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.

Morfa Resonance: The Pit of Ghosts

Memorial card for victims of the Morfa Pit explosion, 1890 Amgueddfa Cymru — National Museum Wales

Recently Dr Beachcombing wrote about the many premonitions of disaster occurring before the Morfa Colliery explosion of 10 March, 1890. The colliery, which was known as a “gassy” mine, had a long and deadly history.  There were explosions in 1858 (4 men killed), 1863 (30 or 40 men killed), and in 1870 (30 men killed), when the mine had to be flooded to put out the resulting fires. What I propose to look at today is the sequel to the 1890 disaster or, perhaps, to the entire grim history of the Morfa pit, which became known as “the pit of ghosts.”

Reports from the days and months after the 1890 disaster almost invariably mention superstition in connection with the warnings told of in Dr Beachcombing’s post.

“Other curious instances of warnings are freely spoken of which would yield matter of interest to the student of either folk or spirit-lore.’’ Such stories used to be quite common in the mining districts of Wales in connection with every disaster of this kind, and although the spread of popular education has done much to deaden the popular fancy and to kill off the old superstitions, it is quite clear that the land of the corpse-candle, the phantom funeral, the coal-finding gnome, the sprite and elf and fairy, is not yet denuded of all its poetical traditions.—Christian Herald, March 19th. Quoted in The Two Worlds: A Journal Devoted to Spiritualism, Occult Science, Ethics, Religion and Reform, 28 March 1890: p. 229

Some men even went on record with their belief in omens:

There is an abiding belief among the men of the Morfa Colliery that signs of warning preceded the terrible accident by which eighty-seven lives were lately lost. Not only is this floating belief current among the gossips, but it is sufficiently firmly held to be testified to on oath. In the course of the inquiry into the cause of the disaster the following evidence was given on oath:—

Peter Williams, questioned why a special examination of the pit was asked for previously to the day of the explosion, said (speaking in Welsh): The truth was there had been complaints of spirits being about in the four-foot vein. He supposed the colliers thought a special examination would get rid of the spirits. Another witness, named Harding, said a rumour had gone round that something was to be heard in the pit, and it was regarded as a proof that something unusual was to occur at Morfa—a fire or an explosion. He himself thought something would happen in the four-foot. The sounds they heard created fear in the minds of the men that there was danger in the pit. About a fortnight before the explosion he was in the four-foot with another man. After emptying a tram they went on their knees. No word passed between them; but they heard something, and looked at each other in amazement. One asked, “What is that?” and thereupon a door opened and slammed against the frame. He met Tom Barrass, the undermanager, and said to him,” Something very strange has happened there to-day.” Barrass remarked, “Well, I can’t doubt that this sort of thing makes one believe that everything one has heard before is true.” There were some people who were superstitious, and he had his ideas before the explosion; but he had come to believe that it was something else that caused the accident. He had proof himself that sounds and signs occurred before the explosion of 1883. Light, Volume 10, 3 May 1890

The tokens of the disaster as reported several months after the explosion were weird and varied:

PITMEN’S SUPERSTITIONS.

As the excitement connected with the awful colliery accidents in South Wales has died away, it may not be out of place to give a few interesting facts, as personally related to the writer, concerning the hallucinations which many of the colliers who worked in the Morfa pit laboured under before the disaster.

Mr Isaac Hopkins is the manager of the well-known Dynevor Collieries, at Neatb, and he told Mr George Palmer, of Neath, that a great many men had come to him from the Morfa pit seeking work, giving as their reason for leaving that “the Morfa pit was certainly haunted, and that some terrible calamity was about to occur. Several of the men declared that “there were frequent peculiar noises as of ghostly trams running wild in the pit, with heavy fails of coal and debris which never happened; that at times strong and most remarkable perfume spread itself all over the mine, the odour being like that from clusters of roses, clematis, and honeysuckle. Nothing could be seen, but scent of the most exquisite kind was honestly stated to have been frequently inhaled.” Others of the men stated that “a huge red dog was daily seen prowling about the workings, that it suddenly disappeared, and it could be none other than a ghostly dog and a sure omen of great evil; also that a strange man, dressed in oil-skins and wearing a leather cap tightly fastened over his ears [shades of Spring-heel Jack?], one day suddenly appeared on the cage of the pit, and, after waving his hands upwards as if in despair, faded away into thin air.”

An old collier named Thomas swore that he saw a weird-looking man jump on a journey of trams underground, and after riding some distance jumped off and melted away in the darkness of the mine. This statement was confirmed by a man named Beece, who both declared they recognised him as a pitman who died years ago. These, with many other tales of the most extraordinary kind, the mining population about Taibach even now pin their entire faith in. Press, [Canterbury, NZ] 22 December 1890: p. 6

But the noises and presences did not end in 1890. It was said in the papers that only six bodies were not recovered from the 1890 disaster; a list found here suggests that 44 of the 87 dead were not recovered–ample reason, from a classic ghost-lore perspective, for the echoes of the dead to linger and for the mine to be haunted.

In 1895 the mine was hit with a wave of new terrors.

WELSH MINERS SCARED They Leave Work in a Panic Owing to Uncanny Noises

London, Dec. 20.

The latest sensation for lovers of uncanny things is a haunted coal mine. It is situated at the Morfa colliery in South Wales. The spooks first made their presence manifest last week by indulging in wailing and knocking all over the underground workings. There could be no doubt about it, as several hundred miners heard mysterious sounds which were unlike anything they had heard before. They were so thoroughly scared that they threw down their tools and went to the surface and refused to resume work until the ghosts had been laid.

It has been suggested that the trouble at the Morfa colliery is due to the “coblyns” or fairies supposed in Wales to dwell in mines. But the miners themselves scout the idea. Coblyns, they say, are friends of the miners, and when they knock or shout or throw bits of coal about, it is for the purpose of letting the men know where the best veins of coal are to be found. The suggestion that the mysterious and terrifying wailing came from a tomcat, which had strayed from the mine stables and got lost in the workings is unanimously repudiated and denounced as unworthy trifling with a solemn subject. The Ottawa [Ontario, Canada] Journal 21 December 1895: p. 3

No longer were strange noises signs of disaster: the mine was declared haunted by the victims of the 1890 explosion.

SPOOKS IN WELSH MINES

Workmen Frightened Away by Mysterious Noises

The latest sensation for jaded lovers of uncanny things is a haunted coal mine. It is situated at the Morfa colliery, in South Wales. The spooks first made their presence manifest by indulging in wailing and knocking all over the underground workings. There could be no doubt about it, as several hundred miners heard mysterious sounds which were unlike anything they had ever heard before. They were so thoroughly scared that they threw down their tools and went to the surface and refused to resume work until the ghosts had been laid.

Recent efforts to persuade the men that the mine was perfectly safe and spook proof, and that the noises were due to natural causes, succeeded, and the men reluctantly returned to their work. Some had begun to be somewhat ashamed of themselves and made pretense that they had feared not ghosts, but some physical disaster, of which the noises were intended as a warning. But the majority fervently persist in the belief that there is a supernatural explanation and incline to think that the trouble is due to the disturbed spirits of six workmen who were killed in an explosion which occurred six years ago, and whose bodies were never recovered. Some of the men have declined to go down again until those bodies have been found and decently interred with Christian rites.

The evidence in favor of the supernatural theory is still considered abundant and plain enough for the average Welsh miner. Scores of men heard blood curdling noises, and several saw doors and brattices moving in the most unearthly manner. People abroad after dark are said to have heard the singing of dirges and the roll of muffled drums. Repository [Canton, OH] 5 January 1896: p. 6

Reported even longer after the fact, was this tale of the omen of the “Seven Whistlers,” which was not mentioned in any of the 1890 accounts I have found. These creatures seem to be the ornithological wing of the Wild Hunt.

