The Irish at the Gates of Death: 1917

Irish bog oak mourning brooch, c. 1860, Victoria & Albert Museum

THE IRISH AT THE GATES OF DEATH

In Ireland the living are dominated by the dead to an extent unknown probably in other countries. It is a willing servitude, based upon two powerful sentiments—the constancy of Irish family affection, and their Catholic solicitude for the eternal welfare of those they love whose mortal existence has been brought to an end. Death, as the extinction of-life, as a farewell for ever to the warm^ precincts of the cheerful day, is not regarded as a matter of very great importance. No race faces death, whether on the battlefield or anywhere else, with more unconcern than the Irish, or, when lying on the bed of sickness, accepts with more resignation the doctor’s pronouncement that there is no hope. They can pass into the eternal silence with a joke on their lips. I have heard a story of a dying Irishman who, when asked by the priest, in the course of the administration of the last religious rites, whether he was prepared to renounce the devil and all his works, exclaimed, “Oh, don’t ask me to do that, your reverence. I am going to a strange country and I don’t want to make myself enemies.”

If there is any concern in the mind of the dying, it arises from some uncertainty as to what may happen in that strange country, the other world. This feeling finds expression in the quaintest and most wayward fancies. Canon Sheehan, the author of Luke Deimage, and other novels of Irish life, who was a parish priest in county Cork, relates that an old farmer after receiving the last sacrament of extreme unction said to the priest: “I want you to say a word to rise me heart for me long journey, your reverence. Will the Man above have anything agin me in His books?” This dread simile was prompted by sad experiences of the land agent’s office, arrears of rent and the fear of being thrown out of house and home. “I’m sure,” replied the priest, “Almighty God has pardoned you. You have made a good confession, and your life has been a holy and a pure one.” “And did your reverence give me a clear resate?” asked the old farmer. Here was the land agent’s office again.  “I’ve given you absolution, my poor man,” said the priest. The dying man was satisfied. Thanks, your reverence,” were his last words. Another story I have been told shows the droll forms which the same thought assumes in the minds of relations. A farmer who was dying had occasional fits of coma, or profound torpor. The doctor advised the wife, when one of those attacks came on, just to moisten the lips of the patient with a little brandy. “Doctor, dear,” cried the poor wife, with reproach in her voice, “is it to go into the presence of his Maker with the smell of spirits in his breath you’d be havin’ him?”

It is to the family that the visitation of death brings terrors and obligations. At first it has a crushing and stupefying _ effect by reason of the void it makes in the domestic circle, and, afterwards, it entails a lasting devotion to the memory of the loved one who has passed away. So long as a member of the family lives, the dead, in a sense, never dies in Ireland. They survive in the prayers that are said for them, morning and night, in the Mass on each anniversary of their death, in the weeping and wailing over their graves, years upon years after they have been laid to rest. You rarely if ever hear among the peasantry the expression “dead and gone.” Death is simply a passage from one life to another. What you do hear is, “She’s in Heaven,” “God sent for her,” or “He’s with God,” telling of the life of the dead hereafter, of their eternal companionship with angels and saints.

The custom of “waking” the dead, with the drinking, smoking, and conversation of the large company of neighbours who assemble in the house of mourning, appears incongruous and repulsive to those who are unacquainted with its remote origin or the kindly and humane motives which underlie it. The wake is a very old institution. It existed among the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans. Shakespeare and Scott give instances of medieval revels in honour of the dead. The custom survives in a different form, but with somewhat identical motives, among the Irish, almost alone of the ancient peoples.

“Waking” means, for one thing, “watching.” The English way of leaving the corpse shut up in a room, all alone, would be most repellent to the Irish nature. It would be regarded as a desertion of the dead. The Irish keep close company with their dead until the very last moment of the burial. The body is clothed in a shroud, made in imitation of the habits worn by certain Orders of Friars, and in the hands, crossed reverently on the breast, is placed a crucifix. The walls near the bed are hung with clean white sheets on which are pinned bunches of flowers, laurel leaves and holy pictures. Lighted candles, seven in number, are placed on a table. They are symbolical of hopes and aspirations relating to the dead. That he or she has been cleansed of the seven deadly sins—pride, covetousness, lust, gluttony, anger, envy, and sloth ; that he or she possessed the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost—wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord, and the seven principal virtues—faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, and that the relatives joined their sorrow with the seven dolours of Our Blessed Lady—the prophecy of Simeon that a sword of sorrow should pierce her soul; the flight into- Egypt; the loss of Jesus in the Temple ; meeting Jesus with His Cross ; the standing beneath His Cross; the receiving the Body of Jesus; and the burial of Jesus. The room is frequently sprinkled with holy water to banish any evil spirits that may be hovering round. All this is in part a survival of the public lying-in-state of the bodies of great personages, a ceremonial that, once rather common in Ireland, is now reserved for ecclesiastical dignitaries and national heroes.

The Irish people are at all times addicted to companionship, to association with their fellows, and the desire for it is strongest perhaps when death has visited them nearly. We know that we are mortal and ephemeral; that nothing is more certain than that death will come. Every day almost we are reminded that death is the common fate of all in reading our newspapers and meeting with funerals in the streets. Yet there is always an element of the terrible and incomprehensible in the sight of one that is near and dear to us, one, as we know from long experience, capable of the most loving thoughts and deeds in our regard, lying there inert, deaf to familiar voices, unconscious for ever of the joys and tenderness of domestic life. A chill runs down one’s spine, as though the icy coldness of death emanated from the remains and penetrated subtly into one’s frame, and we seek for consolation and support in the sociability of the living. And the neighbours, ever quick in showing sympathy, crowd in to ease the sting of death, to cheer up the spirits of the bereaved, to distract them for a while from the crushing thought of their irreparable loss.

First entering the room where1 the corpse lies the visitors kneel and say a prayer for the eternal salvation of the departed soul. Afterwards in the kitchen, snuff, pipes and tobacco, whisky and stout are served to the company. The dead person is in his house for the last time, and, as host for the last time, dispenses hospitality. What he would do, but can do no longer, those who love him best do for him. Memories of his kindliness and good nature are revived by the neighbours. “’Tis he that had the bright smile and cheery word whenever you met him, and no matter what you might want of him, sure you had only to say the word to get it with a heart and a half.” Stories are told by the elders, and politics discussed; forfeits may be played by the young of both sexes, or, more likely, riddles given for solution. But the Irish are most reverent in the presence of sorrow and nothing unseemly is permitted in these efforts to give relief to the relatives from cares that weigh heavily on their spirits. Manifestations of grief are not entirely suppressed, but they are confined to the chamber of death. In some parts of Ireland it is believed that the soul of the dead person is detained on earth by tears and lamentations, and that not until the sorrow of the relations is appeased can it turn contentedly to face the eternal judgment. To a young widow who was sobbing by the death-bed of her husband, I heard the remonstrance addressed—”Don’t be crying that way, asthore; or you’ll keep him from his rest.”

