I hope you’re satisfied.”

“Well, allow that I am, Dave, and call it square. Tumble in, sir.”

WITH HIS HEART IN HIS MOUTH

The reporter dropped into the darkness out of which the swirl and gurgle of the strong ebb tide among the wharf-posts rose. He landed rattling in a boat. Dave followed with the lantern, which he guarded as jealously as if it was some imperial gem. Zachary Walker came last, and in a minute more the dead sweet smell of pineapples and oranges faded behind the boat as the tide carried it swiftly from the rot-dock where the fleet of West India fruiters were asleep.

Dave pulled a stout pair of oars, but there was little exertion with them necessary, for the current bore the boat along so swiftly that the scattered lights on the Brooklyn shore fairly flew past. Zachary Walker squatted in the bow, with the lantern held at the level of his breast. The reporter counterbalanced him on the stern. A long wake of phosphorescent fire trailed along behind.

The first thing that struck the scribe was the intense and keen business attention displayed in Zachary Walker’s every movement. He only spoke in monosyllables now. His eyes were every-where. The flash of the little lantern dotted the water with rapidly changing discs of light. They were here, there and every-where, dancing on the black river, glancing along the piers and diving deep into the gloomy caverns formed by the timbers of the wharves.

BUT THEY REVEALED NOTHING.

At least nothing of the sort of which the boat was in search. Driftwood and garbage matted the docks where the tide raced in and out again, forming strong eddies in which the floating objects whirled round and round as if they were the component parts of a vast hellbroth which some spirit hand was stirring. A few dead animals and fish showed among the wreck, but the fisherman in the boat, though his prey, too, was dead, had no eyes for them. The skiff went steadily in and out one dock after another, and the fiery eye of the lantern peered into every dark hole and corner, but it revealed no prize for the river resurrectionist.

Zachary Walker received these disappointments with philosophical calmness, but Dave, whose other name the reporter had now discovered to be Kimo, enveloped a strong sense of wrong.

“I never see such luck,” he said. “Bust my crust if I don’t think people have stopped getting drownedead.” [sic]
“All the better for the people,” returned Zachary, winking at the reporter. “Eh, sir?”

“The people!” repeated Mr. Kimo, disgustedly. “Oh, yes! To be sure, yes. The people is to be considered—they is. An’ where the bleedin’ ___ does we come in, I want to know?”

The fact of the matter is, sir,” explained Zachary, “Dave’s temper is sort of soured lately. You see

HE HAS BEEN CROSSED IN LOVE.”

“Crossed in love”

“Yes, sir. Last January we was a picking of our way down the river about two o’clock in the morning .The stream was full of ice, but the night were werry bright with a full moon. Suddenly I see a woman on the end of that werry dentical dock there,” pointing to Pier No. 8, which the boat was just rounding. “She stood there jest about a minute, and then she throws her arms up, and over she goes into the drink.

“Well, sir, we couldn’t get the boat through the pack ice atween us and the shore to save our souls. Wot does that Dave Kimo do but snatch a oar and go out on the ice, a-crawlin’ on his belly toward the wharf. Close in the ice was swashed by some wessel as had been towed out that arternoon, and it hadn’t frozen together solid gain. The woman had gone through this, come up, and grabbed the edge of the hard ice, an’ there she hung now, a-yelling for help like a catamount. She wanted to die, but preferred warmer water.

“Dave got her out and brought her aboard the boat. She were a pretty young thing, about twenty year old, and werry nice dressed. She were most crazy, and from her talk we made out she had been left by her husband at the Stevens House, where they was a-stopping.

DAVE KIMO FELL IN LOVE

With her at once. He wrapped her up in the blankets we allus carries, and when we got in at Pier 1 he carries her to the hotel and rushes for the doctor. The nearest one lived at the werry hotel she had run away from, and there Dave finds the husband raving round like a crazy stud-horse, threatenin’ to tear the roof off if he couldn’t find his wife. He hed been away a day and a night on business, and the dispatch he’d senet her to tell her of it hed gone astray. So she thought he hed deserted her, you see. He gev us a clean hundred cases apiece, and you never see two happier people than them. But it was rough on Dave, I allow.”

“A dead skin, that’s what it was,” commented the victim of disappointment. “You show me a deader skin now, ef you kin.”

The boat now passed the South Ferry slip, and held a course of the Brooklyn end of Governor’s Island. A South Ferry boat passed so close that the rough water of her paddles set the skiff dancing crazily, and the reporter asked:

“Don’t you ever get into trouble with the ferry-boats?”
“I never did but once. I was run down by the Atlantic once. My boat was bursted all to splinters and my pardner killed. But I was picked up. Sence then I look twiste afore I cross a ferry-boat’s bows, you can bet your life. Ah! Here’s the channel. Now, then, Dave, take her through easy.”

