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.

Hung by a Corpse – Occupational Hazards for the Resurrectionist

Hung by a Corpse – Occupational Hazards for the Resurrectionist

Life for the Resurrectionist, while certainly nasty and brutish, may also have been gravely shortened by their profession. Oddly enough, people resented those who unearthed and sold their loved ones’ bodies, no matter how much it advanced scientific knowledge, and they put up stiff opposition to the body-snatcher’s clandestine activities.

A RESURRECTIONIST KILLED

Grave Robbing at Mount Hope, Ky., Receives a Bloody Check.

Louisville, Ky., Dec. 18. News of the shooting of a grave robber at the cemetery in Mount Hope was received here yesterday. Several robberies had been committed and when the remains of Miss Morris were interred her fiancé watched the grave. Two men came at midnight and began digging. “Smiley” Jordan, a farm hand of the neighbourhood, was killed, but his companion escaped the fusillade of bullets. Marion County Herald [Palmyra, MO] 20 December 1894: p. 2 

Normally physicians did not go into the field in search of specimens, but perhaps this unfortunate decided to cut out the middle man.

BODY SNATCHER KILLED

Syracuse, N.Y., May 18. Dr. Henry W. Kendall was found in a meadow near the county poor house cemetery this morning with a bullet hole between his eyes. A full kit of resurrectionists tools were found near the body. It is supposed that he was engaged in body snatching. He cannot live. The Atchison [KS] Daily Champion 19 May 1882: p. 1 

Sad mistakes sometimes occurred.

FRENZIED FATHER KILLS WRONG MAN BY MISTAKE

Great Falls, Mont., May 10. Last night the body of the baby of Mr. and Mrs. W.C. Conroy was stolen from the grave in the local cemetery. This morning the father of the dead babe, while hunting the grave robbers, killed Joseph Hamilton, former sheriff of this county, mistaking him for the robber of his child’s grave. Fairbanks [AK] Daily Times 11 May 1911: p. 1

And there seemed to be little honor among corpse-thieves. In one particularly appalling instance, in Ohio an elderly, retired Resurrectionist named Beverly Taylor was murdered, along with his wife and grand-daughter, by his former colleagues, who sold the bodies to the Ohio Medical College: the same institution which Taylor had once supplied.

Sometimes there was disagreement over the spoils of the grave.  Usually an episode like the following would conclude in the arrest or lynching of the grave-robbers, rather than the grave defenders.

GRAVE ROBBER KILLED

Farmer Indicted for Shooting Wm. Gray, of Cantrell Party.

Indianapolis, March 14. Lucius Stout and Hampton West, farmers living 15 miles north of Indianapolis, were indicted today at Noblesville for the murder of Wm. Gray at Frankfort, in a grave yard battle over the possession of a corpse, in which Stout and West opposed Cantrell and his gang of thieves. The evidence before the grand jury showed Stout and West came upon Cantrell and his gang of thieves just as the latter was lifting a corpse from the grave in Beaver cemetery. West and Stout opened fire upon the gang, one bullet killing Gray, while the others escaped. Cantrell and his companions testified before the jury. They said Gray was buried in the swamps near the cemetery. Iowa City [IA] Press-Citizen 14 March 1903: p. 1 

I thought something didn’t quite ring true in this squib. Were Stout and West at the cemetery just as vigilante guardians of the grave? Well, not exactly…

The investigation of the operations of ghouls in the vicinity of Indianapolis, Ind., has taken a new and unexpected turn. The grand jury at Noblesville returned an indictment against Lucius Stout and Hampton West, charging the two men not only with grave robbery, but with murder. Both men are prominent and wealthy farmers. For years, according to the testimony of half the hundred witnesses who appeared before the jury, the two have been the most conspicuous figures among the mourners at all the funerals of the country-side. Even when they were unacquainted with either the dead or the surviving relatives, they were present at the graveside when the corpse was lowered to its last resting place. Suspicion on this account, has rested on the men for some time, but their wealth and position shielded them from open accusation Cantrell’s arrest and subsequent confession, however, implicated both men, and their arrest followed. The indictment returned charges them with the murder of William Gray in September, 1901. At midnight West and Stout, proceeding to a grave in the Beaver cemetery, surprised Cantrell and his gang at work removing the corpse that the two farmers had come to secure. Hot words followed, and both parties drew revolvers. A running fire ensued, in which Gray was mortally wounded and West’s forehead was grazed by a bullet. He bears the scar to-day. During the battle in the midst of the little churchyard, the combatants sheltered themselves behind the grave stones. Cantrell and his men, including Samuel Martin and Walter Daniel, two self-confessed ghouls, running short of ammunition, were forced to abandon Gray. The latter was taken by West and Stout to the West home, where it is alleged he died. By a strange turn in fate, Gray’s body, it is alleged, next made its appearance in the dissecting room of an Indianapolis medical college. Another story, however, relates that upon Gray’s death West and Stout buried his corpse in a swamp near the West home. The Indiana [PA] Democrat 18 March 1903: p. 10

Rufus Cantrell, “The King of the Ghouls,” sang like a ghoulish canary, implicating Stout in the chloroforming of a young woman, the murder of a police officer, and several other unsolved murders. Prosecutors were dubious and in the end Stout seems to have gotten off on a procedural technicality.

Many sextons and graveyard guards thought it prudent to arm themselves. There are thrilling reports of gun battles among the tombstones.

A RESURRECTIONIST KILLED

Last Monday night, Jacob Swein, the sexton of the new City Burial Ground, in Cincinnati, was awakened by a man in his employ, and told that some one was in the grave yard and engaged in digging up bodies. Mr. S., taking his gun, went out, and saw three persons, one of whom advanced towards him with a knife in his hand. Mr. S. immediately raised his gun and fired, with so much certainty as to kill the body-snatcher dead in his tracks. The other two instantly fled, leaving a horse and wagon, and the implements used for digging up the graves behind them. Lebanon [PA] Courier 15 October 1852: p. 2 

If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. Not only did honest Resurrection Men have to deal with over-zealous sextons with guns, there was no guarantee that the corpse they exhumed wasn’t a death-trap. An Ohio artist named Phil. K. Clover was the inventor of the “coffin torpedo.” 