WARN OF DANGER

SEVEN WHISTLERS UNCANNY

Peculiar Noises Like Yelping Supposedly Heard in Parts of England Before a Disaster.

In some parts of England peculiar whistling or yelping noises are heard in the air after dusk and early in the morning before daylight during the winter months. Sometimes, however, the noise is described as beautiful sounds like music, high up in the air, which gradually die away. The general belief is that the “seven whistlers,” as they are called, are the foretellers of bad luck, disaster, or death to some one in the locality.

It is a very ancient suggestion. Both swifts and plovers have been suggested as the “whistlers.” It may be noted that plovers are traditionally supposed to contain the souls of those who assisted at the crucifixion and in consequence were doomed to float in the air forever.

Like Singing of Larks.

In Shropshire the sound is described as resembling that of many larks singing, and the folklore of both Shropshire and Worcestershire says, “They are seven birds, and the six fly about continually together looking for the seventh, and when they find him the world will come to an end.”

Everywhere, without exception, the “seven whistlers” are believed to presage ill, but the superstition seems to be more particularly a miners; notion. If they heard the warning voice of the “seven whistlers,” birds sent, as they say, by Providence to warn them of an impending danger, not a man will descend into the pit until the following day.

Heard Before Explosion.

Morfa colliery, in South Wales, is notorious for its uncanny traditions. The “seven whistlers” were heard there before a great explosion in the sixties and before another, in 1890, when nearly a hundred miners were entombed.

In December, 1895, it was said that they had been heard yet again, whereupon the men struck work and could not be induced to resume it until the government inspector had made a close examination of the workings and reported all safe. Muskegon [MI] Chronicle 17 June 1904: p. 6

Another article on the “Seven Whisperers” says that the Morfa mine was a “singularly unlucky pit,” and that

In December, 1896, the scare broke out afresh, as a repetition of the same curious noises [as in 1890] took place, and, direst portend of all, one Sunday night a dove  [one of the three “corpse birds:” robin, pigeon, and dove] was found perched on a coal truck in the weigh-house. By way of reassuring the miners, who had struck work in a body, the Government inspector, the chief manager, and a small party of officials made a strict examination of the workings, but although they found nothing changed it was several days before the superstitious miners could be induced to resume work. Auckland [NZ] Star 17 January 1903: p. 5

The miners read the jocular pieces ridiculing their “superstitions” and rightly resented the slur.

A reporter from the Western Mail wrote: “I visited Morfa in quest of a ghost. In arriving at the place I found the Morfa miners standing in groups at the street corners. Being descendants of the ancient Silurians, these men are very brave, and, like their ancestors, they would meet a charge of cavalry on foot. But, if they are equal to all kinds of flesh and bones in war or peace, they are terribly afraid of ghosts….

It is all very well for the reader seated in the daylight at his fireside, to call the Morfa miners “superstitious,” because they on hearing strange and unexplainable noises in the dark caverns of the earth…One of the miners today, standing among his fellows, with his hands in his pockets, a pipe in his mouth, told me he had read the editorial comments in the Western Mail that morning on what they were pleased to call the “superstition” of the Morfa miners. “Tell the editor,” he said severely, “to confine his remarks to things of this world, for he knows nothing about heaven and hell and the workings underground.” And he added the remark that if the Western Mail editor had been seated in the dim light of a clammy lamp in the interior of the workings, and had heard groaning in the darkness beyond and below in the deep, he, too, would have taken to his heels and quickly sought “some hole to hide in.” Another miner, sharp-eyed and seemingly highly intelligent, declared to me that there was not the slightest doubt that inexplicable strange noises had been heard in the workings both lately and before the explosion six years ago. This belief, which he declared 50 percent of the men believed, has been intensified by the finding the dove at 10 o’clock on Sunday night close to the mouth of the shaft…. The Scranton [PA] Tribune 28 December 1895: p. 6

Considering the noises and alarums the miners experienced in 1895-1896, they must have been relieved that there was only one fatality in 1896—a man who died of dropsy exacerbated by a fall in the pit. As far as I can find, the Morfa Colliery had only isolated fatalities—no large-scale disasters–from 1890 until it closed in 1913.  Is the pit still believed haunted by the men who died there? And what toxic gases found down a coal mine might produce a sweet, flowery scent? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Various materials have been believed over the centuries to trap spirits: iron, crystal, and various gemstones. Coal is not one of them, yet the mines and their communities teem with mysterious voices, knocking kobolds, silently flitting Women in Black —and the spirits of those men and boys buried, not beneath decent slate in the churchyard, but under tons of rock and smouldering slag.

At these links you’ll find posts on a haunted mine, a black spectre in a mine, a headless miner’s ghost, and a subterranean centaur scaring miners off the job.

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.

Saved by the Clock: 1901

floral clock with swags 1914
1901 funeral flowers in the form of a clock. The hands point to the time of death.

CLOCK PREVENTED A BURIAL ALIVE

Girl Was Apparently Dead, but Timepiece Aroused Doubt.

IT WOULD NOT STOP

Sister Refused to Permit Burial While the Clock Ticked.

Supposed Corpse Was in a Trance and Awoke on the Fifth Day of Her Sleep.

“I am not superstitious,” said the landlady, “but there was something happened at my house about two years ago that made my flesh creep for a while, in spit of my skepticism.

“Among my boarders at that time were a widow named Mrs. Dodson, her sister, Miss Ashby, and a young man whose name was Mr. Duby. Mr. Duby was a dealer in curios. He had in his collection a number of clocks and watches, and on Miss Ashby’s birthday he made her a present of a eight-day clock. This time piece was very fine. It was about two feet high, was made of scented woods inlaid with gold, and the face, with the exception of the slits for the pendulum and the keyholes, appeared to be hermetically sealed.

“Shortly after presenting this gift to Miss Ashby Mr. Dunby left for a trip in Mexico. About 11 o’clock on the Monday after his departure I was getting ready for bed, when Mrs. Dodson tapped on the door and called to me softly through the keyhole.

“’O, Mrs. Clark,’ she said, ‘won’t you come upstairs a moment, please? Alice has been taken ill very suddenly, and I don’t know what to do for her.’

“I threw on my clothes and hurried up to Miss Ashby’s room, but, quick as I had been, it was plain that she was breathing her last. I dispatched my husband posthaste for the doctor around the corner, but before he returned the girl was gone. Mrs. Dodson and another boarder and myself were alone with her when the end came, and the minute we were assured that all was over Mrs. Dodson looked up at the clock on the mantel and said:

“’Ten minutes past eleven. I must stop the clock.’

Could Not Stop the Clock.

“She walked over and opened the painted glass door and put her hand on the pendulum, but the minute she let go it commenced ticking as loudly and regularly as before. Mrs. Dodson looked round at us in surprise.

“’Why, how strange!’ she cried. ‘It won’t stop.’

“She caught the pendulum again. Even as she held it a faint whirring noise was heard inside the clock, as if it rebelled against this restriction of movement, and no sooner was the pendulum released than it went on with its monotonous vibrations. By the time my husband came with the doctor, Mrs. Dodson had worked herself up into a fever of grief and superstitious fear.

“’It won’t stop,’ she said over and over again.

“My husband tried to comfort her. ‘If you want a clock stopped at the hour of death,’ he said, ‘we will have to get another.

“But Mrs. Dodson would not listen to that suggestion. “I must stop this one,’ she said, ‘or none at all. It has been the custom in our family for generations to stop the clock in the death chamber the minute one of us dies, and Alice would never forgive me if I should fail to do the same thing for her.’

“Seeing that her distress was genuine, my husband took the clock downstairs, and began to tinker with it himself. He turned it sideways and upside down—did everything to it, in fact, except to break it into smithereens—but, no matter how he treated it, it kept on running.