The skiff slid slowly through the channel separating Governor’s Island from South Brooklyn. The fall of the oars broke the water into phosphorescent bubbles. On the landing wharf the steps of the sentry could be distinctly heard. A dog barked, and a boat moored to the wharf rattled and banged against the piles. Otherwise the silence was as profound as that of an abandoned graveyard.

“This here channel was our best lay onct,” said Zachary Walker, in a husky half whisper. “The shores used to be shoke up with weeds, and many’s the corpse would come down with the tide and get tangled here. Do you mind that young Frenchman, Dave?”
“Ay, do I.”
“Just at daylight one morning we found a stiff here. It was a young Frenchman in a spike-tail coat, and dressed like as fi for a ball. He had a bullet-hole in his head and a revolver in his hand. The police made him out to be a young artist named Pierry. About four days afterward we picked up a young lay at the werry same place. She were dressed elegant and wore diamonds. My souls! Do you ‘member them diamonds, Dave?”
“Oh, don’t I!”

“Well, sir, that pair, so the police found out, was lovers. Both had tempers of their own. One night the was coming from a party in New York—they lived in Brooklyn, you see—and they had a spat. Pierry he puts the gal into a car and walks back, aboard of the boat. About half-way betwixt Brooklyn and New York the people on the boat hears, from the bow,

A SHOT AND A PLUNGE.

“Two days afterward we found young Pierry down in the Buttermilk Channel. When the gal found out about it I s’pose her conscience smote her. Anyway, the same river as drifter her lover down among the mud and tangled grass fetched her there afterward.

“Most of the people we finds, though is unknowns. About three-quarters is poor, poverty-hunted wretches, that is better off in the river than any where else. The rest is, say half accidents and the t’other half wiolences. The accidents generally pans out well enough from their pockets. The wiolences is allus cleaned out.

“Sakes alive! What fearful things I see among them wiolences. Onct I picked up a man which his entrils was eat right out’n him and a lot of eels in there instead. He had been ripped open. Dozens have I found without heads, either rotted or cut off. I can tell you, when I first got to handlin’ them the sights an’ the smells was enough to turn me inside out. But I got used to it, an’ here I am. There’s a way of handlin’ a river stiff, you see, as makes the work easy enough when you know how.

“Our spear of usefulness ain’t limited to stiffs though. Ef we had to depend on them we’d schaww wind instead of beefsteaks most of the time. It’s live men as plays in best for us. Years ago, you see, afore the police was so strict, if you caught a corpse you went through its pockets, and frequently, specially on sailors,

“FOUND A COMFORTBLE PILE.

“Now, however, every thing has to be handed to the police for purposes of dentification. Of course, in cases like Piorry and the young gal, the relatives comes down handsome. But then for two of them we ketch two hundred that ain’t worth the rope we tow ‘em ashore with hardly. Why, sir, in the old days we used to not only empty a body’s pockets, but strip its clothes off. I’ve seen men which wore the duds off of twenty different corpses at one time for a Sunday suit. That was the reason you hardly ever heard of any drowned people being identified in them days. If they hadn’t no marks on their bodies, they couldn’t be.

“Now, contrarywise, we tows a corpse ashore and gives it up to the police just as it lays.

“But I was a talking about live men. There’s more suicides tempted round New York than ever the police dreams of. Men is drunk or down-heareted, or something or other, and they happens to be on a ferry-boat. Every things handy, so over they goes. As soon as they tastes water, though, they weakens, and wishes they hadn’t gone and done it. That’ sour chance. If we can only pick them up, then we’re good for all the money they can lays hands to for rescooing of them and keeping the thing quiet. I raked in seven since the first of the month. One of ‘em is one of the owners of the werry line of ferry-boats he jumped off of. Another is

THE CAPTING OF A OCEAN STEAMER.

“Generally, though we never find their names out, and of course we never ask, most of that sort has money with them. When they hasn’t they says, ‘Meet me at so and so  to-morrow, my man,’ and they never misses fire. If you ever see shame-faced men, it’s them, and they’d ruther pay hundreds of dollars than have the stories against them come out.

“The queerest start I ever had in this way was about four years ago. It was one rainy night in the fall of the year. I was pulling for home with Dave here at the tiller, when a boat drifted past us. We rowed alongside, intending to take it in tow, when we found a man in the bottom. He was sensible, but hit hard with a bullet in his breast. The bottom of the boat was full of blood, and he was so weak he could hardly speak.

