The Corpse Stiffed the Barber: 1892

Antique straight razor from http://antiquescientifica.com/catalog14.htm
Antique straight razor from http://antiquescientifica.com/catalog14.htm

HE DIED IN THE CHAIR

And Got Very Much the Best of the Barber.

Wanted a Funeral Shave, and Went For It Himself.

An Arizona Story, Which Need Have No Doubts Cast Upon Its Entire Authenticity.

[San Francisco Call.]

“Yes, I’ve shaved more than one corpse in my time,” said a Geary-street barber as the reporter sank into the luxury of the big velvet-cushioned chair and said, “shave.”

“Yes, and I’ve shaved more dead men than I ever got pay for,” said the barber, as he tucked in the towels about the reporter’s neck. “You know the price is $5 for scraping a ‘stiff.’ Well, I never got a cent for one ‘stiff’ that I handled once.

“Tell you about it? Well, if you really want to hear it, though it ain’t a pleasant story.

“It happened down in Arizona, where I had a shop. A tall, lean fellow, looking as pale as milk, came in one day and climbed up into the chair.

“I fixed the towels around him and put on the first dash of lather when in walks an old friend who wanted to pay a bill.

“’Are you in a hurry, sir?’ I asked the big man in the chair. He said he was not in a tone that sounded like a funeral bell. So I talked with my friend who came in to pay the bill and went out to take a drink with him.

“When I came back something else happened that kept me from shaving the big fellow in the chair for fully fifteen or twenty minutes. But some other customers came in and I began to get a move on me. I only ran one chair in Arizona.

“I thought the stranger’s face was awfully cold and damp to the touch as I went about shaving him, now in dead earnest, for there were two waiting.

“I was feeling in a good humor and tried to be pleasant to the big fellow, talking about this and that and the other thing. But he never let on he heard a word I said.

‘Razor hurt, mister?’ I asked him as I always ask everybody, for sometimes, you know, the razor may be a little dull and me not know it.

“Well, the stranger never answered a word.

“Shampoo, sir?’ I says.

“He never let on he heard me.

“I tried him again: ‘Hair trimmed a little?’

“No answer.

“’Bad weather we’re having,’ I said after a pause, but he never said a word.

“Thinks I, ‘he’s a mute, I guess,’ but I didn’t think twice about it, for when a man wants a quiet shave and he’ll only say so, I never bother him. So I went to shaving and talking to the other customers who were waiting their turns and never said ‘beans’ to the tall stranger under me.

“Well, I got the job done, and bay-rummed, washed and dried him and had put the powder on his face. Then I waited for him to get up so I could comb his hair.

“But he never budged.

“I knew he hadn’t gone to sleep, for his eyes were wide open and he was staring at the ceiling. I thought he must be an awful jay not to know enough to raise his head up to get his hair combed.

“’Rise up, please,’ I said.

“But he didn’t rise for a cent.

“Then I got frightened and remembered how cold his face was. ‘Hello,’ I said, ‘he’s’ fainted!’

“I dashed a cup of water in his face, but it didn’t bring him round.

“Then I sent after the doctor, who had his office right across the street, meanwhile leaving him, just as he was in the chair.

“”Why,’ said the doctor when he got out there, ‘that’s my patient. Not more than an hour ago I told him I couldn’t save him and he’d be liable to die any moment. It’s that fellow Rocks who struck the big lead last week and got a ball in him for trying to jump “Fatty’s” claim. I couldn’t get the bullet out, and I told him so.’

“Maybe you can imagine how I felt when I heard that I had been shaving a dead man. I was young in the business then and had never struck that kind of a job before.

“’Yes,’ said the doctor, ‘Rocks has been dead for the last half hour. He must have  given up the ghost right after he got into the chair, for he’s getting stiff now.’

“And what do you suppose brought that living-dead man into my shop. He came over to get shaved while he was alive so it would only cost him two bits. He knew he was going to kick right off, and the idea of his heirs paying $5 for a shave went against his grain. And you’d believe this if you knew old Rocks. He was the closest and tightest man in Arizona.

“No, I never got a cent for that job. I wouldn’t take the two bits the heirs offered me and they kicked about paying the regular fee.”

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 24 September 1892: p. 10

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The barber who shaved the dead was a mortuary service-person little remembered today. The subject seemed to titillate journalists of the nineteenth century, as stories about “Dead Man’s Razor,” involving secret journeys to shave the faces of dead ladies and odd requests from relatives about facial hair stylings, were commonplace in Victorian papers. Some barbers had custom razors made with a skull-and-crossbones moulded into the handle so they would not use that razor on a living man. All of the barbers interviewed in the press emphasised the lucrative aspects of the funerary trade: $5 for a corpse as opposed to 50 cents for the living, hence the barber’s chagrin at being “stiffed.”

There is more on “dead men’s razors” as well as undertakers, grave-diggers, and shroud-makers in The Victorian Book of the Dead.

 

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

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

Fiends for a Funeral: The Amateur Mourners

mourning print widow by grave 1846
Mourning Print, 1846, complete with swooning mourner.

In the 19th-century press there was a slight, but revealing collection of stories about funeral fanciers. These were mourners without portfolio, who attended funerals merely for the fun of the thing. As this fashionable undertaker reports, they do not seem to be ghouls, but are generally sympathetic souls.

FASCINATED BY FUNERALS

People Who Are Mourners Regularly, and Find Comfort in so Being.

[New York Sun.]

“Do you see that nice-looking little old lady over by the stained window?” asked a fashionable undertaker of the reporter. “I mean the quaint, respectable-looking little personage, with the black satin dress and the black crape shawl.”

The reporter saw her.

“Well,” continued the undertaker, with an appreciative smile, “she’s as fine a regular attendant as any establishment in this city can produce. I send her an invitation to all my nice funerals, and I have sometimes sent a carriage for her when I knew mourners would be scarce. She is never really happy unless she is at a funeral. She won’t touch weddings, as most women will; her sole amusement, so to speak, is a first-class funeral;” and the undertaker looked over to the old lady with a tender professional interest.