“Mrs. Dodson wept unrestrainedly. ‘It is very strange,’ she said. ‘This is the first clock I ever saw that wouldn’t stop when you wanted it to. Most of them take spells and refuse to run, but this one won’t stop running. The phenomenon is something more than mere chance. It is meant as a warning, and I am going to heed it. I am not going to bury Alice till the clock stops.’

Averted a Premature Burial.

“In vain did we argue with her. Doctors and undertakers pronounced Miss Ashby dead, but, although her body was robed for burial, Mrs. Dodson would not consent to embalming or sepulture. For four days the girl lay in her room upstairs, watched constantly by Mrs. Dodson or a trained nurse, and for four days that clock kept up its everlasting tick-tock. On the morning of the fifth day after Miss Ashby’s death Mrs. Dodson looked out as I was passing through the second floor hall and called to me excitedly.

“’I think Alice is coming to,’ she said. ‘Send for the doctor.’

“I was ready to drop with nervousness, but I managed to gather strength enough to summon the doctor, and then we set to work on the girl. It sounds impossible, but she really did revive, and, although very weak and naturally slow of recovery, she finally regained perfect health. For a long time that clock was an object of superstitious veneration, even to the strongest-minded person about the house, and not till Mr. Duby came home from Mexico did our faith in the supernatural give way to practical common sense.

“’That clock,’ said Mr. Duby, ‘Is the product of my own inventiveness. I tinkered away on it for months and finally got the works in such condition that nothing short of absolute destruction could prevent its going for eight days after it was once wound. I used to think I was fooling way my time when I pottered around with those old springs for hours at a stretch, but it proved to be the best work of my life. If it hadn’t been for that clock—’

“And we all shuddered at the thought of what would have happened if it hadn’t been for the clock. Oh, no; there was really nothing unearthly about the affair, but since then I have been a good deal more charitable with persons who are naturally superstitious than I was before.”

The Inter Ocean [Chicago IL] 5 May 1901: p. 33

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It was a wide-spread custom to stop the clocks in a house at the time of death, perhaps symbolising that time was over for the deceased. One stopped the clock to avert bad luck or perhaps to ward off another death in the house. A 1909 compendium of “popular superstitions” recorded: “When anyone has died in a home, the clock must be stopped at once, and all the pictures turned toward the wall, or more of the family will die soon.”

There were various, and sometimes conflicting, beliefs about clocks and death. A sampling:

If a clock, long motionless, suddenly begins to tick or strike, it is a sign of approaching death or misfortune.

Van Smith died Saturday night of pneumonia and typhoid fever. He was a noble youth, just budding into manhood. In the room in which he was sick is an old family clock that has not run for a great many years. Several years ago while old uncle Johnnie Smith, the grandfather of the deceased, was lying sick in the same room, a few hours before his death the clock struck several times. A few years afterward Mr. Wm. Smith, father of the deceased, died in the room, and a short while before his death the clock again struck. On Friday night it struck again and Van died on Saturday night following. It was not running, had not been wound up, and was not touched by any one. This is indeed wonderful, but it is true, and can be verified by a score of witnesses.  The Pulaski [TN] Citizen 12 February 1880: p. 3

And

A DEATH CLOCK.

We have recently been informed of a truly wonderful clock, which is said to belong to a family in Newport. The clock is of simple construction, and belongs to the family of Mr. L—y; but all the efforts of clockmakers have not been able to make it keep time—consequently, it has been permitted to rest in silence. A few hours before the death of Mr. L—y’s sister, some short time since, the clock suddenly struck one, after a silence of many months. It thus continued to maintain its silence until another member of the family was prostrated with a fatal malady, when it again struck one, and on the following day the child was buried. A year elapsed, when a second child sickened and died. The clock was punctual in sounding one a few hours previous to its death. A third child, a little boy fifteen months old, was afflicted with scrofula, which baffled the skill of his physician, and died. The clock gave the usual warning, and struck one. It has never failed in sounding a death knell when any of the family in whose possession it now is were about to die. “There are stranger things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.”—Cincinnati paper. Ballou Dollar Monthly Magazine Vol. 16, 1862: p. 414

Clocks were also said to stop or “die” at the same moment as their owner, in the manner of the old song “My Grandfather’s Clock,”  which contains the refrain: “But it stopped short, never to go again/ When the old man died”] Perhaps this is why Miss Ashby’s clock stubbornly refused to be stopped.

They have a genuine grandfather’s clock in Maryland, at the residence of the late Thos. M. Clavert, in Cecil county. The clock had been running for twenty-one years without repairs. When Mr. Calvert died, the folks looked at the clock to note the moment of his death. The clock had stopped, and they can’t make it run again. The Atchison [KS] Daily Champion 31 January 1880:p. 2

REMARKABLE CLOCK OWNED IN OMAHA

Stopped Short at Moment of Death of Two Members of the Family.

Omaha, Apri. 2. Doctor John F. Hertzman, a physician who has lived in this city for twenty-five years and has held several minor public offices, died this morning at 5:20 o’clock after an extended illness.

Watchers beside his bedside declare that, at the moment he was declared dead by the attending physician, the clock in the bed chamber ceased to tick. The fact has become known and many curious neighbors have called to see the phenomenon. The clock has been permitted to stand at 5:20.

The curious incident is further emphasized by the fact that three years  ago the same clock also stopped at the exact moment of the daughter’s death.

Another curious fact in connection with Doctor Hertzman’s death is told. His age, according to Omaha time, was 48 years, 6 hours and five minutes.

As Doctor Hertzman was born in France, it is figured by the relatives that he died almost at the moment, if not at the exact moment, of the close of his forty-seventh year, when the difference in time between the two points is considered. Tucson [AZ] Daily Citizen 2 April 1902: p. 8

To be Relentlessly Informative, there has been a lot of loose talk about the term “saved by the bell,” as a reference to bells rigged to ring when a prematurely buried person revived. While such devices did exist, they did not inspire the idiom. The phrase had its origins in the boxing ring.

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

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

The Rector’s Ghost: c. 1815

St Peter’s Church, Dorchester

Since the season of holiday decorating is upon us, let’s start the month of December with a tale of two church officials trying to enjoy a well-earned cup of cheer after decorating St. Peter’s Church in Dorchester.

THE RECTOR’S GHOST

In the ancient town of Dorchester, Dorset, one Christmastide (I cannot fix the exact date, but it was not earlier than 1814, and might probably have been the following year), a rumor arose that a ghost had appeared in the old church of St. Peter’s to the clerk and sexton. They were both dreadfully frightened, and the former, I think, insensible for a time. The spirit was said to be the Rev. Nathaniel Templeman, the late rector, who died in 1813.

The story reached the ears of the then rector, the Rev. Henry John Richman, a learned and intelligent man, genial and kindly (I have the pleasantest recollections of him). The action be took in this affair was attributed to his eccentricity, in which he certainly gave proofs in regard to some other matters. He had an invalid wife and sister-in-law, both very nervous; so, to avoid annoying them, he examined the clerk and sexton both together, and apart, at the house of my aunt. I was quite a child then, but can just remember the whispering and excitement, and the men being shut in with the rector. The particulars of the story I heard afterward.

It was the custom in Dorchester, on Christmas Eve, for the clerk and sexton to decorate the church, not in the artistic fashion of modern times, but with large bunches of holly and mistletoe stuck about indiscriminately. Afterwards they gave the church a good cleaning for Christmas Day. On this Christmas Eve, the clerk and the sexton, after locking the doors of the church in order to prevent the intrusion of curious persons, busied themselves, as usual in Christmas preparations until the winter day drew to a close, when they sat down, on a form in the north aisle, to rest from their labors.