Here and there throughout the country where waking has been abused by excessive indulgence in drink, the authorities of the Catholic Church have tried to abolish it altogether. It is therefore not so common as it used to be, especially in the towns and the larger villages. Religious services have been substituted for the ancient observances. The body is removed from the house to the parish church, where it remains for the night in its coffin resting on a bier near to the high Altar ; and in the morning the Mass for the Dead is said before its removal for interment. There could hardly be a more notable example of the influence of the Church. The Irish are slow to adopt new ideas. They are among the most conservative people in the world in their adhesion to traditional habits and customs. Especially do they resent any innovation which touches their dead. It is their deep and reverential respect for the Church, rather than their instinct as to what is right and proper, that induces them to part from their dead for a night. They bow their heads in submission, but so heavy lies the immemorial past upon them that in their hearts they doubt whether in doing so they are quite loyal to their dead.

In the case of the keen (Gaelic caoine) or funeral lamentation— one of the eeriest death chants to be heard from the crushed heart of sorrowing humanity—the Irish also adhere to a custom held sacred by their remotest ancestors. It has come down to us from the Pagan era. Walker, in his Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards, says the object originally was to propitiate the gods by proclaiming the genealogy, rank, possessions and virtues of the dead person. Spirits whose requiem was not thus sung were liable to be condemned eternally to a state of unrest. Geraldus Cambrensis, the Welsh writer who visited Ireland in the twelfth century, describes this funeral song or wail as it was practised in Christian times. Its purpose then was to sound the praises of the dead without regard to any supernatural or religious motive. The keeners, in the course of their chanting, put a number of questions, as if with a view to discovering why it was the person lamented had died. If a man, whether his wife was faithful to him, his sons dutiful, or good hunters or warriors? If a woman, whether her daughters were fair or chaste? If a young man, whether he had been crossed in love, or if the blue-eyed maidens had treated him with scorn? The keen of the twentieth century differs very little in form or spirit from the keen of the twelfth century. The cries of lamentation usually take the form of questions which are asked in a half-singing, half-reciting and sobbing voice. “Mo cushla machree (pulse of my heart), why did you die from me? Wasn’t it you that was the best of husbands and fathers, giving joy to all that knew you, and wouldn’t those that love you go through fire and water to save a hair of your head from being hurt?” The piercing wail of a mother for a favourite son is most heartrending to hear.

“Ah, Michael, me ville astore (my ten thousand treasures), sure your like was not to be found on all the broad acres of Ireland, and your death has cast a shadow on the country that no sun will ever disperse.” In towns the keen is cried in the room where the corpse is being waked before the start of the funeral. In rural districts, where the journey to the graveyard is often long, the keen breaks out at intervals, and then the whole countryside rings with the weirdest lamentation.

To have “a grand buryin’ with all the neighbours at it” is the last thing the Irish peasant desires of this world. A farmer who married a penniless girl was asked why he made so poor a match. “My wife,” he answered, “has thirty brothers, uncles and cousins, and if I was to die to-morrow her faction could give me as long a funeral as the King of England.” It is an object of solicitude long before the end is felt approaching. During a visit to the remote parts of Donegal I was told so great was the difficulty of getting a coffin made that many people gave the only carpenter in the district sheaves of oats or a sack of potatoes annually by way of a retaining fee for this service when they died. I remember a curious case that came for decision before a bench of magistrates in my native city of Limerick. An undertaker was asked by an old maid to make her coffin, and his proposal “to complete the job” for £4 was thought by her to be reasonable enough. When the coffin was finished the undertaker brought it to the woman’s house and received £2 as part payment; but being unable to obtain the balance he was reluctantly obliged to summon her. The defence set up by the woman was that the undertaker was not only to supply the coffin, but bury her respectable for the £4, and as he had not yet fulfilled the latter part of the agreement she submitted that he was not entitled to be paid the remaining £2. The case, which caused much laughter in court, was dismissed. Then the old maid turned to the undertaker and said, “As soon as you perform your part of the contract, I’ll not be behindhand in completing mine.” Wandering beggars, lone creatures who have no one belonging to them, who tramp the countryside for a living, carrying all their worldly goods on their back, are known to stint themselves of food in order to add an odd penny or sixpence, now and then, to the sum of money, kept in a secret hiding-place in their clothing, and intended to pay the expenses of the burial. An old fellow of this class who, feeling ill, sought refuge in a workhouse and died there, had a piece of paper, with his little hoard—the slow accumulations of many a hard year—on which he had written: This is to bury me. Bury me decent, or I’ll haunt you.” Thus all through life he was providing against what he would have thought the last misfortune and final disgrace—a pauper’s coffin, and a grave in the “yellow hole,” as the workhouse pit is called. Some years ago it was the custom of the poorer classes, when they were unable to afford a coffin, to make the corpse beg for it. The body was laid on a board outside the door on a Sunday with a plate to receive the coppers of the people on their way to Mass. Sometimes imposture was practised. On one occasion a woman placed a sixpence on the plate and began to take up five pennies.

“Arrah, ma’am,”: cried the supposed corpse, “be generous wance in yer life and don’t mind the change.”

Ireland is noted for its big funerals. The whole parish, and sometimes the countryside, turns out to pay the last tribute of respect. It is the rule also in rural districts for strangers who meet with a funeral to turn back and accompany it for some distance at least. “Who is it that’s dead?” they will ask, and when they are told they will add, “Well, well, may the journey thrive with him,” “God rest his soul,” or “Wisha, God be with him, whoever he is.” Burials are so well attended that they have come to convey the idea of the largest possible numbers. A man out for a day’s shooting asked a lad whether he had seen any rabbits on his way.  “Yes, sir, whole funerals of them,” was the reply. Comedy often follows closely on the heels of tragedy in all circumstances of life and death in Ireland. At any rate family pride in a large funeral softens bereavement. Condolences take that form on the way to the grave. “If your father could only sit up in his coffin, and see the grand funeral he’s havin’, wouldn’t he be mightily pleased?” “Well, oughtn’t you to be consoled and made proud by so fine a funeral?”

Vanity and ostentation are very prevalent in Ireland, and most so, perhaps, among the poorer classes. It is a point of honour to have a fine funeral. But a funeral is fine by reason of the numbers of unhired cars and unhired mourners attending it. These manifestations of neighbourly sympathy and respect give to funerals in Ireland an unostentatious dignity. There is an entire absence, even in the cities, of that hired ornate ceremonial of the great hearse and horses with plumes, and mutes in tall hats and frock coats and wreaths of flowers, that make burials so extravagantly expensive to the poor in England.

Another reason why, apart from neighbourliness, funerals are so well attended is that they afford opportunities for revisiting family graves. When the coffin is committed to earth and the prayers are said, the mourners disperse through the graveyard, and soon from all quarters are heard the wildest bursts of grief. The rain may be falling pitilessly, and the graveyard engulfed in a dense humid atmosphere. But the wet and the mud are unnoticed, discomforts accepted as a matter of course. Moved by the overpowering impulse of their revived affection and sorrow for those that are no more, the mourners fling themselves prostrate on the ground, passionately kissing the mounds and flagstones, pressing closer and closer to get as near as possible to their long-buried but still darling dead, babbling almost incoherently expressions of the fondest love. Then they sit back on their haunches, and raise the keen, swaying their body to and fro, clapping their hands in time with the rhythm of their lamentations, and weeping the bitterest tears of affliction.