“He had tongue enough to beg us not to take him to the Police Station. I didn’t know what to do. I see at once that he were a river thief, and knew I art to give him up. But the pore devil was hurt so bad and begged so hard that I give in at last and took him home along with me. He laid in our room a week. A doctor, which he sent me to hisself, and which was a friend of his, tended to him. As soon as he was well enough he went away in a hack. I never see him again, but one day a Adams Express comes to the house with an envelope

“IT HAD $250 IN IT.

“All I could find out was that it come from a man named John Smith, which, in course, was as good as no name at all. From what I was able to hear I concluded that my man was Big Mike Shanahan, the river pirate. He answered the description anyhow, and about that time he was shot by a watchman on the ship Australasia, but escaped. His pardners was captured on that job and sent up. Mike was reported to have hid somewhere till he could get away afrom the city. If I ain’t very much mistaken, he was hid in my room.”
Another and much more legitimate source of profit to the river resurrectionist, Mr. Walker went on to explain, is grappling for families who have lost a relative, presumably by drowning, frequently employing him day after day dragging suspected points in the river of the missing one. Accidents on the river are also fat jobs. A blow-up like the Westfield’s is a red letter event in the corpse-hunter’s history. Grappling for dead is paid for by the day, and at a very fair rate of remuneration. The relatives of those found generally reward the finder with extra presents.

In regard to the gains of the corpse-hunter, Zachary Walker was adamantinely secret. The reporter could not ascertain whether this proceeded from a fear that he was going to enter into competition with him or not. But only the vaguest and most unsatisfactory hints could be gained. One point, however, struck the Dispatch representative very forcibly. That was that in spite of the police regulations a corpse with any money in its pocket stood or floated a poor chance of ever reaching shore

WITH ITS PROPERTY INTACT.

There are any number of channels of gain open to the river resurrectionist beside that which he claims for his legitimate one. Many and valuable objects are lost overboard from vessels in the harbor and picked up by him. He is a steady customer at the water-side junkshops, where scarcely anything originally worth money can be so badly damaged as to not be worth buying. Then, again, the smuggler must find him a valuable auxiliary. He knows every point and winding of the river front, from the lonely landing places far up town to the somber wharf caves, like “Hell’s Kitchen,” where the river thieves conceal their boats and land their plunder.

A vast quantity of the smuggling of this city is performed by sailors on the sailing vessels plying between here and the West Indian ports. Cigars, bay rum and brandy are the chief objects with which the cunning mariner seeks to evade the vigilance of the Custom-house officials. Contrabandist Jack finds the corpse hunter’s boat a handy vehicle for his purpose, if his own admissions are to be credited.

ZACHARY WALKER’S BUSINESS

Last Monday night was, however, unmarred by any lawlessness. The long pull around Governor’s Island brought the turn of the tide and dawn with it together, and the skiff’s head was turned to New York. A light fog drifted smokily along with the tide, deadening even the steady sound of the falling oars. Suddenly there was a soft jolt, and then the skiff swung slowly round. Zachary Walker sprang up and leaned over the side, a cord with a noose at its end in his hand.

“What’s the matter? Asked the reporter. “Are we aground?”

“Aground! No much we ain’t. Ease her off a little, Dave. Ah! There it is. Now pull a stroke.”

Zakary Walker spoke in the hurried accents of an excited man. The face of Dave Kimo, the misanthrope, shone. The reporter felt an uneasiness in his stomach which grew to positive nausea as the boat ran alongside of a hideous, sodden, shapeless, floating thing at which the tide was softly lapping. The corpse hunter, cord in hand, leaned out over the side, and a brief pause followed.

“Have you got it?” then demanded Dave Kimo.

“Got it, be d___d!” returned Zachary Walker, dropping on the stern thwart. “Give way for home. It’s only a dog.”

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 28 June 1879: p. 11

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.

A Lady Undertaker: 1912

http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=pv&GRid=87791203&PIpi=120206539

 WOMAN HANGS SIGN AS AN UNDERTAKER

Miss Eleanor Girodat Opens St. Francis’ Mortuary on Bridge Street.

FIRST ONE IN ENTIRE STATE

She Quotes Bible as Answer to Questions About Her Strange Profession

In the person of Miss Eleanor Girodat, 736 Bridge street, Grand Rapids has the distinction of having, in so far as is known, the only woman undertaker in the state of Michigan. There are many women engaged in various branches of mortuary work. Many of them hold embalmer’s licenses from the state board of health, but it remained for Miss Girodat to attain the unique distinction of opening a business of her own to care for the bodies of dead women and children.