“I have some other nice people on my list,” he went on. “One of my most graceful mourners live in Forty-eight street, and seldom gets down this way, but she hardly ever passes a day without a funeral, and I never saw her at one when she couldn’t’ shed tears with the best of them. She’s one of the heart-brokenest ladies I ever had for a ‘regular.’ Does she really feel badly? Well, I should say she did, most decidedly. She always has a word to say to the family, if she thinks they need comforting, and is very careful to learn all the particulars. Why, she can tell me all the details about some of my own funerals that I had forgotten years ago. She’s as good as a set of books.

“Oh, no, there’s nothing hysterical about these cases at all. I’ve got some men that do just the same thing. There is one now. He’s a curious customer. I sometimes lose sight of him for six month, and then all of a sudden he’ll turn up and not miss a funeral. Of course, I couldn’t ask the women folks why they came, but I asked him one day. He said he couldn’t describe exactly the kind of feeling it gave him, but he thought it sort of quieted his mind and soothed his feelings like. He made one remark about it that I never could quite get the hang of, though I dare say it had a certain sort of meaning for him. He said, ‘ I haven’t got any friends at all myself, and so I like to go to funerals.’ A lady volunteered almost the same kind of remark to me once after she had been to four or five of my best funerals. She said, ‘It makes me feel kind of friendly, you know, and then they are kind to me, and, besides, I feel afraid and solemn, and it always does me good.’

“I think it would be unjust to call it mere curiosity that brings them here, though I have noticed that some of these people watch every detail with the most intense curiosity. They seem fascinated by the presence of death, and their sympathies are moved by the grief of the living. You might think they were very solemn people but the contrary is the case. Some of them are remarkably cheerful, in fact. That little old lady is always very pleasant and vivacious after the ceremony is over. She always comes up and shakes hands with me and is as agreeable a person as one would wish to meet.

“There’s an unusually lively and pleasant gentleman living in the Ninth Ward who occasionally drops in at my funerals. He does not make it a point to go to them, but, as he says himself, he can never get past them. He told me he was obliged to go in; no matter how important business might be, he would forget all about it as soon as he saw the hearse and carriages. The first time I saw him at a funeral I thought he was certainly one of the nearest relatives. He is a very large, round-faced, benevolent-looking gentleman, that would be observed in any crowed. On this occasion, after he had looked at the deceased person for a few moments, he became greatly overcome with emotion, and someone led him to a chair. Each one of the mourners supposed, of course, that he was known to the others. He wept throughout the discourse, and after it was over shook hands all around with the mourners, and showed a good deal of fervent, and, I have no doubt, genuine sympathy. I did not know until some time after that he was a dummy—that’s the name we sometimes call them by. This man is really as jolly a fellow as you ever met, and they say he has been requested to leave theaters more than once, in case he would not subdue a particularly substantial laugh which he possessed. In fact, most of these people who love to go to funerals are good-hearted people. It is not true, as has sometime been said, that they are touched a little in the head. The fact seems to be that they are emotional and sympathetic, and are strongly affected by any awe-inspiring scene. Even young girls and boys have now and then a fancy for funerals, though none of them can say why. Most of them say it makes them feel better, but if you ask where or how, they cannot say. They all watch everything as though in a sort of a dream.

One of my best hearse drivers used, as a boy, to be a regular attendant at funerals. One day he came around to my stable and asked if he might help us. I let him do so, and after a while he used to take a hand regularly in keeping the hearse in order. When he got old enough to go to work his father had to bring him to me—he wouldn’t work any-where else. If you ask him why he likes this business, he’ll tell you he don’t know.”

A slim, middle-aged man here addressed the undertaker, and was received by that personage in a most friendly manner. The slim man suggested that there might be some way he could be of use before the services were done.

“Now, there’s a man,” said the undertaker, “who is interested only in the mechanical part of the business. He goes to almost all my funerals, but seems to feel no special sorrow or sympathy. His whole mind is taken up with the conduct of the funeral. To suit him, the business must be done with the most solemn exactitude. He said to me the other day that if he could only once have complete charge of a large funeral he would be happy for the rest of his life.”

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 25 August 1883: p. 11

Mrs Daffodil has also posted about “Fiends for a Funeral.”

Moving beyond the amateurs de deuil, there were also hired professional mourners (some cities had mourners’ unions!) and, of course, con-men–and con-women, who followed the coffin.

AT MANY FUNERALS

When Arrested She Wails Some More and Borrows From Judge.

LIVED OFF HER TEARS

Wore Reversible Coat With Gray Inside to Turn When Work Was Done.

It will be some time before Clara Howell, professional mourner and weeper at funerals, will be back at her vocation again. She has been arrested by Policeman Burdette and was released by Justice Gavin on her promise to go to Littleton, where she has relatives, and remain there. Incidentally she “touched” the justice for 25 cents to pay her fare out of the city.

Clara Howell continually wears a black scarf, which extends over her head and under her chin. She never has been seen on the street or at funerals without it.

She was arrested at Miller’s undertaking establishment, Seventeenth and Curtis streets, by Burdette, who had been watching her.

She has been in the habit of begging, says the policeman, and never overlooks a chance to ask for money. But it in the role of professional mourner that she shines.

Slipping quietly into an undertaking chapel or even a private home where funeral services are being conducted she would take a seat and begin to weep. Naturally some of the relatives of the deceased person would be anxious to learn the identity of the mourner and in many cases would address her, whereupon the disconsolate one invariably would say that she was acquainted with the departed one and incidentally call attention to her own poverty.

On such occasions it was easy to beg or borrow and, in this manner, Clara Howell succeeded in “getting the coin.”

The woman wears a reversible coat, one side being black, for mourning purposes, and the other gray, for street wear.

Policeman Burdette received many complaints concerning the woman from undertakers and finally decided to arrest her on a charge of vagrancy.