Then it was, as they told Mr. Richman, that the temptation came upon them to take a glass of the Sacramental wine, which kept in the vestry. After obtaining wine, they became aware that someone was sitting between them on the form. There had been no sound of steps, and the figure passed neither, but seemed to grow upon the seat. They both recognized the later rector, or “Old Master,” as they called him: he had the old familiar look and dress. He turned with a stern countenance from one to the other shaking his head in his peculiar way, but did not speak. The sexton, Ambrose Hunt, was able to say the Lord’s Prayer; Clerk Hardy was utterly unable to utter a word, and shook with extreme terror. The spirit after a while rose, and retreated down the aisle, turning round occasionally with the same awful look. He seemed to melt or vanish over the family vault, where his body lay. I never heard any explanation, except a surmise that somebody concealed in the church, and dressed like the late rector, frightened the men, but the “somebody” was never discovered, and I believe the other good rector believed the men’s story.—

Lucia A. Stone.

Shute Haye, Walditch, Bridport, Eng.

Spiritual Scientist February 1878: p. 19

So many details turn this into an M.R. James story: “no sound of steps,” “turning round occasionally with the same awful look,” and melting into the family vault.

The Rev. Nathaniel Templeman, who died 12 June 1813 and was succeeded by his curate, Mr Richman, was Rector of St Peters for 32 years–no wonder he was called “Old Master.”

While I can’t find a Clerk Hardy in the online parish records, Ambrose Hunt and Thomas Hardy are listed as witnesses at a number of weddings conducted by Mr Richman. I wonder if there is any link to the novelist Thomas Hardy, who, with architect John Hicks, helped restore St Peters in 1856-7? Hardy’s father, also named Thomas, was a violinist in his village church choir and a stone mason. It would hardly be a stretch, since the novelist was fascinated by the supernatural, to find that his father had met the rector’s ghost. But perhaps the name was a common one in the area.

Thoughts on the Hardy genealogy in relation to this tale?  Or of newer visitations from the Rector? Some modern lists of haunted sites say that he angrily comes back when theft or damage is threatened to St Peters.  chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

You can hear a reading of the original story on the Boggart and Banshee Podcast, available on Apple, Spotify, Buzzsprout, Amazon, etc. etc.

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

The Imperial Russian Children See the Angel of Death: 1903

Princess Elisabeth’s tomb, watched over by an angel. She died 16 November, 1903.

SAW DEATH ANGEL

Apparition That Appeared to Royal Children.

Story Related by Governess of Russian Princesses

Czar and Czarina Believe Supernatural Figure Really Was Visible.

Grand Duke Ernest of Hesse had a very pretty little daughter by his first wife, Princess Victoria Melita of Great Britain and Coburg, now married to Grand Duke Cyril of Russia. This little girl’s name was Elizabeth, and on account of her beauty and sprightly cleverness she was a universal favorite and the only tie between her parents after the estrangement, F. Cunliffe Owen writes in the New York World.

While staying with her uncle and aunt, the present czar and czarina, at their picturesque country seat in Poland, she succumbed when seven years old to poison—ptomaine poison, according to some, but according to others drugs conveyed into food or drink by the Nihilists for the purpose of taking the life of Emperor Nicholas.

A remarkable account of the affair is given by an English woman of the name of Miss Eager [Eagar], who, after spending a number of years in the service of the emperor and empress of Russia as the nursery governess of their young children, published on her return to England, with the full authority and approval of their majesties, a volume entitled, “Six Years at the Court of Russia.” [Six Years at the Russian Court, M. Eagar, 1906]

According to her, little Princess Elizabeth, or “Ella,” of Hesse was taken ill one afternoon or night and died before the following morning. Between nine o’clock and ten o’clock two of the little girls of czarina, who were sleeping together in a room adjoining that of their seven-year-old cousin of Hesse, suddenly alarmed everyone within hearing by the most frantic screams.

When the empress, Miss Eagar and the doctors rushed in they found the two little grand duchesses standing up on their beds, shrieking and shaking with terror. It was some time before they could be soothed, and then they related that they had seen a man with flowing robes and huge wings in their room. While they were still talking the eyes of both children suddenly dilated with terror, and both pointing in the same direction, they cried: “Look! Look! There he is again. He has gone into Ella’s room. Oh! Poor Ella! Poor Ella!”

Neither Miss Eager nor the czarina, nor yet the physicians, could see anything. But a few moments later Princess Ella suddenly sat up in her bed, crying: “I am choking. I am choking! Send for mamma!” Three hours afterward the child, who had immediately after the cry for her mother fallen into a state of coma, passed away, in the absence, of course, of her parents.

Miss Eagar expressed her firm conviction that the little grand duchesses had seen a supernatural apparition and that the apparition in question was the angel of death. That the czar and czarina shared her impression is shown by the fact that they had authorized her to publish the story in her book, as well as by the circumstance that she retains their favor and good will and is in receipt of an annuity from them for the remainder of her days. Truth [Erie, PA] 29 July 1916: p. 5 

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine [1895-1903] was regarded by all who knew her as too angelic for this world. Her parents, Grand Duke Ernst of Hesse and Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, were divorced in 1901. She was a particular favourite of Queen Victoria and was very close to her father, especially after the divorce. Her father never got over her death.

There were rumours at the time that Princess Elisabeth had been poisoned by food meant for Czar Nicholas–one story suggested bad oysters; another claimed the child was poisoned by soup which the Czar gallantly passed to the Princess saying, “Ladies first.” Typhoid was the official explanation. The Imperial children’s nurse, Miss Margaretta Eager left her post with the family, perhaps for political reasons, during the Russo-Japanese War and received a pension from the Russian government until the Revolution put an end to it. She was haunted by the deaths of the Imperial family for the rest of her life.

Frederick Cunliffe-Owen was a former English diplomat and writer. He and his wife, Marguerite, were well-connected with many of the royal houses of Europe and it is possible that he heard this story from Miss Eagar with more detail than she gives in her memoir.

Grand Duchess Marie was four years old and Grand Duchess Anastasia was only two when Princess Elisabeth died. They were known as “The Little Pair” (in contrast to “The Big Pair:” Olga and Tatiana) and slept in the same room.  While it seems certain that the young Grand Duchesses saw something unusual, this is what Miss Eagar published about the incident: 

Presently the two little Grand Duchesses, Marie and Anastasie, began to scream, and I ran into their room ; I found them both standing in their beds looking terribly alarmed. They told me there was a strange man in their room who had frightened them. Now the rooms were in a suite, and they could be entered only from the dining-room, or from the second bedroom, and this bedroom in its turn could only be entered from the room in which the little Princess lay ill. It will therefore be seen that no one could have entered their room without our knowledge. The doctor and the little Princess’s own faithful servant-man had been in the dining-room all night.

I thought the night-light might have thrown a shadow which frightened the children into thinking there was someone in the room. I therefore changed its position, but still the children were afraid, and said he was hiding over by the curtain. I lit a candle, and taking little Anastasie in my arms, carried her round the room to prove to her that there was absolutely nothing to frighten her. The doctor came in and tried to soothe Marie, but it was useless; she would not be soothed and Anastasie refused to return to bed, so I took her in my arms and sat down to try to comfort her. She buried her face in my neck and clung to me trembling and shaking. It was dreadful to me to see her in such a fright. The doctor being obliged to go I lighted a candle and left it on a little table close to Marie’s bed, and sat down near it, that I might be beside both children.

Marie kept talking about the dreadful person, and starting up in wild horror every now and then. The doctor came in and out, and told me the strange doctor had come and had given the little sufferer an injection of caffeine; her heart seemed stronger and he began to have hope.

When next Marie began to talk about the mysterious stranger I said, “A strange doctor had come to help Dr. H. to make cousin Ella quite well, and perhaps he might have come to the door in mistake, or you might have heard him speak, but there is no one in the room now.”