“St. Francis’ Mortuary,” is the name carried on the sign above the door of the modest yet cleanly and even cheery establishment recently opened by Miss Girodat. Upon entering one is greeted with a smile from a cheery little woman, quite the reverse of the type usually associated with the so-called grewsome business in which she is engaged.

“Many people have asked me why I do it,” said Miss Girodat. “For my own part, I see nothing strange or unusual in a woman entering this business. I have read in my bible of how after the crucifixion of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus came and took the body from the tree. The story states that Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Jesus, and ‘that other Mary’ brought spices for the preparation of the body for burial. So, you see, it was an ancient custom to have the women prepare the bodies of their own loved ones for burial, the last earthly office.

“There is another side to the question, too. Not many people would care to have a man nurse their women and children during sickness. After death, it seems, it is another matter. Many people I am sure would rather have a woman care for their dead.”

Miss Girodat has had several years of experience in her work. She is a graduate of the Barnes School of Anatomy, Sanitary Science and Embalming of Chicago, having received her diploma from that institution in June, 1906. Immediately after graduation she took the state examination and received her license as an embalmer.

She worked for some years as an employe of various Grand Rapids undertakers, but decided to enter into business for herself. She has arranged to have two women assistants.   A man will be employed, however, to attend to the public end of the work, such as conducting funeral services at the houses and at churches, as the case may be.

Grand Rapids [MI] Press 5 September 1912: p. 12

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It is shocking to think that, even in 1912, a man would be needed to attend to the public portion of the work. We have previously read of Mrs Elizabeth Thorn’s heroic grave-digging expoits at Gettysburg. Here are two more female sextons:

A Queer Job

A Girl Becomes a Sexton and Digs Graves

Evansville, Ind., March 11 Miss Josie Smith, the 17-year-old daughter of a Civil War veteran who has been the sexton of a cemetery, has succeeded her father in the capacity of sexton, and is believed to be the only grave digger of her sex in the country. Her father, who is 87 years old, has become too feeble to do the work. Daily Herald [Biloxi, MS] 12 March 1904: p. 5

By the death of Mrs Elizabeth Geese at Lewis, England loses its only woman grave digger. On the death of her husband in 1879 she was appointed to carry on his duties at the Lewes Cemetery. She was 76 years of age. Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 29 August 1904: p. 6

And this jocular comment about another woman undertaker. Mrs Daffodil suggests that the winsome lady would have been delighted to embalm the author.

A Boston woman is a licensed undertaker. One of the nicest things to have about, from the cradle to the grave, is a winsome, kindly-disposed woman. The man is a churl who wouldn’t gladly let a pretty lady undertaker embalm him. Marlborough Express 18 May 1894: p. 2

Our friends in the Colonies were also progressive in this field:

There is in Sydney [Australia] a lady undertaker. She dresses not in funereal hues, but in most cheerful tints. Observer, 24 January 1891: p. 4

The work begun by the early mortuary tradeswomen continues to-day with Australia’s high-profile “White Ladies” and the delightful Caitlin Doughty of “Ask a Mortician” and The Order of the Good Death.

More on funeral professionals–both ladies and gentlemen–may be found in The Victorian Book of the Dead, by Chris Woodyard, a look at the “popular culture” of Victorian death and mourning.

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.

In a Munich Dead-House

In this, our second in the occasional series, “Little Visits to the Great Morgues of Europe,” we find ourselves in Munich. I will point out that the “waiting mortuaries” of Germany represent a separate class of establishment from the average morgue. The persons in them were generally properly identified and there were separate buildings for suicides and the unknown dead, which were not open to the public.

There were some ten “Leichenhauser,” in 1907 Munich and they were the pride of the city. While they were on the list of must-sees for tourists, descriptions of the German Leichenhauser by visitors seem less fraught with drama than those of the Paris Morgue. In reports describing the Paris morgue, there is an emphasis on the sight and smell of rotting corpses and the disorderly lives of beautiful suicides, whereas the principal impression for visitors to Germany mortuaries was that they reeked of flowers and disinfectants. Our intrepid visitor clucks over children exposed to the sight of corpses, but there are no maggots in the Munich Deadhouse.

IN A MUNICH DEADHOUSE.

By Leon Mead.

The methods of burial in some portions of Germany seem very strange to the average American. In Munich, Bavaria, when a person dies, he or she is taken to the Deadhouse immediately, or at least as soon as the body has been washed and dressed. The origin of this peculiar custom dates back many decades, and in these days is followed partially as a sanitary measure.