The Denver [CO] Post 8 March 1910: p. 6

Shirley Jackson has written about 1960s funeral fanciers who were in it for the food following the obsequies.  I have heard from a woman who lives in Manhattan, that there is an entire class of women who scan the obituaries for women’s funerals. Then they attend and condole with the bereaved husband, pretending to be a good friend of the deceased wife. Object: matrimony with the hapless widower.  Apparently these women recognize that there is a limited window of opportunity in which to snap up the grieving male before he is captured by some casserole-toting neighbor.

Are you a fiend for a funeral? Did you meet your spouse at a wake? Put on an expression of genuine sympathy and send to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Similar (and more bizarre) stories are found in my book: The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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.

Hearse Verses: Valentines for Undertakers: 19th century

vinegar valentine coffin maker

Books of valentine sentiments were quite popular in the nineteenth century; one could find saccharine stanzas to pass off as one’s own poesy or vile verses for a vinegar valentine. A peculiar feature of these collections were the “occupational” verses to woo the practitioners of various trades—such as the undertaker….

Valentine

To an Undertaker

I am a mantua-maker,

You are an undertaker

Whom much I do regard

Because you are a grave one,

And I’m sure won’t leave one

‘Til laid in the churchyard.

Miami [FL] Herald 13 February 1927: p. 4 [reported in 1927, but from a Victorian valentine.]

 

From an Undertaker to his Valentine.

Be to thine Undertaker kind,

And have him always in your mind;

Hid undertakings are profound,

And plumes have rendered him renown’d.

The Trades People’s Valentine Writer: Consisting of Appropriate Valentines Entirely Original, For People of all Trades or Professions, Alphabetically Arranged, 1830

 

TO AN UNDERTAKER.

To mournful strains I tune my lute,

Because to me the subject’s grave,

Too long ador’d thee, love, I have,

I can no longer be a mute.

 

If towards the ocean of my love

Rolleth thy fond Affection’s billow,

Send me a sprig of weeping willow,

Or cypress-wreath, thy truth to prove.

 

Reject me—and my fate is this:

Off life the fragile twig I hop,

And off, instanter, neck and crop,

I go to the neck-crop-olis!

 

In the serenest of snug corners,

I prithee, love, inter me then—

Plain walking funeral—(two-pound ten)

With return tickets for the mourners.

 

To Kensal Green I most incline—

There spend a half-a-crown a year,

In keeping turf’d the early bier

Of thy departed Valentine.

A collection of new and original valentines, 1858, pp. 104-5

 

“Let Chloe smile upon her lover,

Who will ne’er forsake her;

Each day new charms she will discover,

In her faithful undertaker.”

Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 8 February 1969: p. 65 [reported in 1969, but Victorian in date.]

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil must apologise. She made the mistake of commissioning that grave person over at Haunted Ohio to undertake a compilation of “occupational” Valentine verses.  Mrs Daffodil might have known that the author of a book on the lore of Victorian death and mourning would veer into “vinegar valentines” with a mortuary flavour.

Mrs Daffodil has written before on such seductive stanzas and, while the poesy might be tortuously rhymed, at least the principals were upright tradesmen such as wheelwrights and corset makers. Mrs Daffodil hopes that this will not spoil her readers’ Valentine’s Day and, in fact, may prove useful if one is being courted by or courting an undertaker. She will try to post something in a more romantic vein on the day.

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.

Something Advantageous: 1840s

Lizars, William Home, 1788-1859; Reading the Will
Reading the Will, William Home Lizars, 1811 https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/reading-the-will-212575/view_as/grid/search/keyword:will/page/1

SOMETHING ADVANTAGEOUS;

OR, A FAMILY FRACAS.

I once attended a very poor old man of the name of Jordan, in his last illness. I call him poor, but yet he was not in want, and had about him the comforts of life. When he was near his end, he said to me—

‘Doctor, I want to know the truth from you. I am not in the habit of being flattered by the world. There was a time, indeed, when it ‘fooled me to the top of my bent;’ but that was long ago. Do you not flatter me, but tell me your real opinion. Shall I soon die, or shall I linger on a brief career, in a world I am quite willing to be done with?’

‘You desire me,’ replied I, ‘to be candid with you, and I will. You are on your death bed.’

‘How soon shall I be immortal?’

‘That I can not say. But your hours, so far as human experience can teach me to predict, are numbered.’

He was silent for a few moments, and a slight spasm passed across his face.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘it is the lot of all. I have lived long enough.’

‘Is there no friend or relation, Mr. Jordan,’ said I, ‘to whom you would wish to send? You are here, as you have often told me, quite alone in lodgings. Perhaps you would like to revive some old recollections before you leave the world.’

‘Not one,’ he said.

‘Are you so completely isolated?

‘Most completely. I have tried all relations, and found them wanting. But still I have remembered them, and made my will. It is now between the mattress and sacking of this bed, and Mr. Shaw, the only honest attorney I ever met with, and who resides in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, will carry my intentions into effect I was rich once in early life. How dark a day.’

‘What day?’

‘To-day. How dark and misty it has come over, doctor.’

His sight was going fast, and I felt certain that it would require but little patience, and a small sacrifice of time to see the last of Mr. Jordan.

‘Yes,’ he continued, speaking in an odd, spasmodic fashion. ‘Yes, I was rich, and had many a crawling sycophant about me, many smiling faces at my board; but there came a reverse, and like fair flowers at a sudden frost, my kind friends hid their heads. I was nearly destitute, and thinking and believing that the ties of blood would be strong enough to bind to me, in my distress, those with whom I claimed kindred, and who had been delighted to claim kindred with me, I went to them, a visitor.’

‘And failed.’

‘And failed, as you say. They dropped from me one by one. Some remembered slight offenses; some were never at home; some really thought I must have been dreadfully improvident, and, until they were convinced I had not, could not assist me. Doors were shut in my face—window blinds pulled down as I passed. I was shunned as a pestilence — my clothes were in rags — my step feeble from long want of common necessaries. And then an old school companion died in the West Indies, and left me £20,000, which I received through the hands of Mr. Shaw.’

‘A large fortune! And your relations?’