She assured me that the stranger was not a doctor and had not come through that door at all, and did not speak. Suddenly she stood up and looked at something which I could not see. “Oh!” she said, “he is gone into cousin Ella’s room.” Anastasie sat up on my knee and said, “Oh! poor cousin Ella; poor Princess Elizabeth!” [The child died very shortly after this, as Miss Eagar describes.] Six Years at the Russian Court, M. Eagar, 1906

Miss Eagar does not mention robes or wings (although these may be noted in an edition of Miss Eagar’s memoirs of which Mrs Daffodil is unaware), but she was an Irishwoman even though trained as a nurse, and it is possible she may have confided those extraordinary details to someone verbally, while being more reticent in print. Certainly the Czar and Czarina were firm believers in supernatural manifestations and apparitions.

Marguerite Cunliffe-Owens was a writer of aristocratic tittle-tattle for the papers and “historical novels” about the crowned heads of Europe, with titles like The Martyrdom of an Empress and Snow-Fire: A Story of the Russian Court.   She used the pseudonym La Marquise de Fontenoy for these intimate and incendiary revelations. Anything was possible in the mystic atmosphere of the Russian court, but one suspects that the suggestion of an angel came from her purple-inked pen.

For another story of a shrouded personification of Death, see this post.

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 Undertaker’s Revenge

The Lowry Mausoleum, Ironton, Ohio

Today’s guest-narrator tells the bizarre and gruesome story of an undertaker’s revenge.

The story began innocently enough in Ironton, Ohio in 1933, when Dr. Joseph Lowry was found dead in his bed. He was thought to have had a stroke and was laid to rest next to his late wife in his $40,000 mausoleum in Woodland Cemetery. His estate amounted to around $300,000.

Official suspicions were first aroused when a key to a safe deposit box was found in the Lowry house, but the box could not be located. It was whispered that several of Lowry’s strong boxes had been emptied by his sister Alice Barger and nephew Clark, who were said to have borrowed money from Lowry in the past. An autopsy was ordered, but on the exhumation morning when the authorities needed a key to the mausoleum, the Bargers were nowhere to be found. Eventually the authorities burned a hole through the heavy metal doors with a welding torch.

Dr. Lowry’s body was autopsied at a local funeral home. There was no sign of a stroke. In addition to previously unnoticed marks of asphyxiation, a surprise awaited. …

But Mrs Daffodil will let the author tell the story in her own discursive way:

Many years ago I ran across a story called “The Coffin with the Plate Glass Front or The Undertaker’s Revenge” by Jean Dolan, which was part of the Ohio Valley Folk Research Project, a collection of locally-collected folk-tales. Part of the story concerned a doctor disemboweled by an undertaker, which, as I am a lover of the grim and gruesome, I filed away for future reference, assuming it was just a folktale.

Then, as I was writing Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Haunted Ohio, I spoke with a genealogy librarian from Briggs-Lawrence County Public Library in Ironton, Ohio. She told me about some of the hauntings at the library and mentioned something about a disemboweled doctor who had formerly lived on the site.

Alarm bells went off. I had assumed the story was just a story, but the librarian graciously sent me newspaper clippings about the sensational story to prove that it wasn’t a fake.

Was he murdered? Why were his insides removed? Here we enter into the realm of conjecture. What follows is entirely speculative, based on local hearsay, gossip, and innuendo, sometimes a more reliable source of truth than the most carefully sworn testimony:

The story goes that when Dr. Lowry’s wife Sarah died in 1931, he ordered a very expensive, custom-made polished wood coffin. When it arrived, it had a slight scratch. Dr. Lowry noticed it at once. The undertaker murmured that it could easily be repaired. The French polisher could be on the job within the hour….

Dr. Lowry cut him short. It wouldn’t do. He wouldn’t be imposed upon with shoddy, second-rate goods. He insisted on being shown the coffins in stock and selected one, a top-of-the-line model, to be sure, with the genuine imitation mahogany veneer but a good deal less costly than the custom-made coffin. Dr. Lowry knew perfectly well that the custom coffin could be fixed but perhaps he was having second thoughts about the Dear Departed, or it may have been one of those minor economies that keep the rich richer than you and me.

The undertaker had not insisted on payment when the order was placed. He went home with a splitting headache and his wife put cool cloths on his forehead while he railed against the miserly doctor. He was his usual unctuous professional self by the time he next saw the doctor at the funeral. But he had the coffin taken up into the loft of the carriage house and covered with a horse blanket. On sleepless nights he brooded over the unpaid coffin invoice.

So when the news came that Dr. Lowry was dead, the undertaker danced a little jig of delight. He had sworn that Lowry would go to go his eternal rest in that expensive casket but it had been made for the Doctor’s wispy little wife and the dead man’s bulging midsection made it impossible to close the lid. Piece of cake, said the undertaker, preening himself on his ingenuity.  He simply scooped out the internal organs, shoveled in a few handfuls of excelsior, stitched up the now much‑diminished belly, and voila! Not only was the coffin a perfect fit but the old man looked trimmer than he had ever looked in life. The heirs congratulated him on how well the old man looked. Only a few people seemed puzzled by the corpse’s diminished height. Oh well, they went away thinking, the dead always look smaller… It had been a simple matter to take up the old man’s legs a bit so the undertaker could cram him into the coffin crafted for the five-foot Sarah.

Soon, however, rumors began to fly around the town that the old man’s death wasn’t altogether a natural one. There was some suspicion that someone had helped the old boy along—either by poison or a pillow over the face.

Dr. Lowry was removed from his $40,000 mausoleum in his plate-glass-fronted coffin. The autopsy revealed a startling secret, but not the one expected. When questioned, the undertaker admitted that he’d taken a few liberties with the old man’s innards. Motivated entirely by spite, he said cheerfully. The undertaker led the authorities to the place he’d buried the remains of the Doc, but the parts in question were too far gone to be analyzed for poison.  Any possible case against the heirs was dismissed for lack of evidence.

It is said that Dr Lowry haunts the Briggs-Lawrence County Public Library in Ironton—the site of Dr Lowry’s former home where he was found dead….He has also been seen roaming the cemetery in search of his missing insides.

Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Haunted Ohio, Chris Woodyard

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil is grateful for her guest’s ghost story contribution. Another story involving a doctor, poison, a ghost, and entrails, may be found at the Haunted Ohio blog. One wonders if the disemboweled Dr Lowry’s ghost could have been placated by the substitution of ersatz entrails: trimmings from a local slaughterhouse perhaps or bits of an opossum run over by a motor-car?

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. 

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 Post-Mortem Room Ghost

A short time ago, I promised my readers an occasional series of “Little Visits to the Great Morgues of Europe,” which started with the morgue at the Monastery of the Mount St. Bernard in the Alps. Further morgues will be profiled, but in scouring the journals of the past for crowd-pleasing details of maggots and decomposition discerning readers demand, I got distracted by this account from a hospital morgue in Dublin, Ireland. I pride myself on not being rattled by the average ghost story, but this one actually brought me up rather short.

A Post-Mortem Room Ghost

[The subjoined is a narrative of the experience of Dr. B__. It has been transcribed for the benefit of readers of the Occult Review by Dr. J.H. Power, the record having been previously checked and its accuracy confirmed by Dr. B__.] 

See me, at the time the following episode happened, a medical student at a hospital in Dublin. I was not quite a novice, being in the third year of my course. I was in the pink of health, and with the happy irresponsibility of the golden age of twenty-one years. In truth I was a bit of a lad, never happier than when I was playing pranks on citizens both offensive and inoffensive. All the same I was never in serious trouble, for up till then a bottle had never touched my lips, and my little differences with the police were the outcome of friendly religious and political fights.

I mention these few facts about myself as a proof that I was, for my age, a normal Irishman, with vague ideals, content to take life as it came, never troubling about anything practical save what the moment gave, and loyally hating the Government.