Good News for the Dead

Mr. Phil. K. Clover, the artist, has invented a torpedo designed to make the robbery of graves a hazardous and unpopular business, and has taken the necessary steps to procure letters patent. The torpedo may be briefly described as a miniature needle-gun. It is about six inches long, and is divided into two pieces. The first piece, which is to be nailed inside the coffin, and almost covered by the upholster, contains a spiral spring, to which are attached two small chains, which are to be fastened around the body or around the arms of the corpse. So far the invention is harmless, but just before the final closing of the coffin the second piece, containing a cartridge, and arranged on the needle-gun plan is to be screwed onto the section containing the spring. The torpedo is now ready for action. The grave-robber may dig to the coffin, and remove the covering thereof, but when he attempts to move the body he pulls the chain and sets off the spiral spring, which strikes the needle with great force, explodes the cap, and sends buckshot or ball in an upward direction. The grave-robber, stooping over his work is liable to be shot with deadly effect. Under the most favorable circumstances to him he is likely to be powerfully impressed with a sense of danger, and to vacate the premises with dispatch. The torpedoes will not be very expensive, and several of them may be placed in the same coffin, so that the resurrectionist will have no assurance, when one explodes, that the danger is over. Should the article come into general use, the knowledge of its existence will have a restraining influence, and it will do its work without many fatal cases. Iowa Liberal [Lemars, IA] 31 July 1878: p. 8

TORPEDOES FOR BODY SNATCHERS.

If one may judge from the patent records, live people do a good deal of thinking about death. The very latest device that has been applied to burial appliances is the “coffin torpedo,” which is designed as an effective and very summary punishment for body snatchers. Nothing less than a bomb is introduced into the coffin, before the latter is closed, the arrangement being such—we spare the reader all technical details— that any attempt to force it open will release a spring, strike a percussion cap, and set off the bomb. The thing is done, and the robber is floating in pieces about the air long before he has had any time to prepare for his sudden journey.

But what happens to the corpse? The inventor leaves us in the dark on this point—probably because the question is hard to answer. We are afraid the coffin torpedo has no very brilliant future on this account, and for the further reason that local authorities (who are notoriously difficult to deal with) might object to have their burial grounds studded with infernal machines. Electrical Engineer, Vol. 22, 1896 p. 332

Clover wasn’t the only man thinking along these lines.

SURE DEATH TO GHOULS.

A Lawyer’s Startling Device to Foil Grave Robbers.

The details of the device of Jesse Hodgin, the well-known Westfield [Indiana] attorney, to protect the grave of his wife were made public the other day, says a Noblesville (Inc.) dispatch to the Cincinnati Enquirer. The plan has been examined by experts, who unhesitatingly say that it will put a stop to body snatching by ghouls. They not only say the device will be effective, but they also indorse it because it is inexpensive.

A few inches above the rough box in the grave is an ordinary gas pipe three-quarters of an inch in diameter filled with nitro-glycerine. The pipe occupies a position lengthwise of the coffin and extends from six to twelve inches over each end. There is a cap fastened tightly on each end of the pipe to prevent the deadly explosive from leaking. Scattered promiscuously through the soil about a foot or eighteen inches above the pipe are several dozen concussion caps. A spade or any hard substance that comes in contact with these caps will explode them. The jar will in turn explode the nitro-glycerine, which would mean death to any one within twenty-five or fifty feet of the grave. It is intimated that there is sufficient nitro-glycerine in the pipe to make an excavation in the earth fifty feet square and from ten to fifteen feet deep.

While Mr. Hodgin admits that the explosion would completely destroy the body of his wife, he says he would rather see that done than to know that the remains were ever on a dissecting table in a medical college.

“And I would also know that there would be some dead ghouls somewhere in the vicinity of the grave,” he said. “The plan is original with me and my brother, but I am satisfied that it would prove a success if it was ever tried. When I first mentioned the matter to the sexton of the cemetery, he refused to allow me to put in the device on the ground that it might result in injuring some innocent parties or despoil other graves. I then consulted the trustees who have charge of the cemetery and obtained their consent.” The Newark [OH] Advocate 6 November 1902:  p. 8

It is impossible to know how often these devices were deployed, but here is an incident from 1881.

A more serious incident was reported near the village of Gann [Knox County] about the same time. When three men attempted a grave robbery, they struck a torpedo which had been planted near the bottom of the grave, instantly killing one of the men and breaking a leg of one other. The third party, who was keeping a watch, succeeded in getting his companions into a sleigh, taking flight, and evading arrest.  Ohio State Journal January 20, 1881. 

But when it comes to poetic justice, it would be hard to top this story.

A Man Hung by a Corpse

The Cincinnati (Ohio) Gazette states that on Saturday night, a fellow was stealing a dead body from the graveyard at Cumminsville near that city, when in crossing the fence, he slipped and fell on the outside, and the rope which held the sack containing the corpse, sliding from his shoulders to his neck, at daylight his body was found hanging on the outside of the graveyard fence, while the corpse he had stolen, hung on the inside, both equally lifeless. Weekly Vincennes [IN] Gazette 12 March 1859

I will add the caveat that there’s an identical story about a man stealing a pig.

Given the many hazards inherent in the profession, I was surprised to unearth no tales of body-snatchers crushed by tipping tombstones, buried alive, or infected by diseased corpses. Except this one, about the ghastly end of one phrenologist-turned- grave-robber. This was the story my editor wouldn’t let me use in The Victorian Book of the DeadShe said it was too gruesome.  Thanks to the fearless and always tasteful Undine of Strange Company for sharing!

Other grave threats to Resurrectionists? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

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 Spiritual Telegraph

For “Morse Code Day.”