‘Heard of it, and were frantic. I disappeared from them all. From that day to this, they have not heard of me. Do you love wild flowers?’

‘Wild flowers?’

‘Yes. Here are heaps just from the teeming garden. Look, too, how yon cherub twines them in her hair. The stream flows deep to eternity!’

‘Mr. Jordan, sir,’ I cried. ‘Mr. Jordan, do you know me.’

‘Come hither, laughing, gentle spirit,’ he said, ‘bring with you your heap of floral gems. Yes, I know this is the sweet violet. Mary, my Mary; God knows I love you.’

It was a strange thing but, at the moment the blind of the window, which I had drawn up to the top, came suddenly rattling down, and the room was quite dark. I raised it again, and then turned to the bed,

Mr. Jordan was a corpse!

What a remarkable change had in these few moments come over the old man’s face. The sharp lines of age had all disappeared, and there was a calm, benign expression upon the still features, such as in life I never saw them wear.

‘A restless spirit is at peace,’ I said, as I felt for the will where he told me it was placed, and found it. It was merely tied up with a piece of red tape, and addressed to Mr. Shaw, 20, Lincoln’s-Inn Fields; so I resolved to trust no other messenger, but to take it in my hand myself. I told the landlady of the house that her lodger was no more; and that she would no doubt hear immediately from his solicitor, and then I left.

‘Well, Mr. Shaw,’ I said, after I had mentioned to him the manner of Mr. Jordan’s death, ‘here is the will, sir, and I presume I have nothing further to do than to thank you for your courtesy, and bid you good evening.’

‘Stay a moment,’ he said. ‘Let me look at the document. Humph! a strange will. He leaves the form of an advertisement here, which is to be inserted in the morning papers, calling his relations together, to here the will read.’

‘Indeed!’

‘Yes, Well, I shall, as I see I am named trustee, do as he wishes. He states that he is very poor.’

‘Why, he spoke to me of £20,000.’

‘Did he really? A delusion, sir, quite a delusion. £20,000! He had that amount twenty-five years ago. But, sir, as you have attended him, and as I happen to know he had a high opinion of you, I should like you, as his friend, to be with me, as it were, in future proceedings connected with his will!”

‘In which there is a mystery, eh! Mr. Shaw!’

‘A little—perhaps a little bit of post mortem revenge, that is all, which I am not now at liberty to descant upon. But I will take care to coincide with you, and I shall hope that you will follow the old fellow to the grave.’

I promised that much, and duly attended the funeral. It was a quiet, walking affair, and from the manner of it I felt quite convinced that there were not funds to make it otherwise. A mound of earth alone marked the spot in the little church-yard at Barnes, where Mr. Jordan slept the sleep that knows no waking. A drizzling rain came down. The air was cold and eager, and I returned home from the funeral of Mr. Jordan, about as uncomfortable as I could.

o o o o o o

The next day the following advertisement appeared in a morning paper, and caught my eye as I sat at breakfast:

‘If any of the relations of Mr. John James Jordan, deceased, will call at the office of Mr. Shaw, 20, Lincoln’s-Inn Fields, they will hear of something advantageous.’

I made up my mind to call upon Mr. Shaw during the day, and about three o’clock, I reached his chambers, or rather I reached the stair-case leading to them, and there I had to stop, for it was quite besieged by men and women, who were all conversing with great eagerness.

‘What can it mean?’ said an old woman; ‘I’m his aunt, and of course I speak for my Ned!’

‘Well, but bother your Ned,’ said a man, ‘he hardly really belongs to the family. I’m his brother. Think of that, Mrs. Dean.’

‘Think of what, you two-legged goose?’

‘Pho, pho,’ said another man, ‘I knew him very well. I’m his cousin. Hilloa! what’s this? Who are you?’

A woman in tattered garments, but who still looked like a beautiful one, stood hesitatingly at the foot of the stairs.

‘Is this Mr. Shaw’s?’ she said. ‘Hush, Mary, hush! don’t my dear.’ ‘But I am hungry, mamma,’ said the little girl, who was holding her by a handful of her dress.

‘Oh, Mary—do not dear; we—we shall soon go home. Hush, dear, hush, hush! Is this Mr. Shaw’s?’

‘Yes,’ said a fat woman, ‘and who is you, pray?’

‘I—I saw an advertisement. I am his aunt Grace’s only child. My name is Mary Grantham. This is my only child. She—she is fatherless and has been so for many a day,’

‘What,’ cried a man, ‘are you the Mary he broke his heart about?’

‘Broke his fiddlestick,’ said the fat woman.

‘Good God, do I live to hear that!’ exclaimed the woman with the child.

‘You had better go up to the solicitor at once,’ whispered I. ‘Come, I will show his door,’

I made a way for her through the throng of persons, and we soon reached the chamber.

‘Here is another of Mr. Jordan’s relations, Mr. Shaw,’ said I, ‘I find you have had quite a levee.’

‘I have indeed, doctor. You must come at twelve o’clock, next Monday, madam, when the will of Mr. Jordan will be read by me to all around.’

‘I thank you, sir.’ She was about to leave the chambers, when I interposed.

‘Pardon me, madam,’ I said. ‘But as I was the only person with Mr. Jordan, at the time of his decease, I wish to ask you a question. If I mistake not, your name was the last that passed his lips. ‘Mary, my Mary,’ he said, ‘God knows that I loved you!’

She sank into a chair, and burst into tears.

‘You, then,’ I added, ‘are the Mary whom he loved. Ah, why did you not, if you can weep for him now, reciprocate the passion?’

‘I did love him,’ she cried; ‘God knows, and he, who is now with his God, knows how I loved him. But evil tongues came between us, and we were separated. He was maligned to me, and I was wearied by entreaties and tears, until I married another. She, who has turned me from him, and severed two hearts that would and should have been all the world to each other, confessed the sin upon her death-bed.’

‘Who was it?’ said Mr. Shaw.

