She Paid the Bill: 1900

white hearse with ponies

She Paid the Bill.

“No, I haven’t any news of importance for you,” said M. J. Cullen, the undertaker, “but I can tell you a mighty nice little story, the truth of which my books will verify. It is about the noble action of a little girl who came to me about fifteen years ago. She was then about twelve years of age, and despite the fact that her outward appearance suggested parental negligence, she appeared to have a noble and honest heart. It was about seven o’clock of a cold July evening when she walked into my office almost frozen and crying bitterly. She asked to see me, and when I made myself known she stopped crying and told me a very pitiful story, that would soften the heart in the coldest of persons.

She said she lived near my stable; that her father was a drunkard and her mother was dead. She and a little brother seven years of age, of whom she thought the world, were cared for by the neighbours when the father was on a spree, and despite the father’s misconduct the little girl could not be induced to leave him. She kept the house and prepared the meals. She bore her lot philosophically and tried to be happy, but her whole peace of mind was almost wrecked when after about two weeks’ sickness her little brother died. He was her pet, and the two were much attached to one another.

She again burst into tears, and between heavy sobs she said that on account of her father’s evil ways there was no money in the house, and she did not know how her little brother could be buried. She had been told that the city would bury the remains, but when she looked into the manner in which such a burial would be performed—that the coffin would be a plain pine box and that instead of a hearse a waggon would take him to the cemetery she became almost frantic, and would not allow it. She then pleaded with me to bury her brother. She wanted him to have a white coffin, a white hearse, with white horses, and his remains to be taken to the cemetery. Crying bitterly, she said, ‘I will give you my word of honor to pay you as soon as I get the money.’

I was much touched by the story, and went to the home of the child and there learned the truth of her statement. The dead boy was laid on the bed, which was neatly made up by the little girl. I immediately took charge of the funeral, and complied with the every wish of the child; I never expected pay, and, although I thought of the story for some time after, I never expected to see the child again.

Not long since, while seated in my office, a handsome, well-dressed young lady entered, and, addressing me by name, called me aside. She asked me if I remembered her, and I was compelled to acknowledge my ignorance. Imagine my surprise when she told me of a little ragged child of fifteen years ago. ‘I am that little girl,’ she said, ‘and I have come, according to promise, on my word of honor to pay you the bill.’ ‘I looked over the books and found the account, and she paid it. She was married well, and her husband is a prominent and prosperous business man.”

Pauper burials and the interment of the dead in large cities, Frederick Ludwig Hoffman, 1919

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: For the poor, a pauper’s burial in Potter’s Field was as much to be shunned as going to the Workhouse. We have seen how unfortunates beggared themselves providing “decent” funerals for their loved ones and paid sums they could ill-afford into burial clubs, the resulting insurance money covering perhaps only part of the costs of a proper burial.

Here is what Mr. Wild, an undertaker, testifying about conditions in the London slums, says about the disbursement of those funds:

In benefit societies and burial clubs there is generally a certain sum set aside for the burial, which sum is, I consider, frequently most extravagantly expended. This arises from the secretary, or some other officer of the club being an undertaker. When a death takes place the club money is not paid directly: it is usually paid on the club or quarterly night following. The member dying seldom leaves any money beyond the provision in his club to bury him, consequently the widow or nominee makes application to the secretary, who tells her that he cannot give any money to purchase mourning for herself and family until the committee meets; this may be three months after the death; but, says the secretary, “give me the funeral, I will advance you a few pounds upon my own account;” so that the widow is obliged to submit to any charge he may think fit to make. I do not mean to be understood that this is always the case—I am sorry to say it is of frequent occurrence.

Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Classes, Edwin Chadwick, 1843

Decades later, the fleecing of the bereaved poor continued:

The following is typical of what happens almost every day. A father of four children, who was insured for £7 died. The widow informed an undertaker who called at the house that she was unable to make the funeral arrangements until she had received the money. ‘Do not let that trouble you,’ said the man. You can pay when convenient.’

“The widow is still wondering how the cost of the funeral amounted to exactly £7. The secret is that the insurance agent communicated the news of the death and the amount of the policy to the undertaker, at the same time drawing the usual commission for his trouble.

“When the woman returned from the ceremony she had not a penny left in the world, and for long her children have been pinched with the want of food. How long shall these men be allowed to fleece the poor in life and rob them in death?”