Munich is exposed to most of the fatal epidemics which devastate Italy, though in these days the inhabitants do not suffer those fearful and unmentionable plagues that used to decimate the town in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The tenement houses, however, are densely crowded, and extreme poverty generally is apt to be attended with disease. Many large and all but destitute families live in one or two rooms, and when death overtakes a member of such a household there is no suitable accommodation for the body. Moreover, it is a Catholic superstition in Bavaria not to sleep under the same roof with a dead person.

The system is compulsory, taking in the high as well as the low, and the rich as well as the poor. Otherwise, many of the poorest people would insist upon the right to keep their dead in their own houses, however squalid, until the hour of burial, were the rich allowed the privilege.

The arrangements for the interment of the dead in Munich are performed by officials and women, the latter being called Leichen Frauen. The remains are conveyed in a hearse to the cemetery that belongs to the quarter in which the deceased has lived. It is not until one visits the Munich Dead house that the horror of it can be realized. The whole area (the old Southern Cemetery is here referred to) is inclosed with a brick wall several feet high, and the general plan of the cemetery itself, with its artistic arcades and imposing monuments, entitles it to the reputation it has acquired of being one of the finest in all Germany. Intersecting each other in the centre are a driveway running east and west, and abroad, paved walk extending north and south. Parallel to the driveway, on the northern side, stands a long, low brick building, a part of which is occupied by the corps of directors of the cemetery. This building is all but divided by a roofed passageway connecting the northern and southern walks. On the west of the passage is a large room which serves as a temporary repository for suicides, murdered people, and those who are killed by accident. The windows of this room, which is not open to the general public, are curtained with green muslin. On the east side, the first chamber is designed for the bodies of the common people. By ascending a step or two at the entrance one can see through the wide glass door or through the adjacent windows, a spectacle sufficiently ghastly to cause any foreigner to grow faint. It is a repulsive and awful sight.

On each side of the rectangular room is ranged a row of slightly inclined biers, on which rest the cheap yellow-covered coffins containing all that is mortal of from twenty to forty human beings. The faces of the emaciated old women, with their sharp, cronelike chins and sunken eyes, their open. mouths disclosing one or two discolored teeth, are enough to sicken most spectators at a glance. And yet to many there is a grim fascination about it. Indeed the Müncheners regard going to the Deadhouse on holidays as a standard recreation, and always recommend it to visitors with a weird sort of pride. They go through life perfectly unconcerned over the prospect that some day they, too, will be taken there to lie in lowly state for three days before the clods of the grave close over them.

What a grim picture for little children to become accustomed to! The Morgue in Paris is tame beside it. What could be more grewsome to see than the sallow-visaged old men lying there, with the crucifix and, perhaps, a wreath or two of evergreen on their breasts, two caudles at their heads—placed there with the conviction that these will light their spirits through the mysterious shades; and at the foot of their coffins two more burning candles and a pasteboard placard on which a number is printed in large black type? Here the mourners of their respective dead are compelled to come and give publicity to their grief. It is not unusual to see a hundred bereft friends and relatives crowd into this chamber of death and piteously weep over the remains of their lost ones. The undertakers, who bring in the bodies from the hearse and arrange them on the biers, are too well inured to their work to be impressed with the meaning and sentiment of death. If the head of the body, during its jolting journey in the hearse, has fallen into an unseemly position, the assistant raises it, twists it, pushes it a little this way or that, with an indifference that seems brutal. More than pitiful is it to see poor little dried-up old women thus treated. These feelingless men, in trying to straighten out any dismantled article of clothing, often injure the appearance of the remains more than they improve them. The writer once saw one of these busy undertakers combing an elderly woman’s hair, which had become disarranged. It was monstrously apparent that he was not acquainted with the intricacies of her coiffure, for he loosened a switch and was unable to readjust it.

A set of electric wires communicating with the director’s office is fastened along the ceiling, from which depend cords at the ends of which are attached metal rings that are placed on the finger of every corpse to report anyone who might chance to have any life. It is related, upon authority not traceable, that years ago a Munich butcher came out of a trance in the middle of the night and found himself in the Deadhouse. The shock this discovery gave him is said to have entirely shattered his nerves and though still alive, lie is a mental wreck. It is safe to presume that a more sensitive being would actually have died from fright under like circumstances.

Perhaps the most pathetic sight of all is that of the dozen or more infants lying in a position upon the biers so evidently insecure as to suggest the terrible probability that they will roll off on to the hard floor. They are decked in flimsy filigree fabrics, reminding me of nothing so much as the cut tissue paper ornaments sometimes seen in provincial drug stores in this country.