In the early days, the dead were enthusiastic early adopters of those new-fangled technologies, the telephone and the telegraph. I’ve written of a shape-shifting boggart who called at the Cape Town telephone office to speak with a switchboard operator, of the dead Mr. Miller, who had an assistant ring up a friend who had just attended his funeral, and the Rev. Dr. Richard R. Schleusner and his Temple/Church of Modern Spiritualism, where, rather than communicate through old-fashioned rappings, the spirits spoke via wireless.

Today I’ve borrowed the title of the Spiritualist newspaper, The Spiritual Telegraph (1852-1860) to dash off a few stories of spirit communication via the telegraphic instrument. The first story is found in The Headless Horror: Strange and Ghostly Ohio Tales.

A WEIRD EXPERIENCE

A TELEGRAPHER’S REMARKABLE MESSAGE FROM A SPOOK

DOTS AND DASHES OVER AN INSTRUMENT WITH

NEITHER WIRES NOR BATTERY

A STORY TOLD BY A MAN WHOSE VERACITY IS VOUCHED FOR

A FRIGHTENED OPERATOR

One of the wildest, weirdest stories of the supernatural that has ever come under the experience of mortal man is told by R.H. Field, the Big Four telegraph operator at South Side station.

Mr. Field is a very intelligent and conscientious man, and he relates his fearful experience with a candor and earnestness that almost make one believe it in spite of its extreme improbability.

“I have been a telegraph operator for twenty-two years. I have told my story to at least a hundred people, and I have never met one yet who would believe that it was an actual fact. I know that it will be a severe test on your credulity, but my experience is Gospel truth. I want you to understand that I have never, and do not now, believe in the supernatural. I have never attended a spiritualistic séance in my life, and am rather inclined to accept the philosophy of Colonel Ingersoll.”

Mr. Field was quite reluctant about telling his story for publication, but finally consented to do so. He is an entertaining talker, and related the great event of his life with an ease that showed that he had told it before. “It was several years ago,” he began, “when I was much younger than I am now. I was assigned to night duty at a little station called Evansburg, in Pennsylvania, on the New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio railroad. I hadn’t been around the world very much, but flattered myself that I had a good deal of mechanical genius. The office was in charge of an old fogy sort of a fellow named Jones. The telegraph instrument got out of adjustment, and I knew something about repairing it. Jones suggested that I take to my home an old-fashioned relay box and fix it up.

“Glad of the opportunity to show what I could do I carried the box to my boarding house one morning and put it on a shelf in an old cupboard and went to bed intending to fix it after my sleep was over. I had been in bed but a few minutes and had not got to sleep when, to my surprise and astonishment, the armature, or what is otherwise known as the lever, on the instrument began ticking. I was perfectly amazed and thought there must be some mistake. To satisfy myself that I had not been carried away by my imagination, for the ticking was faint and subdued, I got out of bed and with fear and trembling opened the cupboard door. I took the instrument in my hand and it continued to work. I put it on the table, but the sound it made was unintelligible. I turned the spring so that there would be less resistance, and then, in as clear and perfect Morse as I ever heard, the invisible person, spirit or whatever it was wrote:

“‘Do you get me?’”

I was so overcome that I involuntarily answered, ‘Yes,’ without putting it on the instrument. The unknown heard me, for again, in the beautiful writing, it continued.

“‘Thank God, at last! My name is Charles Blake. I am an old timer. My parents, who reside in Mount Pleasant, Ia., have lost me. They don’t know what my fate has been. I want you to write to my father, Homer Blake, at Mount Pleasant, Ia., and inform him that I died at Shreveport, Tex., of yellow fever, on’–. I have forgotten the date, but it was several years prior to the date of this communication. I was frightened to death. My hair stood on end. My boarding house was two miles from the telegraph station, and there was no battery nearer than the station, and there was no telegraph wire of any kind in that vicinity. I was a little dubious about the communication, from the other world or somewhere, I will not undertake to say. Before venturing to write to Homer Blake as directed I picked up a Western Union tariff book which I had in my room to see if there was such a town as Mount Pleasant, Ia. I found that there was such a place, a fact that I did not know before, and that it was located on the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroad.

“To satisfy myself and not be taken in, I wrote a letter to the postmaster at Mount Pleasant and asked him if he knew of anyone in that vicinity named Homer Blake and to give me what information he could without telling him what I wanted it for. A few days later I received a reply, and I have his letter somewhere among my effects, in which he said that Homer Blake had lived in Mount Pleasant some years before, but that he had moved away, to what place he did not know. Blake, he informed me, had two sons, one of whom, Charles, was supposed to be dead, and the other was a grain merchant in the far west.”

“Did you not pursue your investigations further?”

“No, I did not. The truth is I was scared to death. I worked that wire for eighteen months. Every time I took off the relay it made the same peculiar noise and worked in a sputtering sort of a way, and to show that there must have been some hidden or occult force it crossed the other wires. Every once in a while I used to ask Jones if he heard the noise, and he laughed at me. He never believed my story, although the reply from the postmaster at Mount Pleasant somewhat staggered him. I was actually so afraid to take the relay off that my hair used to stand on end, and I never had any further communication with the hidden force that called itself Charles Blake. I shall never forget that experience as long as I live. People look so incredulous and are so apt to believe me a crank when I tell it that I never relate it any more unless I am asked to do so.”

Mr. Field lives with his wife at South Side. He is well known in this city and has the reputation of being a truthful and sensible man. There is no doubt in the world that he sincerely thinks that he was talked to on that old instrument without wire or battery, and he declares most solemnly that it could not have been a matter of fancy.

This article first appeared in the Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer, 31 July 1892: p. 17. This version appeared in the Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 8 September 1892: p. 6

Colonel Ingersoll was Robert G. Ingersoll, 19th-century lawyer, orator and agnostic, dubbed “the most noted of American infidels.”

How much of this next story is actually the result of misunderstood technology? Or was it an early form of EVP?

Barre Excited Over “Electric Ghost”.

Barre, usually staid and phlegmatic, is greatly excited over an “electric ghost,” which has made its appearance at the railroad station and refuses to depart, says a Barre dispatch to The New York World. It has attracted the attention of several prominent railroad men and electricians and each has a theory for a series of sounds that still mystify the investigators.

