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.

A Burial by the Tracks: 1893

 

Mount Rockwell Montana

THEY BURIED HIM.

I never read or hear of the mountains that I do not recall a story told by a conductor of a train on the Great Northern road. We were going to Butte. The train had just crossed the river at Great Falls. From that point the road begins its eastern ascent of the range whose tops are whitened with the snow all the year round. A wide plain spreads out between the line of the road and the range. As the train was getting a “fresh hold on the rails,” as one of the party expressed it, the conductor stood on the rear platform of the coach and looked steadfastly at one spot until it was lost.

“Got a claim anywhere round there?” asked a traveler who had noticed the conductor’s longing look.

“A kinder of a claim,” he replied, “but not the kind you’re thinkin’ of.” How he came to tell us makes no difference now. Here is what he told:

“’Bout a year ago, I think it was, a young man was put on the train by the conductor who brought him to where I take it. He had been east. His folks lived down there, I believe. He had been west a good many years, was a cowboy, then a deputy marshal, then a boss of a ranch, and then he got to speculatin’ in Anaconda. He had lived the sort of a life out here that a man was expected to live in them days.

“He was a hard citizen, and then a good one. Blest if I know just where he quit off, but he did. He finally got to lovin’ a girl and just when he was havin’ it the wust way, she ups and marries a good-for- nothin’ that came out here and got to clerkin’ in a rag house. Then the young man I am talkin’ about he goes east to wear out his feelin’s I reckon. And he was gone all summer. They said he was at the seaside. I thought when I heard that, as how he would not last long. When a man quits this climate to go to the seaside there must be something mighty bad about his case. If a man can’t get cured here he needn’t go anywhere else.

“Well, when he was put in my care there were four or five of the boys with him. They had heerd he was comin’ back, and they met him away down this side of St. Paul. And they nursed him all the way, and fed him just as if he had been a sick girl. He was lookin’ out of the winder of the car all the time, day an’ night, but wasn’t sayin’ nothin’. When we got to Great Falls he looked out of the car winder and smiled. It was the first time the boys had seen him do that since they met him, an’ they thought he was getting’ well. He asked ’em to set him up in his berth so he could see. And he looked at the mountain tops out there, covered with the whiteness of God, and the foot of the mountains that is washed by the purest water this side of the divide.

“The train was just gettin’ a good hold on the rails when the poor fellow sank back and the next thing I see the boys was takin’ the piller out from under his head. Then I knowed it was all over. Then one of the boys came to me and asked me if I would take $1,000 to stop the train. I told ’em I couldn’t do anything of that sort. They said money was no object. Then I asked ’em what was up, and one of ’em told me that he (meaning the dead man) had made a last request that he be taken from the train and buried in sight of that mountain that had the snow on it–the one that caught his eyes first after we had come over the river, They said they had promised him they would. I asked ’em where they would get a box and they said a man as good as he was didn’t need no box; that the angels would take care of him as soon as he was laid away.

“I asked ’em what they would do if the train wasn’t stopped. They held a short parley and said in a most respectful way, which I understood, that they had to carry out the wishes of the deceased at all hazards; that they could stop the train if I didn’t. I understood ’em. I pulled the cord and went forward, and while the engineer was mendin’ the locomotive, which got out of sorts jest then, the funeral procession moved out, and the dead was buried out there in full sight. It so happened that we got the locomotive fixed just as the funeral was over, and we took the pallbearers into Butte that night.

“And I never pass that spot that I don’t look out where they laid him. I ain’t never seen any of the pallbearers since, and I don’t know the name of the young man that they buried. Do you know, gents, that his grave is green all the year round? I once thought of puttin’ up a gravestone at his head, but thinks I, it’s none of my business, and, besides, the boys said the angels was goin’ to take care of his body, so I thought I wouldn’t be intrudin’ on any angel’s business. It was the only time, though, that my locomotive ever got anything the matter with it.” Chicago Tribune.

The Anaconda [MT] Standard 16 April 1893: p. 9

 

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.

His Third Wife: 1874

the widower carl spitzweg dandy widower
The Widower, Carl Spitzweg http://www.wikigallery.org/wiki/painting_344830/Carl-Spitzweg/page-1

Mr. Cooley’s Third.

My neighbor Cooley married his third wife a short time ago, and the day after he came home with her his oldest boy, the son of his first wife, came into the room where she was sitting alone sewing. Placing his elbows on the table he began to be sociable. The following conversation ensued:

Boy: How long d’you expect you’ll last?

Mrs. C.: What on earth do you mean?