Further along to the eastward is another chamber devoted to the wealthy and aristocratic. This class lies in tastefully arranged bowers, and many of the corpses look peaceful, as though not only had their spirits departed with their mortal consent, but as though loving hands had done their best to render them presentable before intrusting them to the care of the state. Not infrequently the cold form of a general or a military man of high rank, dressed in his uniform, with his medals pinned on his coat and his trusty sword and crucifix in his clasped hands, may be seen in this apartment, which is more spacious than the other two mentioned.

I witnessed a touching incident one day while on one of my visits to the Southern Deadhouse in Munich. Two Americans, a brother and sister, came to the cemetery in a carriage to view the remains of an aunt with whom they had been “doing ” the Continent, and who had died at the Four Seasons Hotel the day before. Entering the passageway and turning to the right, after quitting their carriage, the two proceeded to the entrance of the death chamber, beside which stood a stoical official. In a few words addressed in German the young man communicated the object of his and his sister’s visit.

“Step inside,” said the official, coldly. “The body is No. 16.”

Whereupon he opened the door for them to enter.

“What did he say—No. 16?” asked the young girl, clinging desperately to her brother’s arm as they stepped into the room.

The odor of the disinfectants seemed to make her faint before she lifted her downcast eyes to see—what an instant later congealed her blood.

“Is this the Leichen-Haus?” she asked. “Oh, Henry, see those little babies’”

She turned away her face and leaned upon her brother’s arm, breathing nervously.

“Let us go back to the hotel,” urged the young man. “You are not strong enough to bear this. We will come to-morrow.”

“I am strong enough,” she answered, looking for the first time around the chamber. It seemed difficult for her to command herself; taking his hand, however, she glanced quickly on either side of the aisle, and said: “Come, the number is 16.”

They advanced together a few steps in silence, when the young woman suddenly ejaculated, throwing up her hands: “There!—there she is, Henry!”

She again averted her face, and made a movement as if to find protection and consolation in his arms, but, with a masterly effort, walked straight up to the coffin wherein her aunt was lying dead.

Here she broke down, and began to weep violently.

At length her brother succeeded in leading her back to the carriage. As they were going out I overheard her say: “Let us leave Munich as soon as possible. I cannot bear the thought of your possibly dying and being taken to this awful place.”

Making inquiries, I learned from the proprietor of the hotel where they stopped that the young man and his sister left for America immediately after the burial of her aunt.

Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, Volume 33, 1892: p. 459-462

A few points:

First, the English and the Americans were repulsed by the idea of a loved-one’s remains being exposed to the curious gaze of the general public.  The Germans viewed the spectacle either as a jolly day out or, if they were visiting the corpse of someone they knew, as a wake or a viewing at a funeral home.  I’ve posted previously on the idea of establishing similar waiting mortuaries in Connecticut, which, given the American prejudice, seemed doomed to fail.

Second, sanitary inspectors in New York and London reported the same issue with the poor keeping their dead at home long past their six-foot-under date. There is a stomach-churning passage on the evils of this practice in The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Third, it is stated in other sources that the waiting mortuaries were kept quite warm, ostensibly to aid in the resuscitation of the dead. There may have been, another, unstated reason: to hasten decomposition, considered the only reliable sign of death.

Fourth, it was the view of many medical men that of all the corpses who passed through the waiting mortuaries, not a single one was ever resuscitated. However, an author passionately interested in preventing premature burial refuted this with some vague statistics:

We are told repeatedly by the opponents of burial reform that there never has been an authenticated case of resuscitation in a mortuary in Germany. Clearly such persons must have been misinformed, for in the report of the Municipal Council of Paris for 1880, No. 174, page 84, there appears a letter from Herr Ehrhart, Mayor of Munich, dated May 2nd, 1880, in which is the following sentence: ‘The lengthy period during which these establishments (the mortuaries) have been utilised, the order which has always prevailed, the manner in which the remains are disposed and adorned, the resuscitation of some who were believed to be dead (the italics are mine) have all contributed to remove any sentimental objections to these establishments.’

In addition I find the following statement published on page 182 of Gaubert’s work, Les Chambres Mortuaires d’Attente: ‘We have collected in Germany fourteen cases of apparent death followed by return to life in mortuaries, in spite of all that has been done for the prevention of such occurrences.’