It is a scene in which Irish history, life and character are epitomized: the dust of saints, the ruined abbey, the broken cross; the crowded dead; hemlock, and deadly nightshade; weeping and wailing; the love that always endures; and, casting a tender light over it all, the hope of a glorious resurrection

The Occult Review January 1917: pp. 37-43

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.

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.

Widowed: A Study from Life: 1909

North Carolina Digital Collections

Widowed:

(A STUDY FROM LIFE.)

“Ere y’are, Mum. Shoreditch, Liverpool-street, Banks.”

The yellow bus crossed Cambridgeheath-road, and pulled up with a jerk in front of the big public-house at the corner. A little group stood on the pavement waiting. The widow was in the middle of it. ‘Enery and Hallice stood grasping the glossy new crape of her dress with one hand. In the other they carried a sugary mass, as they took occasional bites and sucks. Around were three or four sympathising friends whose faces were as red as the widow’s, and who formed the chorus.

They formed quite a party on the top of the bus after they had climbed up the narrow stairway—a process which took so long that the driver delivered two or three vicious slashes on the near side windows, and desired to know whether they thought he was driving Black Maria.

“For shime, young man,” said one of the chorus, “and her so full of trouble. Dessay your old bit o’ crackling wouldn’t be sorry if she was in the same boat.”

The driver grunted something that was inaudible, and the widow pulled out a cotton handkerchief with a black border about two inches deep all round it. But peace was restored when another of the chorus produced a flat bottle, the contents of which caused the driver to gasp as he tilted upwards. And the bus rumbled along City-wards over the cobbles of Bethnal Green-road.

The conductor came up with tickets. He, too, was introduced to the flat bottle, which brought to his face an expression of sympathy worthy of the occasion. ‘Enry took the tickets when they had been punched, and put them in his jacket pocket, after a little difference of opinion with Halice as to their ownership, which was brought to a close by a slap and a shake given impartially to each by the widow, coupled with an inquiry as to whether they; desired to lose their pore mother as well as their father.

“What you’ve got to do is to bear up, and take a little drop of something,” said one of the chorus.

The widow agreed. “Well, they can’t never say as I didn’t put pore ‘Enry away respectably,” she remarked. “The undertaker said he was robbing his wife and kids when he did it for twelve pun fifteen.” “

“And brought out his new ‘erse,” said one of the chorus. “Some them wreafs cost a tidy bit,” she went on, pensively.

The widow threw out a reflection on the character of the boiled leg of pork which had formed part of the funeral baked meats, but the chorus all rushed in to its defence.

“I never eat a better,” said one.

“Well, pore ‘Enry would never have off eating it when we had one a sundays,” said the widow. “Give ‘im that and a bit o’ pease pudden, and he always used to say as he wouldn’t say thenk yer to dine with the King.”

“He seemed a nice young feller, that insurance man,” ventured one of the chorus, who desired to lead up to a discussion as to the amount of the insurance money.

“Well, I oughter a had £150,” said the widow, “but the foreman came round and said, ‘Take £l4, and never mind no lawyers.’”

 A glance of intelligence passed over the faces of the chorus, who began to inveigh against the greed of them insurance companies. Then one ventured a remark on the fact that you could do things as they was right to be done on a figger like that.

By this time the bus was threading the traffic across Great Eastern-street, and one of the chorus, who was more of a thought reader in the face than the others, opined that the only thing to do was to bear up.

“‘Ave a few friends in now and then,” she said; “don’t sit alone and mope.”

She was gallantly backed up by the other members of the chorus, and she proceeded to remark on the noise of this part of London, which always does make your head ache.

The chorus agreed. Someone suggested a little drop and rum and peppermint was one of the finest things for a headache caused by street noises. Another remembered that she knew a barmaid at the Cock and Magpie, just out of Norton Folgate, and she hadn’t seen her for a month o’ Sundays.

The bus stopped and the widow got up and made ready to descend. She was reminded that they wasn’t near the bank yet.

“I must have a little something,” was the reply, “or else I shall drop.”

There were murmurs of sympathy, and the whole party descended opposite the turning which led to the Cock and Magpie.

“Pore dear, you must bear up,” were the last words we heard as the conductor rang the bell.

“Be a bit of mopping before the old man’s money is blewed,” he remarked pensively.

Timaru [NZ] Herald, 27 November 1909: p. 1

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.

Hist Went the Corpse: 1889

Baltimore and Ohio Employees magazine 1912 wake poem

A Wonderful Escape

“When I first went on the police force,” said the fat policeman to a Philadelphia North American man. “I was lucky. One of my assignments was a queer one, and I’m not likely to forget it. I was sent to the house of a man who had just died. He was well known and belonged to a good many lodges. It was a big crowd at the funeral. I was stationed at the foot of the coffin to preserve order. The shutters were closed and the gas burned dimly. The coffin lid was off and the body exposed. No one besides myself and the ‘stiff ‘ was in the room. After I’d been there awhile I began to grow uneasy. I kept looking at the dead face. I’d take my eyes off, and the first thing I’d be gazing at the body again. Suddenly the eyes opened. I thought I was dreaming. Then the left eye winked. Holy smoke!”

“’Hist went the corpse.’”

“My teeth chattered.

“‘Say, officer.’

“Goodness! The corpse sat up. ‘Ain’t you dead?’ I gasped.

“’Me, me dead?’

“’Yes.’

“’Oh, no.’

“’What are you doing there?’

“’That’s only a dodge.’

“’Dodge?”

“’Yes. I’m just now a dodger. A kind of an Artful Dodger. See?’

“’I’ll call the folks.’

“’Heavens, no. I’ll tell you. You see I wasn’t feeling well. I’ve got a mother-in-law who is a holy terror. Worse than ten parrots and the hydrophobia. Well, I’ve been trying for ten years to get rid of her. Now, I told my wife that I would simulate death, get put in a vault, be taken out again right away and sneak west. She liked the idea. I’ll be taken out tonight, go to a hotel, and I’ll meet my wife in St. Louis. In that way we’ll shake the old girl. Well, here’s a dollar. I wish you could send out and get me a little spirits’ reviver.’

“Pretty soon the folks began to come in. The supposed corpse looked as natural as life everybody said. People always say this at funerals. There is no use saying it at weddings or balls. The mother-in-law sobbed. Then she leaned over and kissed the corpse.

“’Why, John smells of whisky,’ she said.

“‘John was a beautiful drinker,’ explained the wife.”

Aberdeen [SC] Daily News 10 September 1889: p. 6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Possibly in connection with the 19th-century’s idée fixe about premature burial, we find many stories, some amusing, some grim, about corpses “waking up” or the watchers at a wake fearing that they have wakened up, such as The Corpse Sat Up, by that grave person over at Haunted Ohio. There is also an entire genre of stories about persons pretending to be dead, for example, The Corpse Counted the Coins, in which a similar scam was worked for a more mercenary reason than was admitted by John-the-beautiful-drinker above, or to induce a cruel father to relent and give his blessing to a young couple, as in The Resurrection of Willie Todd.