Star 28 October 1905: p. 4

The young lady who found a kindly undertaker to trust her for his fees was fortunate indeed!

For other stories of undertakers and mortuary mishaps, Mrs Daffodil is pleased to recommend The Victorian Book of the Dead.  See also this previous post on the funeral arrangements for the son of a poor widow.

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 Corpse Stiffed the Barber: 1892

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

HE DIED IN THE CHAIR

And Got Very Much the Best of the Barber.

Wanted a Funeral Shave, and Went For It Himself.

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

[San Francisco Call.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, the stranger never answered a word.

“Shampoo, sir?’ I says.

“He never let on he heard me.

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

“No answer.

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

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

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

“But he never budged.

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

“’Rise up, please,’ I said.

“But he didn’t rise for a cent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Fiends for a Funeral: The Amateur Mourners

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

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

FASCINATED BY FUNERALS

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

[New York Sun.]

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

The reporter saw her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AT MANY FUNERALS

When Arrested She Wails Some More and Borrows From Judge.

LIVED OFF HER TEARS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hearse Verses: Valentines for Undertakers: 19th century

vinegar valentine coffin maker

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

Valentine

To an Undertaker

I am a mantua-maker,

You are an undertaker

Whom much I do regard

Because you are a grave one,

And I’m sure won’t leave one

‘Til laid in the churchyard.

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

 

From an Undertaker to his Valentine.

Be to thine Undertaker kind,

And have him always in your mind;

Hid undertakings are profound,

And plumes have rendered him renown’d.

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

 

TO AN UNDERTAKER.

To mournful strains I tune my lute,

Because to me the subject’s grave,

Too long ador’d thee, love, I have,

I can no longer be a mute.

 

If towards the ocean of my love

Rolleth thy fond Affection’s billow,

Send me a sprig of weeping willow,

Or cypress-wreath, thy truth to prove.

 

Reject me—and my fate is this:

Off life the fragile twig I hop,

And off, instanter, neck and crop,

I go to the neck-crop-olis!

 

In the serenest of snug corners,

I prithee, love, inter me then—

Plain walking funeral—(two-pound ten)

With return tickets for the mourners.

 

To Kensal Green I most incline—

There spend a half-a-crown a year,

In keeping turf’d the early bier

Of thy departed Valentine.

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

 

“Let Chloe smile upon her lover,

Who will ne’er forsake her;

Each day new charms she will discover,

In her faithful undertaker.”

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

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

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

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

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

Dead Faces Change: 1886

young smiling woman post mortem.JPG

DEAD FACES CHANGE

The Experiences of Undertakers.

Smiling in Her Coffin

Mother Yearnings Gratified in the Life Beyond

A Corpse That Blushed

Ghastly Scenes

[New York Mercury.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Dressing the Hair of the Dead: 1888

dressing the hair The manual on Barbering 1906

DRESSING THE HAIR OF THE DEAD.

A Professional Talks About Her Uncanny Occupation.

‘I was only 12 years old,’ said a prominent lady hair-dresser of this city, ‘when I was called on by the friends of an old lady who had died to come and dress her hair.’

‘And did you go?’

‘No; I ran and hid myself under a bed and stayed there a whole afternoon. Although I loved her and had often dressed her hair when she was alive, I could not bear the idea of doing it after death. But I have done many heads since for dead persons, and, while I do not like it, I have a professional pride in making them look well for the last time.’

‘It must be very distasteful to you.’ ‘

‘Not always. It comes in the way of my business, and naturally my employees shrink from going. Sometimes we have a call through the telephone to come to such a number and dress a lady’s hair. One of the young ladies will be sent with curling irons, pomades, hair-pins and other things, only to find that the lady is a corpse. The girl will not nor cannot undertake it, and I go myself. There is only the front hair to crimp and arrange becomingly. One day last week I dressed Mrs __’s hair for the last time. She was young and very pretty, and looked as if asleep. The hair does not die, so that it is easily arranged. When it is a wig or crimped I have it sent to the store, and when it is dressed, take it to the house and put it on. Let me tell you something that happened lately. A lady died in this city who wore a grey wig. I dressed it and put it on. You can just think how surprised I was when, a couple of weeks later, a member of the family came in here and tried to sell it to me. She said they had taken it off just before the casket was closed for the last time.’

‘And did you buy it?’