While I was taking my turn as resident clinical clerk at the hospital, a young man was brought in one morning with a temperature of 106°, a condition known as hyperpyrexia. No cause was found for his high fever at the time, though later it was discovered that he had been suffering from peritonitis, and, for some reason that I have forgotten, he was sent to the wing of the hospital that was reserved for infectious cases. I saw this patient that morning in company with the physician under whose care he was placed, but not again during the day.

As clinical clerk it was my duty to go round the wards during the night and inspect the patients, reporting to the house surgeon or the house physician if I found anything that I thought needed his attention.

About midnight came my visit to the fever wing. This was built separate from the rest of the building, and I had to go some twenty yards in the open air to get to it. The side door of the hospital, through which I left, was kept locked, and on opening it, I found that snow was falling. Turning up the collar of my jacket, I started to make a dash for my destination, when I saw coming towards me through the snow the hyperpyrexia patient who had been brought in the previous morning. He was clad—so far as my impression went, and I confess that I did not think much of how he was clad, and, of course, the light did not favour a casual glance—in the night-shirt and red flannel jacket that were used in the wards.

Stopping short, I waited for him to come up, thinking that he was walking in his sleep; and having some notion that a somnambulist should not be awakened suddenly, I stood back by one of the buttresses that supported the wall of the hospital. As I glanced round, fully expecting to see a nurse running from the fever wing in pursuit, he passed me in the direction of the side door of the hospital. No nurse was in sight, and on looking again for the patient, nobody was to be seen. The man had gone—nowhere, for I had locked the side door on leaving the hospital, on the right of the side door was an unscalable wall, and immediately opposite this side door was the morgue, the door of which was fastened with a Yale lock of which I had the key. He could not have passed back the way he had come, or I should have seen him.

Then I felt that kind of chilliness down the back which is not caused by cold, for I realized that I had come across something a trifle out of the ordinary.

“There’s no fun in snow,” said I to myself, and made a bolt for the fever wing.

On entering the ward, I saw the night-nurse sitting in a chair asleep, with a book in her lap. I went to the bed of the hyperpyrexia man, and, as I expected, found him dead, the condition of the body showing that he had died but a few minutes before. I next went to the slate on which the night nurse wrote reports of patients, and found that opposite the number of the hyperpyrexia patient’s bed, she had noted that his temperature had fallen and he was better, not more than a quarter of an hour previously.

I then went to the nurse. She woke with a start, and exclaimed, “My God, you did give me a fright. I thought Sister had come in and struck me on the mouth with a clothes-brush.”

“How is No. 19?” I asked.

“Oh, much better,” she replied, “his temperature has dropped.”

“Should you be surprised to hear that he was dead?” I answered.

She was much upset, but still she was not to blame, and as there was no more to be done, the night-porters were sent for, and the body taken to the morgue.

At 9.30 a.m. the pathologist gave demonstrations in the morgue, and by that hour bodies had to be prepared for him by the clinical clerks. This rather nauseous task fell to my share during the week, and about 2 a.m. I decided that I would get on with the preparation of the body of the hyperpyrexia man.

I own that the job had no attractions for me. I was feeling more upset by what I had seen in the snow than I would have believed possible. Up to that time I had laughed at the idea of being afraid of anything uncanny, and would have gone out of my way to meet a ghost. Besides, our morgue was not a very cheerful place. No post-mortem room that ever I came across has many pretensions to liveliness, but in addition the gas burner in our morgue was faulty, and had a way of slowly and silently allowing a jet of gas to grow up to a flare, and then cutting it off till the flame faded to a minute spark. However I would not allow to myself that I was so badly scared as not to be able to do what there was to be done, so I went down to the morgue.

I had to hold myself well together as I put the key in the lock. . . . Then with another effort I pushed the door open.

The gas had not been turned out by the porter, and by its uncertain light I saw the corpse lying on the table, covered with a sheet, with the feet towards me, and facing me, standing at the head, close against the table was the Figure of the man himself, watching.

I must have been a plucky youngster in those days, for even then, frightened as I was, I did not give in. I remember that I did not look straight at the Watcher, but kept my eyes slightly averted. I had in my mind the notion that he could not, or would, not blame me for what I was about to do to his body, if I did not know he was there, and so I pretended that I did not see him. Why I should have thought that he would be so easily deceived I cannot tell, but one has strange notions at trying times.

Strive as I would, however, I could not bring myself to go through the process of prosection in the usual way. I cannot be certain now, but I fancy I had some idea of finding if the man was really dead, and making a wound to test the matter. Still taking no notice of the Figure, I gave the table a pull, and ran it on its castors till it was quite near the gas. The Watcher at the head moved with it. Then, instead of uncovering the body from the head downwards, as I should ordinarily have done, I took hold of the sheet and threw it upwards from the feet. The Watcher at the head did not move. Then, greatly daring, I took the knife in my hand, and made as if to pierce the leg of the corpse. Instantly the Watcher made a motion with his hand, and…

I remember no more till about 9 a.m. the next morning, when the other clinical clerk came to the room and found me asleep on the floor. I think it likely that the mental strain had made me lose consciousness, but I did not feel like telling anybody about it all, and said that I had been tired and had lain down there and fallen asleep. We must have been a happy-go-lucky lot, for the fact of my having chosen the cold stone floor of the morgue as a resting place excited no particular remark from him. I caught a bad cold, and another man did the prosection, but I told nobody what had happened on that dreadful night till many a day later. 

The Occult Magazine July 1918: p. 32-35

Taking up my Relentlessly Informative syringe, the fever ward patients were dressed in red flannel jackets because red flannel was not only warm, but was believed to protect the chest and throat—it was often called “medicated flannel.” An 1861 medical journal suggests also that the toxic poison-sumac dyes in some red flannel served as “a very excellent, gentle counter-irritant,” counter-irritants being thought useful in “drawing out” disease. It obviously had no salutary effect on the patient with peritonitis.

This story will be found in my upcoming book When the Banshee Howls.

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 Funeral Coach: 1855

Funeral Carriage First Class, Eugene Atget, 1910

THE FUNERAL COACH.

“1855, March 28.—The following story was told me by Lady S., who heard it from Mr. M., a gentleman of considerable note, and one not at all given to romancing:—

“Mr. M., a well-known lawyer, went to stay with Mr.T., in the county of ___. In the course of their first evening together, Mr. M. learned that, among his host’s neighbours, was an old friend of his own, for whom he had great regard; but of whom he had lost sight since college days. The next morning Mr. M asked the gentleman of the house if he would forgive him if he walked over to see his old friend; adding a request that if he were asked to dinner, he might be allowed to accept the invitation.

“On being assured that he might do whatever was most agreeable to himself, he went to make his call—not on foot, as he had proposed, but in his friend’s dog-cart. As he anticipated, the gentleman he went to see insisted on his staying to dinner. He consented, and sent the groom back with the dog-cart, with a message to his master to say that, as it would be a fine moonlight night, he should prefer walking home. After having passed a very agreeable day with the old fellow-collegian, he bade him good-bye; and, fortified with a couple of cigars, sallied forth on his return. On his way he had to pass through the pleasant town of ___, and on coming to the church in the main street, he leaned against the iron railings of the churchyard while he struck a match and lighted his second cigar. At that moment the church clock began to strike. As he had left his watch behind him, and did not feel certain whether it were ten o’clock or eleven, he stayed to count, and to his amazement found it twelve. He was about to hurry on, and make up for lost time, when his curiosity was pricked, and the stillness of the night broken, by the sound of carriage wheels on the road, moving at a snail’s pace, and coming up the side street directly facing the spot where he was standing. The carriage proved to be a mourning-coach, which, on turning at right angles out of the street in which Mr. M. first saw it, pulled up at the door of a large red brick house. Not being used to see mourning-coaches out at such an unusual hour, and wondering to see this one returning at such a funereal pace, he thought he would stay and observe what happened. The instant the coach drew up at the house, the carriage door opened, then the street door, and then a tall man, deadly pale, in a suit of sables, descended the carriage steps, and walked into the house. The coach drove on, and Mr. M. resumed his walk. On reaching his quarters, he found the whole household in bed, with the exception of the servant, who had received orders to stay up for him.