We can only hope that the Artful Dodger and his wife found an earthly paradise in St. Louis and that the mother-in-law did not disinherit her newly-widowed daughter when she decided to go west to Forget.  Mrs Daffodil fears that a woman worse than ten parrots and the hydrophobia would be capable of anything.

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

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

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

The Pleasures of the Grave: 1886

THE PLEASURES OF THE GRAVE.

Some revelations have been made at a recent meeting of the Macclesfield Board of Guardians respecting the lavish expenditure indulged in by poor people on the occasion of their friends’ funerals. It would appear that for a period of about two years the local board of Guardians had been administering relief to an old married couple named John and Elizabeth McManus to the extent of 4s per week. On July 26th the husband died, upon which the widow made preparations for a costly funeral, having in view the sum of £15 which she was  to receive as insurance money consequent upon his death. The smartest hearse and mourning coaches were ordered, the coffin was of the most solid character, and the relatives were all supplied with new mourning attire. In addition to this quantities of beer, wine and spirits were bought. On the very day of McManus’ burial the widow died, having previously ordered that similar preparations for her burial should be made as in the case of her husband. Charlotte McManus, a daughter-in-law, who is likewise a recipient of parish relief to the amount of 5s per week, after John McManus had been interred in the cemetery, set to work to bury her mother-in-law “decently.” She drew the whole £30, and Mr Heathcote, one of the Board’s relieving officers, said she spent £22 of it on the funeral, leaving only a balance of £7 odd. 

The Board of Guardians were highly indignant at this gross extravagance on the part of persons who had been receiving parish relief, and ordered Charlotte M’Manus to produce vouchers of the expenditure. These included, among a hundred other items:—Butter and cream, 2s 9l; two weeks’ charing, 10s; plain, spice, and currant bread, 4s 11d; three dresses, 17s 6d; jacket, 3s 6d; trimmings, 6s 3d; 1lb tea, 2s 4d; bottles of pickles, 1s 6d; 4 lbs lump sugar, 10d; ¼ lb best tobacco, Is; 7lb cheese, 4s 8d; crape, 9s 8d. All this and more was for Mrs M’Manus’ funeral. For John M’Manus there was a spice loaf, Is 6d; two currant loaves, 2s;  2 ½ lb butter 1s 9d; three pairs stockings, 3s 6d; three pairs gloves, 3s 5d; collars, 3d; tie, 6 1/2d; ½-pint sherry, 1s.  July 27th—Liquor, 4s; August 3rd—Liquor, 4s; August 4th—Liquor, 8s; August 5th —Four gallons ale, 6s 8d; cashmere, 12 s; lining, 4s; crape, 5s 4d; jacket, £1 1s; cashmere, 15s 5d; tobacco and pipes, 2s; two pairs women’s kid shoes, 9s 10d; one pair lace shoes, 8s 11d; one pair slippers, 2 6d; boy’s tweed suit, 10s 9d; boy’s black suit, 19s 9d; boy’s hat, 1s 9d. For Mrs McManus, best polished oak coffin, lined with flannel and wadding bed, shroud, and furnishing funeral £2 10s 1d; best hearse and Clarence, £1 15s; driver’s money, 1s 6d; cemetery expenses, 12s 6d; fittings for hearse and coffin; total, £4 19s. The sum of £4 19s was also spent in providing a coffin and hearse for McManus. Refreshments were not forgotten. In the case of John McManus’s funeral, liquor was set down at 23s 8d; bread and butter, 6s 3d; bread and cheese, 5s 3d; and another dubious item, which is vaguely treated under the head of “nourishment,” 5s.

Daily Telegraph.

The Press Supplement [Christchurch NZ] 23 October 1886: p. 1  

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.

An Irish Keener: 1860

We next illustrate the person of a woman known in Kerry and other counties as a Keener, or paid mourner. She must be a sort of improvisatrice. The Irish language, bold, forcible, and comprehensive, full of the most striking epithets and idiomatic beauties, is peculiarly adapted for either praise or satire—its blessings are singularly touching and expressive, and its curses wonderfully strong, bitter and biting. The rapidity and ease with which both are uttered, and the epigrammatic force of each concluding stanza of the keen, generally bring tears to the eyes of the most indifferent spectator, or produce a state of terrible excitement. The dramatic effect of the scene is very powerful; the darkness of the death-chamber, illumined only by candles that glare upon the corpse—the manner of repetition or acknowledgment that runs round when the keener gives out a sentence—the deep, yet suppressed sobs of the nearer relatives—and the stormy, uncontrollable cry of the widow or bereaved husband, when allusion is made to the domestic virtues of the deceased,–all heighten the effect of the keen; but in the open air, winding round some mountain pass, when a priest, or person greatly beloved and respected, is carried to the grave, and the keen, swelled by a thousand voices, is borne upon the mountain echoes—it is then absolutely magnificent. Mr. Beauford, in a communication to the Royal Irish Academy, remarks, that “the modes of lamentation, and the expressions of grief by sounds, gestures, and ceremonies, admit of an almost infinite variety. So far as these are common to most people, they have very little to attract attention; but where they constitute a part of national character, they then become objects of no incurious speculation. The Irish,” continues that gentleman, “have been always remarkable for their funeral lamentations, and this peculiarity has been noticed by almost every traveller who visited them;” and he adds, “it has been affirmed of the Irish, that to cry was more natural to them than to any other nation; and at length the Irish cry became proverbial.”

This keen is very ancient, and there is a tradition that is origin is supernatural, as it is said to have been first sung by a chorus of invisible spirits in the air over the grave of one of the early kings of Ireland. The keener having finished a stanza of the keen, sets up the wail, in which all the mourners join. Then a momentary silence ensues, when the keener commences again, and so on—each stanza ending in the wail. The keen usually consists in an address to the corpse, asking him “why did he die?” etc. It is altogether extemporaneous; and it is sometimes astonishing to observe with what facility the keener will put the verses together, and shape her poetical images to the case of the person before her. This, of course, can only appear strongly to a person acquainted with the language, as any merit which these compositions possess is much obscured in a translation.

The lamentation is not always confined to the keener; any one present who has “the gift” of poetry may put in his or her verse, and this sometimes occurs. Thus the night wears away in alternations of lamentation and silence, the arrival of each new friend or relative of the deceased being, as already observed, the signal for renewing the keen. The intervals in the keen are not, however, always silent—they are often filled up by “small plays” on the part of the young, and on the part of the aged, or more serious, by tales of fairie and phantasie; nor is it uncommon to have the conversation varied by an argument on religion, for even in the most remote parts so large an assemblage is seldom without a few straggling Protestants. The keener is almost invariably an aged woman; or if she be comparatively young, the habits of her life make her look old. One of this cast the artist has pictured from our description.

Ballou’s Dollar Monthly Magazine, Vol. XI. No. 1 Whole No. 61, January 1860: p. 12

See this post on “The Irish Funeral Cry” for more details and historical accounts.

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.

Posing the Corpse: 1890-1913

https://wellcomecollection.org/works/h4mhu4fu

Periodically we see articles about families who have their dead loved ones posed in life-like ways, doing the things they enjoyed in life for the wake or viewing.  It is a nice change from the hackneyed repose of the supine dead, although it makes me wonder if my family would choose to have me stuffed and placed at the organ, with a vintage tape of one of my recitals playing on the PA system.