‘Buy it? Certainly not. It is not very long since a man came in and offered me a number of switches of different shades and colour. I would not buy them, and sent for a policeman, as I thought he had probably stolen them. But as it turned out, they came from an undertaker’s and were the unclaimed property of strangers who had been given pauper burial.’

‘Is it customary to dress the hair of the dead?’

‘It is. I have some customers who have exacted a solemn promise from me that I will dress their hair when they die and make it look natural and becoming. I have even been sent for by those who had only a few hours to live and taken my instructions from their dying lips.’

‘Is the process the same as with the living?’

‘Just the same, except that I do not arrange the back hair in all cases. But sometimes the hair is dressed entirely, just as it would be for an evening party. And I frequently furnish new switches, crimps, or bangs, at the request of relatives who want no pains spared.’

‘And are you not afraid?’

Madame shrugged her handsome shoulders.

‘It is a lonesome task,’ she said, ‘and it certainly does make me nervous. Once the corpse opened her eyes and looked at me as a lady who was holding a lamp went out of the room in a moment, leaving me with a lock of hair in the crimping-pins. A gust of wind blew the door after her, and I was in the dark alone with the dead women. I think if she had not opened the door just at the moment she did I should have fallen insensible,’—

Detroit [MI] Free Press 1 January 1888: p. 4

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil does not have a high opinion of either the intelligence or the moral scruples of the repellent relatives who offered to sell the dead lady’s wig to the hairdresser. They might at least have dyed it so that it was less recognizable, or, more sensibly, taken it to a different coiffeuse, if they needed to offset funeral expenses.

Wigs and chignons for the living were, however, often made of what was termed “dead hair,” or hair cut from corpses. These corpses might be unfortunates from the Workhouse or paupers destined for Potter’s Field; working girls of the streets, murderers or their victims.  If not a black market, it was certainly sub-fusc.  Medical men issued stern warnings about the diseases and insects that might be found in “dead hair,” and argued for prohibiting any hair except that from the living in hair-pieces. These warnings were widely ignored. In 1911, for example, hair from Chinese who died in the Manchurian plague, was being imported by Germany and England without so much as a murmur from the trade authorities.

For more mortuary professions for ladies, please see this link, and this, about a lady undertaker. You will find more information on the popular and material culture of Victorian mourning in The Victorian Book of the Dead, by Chris Woodyard and under the “Mourning” tab on this blog.

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 Stiff Drink

death with drinkers

Inspired by the story of a woman taking her dead husband on a “rolling wake” Alaskan road-trip, preserved in ice from the local fisheries, I present some vintage fizz about stiff iced drinks.

Took the Ice Off a Corpse.

Charlotte, N.C., June 13. The guests of the Phoenix hotel at Winston, rose in revolt against George W. Kittelle, the proprietor of the hotel, a few evenings ago, because they learned that the ice used in their iced tea and other cool drinks had been first utilized in cooling a corpse. The result is that Kittelle’s troubles multiplied, and the news has just come of his assignment. It was claimed that a rubber sheet was between the ice and the body, and that the cooling material was not therefore injured in any way, but was as pure as ever. The guests could not see it that way, however. The corpse in question was known in life as Charles Johnson. Daily Illinois State Journal [Springfield, IL] 14 June 1895: p. 1.

We might assume that this was just a tasteless joke (although the hotel and the man are real) but there was apparently a certain amount of laxness in this area. I’ve seen several references in the medical literature to the following practice:

As an illustration are cited cases in which the ice used to preserve bodies dead from contagious disease was emptied out on the public street…. Medical Record 1891: p. 263 

No doubt for the children playing in the streets to pick up and suck.

And here’s a poem with a twist. Memorize it! recite it at parties! I guarantee you’ll have your audience shaken and stirred.

A Stiff Drink.

One reason I stopped drinking.

Said the man from Lafayette,

Is no matter what you call for

You can’t tell what you get.

It was in July of ninety-four.

While traveling in the West,

I witnessed what I’ll not forget

‘Till I am laid to rest.

 

The run was long and tiresome,

The scenery not sublime.

So a game of cards was started,

Just to pass away the time.

The players, four in number.

Were traveling men, I think;

Two sold liquor, one cigars,

And one sold printers’ ink.

 

Across the aisle a stranger sat

Who hadn’t much to say.

He smoked when the cigars were passed

And calmly watched the play.