The “ghost” made its appearance one night when C.A. Brown, a clerk, was alone in the office containing the telegraph instruments, safe, and various articles of furniture. He was quietly at work balancing his books when he heard a voice over his shoulder. Several words of French were spoken and Mr. Brown looked up. No one was in the room and the clerk investigated every nook and cranny to ascertain whence the voice came. He was unsuccessful, but while he was hunting he again heard the voice, this time in English, but indistinct. He located it, and a chill crept up his spine as he made the uncanny discovery that the words came from the metal relay box connected with the telegraph instrument. The instrument was working at the time and the clerk admits to having been well frightened.

For five minutes the one-sided conversation was kept up, and Mr. Brown made out enough to understand that some one was talking of a business deal. Answers to questions put by the voice could not be heard, and altogether it sounded like a telephone conversation. However, as no telephone was in that part of the building, the sounds were not connected with that instrument.

The clerk was so upset that when A.A. Stebbins, his chief, came in, he made no reference to the matter. Soon after he went out Stebbins got a scare that made his hair rise. He was almost leaning on the relay box when a voice shouted “Hello!” almost in his ear. A rapid conversation followed, but he was too frightened to take note of what was said. As he was afraid of being laughed at, he kept his own counsel until the next day when he and Mr. Brown heard the same voice. They then compared notes and quietly called in the head lineman.

The lineman thought a telegraph wire had become crossed with a telephone line, but this proved not to be the case, and F.W. Stanyan, the general superintendent of the road, who has had twenty years’ experience with telegraph equipment, was notified. He made a careful investigation and was at a loss to account for the phantom voice. While he was making his investigations he heard two voices emanating from the box. They spoke of different subjects and had nothing in common. Part of the time whole sentences were plainly spoken and other times only a word or two was distinguishable.

The story got about town and many persons have listened to the sounds. Among the number were many spiritualists, who are of the opinion that the messages are sent from another world. Expert electricians believe that the sounds are the result of some undiscovered law in the field of electricity, and that this law can be worked to advantage when the cause is discovered.

St. Albans [VT] Daily Messenger 8 June 1905: p. 3

It was convenient that the witness in this story had been a telegraph operator. If she had not, she might have identified the sound as the clicking of the Deathwatch Beetle.

MESSAGE FROM THE BORDER.

I would like to relate an incident in connection with the death of my mother, which occurred nine years ago and the facts of which I am positive of.

“My mother’s only sister lived in Denver, Colorado, and she had not been apprised of her serious illness.

“We sent her a telegram about 9 A.M. on the morning of her death, which she received about noon. Upon her arrival here, two days later, we asked her, if the news had been a shock and she told us that on the morning that mother passed away, she sat down to sew, but could not keep her mind upon it. She then heard the click of a telegraph instrument, the sound apparently coming from a closet in the room. As she had been a telegraph operator in her younger days, she realized it was a call and going to the closet, listened. It stopped as suddenly as it started and she sat down again. The call was repeated twice after this and each time she went to the closet to listen. She was then convinced it was news she would receive and inside of thirty minutes, a boy rang the door bell and delivered the message announcing the death of my mother.”
I had no reason to doubt her statement for there had always been a sort of mental telepathy between these sisters, separated by so many miles.

Dayton [OH] Daily News 17 January 1914: p. 7

While the first part of this last story suggests a practical joke, it quickly slides into a folkloric tale of a Palmer Lake lineman, who is still on the line and not only wants to tell someone how he died, but to get that damned telegraph pole off his chest.

Please give the Kansas Democrat the entire bake-shop for the following:

“A ghost telegraph operator has been having a picnic with the boys on the Colorado circuit. At a certain hour every night call comes along over the wires for “AZ.” Now, there being no AZ”, and the call being regularly repeated, the officials were somewhat at loss to account for it. The superintendent, however, answered the call, and asked what was wanted. Back came the message in a jiffy, with “rush” prefixed. This was all well enough in its way, but no one could read the message when it was received. After much time, and ciphering, the ghost was telegraphed for the key. This he immediately gave–one to three read backwards. The message was then read, which stated that many years ago a telegraph operator had been killed on the continental divide, near Palmer Lake; that a telegraph pole ran right into his grave, and the end of it was resting on the breast of the corpse. He could not rest in his grave until he had informed somebody how he had died. This was indeed a strange affair. And upon the threat of the ghost operator of raising hades with the wires every night, till they hunted him up, and verified his statement, a search party was organized. Three linemen stopped at the divide, picked out the probable pole and sat down to eat their lunch, before commencing to dig. In a minute they were paralyzed. Right before them stood the ghost operator with a ‘ticker’ in his hands. He jumped up to the wires, sent a message into Denver and then vanished. The linemen dug, found the grave, and when they returned to Denver they found that a message had been received there mentioning their arrival, that the ghost was satisfied, and that both he and Gould’s servants could now rest in peace.”

Coldwater [KS] Enterprise 28 March 1891: p. 3

To be Relentlessly Informative, “Gould’s servants” refers to Jay Gould’s controlling interest in the Western Union telegraph company.

While we still hear stories of telephone calls from the dead and even the occasional text or e-mail message, somehow the Dead do not seem to be fully taking advantage of Instagram or Twitter.

Other stories of ghosts on the wire?

— . – .-.  .—

chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

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 Modern Mummy: 1880

A. Beier, Undertaker and Embalmer, 1902

EMBALMING A MODERN MUMMY
Friends of the Deceased Would Call To Pay Their Respects.

[New York Herald.]

Strange, grewsome stories have been yielded by the old morgue, but what is doubtless the most remarkable tale of all was told yesterday by Undertaker Ferdinand Brown, of Sixth street. Brown has often spoken of the matter, but only now, after 14 years, does the strange incident reach the public.

Mummies are common in Egypt, but they are not looked for in New York City. Yet one could be seen in the morgue in this city from August 12, 1878, to July 5, 1880, sitting in one of the rooms of the deadhouse, placed there on private exhibition by Undertaker Brown, who had not been paid his fees by the relatives of the man. The person whose body was thus disposed of was Otto Berger, a German, who was born in Baden-Baden, and came to this country in 1875.