“The next morning, at breakfast, after he had given the host and hostess an account of his doings on the previous day, he turned to the husband and asked him the name of the person who lived in the large red brick house directly opposite the churchyard. ‘Who lives in it?’ ‘Mr. P., the lawyer!’ ‘Do you know him?’ ‘Yes; but not at all intimately. We usually exchange visits of ceremony about once a year, I think.’

“Mr. M.: ‘Does any one live with him? Is he married?’ “Answer: ‘No. Two maiden sisters live with him. He is a bachelor, and likely to remain one; for, poor fellow, he is a sad invalid. If I am not mistaken, he is abroad at this moment, on account of his health.’

“Mr. M. then mentioned his motive for asking these questions. When he had told of his adventure, he proposed that, after lunch, they should drive to and call on the ladies, and see if, by their help, they could not unravel the mystery. Full of their object, they paid their visit, and after the usual interchange of commonplace platitudes, the sisters were asked if they had heard lately of their brother. They said, ‘No; not for weeks: and felt rather uneasy in consequence.’

Mr. M. surprised at not seeing them in mourning, asked them if they had not lately sustained a great loss. ‘No,’ they replied: ‘why do you ask such a question?’ ‘Oh,’ said Mr. M. ‘because of the mourning-coach I saw, with some gentleman of this family in it, returning from a funeral so late last night.’ ‘I think, Sir,’ said one of the ladies, ‘ you must have mistaken this house for some other.’ He shook his head confidently. At their request, he then told them what had happened. They said it was impossible that their street door could have been opened at that hour, for that every servant, as well as themselves, were in bed. The more the subject was canvassed, the farther they seemed from arriving at any satisfactory conclusion. The ladies, rather nettled at the obstinacy of his assertions, examined the servants, individually and collectively, but with no better result. Mr. M. and his host eventually withdrew. On their drive home, Mr. M.’s friend quizzed him, and reminded him that when he saw the apparition he had dined, and dined late, and had sat long over his friend’s old port. But Mr. M., though he submitted to the badinage good-humouredly, remained ‘of the same opinion still.’

“A week after, when Mr. M. was in his chambers in London, his friend from the country burst in upon him, and said, ‘I know you are much engaged, but I could not resist running in to tell you that the two ladies we called on last week, three or four days after our visit received a letter, telling them that their brother, “a tall, pale man,” had died at Malta, at twelve o’clock on the very night you saw the mourning-coach and the person in it at their door.’”

The Spiritual Magazine 1 October 1871

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: While Mrs Daffodil finds that the ghostly tale delivers a delightful frisson (and plans to tell it at the next All Hallow’s festivities, where it will frighten the Tweeny out of her wits…) , she is pursing her lips dubiously over the many breaches of etiquette found in this narrative. Mr. M. deserves reproach for entering a stranger’s house and posing such a delicate question, despite paving the way with conventional platitudes. His host is equally in the wrong for introducing him to the household simply in order to gratify a morbid curiosity.

The dead man is also to be censured. He might have panicked the household by his unexpected appearance so late at night. At the very least he should have sent a telegram notifying his sisters of his arrival.  One might also point out that the tall, pale gentleman properly belonged in a hearse, not in a funeral carriage, which is reserved for conveying legitimate mourners to and from the funeral and churchyard. Mrs Daffodil will reserve judgement on the dead man’s attire. It is a nice point of etiquette as to whether the corpse himself should don “sables” for his own demise.

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

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

For other stories of death-omens and tokens of death, see The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales from the Past and The Victorian Book of the Dead, both by Chris Woodyard of http://www.hauntedohiobooks.com.  Her blog also contains rather too many stories of death and the grim and grewsome for those of a sensitive disposition. Mrs Daffodil has had to forbid the Tweenie the site.

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.

Shipping Corpses and a Haunted Car: 1882, 1891

[Fake Wells-Fargo corpse-shipping tag.]

THE HAUNTED CAR

In Which a Dead Man Got Up Out of his Coffin and Vanished

From the Reno Gazette

Wells’ Fargo & Co.’s express car, No. 5, is said to be haunted. The messengers on the run between San Francisco and Ogden have been exercised over the fact for some time, and when the car was sent to Sacramento several weeks ago to be overhauled and repaired they expressed much satisfaction, and were firm in the belief that the car-builder would kill the ghost and return the car to the rail free from all demoralizing influence. In this they were disappointed, for the messenger who left San Francisco  Tuesday night was visited by the unseen power and put to a deal of trouble. The ghost came in and tumbled the boxes of freight about, tolled bells, and made sweet music, and called the messenger by name. The last trip the car made before it was taken from the track, the messenger heard strange noises on the roof. His thoughts were on his duty, and he came to the conclusion that robbers were waiting an opportunity for entering the car. He cautiously opened the door and took a look at both ends, but found everything quiet. He could see nothing unusual and returned, closed the door and was walking back to the mailing-table when down came a box of cooked shrimps and a band-box. The freight was ranted about and finally left in the same place. The mysterious din was indulged in  until the train was nearing Terrace Station, in the eastern part of the State, and the messenger had about made up his mind to take to the sage-brush, when all was still again.

On one occasion when they had a corpse in transit, the head and trunk of a man’s body was seen to rise up from the casket, take a good look around the car, calling the messenger by name, and then vanish. The car was in the train several years ago when an accident occurred just west of Truckee, killing Conductor Marshall and an express messenger, and since that time these mysterious noises have been frequent, much to the discomfiture of the occupants. The express boys say car No. 5 is known to all the company’s employes, and they all tell the same story for the truth.

Daily Inter Ocean [Chicago, IL] 28 February 1882: p. 9

Wells-Fargo was well-known for shipping corpses. Tuberculosis, known as consumption, was usually a death sentence before antibiotics. The dry air and sunshine of the western United States was said to be beneficial for sufferers, who were sent west, hopefully to recover, but more often to die. This express company found an ingenious and heartless way to exploit the deaths of consumption patients under the guise of reuniting loved ones.

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

[St. Louis Globe-Democrat.]

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

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

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 9 August 1891: p. 20

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.

Dead Man Cycling: 1899

Since we are nothing if not topical here, I thought I ought to do something in honor of the Olympics. Even thought it is an Olympic sport, I find watching cycling a tedious pastime, frequently dropping into a coma easily mistaken for death while viewing the surging masses of spandex. But devotees are fanatical about the sport. In this astonishing story, one man crossed the finish line as a corpse.

DEAD MAN WINS CYCLE RACE

Victor in an Australian Contest Goes Under the Tape a Winner.

Vancouver, B.C., Feb. 25. Australian advices by the steamship Miowera tell of a remarkable bicycle race in Sydney, which was won by a dead man.

It occurred at a big electric light carnival. In a one-mile race there were 50 entries, some of the fastest men in Australia taking part in it. While 10,000 people watched this particular race, which was for a magnificent cup, young James Somerville passed under the tape a winner, though dead.

At the start he quickly forged ahead, closely followed by another crack rider named Percy Cliff. They left 48 riders away in the rear and shot around the track almost wheel to wheel. When within 25 yards of the tape Somerville, who still led by half a wheel, was seen to relax his hold on the handlebars. His pedals whirled around, however, and he pluckily held his position. Five yards from the tape Cliff put on a tremendous spurt and struck Somerville’s hind wheel, shooting the machine with its then almost inanimate burden, like a rocket under the tape.