‘His mother! From no other source could I have believed the tales I was told. But I did not then know enough of the world to think that there were mothers who could malign their own children. We were separated–my husband died, leaving me that last little one, of many. We are very, very poor—no one will help us—an acquaintance showed me the advertisement, and urged me to come—it was a false hope. But I find that there are strong arms and brawling tongues below, that I can not contend against.’

‘Never mind that,’ said the solicitor; ‘it is my duty to read the will on Monday, and as a relation it is your duty to attend at the same time. I tell you to have no expectations.’

I saw Mr. Shaw try to slip some money into her hand, and I saw a crimson flush come over her face as she said, ‘We can still work:’ and then, fearing she had been harsh to one who wished to be kind, she shook his hand in both of hers, and said. ‘God bless you, sir, I thank you from my heart.’

Bang, bang! came to the door of the chamber, a minute after Mary had left, and upon its being opened, a man of about six and thirty made his appearance.

‘Something advantageous!’ he gasped, for he was out of breath; ‘what—what is it? Give it me, give it me! How much? Good God, don’t let any body else have it. I’m his youngest brother—give it to me.’

‘If you will attend here at 12 o’clock on Monday, the will will be read.’

Bang, bang, bang!

‘I’m thoroughly besieged,’ said Mr. Shaw; ‘now, madam, who are you?’

‘Something advantageous,’ screamed a masculine looking woman;

‘I’m a relative—what is it? Come on, my dears. Here’s my five dear daughters, and my baby—come along.’

‘Be off with you,’ cried the younger brother.

‘Did you speak to me, you wretch,’ said the lady, and she planted a blow in his face that made him reel again. ‘Take that; I know you are a sneaking hound; you used to be called the chimpanzee in the family, you poor, scorched-up-looking bundle of cat’s-meat.’

Several more arrivals now took place, and poor Mr. Shaw was fairly bewildered. Sounds of contention arose on the staircase—shrieks from family combatants came upon our ears, and finally, I advised Mr. Shaw to paste a placard on the outer door of his office, on which was written,

‘The will of Mr. Jordan will be read here on Monday next, at twelve o’clock, precisely.’

The riot gradually subsided. The evening came on, and all the relations of the deceased had been and gone. Mr. Shaw and I supped together, and I promised to be with him punctually at twelve o’clock on Monday, for I was as curious as anybody could be to hear the will read, and at all events, anticipated a bustling scene upon the occasion. I was not doomed to be disappointed.

o o o o o

It is a habit of mine rather to be too soon than too late, and in the present instance I found it a most useful one, for I really almost doubt if I should have got into the chambers of Mr. Shaw at all, if I had been later than I was.

I had fairly to push Mrs. Mary Grantham in, despite a vigorous opposition; and a man stopped my own entrance, crying—

‘Who are you? What relation are you?’

‘His grandfather’s uncle,’ said I; ‘and if you don’t make way I’ll pull the nose off your face.’

It was well that Mr. Shaw occupied very spacious chambers, or otherwise he could not have accommodated one-half of the persons who came to the reading of the will; and never in all my life did I see such malignant looks pass from one to another, as shot from the eyes of the relations. It was a most pitiful picture of human nature.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ said Mr. Shaw; ‘ahem! ahem!’

There was a death-like stillness.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, I am commissioned to read to you the—the —what shall I call it?—it is hardly a will—of the late Mr. Jordan. No, it certainly ought not to be called a will, for a will, properly speaking, is a testamentary—”

‘Read, read, read!’ cried a dozen voices.

‘Well, ladies and gentlemen, I am glad to see you are all in respectable mourning.’

‘Except one,’ said the younger brother; ‘there’s his Mary, that he was so fond of. Oh, dear me! she only comes for what she can get.’

Mrs. Grantham burst into tears. There was a little shabby piece of black crape upon her arm, and another upon the arm of her child.

‘I—I could not,’ she said; ‘ I could not do more. God help me! I had not the means!

‘Read, read, read!’ cried all the voices.

‘Ahem!’ said Mr. Shaw, reading; ‘I, John James Jordan, being very poor, and having in vain called upon every relation I have in the world, for assistance, and found none, have to state that my heart was filled with bitterness and uncharitableness toward them. But still I think that they are not dead to all feeling; and this being my last will and testament, I desire that my debts, amounting to the sum of one pound, three shillings, and eight pence, be paid forthwith of my estate; that my funeral be strictly private, in Barnes churchyard, where I last parted with one whom I loved, but who has gone abroad, I am told; and to that one of my relations who will erect a tombstone, I bequeath—

‘Hark! will you!’ cried one; ‘be quiet. Go on—yes, yes. Oh: you wretch, where’s your feelings! Go to the devil!’

‘Really, ladies and gentlemen,’ said I, ‘this is most indecorous.’

‘I bequeath,’ continued Mr. Shaw, ‘my dying blessing and forgiveness.’

Mr. Shaw then folded up the will and put it into his pocket, saying— ‘I wish you all good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I sold the few clothes and other matters he died possessed of, and paid for the funeral, and his debts; being myself minus one shilling and four pence, which I hope you will some of you pay.’

It is quite impossible by any words to fairly depict to the reader the appearance of Mr. Jordan’s relations at this moment. If the fabled Gorgon’s head had suddenly appeared, and transformed them all to stone, they could not have looked more completely paralyzed and panic-stricken.

‘A tomb-stone!’ shrieked twenty voices. ‘A tombstone!’

‘A tombstone!’ said Mr. Shaw. ‘A small one would not cost much. You could put on it a suitable inscription. Here lies—’

‘Lies here—never mind,’ said the brother. ‘Never mind. I—I—Oh, that’s all, is it.’

‘You are a humbug,’ said the masculine woman to Mr. Shaw, ‘and so was old stupid Jordan.’

‘Go to the deuce, all of you,’ shouted another; ‘a tombstone indeed.’

Mr. Shaw was wiping his spectacles.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to add,—’

‘Oh, stuff, stuff! Bother! A tombstone indeed; I shan’t stay another moment. An old thief. I wish a tombstone had been down his throat. Come on! Come on! It’s all a do.’