Berger was an eccentric individual, and when he died, penniless, in the city insane asylum, there was no one to prevent the disposition of the his body made by the undertaker. His father was the head servant for the Grand Duke of Baden in Carlsruhe. The son was wild, however, and some difficulty with a woman compelled him to leave Germany and come to this country. His old habits did not leave him in the new land, and though he worked now and again at his trade of upholstering, he went on frequent sprees.

He continued correspondence with his parents, and often they sent him money in answer to his urgent appeals for help. Finally they wearied of his repeated demands and his father wrote him that he could do no more for him, and that he would have to shift for himself.

Otto then resorted to various expedients to get money. An ingenious friend inserted a death notice in a newspapers and sent it to the father, requesting at the same time that he forward a sum of money necessary to pay the funeral expenses.

The Duke’s head servant was deeply affected by the news of the death of his wayward son, and he promptly forwarded the sum asked; thanking the friend of his son for looking after the body.

The poor old retainer’s money furnished the means for another long spree for Otto. Berger made the acquaintance of Carl Schmidt, a painter, who lived at No. 197 Seventh street. He took up his quarters with him, and they became fast friends. He did not give up his drinking habits, however, and his dissipations finally drove him insane.

Schmidt had him placed in the insane asylum on Ward’s Island, where he died two months after he was admitted, on August 11, 1878.

Schmidt determined to give the body of his friend a decent burial, so he gave it in charge of Undertaker Brown, who embalmed the body, and wrote to Berger’s father, in Carlsruhe, asking what disposition should be made of it. Great was his surprise when he received a reply from the perplexed father to the effect that he had already paid the funeral expenses, but if he had been deceived by a trick he was indifferent as to what became of his son’s body.

The idea then occurred to the undertaker of mummifying the body and putting in the morgue as an object of interest and curiosity.

He received permission from Register Nagle in writing to keep the embalmed body for six weeks, in case no offensive odors arose, until he heard from Germany. After that he readily had the permit extended. Brown then, by repeated embalmings, succeeded in hardening the body until it was like stone.

It was placed in a sitting position in a room in the morgue for two years, and there Brown and Schmidt took their curious friends and those who knew Berger in life.

The body was dressed as in life. Brown one day took a crowd of friends to the morgue. The body had been removed and was not to be seen.

“I didn’t want to have a petrified corpse here,” Morgue Keeper White said to him, “so I had it buried in potter’s field. I didn’t think it was right to exhibit such a thing in the morgue.

Brown never wrote Berger’s family of the disposition he was making of the son’s body, and for two years hundreds of persons gazed at the mummy in the New York Morgue. When I saw Mr. Brown last night he said he had grave doubts that the body was buried. He thought it had gone to some museum.

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 13 October 1894: p. 14

The more things change, the more they stay the same. This article talks about the “extreme embalming” trend, where the dead are displayed in life-like poses.

https://www.the-sun.com/news/5049666/extreme-embalming-dead-funeral-pose/

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.

Regulars and Fainters: 1882

REGULAR MOURNERS.

A Peculiar Characteristic of Philadelphia Funerals.

Persons Who Endeavor to Gain Rides to Cemeteries, Although Unacquainted with the Family– Fainters and  Flower-Pot Carriers.

[From the Philadelphia Press.]

“Madame, yon must get out of this carriage—it is intended only for the friends and relatives of the family. I never permit ‘regulars’ to attend funerals when I am in charge.”

The speaker was a well-known up-town undertaker, who stood beside a carriage in Kensington .yesterday and spoke to some one inside the vehicle. A streamer of black crape fluttering from the door-bell of a neat three-story dwelling near by and a long line of carriages, preceded by a hearse, told that a funeral was in progress. The first, second and third carriages had been filled with the near relatives of the deceased, and as the fourth vehicle drove up a woman, dressed in shabby black and with her face closely veiled, came down the steps of the house of mourning, and opening the carriage door herself, got in and sank back into the farthest corner. The action, quick as it was, did not escape the eye of the solemn-faced man standing on the steps of the dwelling. Quietly advancing to the curbstone, and in a voice just loud enough to be heard by the person for whom it was intended, he spoke. Without a word the unwelcome occupant alighted, drew her rusty black shawl more closely about her shoulders and walked slowly up the street. “That is an annoyance peculiar to Philadelphia,” said the undertaker to a Press reporter, who happened to be a witness of the episode, “and is probably more of an institution in Kensington than any other section of the city. The American custom of exposing the dead to the gaze of the general public, which has been in vogue for more than half century, has naturally led to abuses, of which this is one bf the most marked. I refer to the attendance of persons at funerals who have no possible interest in the deceased, nor connected by the most remote tie of blood or marriage. Not only do they mingle their tears with those of the mourners, but they actually force themselves into the carriages and ride to the cemetery, there to witness the final scene with apparently as much emotion as the nearest and dearest relatives.

“REGULARS” AND “FAINTERS.”