The term “extreme embalming” has been coined to describe this trend. As usual, the idea of positioning the dead as if they were alive is nothing new.  There was an entire appalling genre of photographs of 19th- and early-20th-century medical students posing with cadavers and we find descriptions in vintage newspapers of mocking and obscene behavior towards corpses in the dissection room. [Another day, another post.] There were also accounts of body snatchers treating corpses as if they were living drunks to allay suspicion and there are several urban legends and jokes about the propped-up dead being “killed” by someone ignorant of the imposture.

Two Irishmen had been left to stay up all night with the corpse of a departed friend, says the Hutchinson News. About midnight they became hungry and thirsty, but could find nothing about the house to alleviate the pangs. Mike suggested to Pat that they step around to a nearby saloon before it closed. They did not want to leave the object of their watch, so after discussing the proprieties they decided it would be best to take the corpse with them. One on each side of the body they marched to the saloon, propped the corpse up to the bar in a natural position and called for the drinks. The barkeeper set out three glasses well filled and the two friends swallowed their portions with expressions of satisfaction Then, forgetting the corpse, they left the saloon and started back. The barkeeper saw the untasted glass before the remaining form, and said: “Come hurry and drink; I have to close.” No answer. Again he urged the silent customer to “drink up,” as the closing hour had arrived. Several times he repeated the call, getting madder each time, and finally he picked up an empty glass and threw it at the obstinately silent form, hitting the head and knocking it to the floor. Just then Mike and Pat, who had remembered their duty, rushed in. The barkeeper called loudly: “I want yez to witness, I did it in self-defense when he drew his knife!”

The Columbus [KS] Daily Advocate 3 April 1913: p. 2

Watches and wakes were noted for the copious amounts of alcohol consumed and subsequent riotous behavior. It is a wonder we don’t find more examples of corpses being dragged out to join the fun.

A CORPSE’S ORGIE

It Is Made to Join a Revel,

And Stands Propped Against a Stove-Pipe,

While the Gang Drinks to Its Health.

Ghastly Wake Held Over “Tubbe” Lutterby’s Body,

During Which the Watchers Get Into a Fight,

But Are Interrupted By the Arrival of Officers.

A Sacrilegious Affair That Has Stirred Up the West Side.

It Is Without a Parallel and Is the Sensation in the West End.

An orgie [sic] with a corpse.

A bacchanalian revel in which the body of a deceased boon companion is made to join while the revelers clink their beer glasses as the stiffened body of their late comrade, rigid and cold in death, stands propped up against a stove-pipe.

Such is the stance of a scandalous and sacrilegious affair, information of which inadvertently leaked out and set the vicinity for squares about Frenchman’s Corner wild with excitement last Saturday evening.

A week from yesterday afternoon Herman Henry Lutterbey breathed his last, after a short season of quick consumption, in the second-story flat at the north-east corner of McLean and Harrison avenues, a place known as Frenchman’s Corner.

The deceased was known familiarly as “Tubbe,” and resided with his wife (?) He was a son of Rudolph Lutterbey, who is

A HEAVY STOCKHOLDER

In the Herancourt Brewing Company and is Superintendent of the concern and also a partner of Christian Muhlhauser in the malt business. Lutterbye, pere, is a wealthy man, and young Herman, probably for that reason, never established a Sunol [famous race horse] record as a devotee of industry. Instead of gaining a living by the sweat of his brow, the lines of his fate were cast in pleasant places, and he had a reputation of being a hail fellow well met, generous to a fault, and he has figured in many a “big time” with the friends he chose, and the chosen four of his intimacy were a lot of fellows who would never set the world on fire even if a sufficient supply of combustibles were at their command. Young Lutterbey’s life need not be further adverted to, for when the disease grasped him it found

A READY VICTIM.

For although a man of fine physique and apparent strength, a long stretch at the shrine of Bacchus had weakened him, and at 5 o’clock of a week from yesterday he died after a short illness.

A multitude of friends mourned the departure of a good fellow from their midst, and the widow (?), prostrated by grief, was sent earl in the evening to the residence of her father-in-law, 115 Harrison avenue, while several of the “Tubbe’s” best friends arranged to pass the night with the remains. Frank Schlerenbeck’s saloon is on the first floor, and the mourners (?) had carte blanche for refreshments. It appears that their sense of sincere grief was equated only by their craving sense of thirst, for they drank freely to drown their sorrow, and ere long their better judgment was drowned in the load of beer and whisky that went upstairs. As the fumes of liquor mounted to their brains and tears stole down their cheeks as they recounted the many virtues of “Tubbe,” and the sundry good times they had had together, it may have seemed that the corpse took on a semblance of life and was among them a living presence again, and

THE SOUNDS OF WEEPING

And wailing gave way to tipsy expressions of mirth and jollity, and a fanciful suggestion to take just one more drink with “Tubbe old boy” was readily acted upon.

Straightway to the coffin went to the watchers, and the corpse was tenderly lifted and stood upon the feet. The stove pipe furnished a convenient resting place, and against it the corpse was placed, while all hands again sought the table and its load of bottles.

About this time “Cookey’s” string band hove around the corner, but a proposition by one of the gang to invite the band upstairs for a dance was speedily vetoed by Mr. Schlerenbeck, and the ceremony proceeded with the disadvantage of no music to enliven the occasion. However, they seemed to have atoned for the lack of instrumental melody by a supplement of vocal harmony which was not attuned to suit the trained ear of Jacob Rasp, for when he remonstrated a crack in his entirely too critical auricular appendage cut the offended organ and sent him to rest on a sofa, while the noise of the carnival filtered out through the blinds and called Patrolman John Wams[illegible] and Merchants’ Policeman Lewis Pin[illegible] to the apartment. If those officers had not had the

USUAL AMOUNT OF NERVE

Of the average member of the finest they might have dropped at the ghastly sight.

The boys didn’t have sufficient time to get “Tubbe” back to his coffin, and silent, stiff, stark, and staring the corpse stood, literally a ghost, while the guests were busy keeping the beer from getting too warm. The party broke up then and there, and order was speedily restored. Next morning news of the affair leaked out and became the talk of the neighborhood. There were special reasons why it should be kept a secret, and with nothing but rumors to base their wagging tongues upon, it was noised about that the boys had threatened to kick the stuffing out of “Tubbe” for talking so much, and even

SET THE REMAINS ON THE STOVE.

And gave it sardines to eat. Such reports were damaging, and were calculated to injure the standing of any body in the moral aspect of a community, and for each assertion there was a denial. It was given out that Victor Grese, a Mr. Spoonagel, who is known as “Spoony,” Philip Hermann, and Jacob Rasp, composed the watch, but the friends of all these men say that such things could not be, and the most vigorous denunciations were given for any body who would start such vile rumors. Grese could not be found last evening. His friends say he was not in the party. Hermann has a good reputation also, and that stands him in good stead at this hour of scandal. Mr. Rasp’s ear is quite sore.
The matter was kept so quiet that the same watch was on again Sunday evening. Monday afternoon, in the same room, Rev. Mr. Schmidt, the German Protestant pastor, officiated at the funeral ceremonies, and the body of poor, erstwhile gay and thoughtless Tubbe was borne to its last resting-place in a grass-grown nook in a cemetery on the New Baltimore pike, and a large body of a friends attended.