Boy: Why ma, she held on for about ten years. I reckon you’re good for as much as her. I hope so anyhow. I’m kinder sick of funerals. They made an awful fuss when they stowed ma away, and a bigger howl when they planted Emma. So I’d jes’ as leave you keep around awhile. But pa, he has his doubts about it.

Mrs. C.: Doubts! Tell me what you mean this instant.

Boy: Oh, nothing! On the day Emma got away, pa came home from the funeral, and when he ripped the crape off his hat he chucked it in the bureau drawer and said: “Lay there till I want you again,” so I s’pose the old man must be expectin’ you to step out some time or other. In fact, I see him conversing with the undertaker yesterday; with him, makin’ some kind of permanent contract with him, I s’pose. The old man is always huntin’ for a bargain.

Mrs. C.: You ought to be ashamed to talk of your father in that manner.

Boy:  Oh, he don’t mind it. I often hear I the fellows jokin’ him about his wives. He’s a good natured man. Anybody can get along with him if they understand him. All you’ve I got to do is to be sweet on him, and he’ll be like a lamb. Now, Emma, she used to get mad, heave a plate, or a coal scuttle, most any thing at him. And ma, she’d blow him up about 15,000 times a day; both of them would bang me till I got disgusted. And pa didn’t like it. Treat me well, give me candy and money, and you’ve got pa sure. Emma used to smack me; and when pa said he was opposed to it she’d go at him with an umbrella, or flat-iron, and maul him. I guess you and me will jog along all right together, and by the time pa gets another wife I’ll be big enough not to care how many airs she puts on. What I want is time. You stick for three or four years, and then the old man can consolidate as much as he’s a mind to, and I won’t scare worth a cent. It’s only the fair thing anyway. Enough of this family’s money has been used on coffins and tombstones, and we ought to knock off for awhile. Good morning. I b’lieve I’ll go to school

Mrs. Cooley did not enjoy her honeymoon as much as she expected.

The San Francisco [CA] Examiner 8 October 1875: p. 1

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Just as the nineteenth-century press made jokes about “Merry Widows” and their hunt for new husbands, the widower was shown as no less eager to remarry.

AN AMENDED EPITAPH

There is a good story going the rounds of Bishop Wilmer, a well-known United States divine. One of his friends lost a dearly beloved wife, and in his worry, caused these words to be inscribed on her tombstone: “The light of mine eyes has gone out.” The bereaved married within a year. Shortly afterwards the Bishop was walking through the graveyard with another gentleman. When they arrived at the tomb the latter asked the Bishop what he would say of the present state of affairs, in view of the words on the tombstone. “I think,” said the Bishop, “the words ‘But I have struck another match,’ should be added.”

Bay of Plenty Times, 24 February 1896: p. 3

Since wife-mortality was often high, due to childbirth, some husbands might be suspected of following in the footsteps of the infamous Bluebeard, with multiple wives sent to their doom. One can understand this new bride’s trepidation:

SHOWING HER ROUND

The widower had just taken his fourth wife, and was showing her round the village. Among the places visited was the churchyard, and the bride paused before a very elaborate tombstone that had been erected by the bridegroom. Being a little near-sighted, she asked him to read the inscriptions, and, in reverent tones he read:

“Here lies Susan, beloved wife of John Smith and Jane, beloved wife of John Smith, and Mary, beloved wife of John Smith.”

He paused abruptly, and the bride, leaning forward to see the bottom line, read to her horror:

“Be ye also ready.”

North Otago Times, 7 June 1913, Page 1

 

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.

Dinnerware of the Dead: 1900

skull mug
German bisque skull mug, Ernst Bohne. http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2015/bear-witness-l15026/lot.592.html

Mrs Daffodil has been persuaded (well, “badgered” might be the mot juste) to offer a guest post by that Relentlessly Informative person over at Haunted Ohio, who has found what she feels is an interesting tit-bit about an unusual mourning custom from the United States. Without further ado, Mrs Daffodil introduces Chris Woodyard, author of The Victorian Book of the Dead

While working on a monograph on shrouds, I ran across this piece on memorializing the dead at the dinner table. It comes from Pennsylvania, a state particularly rich in interesting folklore and funereal practices. The resourceful Mrs Daffodil uncovered articles about that state’s “death drawer” custom, which also was reported in 1900.

What can we say about a custom that cherishes the tableware of the deceased as domestic relics and a family’s belief in an ongoing presence of the beloved dead?  Is it an expression of “complicated grief,” where the bereaved cannot let go of their sorrow, or a literal way to continue a connection with those lost?