“Tell you what,” said the liquor man:

“In my case I’ve something nice.

We’d have a most delicious drink

If I only had some ice.”

 

“I’ll get the ice,” the stranger said

And he started for the door.

He soon returned with a basketful

And placed it on the floor;

The drummer then mixed up a drink,

And I tell you it was fine.

It made us all quite sociable

And the stranger was right in line.

 

Several trips the stranger made

And of as many drinks had a share.

He finally came with a basket full

And said it was all he could spare.

“It’s just like this” the stranger said,

And his voice was low and deep;

“I’ve got a corpse in the baggage car.

And I’m afraid the thing won’t keep.”

H. W. Sparks.

The Globe-Republican [Dodge City, KS] 5 March 1896: p. 3

Can anybody top these stories of stiff drinks? Pour it on: chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Thanks to Michael Robinson for the Alaskan story.

For chilling stories of the perils of undertakers with ice-boxes, see this post.

Brian C. sent some variants of the “corpse on ice” theme and a cautionary tale for travellers.

Here are some variants of “The Corpse in The Cask/Tapping the Admiral” that are related to “A Stiff Drink.”

Graham Seal, Great Australian Urban Myths, rev. ed. (Sydney: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 72.

One hot day in the desert the passengers on the Meekatharra Mail were relieved by the kindness of the guard bringing everyone a drink of ice water. As the day got hotter and the air drier, the passengers continued to quench their thirst with glasses of ice water provided by the guard. But after a few hours, the welcome chilled fluid stopped coming. As the guard passed along the passageway on his duties, a thirsty passenger inquired why the ice water had dried up.

‘Sorry,’ replied the guard, ‘I thought we’d better not drink any more – the body’s beginning to show through the ice.’

The Railroad Gazette. New York, 8 Sept 1882, p. 555. Quoted in B.A. Botkin & Alvin F. Harlow, eds., A Treasury of Railroad Folklore (New York: Bonanza Books, 1953), p. 431.

Where He Got the Ice

There was a party of gentlemen the other day on a train on one of the roads coming into Nashville, and none of the party being strictly temperance men, one of the crowd suggested a drink. Another wanted to know where to get it. All seemed willing, but the day was warm, very warm. At last the fourth man in the party said he had a bottle of fine “cock-tail,” which he would furnish if anybody could get ice. A fellow passenger remarked that he would do that if they would share with him. He left the car and came back with plenty, which was duly used. As a matter of course, in a short time another drink was proposed and the ice man kindly requested to furnish that necessary article to a cocktail, but with his mouth watering for a drink and every look one of longing, he said: “Gentlemen, I want the drink, and I could furnish the ice, but I am afraid if I take any more off the corpse it will spoil.”

Bennett Cerf, Try and Stop Me (1944). In Bennett Cerf’s Bumper Crop, vol. 1 (Garden City: Garden City Books, n.d.), p. 536.

My friend swears that he is the hero of the story of the four chance acquaintances who launched a bridge game on a mid-summer run of the Empire State Limited. They ordered frequent rounds of drinks, but finally the steward reported that the ice had run out. “I think I know where I can get some,” volunteered my friend, and supplied the party until the train was well past Schenectady. “I’m afraid this is the last pitcherful,” he said then. “If I take one more cube of ice, the body won’t keep till Buffalo.”

http://expressbuzz.com/news/deleterious-temptations/162152.html [URL no longer valid]

Express Buzz [India] | 3 April 2010

 Deleterious temptations?

Lisa Mahaptra

[…] Says Poonam Bachhav, microbiologist and chief of the water testing lab at the Institute of Health Systems, “We have tested a lot of samples of water taken from various street food vendors from around the city, and 80% of the time we discover that the water is unsuitable for drinking.” And then there’s ice. Stories that the ice used by street food vendors comes from the morgue might be more urban legend than fact, but the reality isn’t all that much of a step up. Ice is usually manufactured in locations many of which are at quite a distance from the city. So even if one ignores that few ice manufacturers follow all the rules and regulations set by the health ministry, the fact remains that the ice is transported in filthy conditions only to arrive at a store where it is just lying on the grimy floor, covered in rice husk, what appears to be sawdust, and what not. “We haven’t received many samples of ice for testing, but of those that we have received, most are unwholesome”, says Poonam Bachhav. “I think it is very unadvisable to eat or drink anything served by street vendors.” […]

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.