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 26 October 1890: p. 1

Despite the open bar, the phrase “it may have seemed that the corpse took on a semblance of life and was among them a living presence again,” suggests the intimate relationship between the living and the dead of, say, the rituals of Dia de los Muertos or those of the Ma’Nene festival of the Toraja peoples of Indonesia, where the dead are exhumed to be groomed, dressed in new clothing, and walked about the village.

Lutterbey is apparently the correct spelling, to judge by Rudolph Lutterbey’s entry on findagrave.com. The Enquirer must have been pretty sure of its facts to include that potentially libelous (?) with reference to young Lutterbey’s “wife.”

But posing corpses wasn’t all fun and games. Sometimes the corpse was enlisted in the cause of justice.

THE ACCUSING FINGER.

Chicago Police Propped Up a Corpse and Took Prisoner Before It.

Chicago, Nov. 22. Ordeal by murdered corpse, applied yesterday by the police to secure a confession to the murder of Natoli Selefani, whose body was found in Lake Michigan a fortnight ago, failed to secure the desired result.

The body of Selefani, which had been in Mount Carmel cemetery, was exhumed, carried to a vault, and placed in a sitting posture. The right arm and hand were propped up in such a manner that the index finger pointed directly at the face of any person entering the vault. The attitude of the body was made as nearly as possible like that which would be assumed by a person saying “You are the man who killed me.”

Police Inspector Shippy then took to the vault Peter Miro, Frank Bell, Charles Benzio, and Joyce Toppin, a colored porter of a saloon in which Selefani passed considerable time on the day of his death. One by one he caused them to confront the accusing finger of the dead man and watched for a sign of nervous collapse. Benzio and Bell went through the ordeal without exhibiting a sign of emotion. The colored porter was badly frightened, but he did not reveal anything like a clew. Miro refused to enter the vault, and the officers were compelled to drag him before the corpse and compel him to gaze upon it.  He did not say anything that would indicate that he was connected with the murder. T

The Barre [VT] Daily Times 22 November 1904: p.1

It was an ingenious plan, but I cannot find that anyone confessed after being confronted with the corpse, which, incidentally, sounds a more animated version of cruentation.

Should any of you have had just the teeniest bit too much punch at the wake and think that performing a corpse puppet-show would be a good idea, read this cautionary anecdote:

CORPSE PLACED AT THE TABLE

HIDEOUS JOKE PERPETRATED AT A CLEVELAND WAKE.

MOURNERS FLEE AND THE POLICE ARE CALLED.

WOULD-BE JOKERS ARE SENTENCED TO WORKHOUSE.

Cleveland. O., June 25. A body dressed in shroud and ready for burial sitting upright on the dining-room table in a West Twenty-third street house, caused a panic among relatives and friends attending a wake.

Mary Fitzgerald, aged 47, who attended the wake, was arrested by Patrolman Ganss. She was fined $10 and costs and was given 20 days in the workhouse by Police Judge McGannon. Mrs. Fitzgerald is employed at the Bristol hotel.

“We set the corpse on the table for bit of fun.” Mrs. Fitzgerald told Judge McGannon. “Everybody was in the back room when we did it. We called them in, and when they saw it they jumped out of the windows and ran into the yard.”

Mrs. Fitzgerald said that she and another woman had been drinking. A call for police was sent to the station. Several patrolmen went to the house where the wake was being held. They found the people standing in the street and very much frightened.

The Times Herald [Port Huron MI] 25 June 1909: p. 1

Other examples of posing the corpse (outside of the dissection room)? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com, who may be seated one day at the organ….

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

The Black Cat Horror: 1880

black cat horror

Winter set in very early that year, and it was extraordinarily cold. By late fall, they were cutting ice two feet thick on the canal, and storing it in the great ice houses which then lined the banks. A certain man had died, when the weather was at its coldest, and I was one of the three men chosen to keep the night watch.

The body was laid out in the parlor of the home on an old-fashioned bier, which was too short, as he was a very tall man, and was covered with a black pall, which hung down over the feet. There was no fire in the room, and the window was opened about two inches, with the result that the corpse was frozen as hard as marble. Notwithstanding this, the undertaker left a jar of some embalming fluid, with which the body was to be covered every two or three hours. We three sat in another room, and punctually at the proper hours performed this gruesome function, whiling away the rest of the time as best we might.

Just as the clock struck midnight we heard one of the women come downstairs to prepare some coffee and food for us, and I suggested that before we partook of it we should attend to the body again. We crossed the wide hall, the wind moaning in gusts around the house, and the freezing atmosphere already chilling our blood, and entered the parlor. I went in first, the candle in my hand. I had taken two or three steps when I stopped, simply appalled. One leg of the frozen corpse was rising and falling beneath the pall, silently, but unmistakably, as though kicking in convulsive agony. Peterman, a powerful young German, who was next to me, caught sight of it the next moment, and, throwing his hands, with a cry of “My God!” fell fainting to the floor.

How long I stood gazing at the ghastly movement I do not know. The hot tallow fell unheeded from my hand, until it formed a little mound. At length I was aroused by Peterman coming to his senses, and commencing to vomit terribly. This changed the current of my thoughts, and I ran out for a basin. Before I could return he saw the leg move again, and fell in another swoon. Finding him thus, my fear suddenly left me, and I was determined to solve the mystery. I walked to the bier and pulled back the pall.

I found there a lean and savage black cat, gnawing at one of the frozen legs, and the arching of whose back, in the effort to tear the flesh, had caused the horrible appearance. Though I knocked it away and kicked it, the brute, with eyes glowing like coals, sprang back each time to its awful meal and I dared not touch it with my hands for fear a bite or scratch from those tainted fangs and claws should cause blood poisoning. It was literally mad with hunger. At length I fetched a long, heavy bootjack, and beat it over the head with that until it lay still, when I threw it out of doors. The only way it could have gotten in was through the window, but how it squeezed through such a narrow aperture is a mystery. Peterman was sick in bed for months after the shock, while as for our third companion, he ran at Peterman’s first scream and did not appear at all.

Sidney Journal, December, 1897

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Mrs Daffodil thanks Mr Rich Wallace of the Shelby County Historical Society for unearthing this dire eyewitness account of an event which occurred in Cynthian Township, Ohio in the fall of 1880.  In a case of art imitating life, the Ohio author, Ambrose Bierce [1842–1914] wrote the equally dire “John Mortonson’s Funeral,” published in Can Such Things Be? [1893]  The ignorant and superstitious held that if a cat jumped over a corpse, the dead person would become a vampire.

For more tales of malign cats, please see this post at the Haunted Ohio blog. The story above is also found in The Face in the Window. Other stories of cats as a menace at wakes may be found in The Victorian Book of the Dead, available as a paperback here and at other online retailers (or ask your library or local bookstore to order it) and for Kindle.