IN MEMORY OF THEIR DEAD

“Oh, yes, I always keep our dead mother’s plate at her place at the table,” said the daughter of a rich eastern Pennsylvania farmer. “We will also keep her knife, fork, spoon, cup and saucer, and her napkin. I don’t know why we do it, only that it is the custom hereabouts among the large landowners. Whenever any grown person dies in the family, especially an unmarried daughter or the mother, her plate at the table is never taken away, save once a month, when it is washed. No one ever sits at that place no matter what the crowd is, no one uses anything belonging to mother. We hold the place sacred.

“Down at the farm of one of our neighbors they never remove the plate of their eldest daughter, who died 20 yrs. Ago. All the table article she used to use, are still there. An no one has ever occupied her narrow bed in her room. Her things are just as she left them, even to the chinaware on her bureau. Her dresses are faded and moth-eaten, and considerable had to be taken away, but a good many of her things are still as she left them.

“There is not so much regard shown for the boys. But when the head of the house dies his vacant chair at the table is never occupied. No one would dare to take that seat. At one large farm they kept his picture in a frame on his chair until one day the glass cracked and the frame split from some unknown cause. To this day they have an idea that the old farmer’s spirit came back and gave that picture a crack, because he didn’t like to see it there. Next they looked for the plate to be knocked off the table, but as that didn’t happen they take it for granted that the farmer thinks that’s all right. Over on another farm, where their oldest son died ten years ago, his room is closed forever, and kept just as he left it, with his gun, boots, clothes, and fishing rods in the corner. They still call it John’s room, and it will so continue until the farm passes into new hands. Not long ago the sale of a farm was nearly blocked when the owner wanted to stipulate in the deed that a certain room was not to be occupied until after the death of the seller.

“We know an aged lady who still pays for two seats in their church. Her husband died 11 years ago. She pays for his seat, and she occupies hers, never his, and no one else ever sits in that seat. Where a child over seven years of age dies, the plate is kept at the table a short time only. Where the child is 15, the plate is kept longer. Where the son or daughter dies, aged 21 or more, then the plate is never removed. I know one place where three grown daughters died within a year of diphtheria. Their plates in a row, are never removed, but fresh flowers are frequently placed near them. Their parents and brothers and sisters have long since ceased their weeping, and the table is no more sad, but everything is merry and happy, and they frequently chat with the dead people just as if they were present. It does no harm, even if it is foolish, as some people say.

“Three years ago an old farmer died five miles from here. He left seven grown children, two sons, and five daughters, all unmarried, and living at home. There is a rule in the family, and it has been so ever since the old gentleman died, that once a week each child shall spend a half hour in the old man’s big rocking chair, and think of him, commune with him, pray for him, ask his advice as to the farm management. They believe that he wants it to be thoroughly understood that he is still the master of that big farm. I guess he is, too, for the children are running the place on the co-operative plan, and they are getting along all right, apparently.

“People have to be very careful of the plates, cups and saucers of the dead. It is considered very bad luck if any piece is broken.”

Boston [MA] Daily Advertiser 13 July 1900: p. 5

This is very reminiscent of the ancient custom of equipping the dead with grave goods, brought to such perfection by the Egyptians, the Vikings, and the nomads of the Siberian steppes.  It also reminds me of the French family who stipulated that the bedroom of their son, killed in the Great War, should be kept as a shrine by the house’s owners “for 500 years” or the stories that Queen Victoria kept Prince Albert’s room as a shrine, commanding that hot water for shaving be brought daily and that the dead man’s clothes should be laid out for him. I haven’t been able to find any contemporary reports that the Queen really did issue orders to this effect, but she was acutely aware of the power of domestic relics, collecting locks of hair, casts of beloved relatives’ hands, and jewellery made from baby teeth. She also directed that a large number of sentimental objects be placed in her own coffin such as a dressing gown of Prince Albert’s and John Brown’s mother’s wedding ring.

In the article on “death drawers,” found by Mrs Daffodil, we find the following passage about a lady who also wanted to take it with her, although on a much more modest scale:

One most unusual request was that a plate, cup and saucer, knife, fork and spoon should be placed in an old woman’s coffin. She had used them for 70 years, and did not wish anyone else to use them when she was gone.

The Sun [New York, NY] 18 February 1900: p. 27

It appears that the custom of setting a place for the dead was not uncommon even outside Pennsylvania.

There is a woman in Atchison who sets a place at the table every day for her husband, who died over a year ago. In his plate she never fails to place a little bouquet of flowers. She believes the dead know what is going on on earth.