“Premature Burial and the Only True Signs of Death,” Basil Tozer, in The Twentieth Century, 1907, p. 558

One of these stories from Gaubert had a tragic ending:

A little child, five years old, was carried to the Leichenhauser, and the corpse was deposited as usual. The next morning a servant from the mortuary knocked at the mother’s house, carrying a large bundle in his arms. It was the resuscitated child, which she was mourning as lost. The transports of joy she experienced were so great that she fell down dead. The child came to life in the mortuary by itself, and when the keeper saw it, it was playing with the white roses which had been placed on its shroud. Premature Burial and how it May be Prevented, William Tebb, and Col. Edward Perry Vollum, M.D., Second Edition, Walter R. Hadwen, M.D. 1905, p. 348-9

One supposes that the mother of the child was not so fortunate as to come back to life under her shroud of roses…

Other tales from the Munich Deadhouse? Pull the bell-cord to send a signal to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com. I’ll be napping in the guard-room.

Mrs Daffodil tells a chilling story of a not-quite dead corpse at a waiting mortuary–you’ll find a picture of one of the Munich dead-houses as it looks today.

Further reading:

Premature Burial and how it May be Prevented, William Tebb, and Col. Edward Perry Vollum, M.D., Second Edition, Walter R. Hadwen, M.D. 1905, available on Google Books and Buried Alive, by Jan Bondeson.

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.

An Artistic Undertaker: 1901

Miniature porcelain tombstone for a 4-year-old child, 1859 http://auctions.freemansauction.com/auction-lot-detail/1410/1056

AN ARTISTIC UNDERTAKER

The Element of Uncanniness Eliminated in His Pretty Shop.

The most artistic undertaker’s shop in New York is on Eighth avenue. Most undertakers are content with one fine casket under a glass case for their show window display, with perhaps an impressive velvet curtain as a background. But this Eight avenue man has what might be called a “dressy” window. He has all the newest ideas for making undertaking and its trappings less uncanny in their aspects than formerly.

For this purpose he has filled his immense corner show windows with a quantity of palm trees—not the real, but the artificial sort—high and imposing, with drooping spiked leaves and all the melancholy of the willow, with a certain modern style of their own as well as a suggestion of tropical warmth. Beneath these palms he has carelessly scattered a number of caskets of different colors, sizes and finish.

For the frivolous, there are shades of violet velvet from faint lilac to deepest purple and the very latest things in  embossed cloths and fruity interior decorations. Then there are odd complicated arrangements opening with springs like folding beds and metal caskets with locks and keys of heavy and substantial make. Beneath the palms these are displayed with as much careful grace of arrangement as regards shade as though they were park benches.

But the daintiest touch is given by the tombstone models, miniature replicas of beautiful designs in monuments. Time was when one selected a tombstone from a book of cold black and white designs, but here you can see the styles, gay little arched effects and tiny angels showing the color and general effect of the tombstone when finished. They are small, for the tall, sky piercing shafts in the samples measure no more than two feet. Little girls wander in now and then to try and buy them for their dolls, but they are intended solely for undertaker’s bric-a-brac. New York Sun.

Irish American Weekly [New York, NY] 15 June 1901: p. 6

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.

Gloomy Coffin-Makers Go on Strike to Recover their Cheerfulness: 1903

The Coffin Maker Has a Just Kick.

Because the employees of two of the largest coffin factories in New York feel that they have the same right to laugh and be merry, in spite of their daily toil, that is given to the majority of mankind, they are out on strike. A thousand workmen have laid aside their tools and say they will not take them up again unless they are assured of a nine and one half-hour workday and a three-hour day on Saturday. They have been toiling among the coffins for ten hours six days a week. The more sensitive of the workmen complain that it makes them gloomy and melancholy to fashion tenements for the dead ten hours a day and right up to quitting time on Saturday. The somber associations of the coffin factory, they assert, are not easily got rid of, with the result that they do no recover their cheerfulness and attain a frame of mind to enjoy their leisure until late on Sunday, which curtails their pleasure and renders them undesirable associates for their friends. “A fellow can’t help thinking of his own end when he is hammering these dead boxes together, a striker is quoted as saying. “You get in the habit of wondering who is going to occupy the coffin and often you have a notion that it will be yourself. We’re not a gloomy lot naturally; all we want is an opportunity to be cheerful out of business hours.” The striking coffin makers will have the profound sympathy of professional joke writers, usually the most solemn and serious-minded of men. The right of the coffin maker to appreciate and enjoy the humor of the comic supplements in the Sunday newspapers is a sacred one, and if his hours of toll paralyze his power of laughter he has a perfect right to strike or choose another occupation, say undertaking. It is not, however, the usual thing for men to take seriously the duties with which they are most familiar. Only a short time ago an undertaker in a nearby city gathered up and put together the horribly mangled remains of a man who had been dashed to death by a fall over a cliff 500 feet high. While he worked he whistled, “There’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” And the majority of those, who day after day are thrown in contact with death and suggestions of the dark and narrow house speedily lose the innate sense of fear and awe that controls those who seldom contemplate the common end of man.