‘But, ladies and gentlemen.—’

They were quite deaf to the remonstrances of Mr. Shaw, and in a few moments the chambers were quite clear, with the exception of Mrs. Mary Grantham, who was sobbing bitterly. She then rose, and looked at me hesitatingly. Then she looked at Mr. Shaw, and she seemed to be struggling to say something. She placed her hand in her bosom, and drew forth a ring tied to a black ribbon, and then, with a convulsive effort she spoke.

‘This—this ring—it is my only valuable possession. It was given to me thirty years ago, by him who is now no more, my cousin John, who loved me. I have clung to it in pain and in sorrow, in difficulty and in distress; I have never parted with it. I seemed to be but only separated from him while I had it near my heart. But now, great distress forces me—to—to part with it. Will—will neither of you gentlemen buy it of me. I—I shrink from its going into the hands of utter strangers.’

‘Humph!’ said Mr. Shaw; ‘there are a couple of sovereigns for it.’

She took the money, and then, after one long, lingering look, and a fervent kiss at the ring. she laid it on the table. and tottered from the place. I was about to follow her, but Mr. Shaw held me back.

‘Hold! hold!’ he said.

‘You are a brute sir,’ said I. ‘Take your hands off me; I will buy the ring of you and give it back to her. It breaks her heart to part with it, I see,’

‘I shan’t part with it,’ he said; ‘you are a very hasty man, doctor.’

I was very angry, and bounced out of the office. I looked eagerly about for Mrs. Grantham, but could not see her. I walked hurriedly across the square, and as chance would have it. I went in the same direction she did. My first impulse was to speak to her, and my second thought was to follow her, and to see where she went. She crossed Holborn, and traversed some of the long streets that lead into the New Road, where she arrived at last, and finally paused at a stone-mason’s yard.

I could have shed tears at that moment, for now I felt why she had parted with her cherished ring. She stayed about a quarter of an hour at the stone-mason’s, and then she came out and walked slowly away. I did not follow her further, but I went into the mason’s yard, and said to him—

‘Did that lady give you an order?’

‘Why, yes, sir, such a one as it is. She has got me to do a stone for two pounds, and she’s paid me. I’m to meet her at the churchyard at Barnes to-morrow morning at nine o’clock with it. and put it up. It’s only to have on it the name of John James Jordan. and under that. ‘God bless him.’

I walked away with a sort of mist before my eyes, and it was an hour before I recovered my composure. ‘I will meet her,’ thought I, ‘at the grave of her last love, and I will be a friend to her, if she never have another in the world. She shall have her ring again, if I force it from the lawyer. She shall have it. I’ll go and get it now, at once.’

I suppose I looked in a very tolerable passion when I got back to Mr. Shaw’s chambers, for he got behind a table when he saw me, and said— ‘Come, come, no violence.’

‘Hark you, sir,’ said I; ‘you have got the ring. There’s your money. Give it me directly, sir. Mrs. Grantham, poor thing, is going tomorrow morning, at nine o’clock, to place a stone at the grave of Mr. Jordan, and I intend to be there and give her her ring.’

‘Oh! very well. Bother the ring. I don’t want it. It ain’t worth half the money I gave for it. There it is; don’t bother me.’

I took up the ring, then put down two sovereigns, and casting upon him a withering look, which, to tell the truth, he did not seem much to care about, I left the chambers.

o o o o o

A soft. damp, white mist covered up all objects, and made the air uncommonly raw and chilly, as on the following morning, just as the clock of the church at Barnes chimed the three-quarters past eight, I entered the churchyard.

The first thing I then did, was to fall over somebody’s grave, for I was looking for Mrs. Grantham, instead of minding where I was walking; and then a voice said—

‘There you go again, as violent as usual, doctor;’ and in the dim mist I saw Mr. Shaw, the solicitor, to my great surprise.

I was going to say something, but at the moment I was nearly knocked down again, by some one brushing past me. A gleam of sunshine came out, and the mist began to clear away, when a most singular scene presented itself. A few yards off was the grave of Mr. Jordan, and kneeling by it was Mary, his first love, with her child by her side. Mr. Shaw stood to my left, and at his feet there knelt a respectable looking young man—I recollected him as Mr. Shaw’s clerk.

“Good God! Richards,’ said Mr. Shaw, ‘is that you? What is the matter?’

‘Oh! sir,’ said Richards. ‘I have come to ask your forgiveness. The spirit of my poor old father stood by my bedside all night. Oh, God! oh, God! it was dreadful; and I knew what it was for. Oh! sir, forgive me. I—I peeped into the will, sir, while you went out to dinner—Mr. Jordan’s will—and—and I went round to all the relations, and sold the secret for two pounds a-piece, and—and—’

Mr. Shaw gave a jump that astonished me.

‘Doctor, doctor,’ he shouted; ‘for God’s sake run down the London road and bring the man with the gravestone. Oh! good gracious. Oh! d——n you, Richards. Ha! ha! ha! Oh! here he is. Oh! bless you for a prudent stone-mason; you shall get well paid for this job. Hip! hip! Hip!—hurrah!’

I thought, to be sure, that Mr. Shaw must have gone mad. There was a man looking over the railing of the church-yard, with a spade on his shoulder; to him Mr. Shaw said—

‘Five guineas for that spade.’

The man thought he was mad, and tried to run away; but he dropped the spade; and in another moment Mr. Shaw’s coat was off, and he was digging away like fury.

‘Where’s the stone!’ he cried: ‘bring the stone. That’s right. Poke it in—prop it up. That’s the thing—all’s right. Here we are. Another knock. All’s right—all’s right.’

‘Lor!’ said the stone-mason, as he lifted up his hands; ‘look there!’

I looked in the direction he indicated, and there, to my astonishment, I saw arriving, carts, coaches, cabs, and wheel-barrows, and each containing a tombstone. A regular fight ensued at the entrance of the churchyard; and engaged in the fight I recognized the relations of Mr. Jordan. Heavens, how they cuffed each other!