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

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

Like a Mournful Gust of Wind

viewing corpse in coffin The Spectre of the Hall, author of Varney the Vampire 1848

As someone who studies death and mourning, I’m always pleased to come across a story—either true or fictional—that mingles mourning customs with a good ghost story. This plausible tale, which is written as fiction, features the traditional night-watch over the corpse plus a sinister aural haunting.

AUNT SARAH’S STORY.

“Well,” said Aunt Sarah Bird, “though I never saw one and hope I never shall, there are many who have, or who thought so at any rate; and I can’t help half believing in them after all. Your father, Mary Horton, if he was here, or Mr. William Day, if he was alive, could tell of an awful thing we once witnessed, which, if not a ghost, must have been something supernatural.”

“Do tell us about it, Aunt Sally,” said cousin Fanny.

We were all sitting in a great ring around Uncle Robert’s blazing hearth. Here were Aunt Sarah, Mary Horton, Elise Parker, cousin Fanny, and the children; on the other side Uncle Robert, Martin Kennedy the schoolmaster, and Daniel Ford and Stephen Ingalls, the hired men. Tiger and I occupied the chimney corner. I must mention that Uncle Robert is a large farmer in one of the old Puritan towns in Plymouth county, and lives in the family mansion, of which a part was built by my great-great-grandfather, who came over in the Mayflower.

It was a dark stormy night without, and the noise of the wind through the ancient elms was terrible.

“‘Twas before we were married,” continued Aunt Sarah, (speaking to uncle,) “when I couldn’t have been more than fifteen—but I must begin further back than that. Old Deacon Mansell of Middleborough, whose grandson died the year Fanny was born, had an only daughter, Charity”

“She married Dr. Garfield,” said uncle, “as long ago as I can remember; they’ve both been dead these twenty years at least.”

“Yes,” said aunt, “but she died before her husband, after they had been married about a year. The doctor was much the eldest, and was a rough man in his ways; they said he was none too kind to his wife while she was alive. It was a match of the deacon’s making, for Charity wanted to have had Stephen Kent, who went off to Genesee. She was a timid kind of a girl; indeed she was brought up so that she hardly knew what it was to have her own way in her life. The old man made her turn off Kent, who wasn’t worth anything but a small farm, and take Garfield, because he had property and was heir to old Mr. Cobb of Carver.

“All the young people then a few years older than I, said the marriage was the cause of her death. From the very day it took place she seemed to fall into a decline, and in less than a year she died of consumption.

“I wasn’t much acquainted with her, but Esther Mayhew, who had lived at our house, took care of her in her last sickness; and when she died, as there was no one there with Esther, our folks let me go over to keep her company.”

“I know the house,” said Stephen Ingalls; “it is around on what they call the five mile road.”

“Col. Davenport owns the place now,” said my uncle.

“The house stands in from the road,” continued Aunt Sarah, “and it looked dreary to me then because there were no trees near it, except some white birch and sumach at the foot of the lane—nothing but a high well-sweep, and a few outhouses that hid themselves behind as if they were afraid of being seen. I remember as plainly as though ’twere yesterday, how gloomy it looked the day I went to see Esther. There was she, and old granny Bolcum, who went away in the afternoon, and William Day, then a young man; he married Esther afterwards, and they moved over to the Vineyard. Garfield had gone down to Boston in the worst of his poor wife’s sickness, and though word had been sent, it took a day to go and a day to come, so that he could no more than get back in time for the funeral.

“In the east room lay the body in the coffin, ready for the funeral, which was to be next day. Dear me! how distinctly I recollect the expression of the face, when Esther took me in to see it; so serene and peaceful that I said it appeared as if the soul had gone to heaven before death. But Esther, who liked her very much, was all tears, and said ‘she didn’t know what to think, for that Charity had never experienced religion.’

“That evening, after granny Bolcum went away, came your father, Mary, who was to sit up with William Day. He must have been then about twenty-five, and as strong and resolute a young man as there was in the Old Colony.”

“He’d have been an active man if he had not gone into business,” said Uncle Robert.

“We sat by the kitchen fire,” continued my aunt, “till about ten o’clock, and then Esther and I went upstairs to bed. I was soon asleep and conscious of nothing, till some time in the night I was awaked by Esther’s suddenly rising up and saying in a startled whisper, ‘What’s that?’

“I should have mentioned that the house is a one-story one, and the only chamber then finished was the one we occupied, directly over the east room.

“She spoke so quick and grasped my arm so tightly I was awake in an instant, and comprehended that she was frightened at something she had heard. I held my breath, and in a moment we both heard a strange sound, that seemed to come from beneath the floor. I was frightened almost out of my senses. Esther had more courage. ‘Slip on your gown, Sally dear,’ said she; ‘don’t be scared—(for I was beginning to cry)—we will go down stairs. I dare say it’s only William Day has fallen asleep and snoring.’

“We hurried on our gowns as well as we could in the dark, and had hardly done so before there came another—a deep, low groaning, heavier than before.

“Esther pulled me down stairs, and we rushed into the kitchen where the watchers were sitting, both asleep, their supper untouched, and the fire light almost gone out. I grasped your father’s knees and he started to his feet; Esther shook William Day and clung to him, crying, ‘O William; wake! wake!’

“‘What’s the matter?’ said your father.” They were both awake in a moment, and listening. Presently the awful sound was again repeated; we all heard it as plainly as you hear me speak. Not a word was spoken for a moment. William Day lighted a candle. Said your father to him, ‘Let us go in and look at the body.’

“But now Esther lost all courage, and held William Day by the arm, saying he should not go; if he did we should die, and so forth. Then your father said, ‘Stay you with the girls, William. I will take the gun and see what this means;’ and he began to do so while he was speaking.

“The east room did not open immediately from the kitchen, but through another apartment at the side of the house. Your father walked in with his gun, thinking, I suppose, that a cat (for cats, you know, are attracted by dead bodies) might have broken in through the window. He had crossed the floor of the side apartment, and had his hand on the latch of the east room door, when there came another dreadful moaning noise, much more distinct and lengthened than either of the others. It makes my blood run cold even now to think of it.

“We clung with all our might to William Day. Your father paused an instant, and we could see that the light for a moment trembled in his hand. But suddenly he flung the door wide open and walked steadily into the dark room, saying with a voice that made the house shake,”‘ In God’s name, Evil One, depart!’ “Immediately, while he walked around the coffin, we heard a noise as of a rushing wind going swiftly about the outside of the house. William Day opened the kitchen door and we went with him and stood upon the door-stone. Your father, seeing that there was nothing in the east room, joined us with the light, and we all stood there together and listened, expecting we knew not what.

“Three times the mysterious sound seemed to encircle the house, each time more faint, till finally it appeared to depart, and gradually die away. As it came the second time your father walked out a little distance from the house, bearing the candle in his hand. The night was pitch dark, and so perfectly calm that the flame of the candle was as steady as it was within doors. Yet we all heard the sound, and when we came to talk of it afterwards, we found it appeared precisely the same to each of us—a singular mysterious whisper, something like a prolonged mournful gust of wind, that went three times round the house against the sun, and then died away.