The St. Joseph [MO] Herald 19 January 1891: p. 4

At this historical distance, it is hard to know if some diners with the dead were merely trying to cope with their grief or had been driven mad by misfortune.

Sets Table for Dead Wife;

Police Take Him Away

Frank J. Nagle, forty-seven years old, a plate printer, of 457 I street southwest, is in Washington Asylum Hospital today for observation as to his mental condition. The police say he had his table spread for his wife, several months dead, and his two little children, who are in St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum. Nagle recently lost his job at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and this, with his other misfortunes, is believed by his friends to have resulted in temporary mental derangement.

The Washington [DC] Times 16 February 1914: p. 12

This gentleman seemed to have a more balanced attitude, perhaps as a result of his Spiritualist faith. Or perhaps his wealth kept him from being sent to the asylum “for observation.”

SET TABLE FOR THE DEAD.

Menasha Man Had Places for Deceased Members of Family.

Menasha, Wis., Dec. 28. After a final consultation with the spirits death closed the life of Joseph A. Sanford, a wealthy retired lumber dealer of this city. Mr. Sanford was 84 years of age, and had been a resident of Menasha for more than sixty years. He was connected with the Menasha Wooden Ware Company, now the largest plant of its kind in the world, during its infancy; and later attained extensive lumber interests. During the last ten years Mr. Sanford had not partaken of a meal or retired at night without first having the table set for the deceased members of his family. At the retiring hour a fresh baked cake was placed on the table for the spirit members and these were consulted in all matters of importance concerning Mr. Sanford’s life before any action was decided upon.

The Indianapolis [IN] Star 29 December 1907: p. 11

I wish I knew the ending of this story of an unfortunate mother trying to cling to hope.

SHE AWAITS MISSING SON.

Winsted, Conn, December 12. Mrs. Martin Doyle, Sr., of Harwinton, has set a place at the table each meal time for her absent son, Michael, ever since he disappeared on April 3, 1904. After having partaken of supper that evening he walked out and has not since been heard of, although everything possible has been done by his relatives to find him.

In the interval Mrs. Doyle has lost her husband, her home has been destroyed by fire, and her other son, Martin, has become insane and is now in an asylum, leaving her alone.

The Montgomery [AL] Times 12 December 1907: p. 6

In 1883 Engineer John M. Miller, of Ohio, died in a train wreck. Articles commemorating his life mentioned that he believed that the ghosts of a fellow trainman and of his little daughter came aboard his engine to keep him company. Poignantly, he had a place set at his table for the child.

A few years ago Miller lost by death a bright little girl, to whom he was greatly attached, and ever afterward she, too, would nightly and daily get on his engine at a certain place on the road, and ride and talk with him until his train neared Dayton, and then disappear. As in the former case, her seat was kept for her in the cab, and no one allowed to occupy it.

At his home a chair was always set up to the table, the crib in which the child had been rocked drawn near, and a plate and food placed on the table, just as when the little girl lived and prattled. It is even said that the father would look at the chair and talk to its supposed occupant just as he used to do during its lifetime, and what seems strange now is that the wife and mother, an intelligent and highly respected lady, entertained and does now, the same superstitious views in regard to the child, and had the utmost faith in all that her husband ever told her about the ghostly visitations on the road.

Cincinnati [OH] Commercial Tribune 12 February 1883: p. 3

In The Ghost Wore Black, I wrote about the young woman who “married” the ghost of her dead fiancé. She, too, would set the table and chat over dinner with the shade of the dear departed. Is such a thing morbid or “foolish;” does it do harm to the grieving?

There is something both sad and yet convivial about dining with the dead. Many cultures practice it; the Hungry Ghost festival, and Dia de los Muertos, for example, bring the living and the dead together once more through food. And we eat together after funerals, reminding ourselves over the funeral baked casseroles that life goes on, that we still live and hunger, until we too can join the Buffet Invisible.

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil can only imagine what Cook would say to such a proceeding…  The custom gives an entirely new meaning to the phrase “coffin plate.”

 

 

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.

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.

The Doll’s Ghost: 1862

A Victorian post-mortem daguerrotype of a child with her doll.
A Victorian post-mortem daguerreotype of a child with her doll. Former eBay listing

Has anyone ever yet heard of the ghost of a doll? Such an alleged phenomenon was the cause of much excitement and uneasiness in a fashionable German watering-place, only a few months since; and these were the singular circumstances.