‘Hold!’ cried Mr. Shaw; ‘you are all too late, although you had information you ought not to have had. There is already a stone on Mr. Jordan, and placed, too, by the only one who knew not what you all know. Listen to the conclusion of the will—‘And to that one of my relations who will erect a tombstone to my memory, I bequeath my blessing and forgiveness, and eighty thousand pounds in bank stock.’ ‘Madam,’ to Mrs. Grantham, ‘I congratulate you.’

‘And there’s your ring.’ said I; ‘Mr. Shaw, let us shake hands; I understand you now.’

‘Ha! ha!’ said Mr. Shaw, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, you had better all of you keep the tombstones for yourselves. You can get the name altered, for if you don’t, I’m very much afraid you will not find them

SOMETHING ADVANTAGEOUS.’

The Cincinnatus, Vol. 1, 1857: pp. 31-40

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Mrs Daffodil does so like a happy ending…. Except, possibly for Mr Shaw’s clerk, who will, it seems likely, lose his situation.  And possibly for the greedy relatives, although, to be fair, tombstones can be easily altered or even re-sold to recoup their losses. One predicts that some of the tombstones will be soon needed, as Mr Jordan’s volatile relations succumb to chagrin-induced apoplexies.

 

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

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

The Crape-Chaser: 1891

1917 wire frames for funeral flowers Book for Florists p 34
1917 wire frames for funeral flowers.

THE ” CRAPE-CHASER. “

A Peculiar but Profitable Mode of Gaining a Livelihood.

A reporter met a crape-chaser the other day for the first time to know who and what he was. It was in a local florist’s shop. A rather seedy and lugubrious individual entered. In his hand he carried a small wire frame with wire lettering. It was apparent that it was one of those frames used by florists in preparing wreaths and the like on the occasion of funerals.

The florist seemed to know the newcomer, and he saluted him familiarly.

“Well, Jim, what is it?” he asked.

“Just a few scraps,” said the melancholy one, “funeral’s this afternoon.”

“Well. I can’t do much for you to day, Jim,” said the florist Then he rummaged among his flowers for a few minutes and finally handed Jim a few bunches of withered flowers and fern. “It’s the best I can do,” he said.

“’Never mind,” said the melancholy one, “I reckon I can make ‘em do!” Then he went away as lugubrious as he was when he came.

“Lost some of his family?” the reporter asked.

“Gracious, no, answered the florist with a laugh. “Jim never had any family that I’ve heard of. Jim is a crape chaser, you know.” The reporter didn’t know, and then he was enlightened as to crape chasers. These gentlemen seem to have shown a very considerable degree of originality in their selection of a calling.

They form a portion of that army of persons who in one wav or another make a living out of the fact that men must die. Some of the original members of the army have dropped out of the ranks for good and for all. The professional mourner, for instance, is no longer to be seen. He is no longer an institution respected even by the small boys in the streets.

The crape chaser is another sort of a tradesman. If he was vain-glorious he might call himself a florist, although that would be rather stretching the matter, since he bears about the same relation to a florist proper that a penny cake stand bears to a full-fledged bakery.

The crape chaser’s mode of procedure is simple. He reads the death columns of the daily papers every morning, hangs about undertaker’s establishments in the tenement districts waiting for accounts of deaths. He pays no attention save to those that occur in poor families. He is at the scene of death as soon as or before the crape is hung on the door. He goes armed with frames that are appropriate for floral pieces.

By the exercise of any wile that may seem to fit the occasion he manages to secure interviews with some member of the bereaved family. The crape-chaser displays his frames. He argues that he can supply floral pieces much cheaper than any florist will, and this is true, although he does not tell why he can.

Sometimes he fails to obtain orders, but many more times he succeeds, and in his way does a more or less profitable business, for although he sells so much cheaper than a florist with the flowers he uses for wreaths and the like are the odds, ends and outcastings of the florist’s stock. So his profits are fully in proportion to his outlay.

The trade has its ramifications too. Near one of the local cemeteries there is a man who makes a business of buying up the rusty old frames when the graves are cleaned from time to time and the wrecks of floral pieces taken from them. He cleans and repaints the frames, and then sells them for a song. The crape chasers are his best customers. And so this queer business is carried on. N. Y. Mail and Express.

Baxter Springs [KS] News 9 May 1891: p. 4

 

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 new blog at The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Dead Faces Change: 1886

young smiling woman post mortem.JPG

DEAD FACES CHANGE

The Experiences of Undertakers.

Smiling in Her Coffin

Mother Yearnings Gratified in the Life Beyond

A Corpse That Blushed

Ghastly Scenes

[New York Mercury.]

“Man and boy, I’ve been in the business nearly fifty years, and if I had to begin over again, I don’t know that I would choose any other.” He was a retired undertaker who spoke. The writer was his companion in a coach on a mourning mission to a Long Island cemetery lately, and he ventured the suggestion that there must be a dreadfully depressing uniformity in the business which would be calculated to deaden the finer sensibilities and to induce a hardened callousness in those engaged in it for so long a time.

“There is as much variety among the dead as among the living,” said the undertaker, “and one’s interest is awakened and one’s sympathies excited by the changes of expression so frequently noticeable on the faces of the dead. Dead faces blush and smile and sometimes look sad and inexpressibly mournful.” Becoming reminiscent, the undertaker related some incidents in his long experience, illustrating the peculiar changes of expression that sometimes came over the faces of the dead and which have for the living such thrilling and ghastly interest.

Probably thirty years ago I was called to a house in Bond street. The corpse was a beautiful young woman of thirty or so, of fine, clear blonde complexion and finely formed. She had died suddenly under peculiar circumstances, and her husband, who appeared to be an excitable and jealous man, much older than his wife, was rushing around tearing his hair and cursing and threatening when I was admitted to the chamber of death. I told him that his grief was unseemly and shocking and begged him to restrain himself. He bade me send my assistant to look after the wagon outside, closed the door of the room connected with that in which the body lay, and sitting down in a chair with his knees close to mine, told me that his wife had been unfaithful to him; that he had suspected her for years, and that her death was a judgment of God, not only to punish but to expose her. He said her sister’s husband, who was a doctor, had been her paramour, and while visiting him she had been suddenly stricken with hemorrhage of the lungs and had died in a few minutes. It was a dreadful story. I said that probably he was mistaken, and I urged him to keep calm.