“There are very few funerals taking place north of Girard avenue and east of Fourth street,” continued the speaker, as he closed the door of another cab, “where you will not find what we term ‘regulars.’ They are an evil tolerated simply because the solemnity of the occasion prevents such measures being taken as would prevent a repetition of the annoyance. The ‘fainter,’ to use another trade phrase, is a similar nuisance, but not seen as frequently as her more ubiquitous sister. The ‘fainter’ swoons suddenly while looking at the corpse, and is only revived by copious draughts of brandy. She usually picks out a soft chair to fall upon, and is quite expert at assuming a graceful position. The precise object of the ‘fainter’ I have never thoroughly understood. Whether to gain sympathy, or whisky, or to display an attitude, is a question. Of the two characters, however, the regular is the most familiar and the most audacious. At an ordinarily large funeral, say of twenty or more carriages, she is seen most frequently.  The body is laid out In the parlor as a general thing, sometimes a day before the funeral, and is there viewed by the relatives and friends. The neighbors usually testify their esteem for the deceased by calling at the house, although they may not be acquainted with the family. In many cases this visit is expected, and it is looked upon as slight if It is not made. English people, however, show a decided aversion to having any one gaze on their dead, except those very near to them, but custom is so arbitrary that the residents of any neighborhood, and specially in this section of the city, would feel insulted if they were not allowed to take the last look. As I said before, one of the outgrowths of this custom is the regular funeral-goer. She reads, besides her weekly story paper of sensational trash, the marriages and deaths in the Ledger. She notes carefully all the funerals that are to take place within a reasonable distance of her home, and appears to have an especial weakness for interments at the Palmer-street burying-ground. If two funerals occur in the same day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, the “regular” is delighted, and makes a strenuous effort to attend both. She dresses herself early in the morning, and, provided with a large handkerchief, she repairs to the house of death. The first thing the “regular” does is to make a mental estimate as to whether the crape on the door belongs to the undertaker or to the family; to speculate as to whether the coffin handles are solid silver or plated, to take an inventory of the furniture, the carpets and the probable cost of the coffin.

MAKING AN INVENTORY

“She examines the quality of the shroud and passes judgment on the profusion or poverty of the floral offerings. Then she makes a critical survey of the mourning worn by the grief-stricken relatives, and is usually able to tell whether it is owned or borrowed, and it the latter, it becomes almost a duty to find out who the owner is, and how often the crape has done duty on similar occasions. With an experienced ‘regular’ this is an easy matter, and these points once settled to her satisfaction, she opens! the flood-gates of her every-day grief. She looks on the face of the dead and weeps. She snivels and sobs, and says, ‘How natural! How very natural! Poor, dear man; he just looks as if he were asleep,’ and then usually turning to some one near, she offers consolation by remarking that ‘it is the prettiest corpse ever I see’d in my life. So peaceful and life-like.’ It makes not a bit of difference, whether the dead man or woman is wasted to skin and bone from a lingering disease or not, to the ‘regular,’ the corpse is always ‘so natural.’ She sways to and fro, and exhibits all the symptoms of grief, and sobs audibly as the clergyman pronounces a eulogy on the noble qualities of the deceased, who might have been in life a grinding skinflint or consummate rogue. As the coffin lid is fastened on, the ‘regular’ dries her tears and prepares to execute a flank movement on the undertaker. Her plan is usually to get into a carriage the minute it stops in front of the door, as that woman did a moment ago. Rather than have a disturbance, many undertakers permit this, and the ‘regular’ accomplishes her principal object, which is to get a ride to the cemetery. She has a melancholy mania for getting as close to the grave as possible and crying loud enough to attract general attention. Then she goes home in the street cars, and hurries off to another funeral, where the same programme is repeated. Very often we encounter another class of ‘regulars’ who strive only to get a ride to a graveyard where their own people are buried. These worthies always betray themselves by carrying a flower-pot, which they vainly try to conceal in their shawls. The pot contains flowers to be planted on the graves of their own dead.”

FLOWER-POT REGULARS.

“The flower-pot regulars make a regular picnic out of the occasion. They take their sewing and lunch. An old tombstone forms a table if the weather is fine, and seated on the grass, the cronies gossip and sew to their heart’s content. On a clear day in the springtime, I have seen no less than twenty of these scandal-mongers waiting at the Palmer Street Ground for a funeral to enter, which they follow like carrion crows in search of horse meat.”

The suggestive, but rather inelegant, simile was interrupted by a young man who called the undertaker’s attention to a woman ascending the steps, and crowding her way between the persons coming out of the house. She was prevented from going any further by the undertaker whispering something in her ear.

“That woman,” said be, resuming his position at the curbstone, “has been going to funerals for twenty years, to my certain knowledge. If she fails to get a ride, she is content to watch the house while the family is absent. She takes occasion to go all over the house and examine everything. I don’t think the woman is dishonest. She is a genuine female Paul Pry, umbrella and all. Now, then, you know all about the Kensington regulars,” concluded the voluble undertaker, as he slammed to the door of the last carriage and mounted the box with the driver, “and I only hope that I may be called upon some day to bury the whole tribe in one grave.”

St. Louis [MO] Globe-Democrat 17 February 1882: 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.

Corpse-Quake: A Grave-Diggers’ Malady: 1889

The Death of the Grave Digger, Carlos Schwabe, 1895

“CORPSE-QUAKE”

A Strange Nervous Malady Which Sometimes Attacks Grave-Diggers.

(New York World.)

A strange sort of mental affection, known as “corpse-quake,” has often been found to exist among grave-diggers. It is no uncommon occurrence that a person employed in cemeteries for many ears is suddenly afflicted with a shaking similar to that experienced by persons suffering from ague.

A grave-digger who has been employed at the Cypress Hills Cemetery for fifteen years was seen yesterday by a reporter of the World.

“I know of a number of such cases,” said he. “Ten years ago we had three diggers here who had worked together for quite a while. One of the three who used to be a very lively chap and always willing and ready to tell a good yarn, became very quiet all at once. His companions noticed this, and thinking that Joe was not feeling well, let him alone. There was to be a funeral in the afternoon and we went over to dig the grave. As soon as Joe stuck his spade in the ground he began to shake. His companions told him to stop working if he didn’t feel well, but Joe paid no attention and continued with his work until the job had been finished. Three or four more graves were made that day, and every time Joe put down his spade he shook. The other two tried to make fun of him by imitating his shaking while at work. A few days later Joe’s companions had the corpse quake too and a week later had to stop work entirely.

“I thought that the three men had contracted malaria, but, strange to say, they never would have that peculiar shake while away from the cemetery. Joe came back to us, but every time he would pick up a spade and try to work, that old trouble would come back. We insisted upon his giving up the job, as he was falling away. He remained at home for about a week, and his wife told us that Joe was getting better again, when one  day his boy mentioned the word “spade” in his father’s presence. It was the strangest thing in the world—no sooner had the boy said ‘spade’ than Joe took the corpse-quake again. He didn’t last long after that. He would be thinking about digging graves all the time, and this made him so sick that he died shortly after. I don’t remember what became of the other two men. They had to give up the job, and, I think, moved away from here altogether.”