Salt Lake [UT] Telegram 25 June 1903: p. 4

Mrs. Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Readers with an curiosity about matters mortuary may find the following post on the girl shroud-makers of New York to be of interest. The young ladies, who seem a cheerful lot, mention the coffin department and how quickly they became used to working with these reminders of mortality. The article was followed by a discussion of shrouded spectres: shrouded ghosts and superstitions about the habiliments of death. You will also shudder at a recent post on phantom coffin makers as an omen of death.

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.

Other stories of funerary workers 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.

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.

The Corpse Was Loose: 1875

After “A Respectable Funeral,” cartoon by John Leech

Shuckers Wouldn’t Take The Coffin

Over in Wilmington, the other day, a man named William D. Shuckers died. It seems that there was another man in the city bearing precisely the same name, and when the death was announced, a good many of his friends thought he was dead, and they resolved to go to the funeral.

On the day of the funeral the living Shukers also thought he would go, partly for the purpose of ascertaining how it felt to participate in the obsequies of a man named Wm. D. Shuckers. He took up a position in the vestibule, and just as the mourners were about to come out, a friend of his, named Jones, saw him. The first impulse of Jones was to rush through the kitchen, and climb suddenly over the back fence, but he controlled himself, and after poking Shuckers in the ribs with his umbrella to determine positively that he was not a ghost he remarked:

“Shuckers, what on earth are you doing here? Why ain’t you in your coffin?”

“Coffin!” exclaimed Shuckers; “whad’d you mean? What do I want with a coffin?”

“Mr. Shuckers, you know you are dead. Why they got up this gorgeous funeral for you, all these carriages and pall-bearers and things, and the clergy-man’s just been paying you splendid compliments that any dead man might be proud of.”
“But I tell you I am not dead. I’m as much alive as you are.”

“There is no use your arguing the point, Shuckers; the occasion is too solemn for controversy. But if you have any consideration for the feelings of your bereaved family, who are weeping like mad up stairs, and for the undertaker who is waiting inside there with the screw-driver, you will go and get into your coffin and behave. It’s indecent to carry on so at your own funeral.”

“Jones, my boy,” said Shuckers, “you have mistaken—“

“No, I’m not mistaken. You’re dead—technically dead—anyhow. It has been announced in all the papers, your relations have gone into mourning, the Board of Trade has passed resolutions of regret, the sepulcher has been dug up there in the cemetery, and the undertaker has gone to considerable expense to inter you comfortably. Now, go and lie down, won’t you?”
“Hang the undertaker!” said Shuckers. “No, I’ll not go and lie down. I’ll see you in Kansas first.”

“Now, see here, Shuckers, I came here to attend your funeral, and I’m not going to be baffled by any unseemly conduct on the part of the corpse. Oh! You needn’t look at me. Either you get back into that coffin, so’s the lid can be screwed on, and the procession can move on, or I’ll put you in there by force. If inanimate remains like you can go scooting ‘round in this incendiary manner, we’d soon have the cemeteries unloading, and the unnumbered dead crowding out and wanting to vote.”

Then Jones called the undertaker, who knocked Shuckers down with a cane, and held him until he explained, and until the scared undertaker recovered his equanimity, which left him at the bare suggestion that the corpse was loose. Then the funeral moved on to the cemetery, and Jones went home, while Shuckers proceeded to an alderman’s office to swear out a warrant against the undertaker for assault and battery. He intends to change his name to Duykinch.

North Star [Danville VT] 9 April 1875: p. 4

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Unseemly conduct on the part of a corpse, indeed! The newspapers were full of stories of persons reviving on the very brink of their own graves as well as dire mistakes being made over the identification of corpses and the startling return of people thought dead. Such reports were a kind of precursor to to-day’s popular “Zombie” and “Walking Dead” entertainments. It is no wonder the undertaker was shaken: a loose corpse would have cast aspersions on his professional abilities as an embalmer.

There is a barbed pleasantry about the American political process in that remark about “unnumbered dead crowding out and wanting to vote.” Voters’ rolls were often compiled by taking a stroll through a cemetery with paper and pencil and the votes of the dead were enlisted to put a favoured candidate in office. Naturally, such things never happen in England….

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.