The crowd yelled wildly, but silence ensued when Somerville, after crossing the tape, plunged head foremost from the machine. When picked up he was dead. Physicians who examined his body said he must have had an attack of heart failure on the last lap. Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 25 February 1899: p. 1

A thrilling narrative, indeed!  But who was this plucky post-mortem winner?

OBITUARY MR JAMES SUMERVILLE AETAT 23

The friends of the above-named well-known cyclist will regret to learn that he died in Sydney Hospital at about six o’clock this evening. It may be remembered that at the electric light bicycle race held on the Sydney Cricket Ground on Thursday last deceased fell while riding for the Trustees’ Gift and sustained fracture of the skull. He was taken to the hospital and at first, according to the newspaper reports, hopes were entertained that he would recover; but these proved illusive and he never regained consciousness, but died as stated above.

Deceased was a very respectable, well-conducted young man, much liked by those who knew him. He was second son of Mr. J. Somerville of Yarra, and until recently he assisted his father and brothers in carrying on farming. Lately however he became enamoured of cycling and devoted much attention to it. In his career as a cyclist he was fairly successful, having last year won two races at Braidwood and one at Cootamundra, and about four months ago he was first in a local road race from Tarago to Goalburn.

He was single and leaves a father, mother, and three brothers to mourn their loss.

The body will be brought to Goulburn by mail train to-morrow morning, and the funeral will leave Mr. Wiseman’s Auburn-street, at five pm., for the Presbyterian cemetery, North Goulburn. Cyclists are by advertisement requested to attend. Goulburn Herald [NSW] 23 January 1899: p. 3

An inquest was held a few days later, giving an affecting description of his funeral and some unexpected details.

The Inquest on Somerville.

The inquest was on Tuesday resumed on the body of James Somerville, the Goulburn cyclist, who was fatally injured whilst riding in a race at the electric light cycling carnival at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Thursday night. A number of witnesses were called to show that the ground was well lighted during the progress of the race in question, and the track was in good order. Senior-constable Pearse, who was stationed within the enclosure, stated that the riders were in a bunch until within 150 yards of the wining post, when they spread out. He saw two men fall near the fence, and went to their assistance. In the casualty room he asked deceased how it happened, and he replied, “I know nothing about it.” Joseph Cliff, cycle mechanic, Waterloo, who fell with Somerville, said that in the rush for the finish he was three yards behind him, and another man was an equal distance ahead. He saw him suddenly fall, but did not notice the machine strike the fence. Henry Johnston, who was a spectator of the race in the public reserve, stated that he saw deceased fall a few feet away from where he was leaning over the fence. In falling deceased struck witness on the arm. He thought Somerville’s machine must have struck the back wheel of a bicycle in front of him. Fred Rathgen, who was present at the carnival in the capacity of referee, said that he was standing close to the scene of the fall. Deceased was on the outside of the bunch, and nearest the fence. The front wheel of his bicycle must have struck another bicycle, as it turned it completely round, and brought the machine to a standstill, throwing deceased off. He struck the track with his head, and lay there bleeding and motionless. The jury, without retiring, found that death resulted from injuries accidentally received. The funeral took place in Goulburn on Tuesday afternoon. A large number of cyclists took part, walking in procession in front of the hearse in couples, with their bicycles on the inner side. Before the cemetery was reached the wheelmen numbered over seventy, and the procession had a very imposing effect. Following the hearse were the mourning coaches, a large number of other vehicles, and horsemen. The hearse was draped in the riding colours of the deceased. The remains were interred in the Presbyterian cemetery. The Rev. Stanley Best, assistant minister of St. Saviour’s Cathedral parish, officiated at the grave, and in the course of a brief address said that it was a beautiful sight to see so many of the deceased’s fellow cyclists attending the funeral. Handsome wreaths had been sent by the local and metropolitan branches of the League of Wheelmen and by the promoters of the electric light cycle meetings. Mr. R. Sidney Craig conducted the obsequies. General sorrow is expressed at the untimely end of so promising a young man. Goulburn Evening Penny Post [NSW] 26 January 1899: p. 4

Wait—he spoke? He was injured on Thursday and died on Friday? But what about the exciting narrative of young Somerville crossing the finish line as the winner, lifted off his bicycle a corpse?

Alas, for the world of strange deaths, this fanciful tale had more revolutions than a peloton.

Usually a tragic event needs to fade at least slightly into the mists of history before becoming distorted, but Somerville—the man, the myth, the legend—began his victory lap almost immediately.

He died on the 23 of January 1899 and a month later, the story heading this post appeared in the Michigan paper. In April, not even three months after the tragedy, the local paper was commenting on the far-flung variants of the story and even they had their facts wrong with “died some days after.”

English Fancies and Australian Facts.

It has often been a puzzle to understand where English journals get their Australian news from. Some of it is fearfully and wonderfully mangled during the process of transposition form the columns of the Australian to those of the English press. He is a paragraph in point, taken from the “British Weekly,” one of the most respectable of English religious weeklies, which has a large circulation in these colonies:

A bicycle race was won by a dead man at Sydney a few days ago. When James Somerville, a champion Australian bicyclist, was within 25 yards of the winning post, he released his hold of the handles, and his head dropped forward, but he apparently continued to work the pedals, and came in the winner. He was lifted from his bicycle, and was found to be dead. The doctors said he died during the last lap.” The facts of the unfortunate case, it will be remembered, are that James Somerville was thrown from his machine while racing on the Sydney Cricket Ground, and died some days after from the injuries received. Goulburn Evening Penny Post [NSW] 8 April 1899: p. 4

This story whirled round the world nearly as fast as the bicycle of the unfortunate Somerville. In a discussion of long-distance cycle racing the tale was commented upon with an even stranger assertion about the story having its origins in a fictional yarn in a cycling magazine.

Thus an English contemporary: Those of us who’ve done long distances know that it is quite possible to drop into a semi-sleep and yet keep on pedalling. But it is news that a man may be dead and yet ride a bicycle.

The latest tall tale arrives from Australia. A telegram tells how James Somerville, a champion rider, came to his death suddenly. It was during a race, when within 25 yards of the winning post, he released his hold of the handles and his head dropped forward. But he worked the pedals for all he was worth, and came in the winner. He was dead; the doctors said he died in the last lap. Who was James Somerville, anyhow? A “prize tale” in a cycling contemporary a few months ago had this incident as its foundation, and the name of the hero thereof was James Somerville The Ballarat Star [Vic.] 6 May 1899: p. 6

Much in the same way that some continue to insist that Victorians photographed their dead standing, held miraculously upright by a mere posing stand, this story had wheels, running on for years after Somerville’s death. What is strangest of all is to find the dead-man-winning tale repeated in Australian papers in 1899, where, you would think, the actual story might have been known.

One of the latest versions was published in 1925. The story was freshened by a preface reading, “It is not long since a valuable cup was won in a bicycle race at Sydney by a man who was actually dead when his bicycle flashed past the winning post.” [Dallas [TX] Morning News 9 August 1925: p. 1] The story was also repeated as true in the Evening Star (Washington DC) 27 February 1949: p. 56 in one of those features about “quaint stories from the past.” Even today you can find dozens of sites where James Somerville’s post-mortem victory is celebrated. Lore, we must admit, is stronger than death.

Was there actually a fictional story in a cycling magazine where this legend got its start? Or is that just another part of the Somerville legend? No valuable cup for guessing. chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

See this story from The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales from the Past, at Mrs Daffodil’s blog. It is dated 1892; could it have been the inspiration for the cycling dead man?

Undine of Strange Company writes in with a chilling parallel from the world of horse racing. Thanks, Undine!

Your post about “Dead Man Cycling” reminded me of this memorable finish from the world of horse racing. (Lewiston Sun, June 5, 1923)

Y

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.