A pretty little girl (daughter of one of the residents) well known in the neighbourhood from being constantly seen playing in the public gardens at W__, died last year, after a few weeks’ illness, having been much soothed and solaced during that painful interval by the companionship of a favourite doll. The latter, who had received the name of ‘Flore’ was scarcely less familiar to the juvenile community than her poor little mistress. It seemed painful to separate the two. At all events, it is a feeling perfectly intelligible that induced the friends of the deceased child to place the doll in the coffin, in the position it had been used to occupy on the bosom of the little sleeper, and thus they were interred in the neighbouring cemetery of B___.

Some weeks elapsed, and then a strange mysterious whisper went abroad that Eulalie (the little girl) and Flore had reappeared in the public walks and gardens. The rumour quickly narrowed down to the apparition of Flore alone; but here it made so determined a stand, as to awaken the attention of the older and wiser members of the community. Not a day passed without one or other of the juvenile playmates bringing home an eager story of Flore’s having been distinctly seen, sometimes sitting under a rosebush, sometimes reclining at full length on a garden seat, sometimes carried in the arms of a certain dark-looking child, whose demeanour had discouraged any close advances, who disdained skipping-rope, and had proved impervious to the seductive influence of hoops.

With some difficulty, the story was traced back to this circumstance, that, about three weeks after the funeral, an intimate playfellow of Eulalie was walking in the gardens, when her attention was attracted by two other children quarrelling. With the curiosity of her years, the little girl hurried up to ascertain the cause of the dispute. It was a doll. No sooner had her eyes lit upon it, than she uttered a scream, flew back to her nurse, and, pulling her towards the spot, bade her look at the ghost of  ‘Flore’ who had been buried with Eulalie.

The nurse complied, but, less familiar with Flore’s specialities than her charge, declined to offer any decided opinion on the subject, excepting that it was certainly no ghost, and had a different cap and bonnet from that in which Flore made her last terrestrial appearance.

The little girl, however, positively maintained that it was Flore, and no other; or, if not Flore, then her ghost, and this opinion she repeated to every acquaintance they encountered during the remainder of the walk. It became, in fact, the child’s fixed idea, and as the alleged frequent sight of the mysterious doll began seriously to affect her health and spirits, the parents, as the readiest means of tranquillizing her, resolved to make a complete inquiry into the matter.

As they knew something of the family (that of a gentleman from the Cape of Good Hope), with whom the doll was associated, there was not much difficulty in getting the toy in question handed over to their scrutiny. It appeared that the little girl was able to mention some certain peculiarities either in the dress or structure of the doll, which were not visible without close examination. These were found to correspond minutely with her description. There was no longer room for question. It was Flore herself.

The ghost was thus laid. But it became necessary to ascertain the cause of the singular resuscitation of Flore’s body, and it presently appeared that the doll had been purchased at a toy shop frequently supplied by a travelling dealer whose habitat was unknown. The authorities at B___ were next applied to, and an order obtained to examine the coffin of the deceased child. It was found empty!

The investigation that followed resulted in the detection of a miscreant who had more than once used his means of access at all hours to the cemetery for the purpose of stripping the bodies of the recently dead, and even, it was darkly hinted, sometimes devoting them to the nutriment of the tenants of his sty. The wretch was condemned to the light penalty of a year’s imprisonment.

 Strange Things Among Us, Henry Spicer, 1863 

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Children were not the usual prey of those human hyenas known as body-snatchers or Resurrectionists, although, as we saw previously, dead foundlings were the perquisite of the dissecting physician in France. The fiend who stole little Eulalie and her doll took a great risk if he was “stripping the bodies of the recently dead,” but seems to have gotten off remarkably lightly. Perhaps he bribed the Judge with some succulent production of his sty.  

Mrs Daffodil is unfamiliar with the legal status of corpses in Germany at the time of this story. However, in England, a corpse was not property and thus could not be stolen. Resurrectionists were careful to strip the bodies they turned over to the physicians. Removing a shroud, a coffin plate–or a doll–would leave the miscreants open to charges of theft with penalties of transportation or even execution. In France, a stiff fine was levied for those who violated graves.

Henry Spicer, who died in 1891, was a writer of novels, short stories, and plays. He was frequently published in Mr.Dickens’s weekly literary magazine All the Year Round. He was also a student of the occult and wrote several books on Spiritualism and like phenomena.

The e-book edition of The Headless Horror: Strange and Ghostly Ohio Tales contains a bonus chapter about body-snatching in Ohio, including the saga of “Old Man Dead,” and a horrific story of a family murdered so their bodies could be sold to the Medical College of Ohio.

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.

 

 

 

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

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

MOURNING STATIONERY.

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

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

“Well?” said the Paper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Poor thing,” said the Envelope.

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

Arthur’s Home Magazine, Volume 48, 1880

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

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

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

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