“We listened some time after it had ceased, till your father came with the light, and then we all went in. He and William Day then walked into the east room and examined the doors and windows carefully, without finding that anything had been moved however, except that the napkin which covered the face of the corpse had been turned down. William was positive that this was not so before; but your father was not sure that he had not done it himself when he went in alone. The face of the dead was unchanged, and both the men said the sweet look of it was enough to frighten away the worst spirit that ever walked upon the earth.

“You may suppose none of us slept much that night; but though one and another of us would often fancy noises coming from the east room like those we had heard, there was no time when we could all agree that we actually heard any. We sat up and talked of it till day-break; your father said it might after all have been our imagination, or it might have been caused by an earthquake, or something that learned men might know about; for the sake of poor Charity he thought, and so did all, that it had better be kept a secret.

“So they made me, who was the youngest, promise very strictly not to tell of it. We have all kept our words so well that none of us, so far as I know, ever mentioned it again, though William Day (who afterwards married Esther) might have talked of it with his wife; they are both now in their graves. Your father and I are the only ones left; and the very names of the persons concerned are almost forgotten—so I think there’s no harm in telling it.

“Dr. Garfield arrived soon after daybreak in the morning, having ridden all night from Boston. He inquired if any one had passed the night at the house except ourselves, and said that in coming through Dodge’s woods about three miles back, he met an old man in a three-cornered hat and black stockings, with a long staff in his hand; the woods were dark and the morning fog obscured the twilight, so that he could not see distinctly, yet it appeared to him, oddly enough, that the old man looked and walked precisely like ‘daddy Mansell’—meaning Charity’s father, who died about four months after her marriage. He said that the old man, whoever he was, walked fast, in the middle of the road, and must have been almost blind, or in a brown study, for his horse would have gone directly over him had he not suddenly jerked him aside.

“I observed your father’s face change as he said this, but was so young at the time I could not understand it. When I grew up, however, and came to know what fathers—yes, and mothers, are capable of doing to their children, then I saw that he must have connected this account of the doctor’s with what had occurred in the night, and suspected in his mind that the awful groans we had heard were the sorrow of a tyrannical parent’s unquiet spirit over the dead body of his heart-broken child. And for my part, foolish as it may seem, I have never been able to account for the mystery in any other way.”

American Review: A Whig Journal of Politics and Literature, Volume 8: October 1848: pp 411-413

In the original article, another paragraph was added in which a sceptic suggested that the noises were a door creaking and cattle breathing out in the yard. There have been reports of mysterious vocalizations coming from corpses as trapped air works its way out.  In The Victorian Book of the Dead there is an account of watchers startled by a dead boy’s laughter.  The detail of “the prolonged mournful gust of wind” going “three times round the house against the sun,” seems to bear out the evil nature of the manifestation: widdershins is the direction of the Devil. The sinister figure of Deacon Mansell (the Deacon Met on the Road?) adds to the darkness of the story.

The custom of sitting up with the corpse would have been taken for granted by the readers of this story. It was a sign of respect for the dead, who, in common humanity, should not be left alone, just as the sick and dying should never be abandoned. While the vigils, particularly where there were only one or two watchers, could be very frightening, there is no truth to the modern suggestions that wakes were a) to make sure the person was actually dead or b) to prevent the corpse from becoming a vampire. That said, there are certainly stories of persons “waking” at their own wakes, and it was well-known that cats and corpses did not mix: in some cultures, a cat or other animal jumping over a corpse could cause the dead to become un-dead; and, to judge by the stories in the papers, cats found corpses an irresistibly tasty snack.  There is a blood-curdling story in The Victorian Book of the Dead about cats madly trying to get into a room containing a corpse.

As for the “awful groans” being the sorrow of a tyrannical parent’s unquiet spirit over the dead body of his heart-broken child, I have my doubts. They seem more like a banshee after the fact.

Other aural or funereal hauntings? Whisper mysteriously to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

 

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.

Know When to Hold ’em: Waiting Mortuaries in Connecticut

buried alive in seattle A

Continuing our grewsome theme of burial alive is this proposal from Bridgeport, Connecticut, for an organization that would hold the bodies of the dead until they showed unmistakable signs of decomposition. In short, German waiting mortuaries: the Leichenhaus or Totenhaus.  For whatever reason, these never caught on in America. I’m not sure if it was some inherent squeamishness in the American character, a reluctance to commit to the expense or the real estate, or a practical realization that while there were plenty of false alarm bells rung by the gases of decay in the Leichenhauser of Germany, no one ever got out alive.

A NOVEL SOCIETY

Bridgeport People Who Will Not Be Buried Alive if They Can Help It.

Bridgeport, Conn., Oct. 15. The first of next month a meeting will be held at the rooms of the Scientific Society to organize a Humane Burial society. One of the promoters of the scheme when asked as to the objects of the organization last evening said: “You may not know it perhaps, but in Bridgeport and all of the country, there are a great number of people who have a nervous dread that they may be buried alive. Probably I could name 100 of my personal acquaintances who cherish this awful fear, and there are plenty of cases to show that such an apprehension is not without foundation. What the projected society proposes to do is to take charge of the remains of deceased persons or those supposed to be deceased, and care for them for a sufficient length of time and under conditions which will make their being buried alive an impossibility. The awakening of public interest on this subject is another one of our objects. To most people the idea of establishing such a society will doubtless seem very strange, and did I not know how many people in Bridgeport feel about the matter the same as myself I should hesitate about taking any active part in the movement.” The speaker was reminded that the danger of being buried alive was thoroughly discussed by the Scientific Society a few years ago, and that the weight of medical evidence introduced went to show that the apprehensions alluded to had in reality very little foundation.

“That is true,” was the response, “but that proves nothing. In fact the medical fraternity now virtually confess that none of the old accepted tests used to determine whether the vital spark is really fled or not, can be taken as conclusive. The absence of warmth in the body, the apparent absence of circulation, the eye test, the test with the mirror held before the respiratory organs, and in fact all the other familiar tests, have been proven defective in well authenticated cases. Sometimes by a lucky accident, and sometimes through an apparent excess of caution, persons pronounced by high medical authority to be dead have emerged from the trance condition which gave the simulation of death. Most of the best medical men will tell you today that the only positive proof of death, one that cannot lead to a mistake under any circumstances is the setting in of decomposition. The aim of the society about to be organized is to apply to our members and such others as we may accept the charge of, this only and absolute test. Such an object is worth working for even if it falls to the lot of only one in 10,000, or even one in 100,000, to suffer the terrible doom of being put under ground while alive. We know that many have suffered this fate; how many such cases there have occurred not known of, nobody knows. As I have said, the number deeply interested in this subject is more than would naturally be believed.”

New Haven [CT] Register 15 October 1885: p. 1

The unnamed spokesperson makes a good point about the medical profession’s uncertainty about the certainty of death. Despite modern medical advances, the controversy continues even today. My question is, did this plan to hold the bodies of the dead of Bridgeport ever get off the ground? I can find no evidence that it did, but perhaps they purchased a holding vault somewhere and began on a modest scale rather than the palatial Leichenhauser of Germany.

If you have dug deeper than I and know whether the corpse-holding organization was ever active, let me know at chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

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.