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 11 February 1889: p. 4

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

Love on a Hearse: 1891

LOVE ON A HEARSE

A Breezy Idyll of the West Side of the Big Windy.

From the Chicago Herald.

Everybody on the West Side knows Barney Sullivan. He drives a hearse for a Madison street undertaker. He wears a fuzzy old plug hat and a monkey-fur cape. Barney also takes great pride in his whiskers. They are of a pleasing though rather tyrannical red, and exude only from his chin.

Not long ago Barney met the Widow McGraw, whose husband was killed last summer in the Burlington yards. It was at a wake that Barney became acquainted with the Widow McGraw. Barney was invited to call, which he did, and on leaving it was arranged that they should go buggy-riding Sunday afternoon if the day was fine.

Barney forgot all about engaging a rig until 10 o’clock yesterday morning. He went to several stables on the west side, but could not hire a horse for love or money. There wasn’t a horse or buggy to be had in all Chicago. As a last resort he hitched up a team of cream-colored horses to a white hearse and started for Prairie avenue. In front of where the widow is employed he turned in so close that the wheels of the hearse scraped against the curbstone.

People in the neighborhood went out on the front steps to inquire who was dead. Presently Barney and the widow came out of the house and mounted the driver’s box. They drove in impressive dignity down Drexel boulevard, and then turned the heads of the cream-colored horses toward Jackson Park. Thousands of persons saw the strange vehicle circling around the park, but they didn’t know what to make of it. Barney and the widow paid no attention to the caustic comments made upon them from time to time. They enjoyed the drive as well as they would have done in a landau.

For on the way home it was all planned that the Widow McGraw will soon change her name to Sullivan.

Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 22 March 1891: p. 9

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil wishes the couple joy, but to be punctilious about a point of etiquette, a white hearse, while no doubt a lovely spectacle, is meant only for the youthful and the previously unmarried, which the Widow McGraw emphatically was not.

There was also a popular superstition that to see a hearse or mourning-coach on one’s wedding day was an ill-omen for the marriage.  Mr Sullivan is fortunate that the lady of his choice not only did not recoil in horror at his choice of vehicle, but took pleasure in the ride and the company, despite the circumstances, hinting at a character of rare flexibility and amiability, and suggesting that their home life will be a happy one.

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 anecdote

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

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

The Dead-Hole in the Cellar: A Visit to a Dissection Room: 1887

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you might have noticed a fondness for “slice of life” stories and interviews with practitioners of specialized professions like freak-makers. Today’s post offers a “slice-of-death” (in a literal sense) visit to the dissecting room of the Ohio Medical College in Cincinnati. We’ve heard before about the notorious William “Old Cunny” Cunningham, the star body-snatcher of that establishment, who is mentioned several paragraphs in as presiding over the college museum.

DEATH AND LIFE

The Scenes in a Medical College.

A Visit to the Dread Dissecting-Room by a Reporter.

How the Young Doctors Carry on the Necessary Work

A Sickening Odor Pervades the Place Where Science Operates

The Subjects Now on the Slabs and the Dead-Hole in the Cellar.

Skeleton of “Cunny,” the Grave-Robber, and Other Weird Features of the Place.

Death makes cadavers for dissection. The cadavers help to educate doctors. People must die. We must have doctors.

This story of the dissecting-room is a very old one, but people never grow tired of it. There is a mystery, a horrid fascination about the place, which ever thrills and at the same time repels mankind. Ever since medical science came to bless and protect the human race the doctor’s knife has been busy upon the dead to better understand how to save the living.

Dead men tell no tales.

The fate of being hacked to pieces grates upon the sensibilities of those in this world.

The dead can not feel.

If they could, the keen knife of the ambitious sawbones would be stayed in its course through the muscles and flesh and vitals of the helpless victims upon the stone slabs.

Soon another corps of young physicians will be turned loose from the medical colleges in this city.

The dissection-room work is nearly over. Since the 15th of October the students of the Ohio College, on Sixth street, have improved their time by becoming acquainted with the human anatomy. Every night by the glare of the jets they have worked diligently upon the inanimate forms of some poor creatures who had no friends to bury them.

Subjects have been very scarce this year. It has been found necessary by Dr. Cilley, demonstrator of anatomy, to place ten students on one “stiff,” instead of five, as formerly. The boys have kicked considerably against being so crowded, but to no avail.

Body-snatching has become dangerous. The risk of being shot or lynched is not relished by ghouls. The law is also very severe against grave-robbing because all paupers who die in public institution whose friends do not claim them are turned over to the doctors.

The subjects are handled by the Anatomical Association.

This is a Board composed of physicians who distribute them among the various colleges according to the number of students.

The Ohio gets the most, but that college has been compelled to stint its students in cadavers to practice on.

A dead body is worth $25.

That is the market price paid for stiffs at the medical college.

The villains Ingalls and Johnson, who murdered the Taylor family, sold their three victims for $35. [Beverly Taylor, an elderly, retired body-snatcher, his wife, Elizabeth, and granddaughter Eliza Jane Lambert were murdered in 1884 and their bodies sold to the Ohio Medical College.]

Now the doctors ask questions when any one wants to sell a corpse. Since that horrible atrocity the venders of dead people are rarer and more wary. The professional body-snatchers have moved away from Cincinnati.

An Enquirer reporter was permitted to visit the Ohio Medical College a few days ago.

He saw many horrible sights, but they are necessary to science.

The students were at the time of the call listening to a lecture and the reporter pursued his tour of inspection without observation or hindrance.

The college is not an attractive place.

It is dingy, dusty, and a horrid smell of penetrating force permeates the interior.

It needs a cleaning.

The museum, which contains a valuable collection of specimens of diseased humanity, and innumerable jars of preserved monstrosities, exhales a musty odor which would try the stoutest stomach. The dust is two inches thick on the floors, windows, glass-cases and grinning skeletons.