Before leaving the room to listen to the husband’s story I had noticed what a peculiarly wretched and suffering look the corpse had. When I returned and summoned my assistant I felt confident that this sad and disconsolate expression became gradually intensified as our melancholy work proceeded. Even my assistant noticed and commented on the anguished look of the departed, and the thought of it dwelt so much on my mind that I dreamt about the deceased that night, and I told my wife in the morning what the husband had told me, winding up by saying that I felt she was wrongfully accused.

When I called again with the coffin the husband was absent, but the look was frozen and settled in the face. It was impossible to so dispose of the features as to banish that purgatorial look of martyrdom. I was nearly through when the husband entered the room. He presented the greatest possible contrast to the man I had seen two days previously. He was meek, tearful, broken up, and could scarcely speak for sobbing. In a few words he told me that he was a monster unfit to live. He had wrongfully accused the best and most innocent women that ever lived. Her own sister had been present at the whole interview with the doctor, and up to the moment she was stricken with death; and, moreover, had adduced the most convincing evidence to prove that his own ungovernably jealous suspicions had all along been unfounded. I had been standing at the door with my back to the corpse, as he sobbed and spoke.

When I turned again there was a distinct smile playing over the dead features, like moonlight on rippling waters. His eyes followed mine, and he rushed to the coffin, crying: ‘Mary! Mary! Speak to me! Speak to me! She lives! She is not dead!’ He told me to run for Dr. ___, who lived a few doors away, and inside of ten minutes he was present. But he found her to be quite dead, although the smile remained, and with that sweet, serene and happy smile she was laid away to her long repose.

Another case has haunted me for a still longer period. The lady was a widow of fifty or thereabouts, and her only son was a sailor, employed on one of those clipper ships that traded with China, and he would sometimes be away from home two years at a time. He had been away a year when she was taken with her last sickness, which, I think, was rapid consumption. She was a deeply religious and emotional woman, and her son—Theodore, I remember the name was—was a good, affectionate lad of three or four and twenty. Before the end it became painfully probable to the doctor, the attending minister and the nurse that the mother’s life voyage and the boy’s sea voyage, were running a close and uncertain race. He was expected home in November. It was the beginning of that month, and the hope was ever present to the dying mother’s mind that she would be spared long enough alive to see him—to see him if only for a single fleeting moment. Her prayers to that end were touchingly earnest and incessant.

But it was not to be. Just as the ship that bore the boy was sighting the Sandy Hook highlands, the mother’s spirit was passing yearningly away. When I was called upon to perform the last offices for the deceased I was deeply impressed with the look of perplexed suffering that the face wore. Canker sorrow seemed to have eaten away the placid, sweet look that was natural to her wasted but benign face. The day of the funeral came. There were not many present in the modest little home away down on the Hook, but all who were present were acquainted with the family circumstances and the conversation in low tones turned on the poor dead lady’s disappointment in not being permitted to see her son once again before she went on the last long dark journey.

By and by the old clergyman came, and one of his first acts was to look with tear-filled eyes at the sad face of the corpse. He began the exercises in a low tone, but intensely earnest, speaking of the wishes of the deceased and the inscrutable higher Will that had denied their fulfillment. He had got thus far when the young man himself, with a big parcel in his hand for his mother, staggered into the room, and, as he reached the coffin, burst into a torrent to weeping as if his heart would have burst from his bosom. Everybody was plunged into involuntary tears and some minutes elapsed before the minister could recover his composure. The young sailor, who had been gazing with agonizing fervor upon the dear dead face, here put his hand on the cold, pale brow and said: “Oh, mother, speak to me—speak just once!”

And I thought, and the minister said that he thought, that a flickering faint smile played across the features. But whether the smile was there transiently or not, every body saw that the dead face had cast aside suddenly its anxious and despairing look, and that it now looked blissful and happy. It was a great and notable change, and formed the talk among that little earnest circle for many weeks afterward.

The undertaker was asked if within his experience he had seen a dead face blush. He said that he had. It was not by any means a common phenomenon, yet physicians attempted to explain it by physical reasons, which I am not learned enough to enunciate.

A case in which an apparent suffusion of the blush of modesty came under my notice was peculiarly pathetic. During the summer the young lady was staying in the country, and was killed by being thrown from the carriage in which she was riding. She was to have been married to a young lawyer in this city in a week. I was summoned to professionally attend to the corpse and bring it home to her parents in this city. The face of the beautiful girl wore a sweet, reposeful expression as if she had entered into perfect beatitude. Before the funeral ceremonies began in the house the young lawyer, accompanied by the mother, father and sister of the deceased, paid the corpse a sad parting visit. It was quite manifest to me and to all of them that the dead young lady blushed when her lover kissed her lips. So vividly distinct was the blush that the sister started and placed her hand on the cold brow and addressed the deceased by name.

“After all, though,” he said in conclusion, “the saddest and most common look of the dead is that Phoenix-like, marble rigidity—so inscrutable, awe-inspiring. Nothing can so stun the senses or chill the heart-blood of the beholder as that. I have met the dreadful expression in all its forms, and I never could become quite indifferent to it if I were to practice the undertaking business a hundred years.

The Enquirer [Cincinnati OH] 6 November 1886: p. 13

 

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.

Making Death Masks: 1912

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

RENE BACHE’S BUDGET

HOW DEATH MASKS OF CELEBRITIES ARE MADE

CLARA BARTON THE LATEST OF A LONG LINE THUS IMMORTALIZED.

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

Washington, D.C., June 15.

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

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

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

McKinley’s Death Mask.

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

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

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

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

Why the Dead Smile.

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

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

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

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

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

Making a Life Mask.

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

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

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

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

Noses Turn to Right.

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

Is a Simple Process.

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

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

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

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

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

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