The bones of Old Cunny, the notorious body-snatcher, hang from the railing of the balcony. His skeleton is the most conspicuous object in the museum.

The old plug-hat adorns the skull.

In his mouth, between the teeth, is the pipe he smoked before he died. Cunningham was a great character. He was in his day the most extensive grave-robber in the country. While he was janitor of the Ohio College there was never a short supply of stiffs. The faculty of the institution could always depend on “Cunny” to find the most desirable subjects, for he never had any compunctions of conscience about the grave he despoiled. Before he died the body-snatcher ordered that his body be dissected. As a mark of respect to his memory for the service he had rendered, his bones were strung on wires and hung up in the museum

Stairways on either side of the College lead to that most loathsome of all places in the average man’s estimation—the dissecting room.

The reporter entered from the west door. The room is always kept locked and the janitor had the key.

Before the threshold was reached a most noisome smell struck the olfactories of the newspaper man.

Who can describe that odor?

It is infinitely more nauseating than a charnel-house. A slaughter-house is attar of roses compared with it. The desiccating company’s building at Delhi is as sweet clover or new-mown hay after catching a whiff of the aroma in the dissecting-room.

But there is no way to prevent it.

The young doctors soon become accustomed to the stink and pursue their work on the decaying human flesh with the utmost nonchalance.

Two of them were busily occupied when the reporter stuck his nose, which he held by his hand, in the open doorway.

They were seated on stools under the glare of a gas jet which cast a lurid light on the ghastly cadaver, already mutilated beyond recognition by the skillful knives of the soon-to-be physicians. The students were on either side of the subject and looked up for a moment from their occupation to say, “how de do.” The strong light at the table made an intuitive contrast unpleasant with the gloomy aspect of the dingy room. It was not yet dark outside, but the dirt-stained windows would not admit a ray of sunlight. The ambitious and energetic students continued to examine the muscles and veins exposed by their dexterous wielding of the sharp steel.

“Pretty good subject, eh?”

“Very fair.”

The corpse, which was that of a middle-aged man, had been cut out of all shape. In fleshly places the bones protruded from the flesh.

“Nearly through with him?”

“Yes.”

Of course the votaries of science can’t stop their researches on account of sentiment for their purpose is to study the dead that the living may be preserved from untimely graves.

As the dissecting course is nearly over there is a dearth of stiffs in the Ohio College. The tables on which it is customary to lay the bodies have been piled up, and only seven of them are occupied. There is a sickening amount of debris scattered about the rooms. Bones, ribs, portions of legs, arms and headless trunks greet the visitor at every turn.

A colored boy, apparently about eighteen years old, lay stretched on his stomach across one of the slabs.

He is a fresh subject.

His arms and feet hung over the end and two or three incisions were all the marks visible upon his person.

“Rather too fat for a first-class stiff,” remarked the janitor. “The boys want lean people. Consumptives are the best. Very corpulent dead men or women are not received when we can get any other kind.”

“How many subjects have you had this winter?”

“Only ten, I think. We should have had forty to give all the students a chance to dissect the various parts. You see, when five men work on the same stiff one can dissect the arm, the second another arm, the third the head, and the other two a leg each. The boys, however, have done the best they could on the material offered. Here’s where they draw them up.”

The man walked over to a sort of elevator, where a chute extends clear to the pavement. By means of a pulley, the bodies are hauled into the dissecting-room. It was through this hole that the body of Scott Harrison was lifted to the repulsive place where it was found by his son.

Those days of horror are passed.

The college authorities will never take such chances again.

If the corpse of a prominent citizen gets within range of the knife and saw it will not be their fault.

Near this chute, connected with which are such terrible associations, was the body of a woman.

She was wrapped in a sort of bunting, but the hands and arms were exposed. It was a shapely arm, and her hands were soft and pretty.

Perhaps she was somebody’s sweetheart or wife. She could not have been more than thirty years of age. The little hand had become shriveled since death, which had occurred about one month ago.

The janitor knew nothing of her history. He believed she had come from the Hospital. If her friends had claimed the remains she would have received a decent burial.

It was impossible to tell the sex or age of any of the other subjects.

They were beyond all semblance of shape.

On a table in the east room was a pile of ribs which still held together.

Was it a man or woman?

No inexperienced, casual caller could tell what it as. The janitor said it once was part of a woman, but the doctors had completed their dissection, and before  school closed the ribs would be thrown into boiling water and the result would be a mass of bleached bones, which, with the other bones would be placed together and a skeleton would adorn some anatomical museum or a doctor’s office.

“Do you pickle bodies here in summer,” was asked of the janitor.

“Sometime; but it isn’t pleasant because we can’t keep the stiffs from smelling bad.”

The two young doctors were still examining the muscles of their subject when the reporter left the scene. The horrible odor seemed to follow them down stairs into the street. It was a welcome change…from the silence of the dead-room to the active, busy hum of life.

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 13 February 1887: p. 13

“This story of the dissecting-room is a very old one, but people never grow tired of it.” What a touching opening sentence–like a well-loved bedtime story!  Interviews with body-snatchers were, briefly, a popular feature of many nineteenth-century newspapers. No morbid detail was spared, although the article above is unusually emphatic about the smell. It is also a surprisingly less fluent piece than is normally  found in the pages of the Enquirer. One-sentence paragraphs are not typical of 1880s journalism.

In these interviews, the Resurrectionists often reiterated the idea that what they did was done in the name of Science and that they preferred to snatch the bodies of the poor and friendless. “Friendless” was the key word, for even the poor could cause a scandal or a riot by demanding their loved ones’ bodies. Janitors were frequently a reporter’s guide to the chambers of horrors. They knew the institutional workings inside and out and since they occasionally supplemented their income by collecting the odd cadaver, they could speak to the acquisitions side of the profession. As a completely random aside, medical schools today have the same aversion to overweight subjects.

Other interviews with body-snatchers? And I would kill for a photo of “Old Cunny’s” skeleton in the museum. No one I spoke to at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine knows what became of that gentleman’s earthly remains.

Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

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.