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

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

MOURNING STATIONERY.

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

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

“Well?” said the Paper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Poor thing,” said the Envelope.

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

Arthur’s Home Magazine, Volume 48, 1880

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

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

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

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

 

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O, Death Where Is Thy Bling?

Mrs "Diamond" Johnson's extravagant tombstone.
O, Death, Where Is Thy Bling? Mrs “Diamond” Johnson’s extravagant tombstone.

In looking at the popular culture of funerals and death for The Victorian Book of the Dead, I’ve noticed a minor trend in reporting on über-extravagant burials. The Gilded Age was a golden age for the conspicuous consumption of coffins and other funerary goods. Undertakers were quizzed about (and did not hesitate to volunteer) sumptuary details, such as Mrs Van Gilding had a genuine mahogany casket, rather than rosewood veneer, the coffin fittings were real silver, rather than plate, and that the lining fabric cost $12 a yard. This inspired a sort of arms-race, except with funeral trappings as opposed to deadly weapons. Keeping up with the Boneses….

TOMB

To Hold Safe Her Gems

Mrs. “Diamond” Johnson Will Be Buried With Her Jewels.

An Impregnable Grave Built to Baffle Any Attempt at Robbery.

[Norwich (Conn.) Cor. New York Herald.]

Mrs. Mary Tuttle (“Diamond”) Johnson, formerly a resident of this city, now of Chicago, for whom a conservator was recently appointed by request of her husband and sons, has had a remarkable grave constructed in her lot in Yantic Cemetery, destined to receive her body. It is the most costly, massive, unique and elaborate one in this state.

Mrs. Johnson purchased her cemetery lot some time ago and had her grave made. She is haunted by an overmastering dread of graveyard ghouls and robbers and she had barely completed her grave when she decided that it was not strong enough to baffle a possible assault after her body had been committed to it.

With a corps of skilled professional workmen she went to work at once to reconstruct and immensely strengthen it, carrying on the work clandestinely in order to forestall opposition on the part of her conservator and her watchful husband and sons. The result of her craftiness and the dispatch and dexterity of her workmen was that she not only accomplished her project without betraying her design, but so neatly that there is not an outward token to indicate to a casual observer that the old grave had ever been disturbed.

GRAVE SEEMS IMPREGNABLE.

The grave is in many respects the most remarkable and wonderfully contrived one probably in New England. Apparently it is impregnable to assault.

Its floor is a huge smoothly chiseled slab of Rhode Island granite, weighing more than a ton, while a similar gigantic slab of stone, which weighs 2,700 pounds and can be handled only with the aid of a derrick, forms its cover.

The walls of the grave are of cemented pressed brick, solid as adamant, and as thick and enduring seemingly as those of a modern fort.

Mrs. John is greatly pleased with the remodeled tomb, and convinced that after her body is placed between this two ponderous granite slabs it will be absolutely secure.

Not long ago Mrs. Johnson had a magnificent granite monument erected on her cemetery lot at a cost of $18,000, which is said to be the most ornate, unique and expensive private mortuary memorial in New England. It is a lofty, shapely shaft, handsomely polished and carved, bearing the allegorical figures, also superbly sculptured, of Faith, Hope and Charity. The monument was erected by famous granite cutters of Westerly, R.I.

Mrs. John’s ruling passion is an immoderate fondness for diamonds, on account of which the title of Mrs. “Diamond” Johnson

WAS POPULARLY BESTOWED

On her more than a quarter of a century ago. At all times she is a-glitter with the gems from head to foot, and she rarely appears in public with less than $25,000 to $50,000 worth of them displayed on her person.

It is said to be her intention to have her fabulous store of jewels buried with her body, a fancy that may account, in part, for her determination to make her tomb absolutely impregnable to grave robbers….The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 26 December 1896: p. 8

The tomb, which is pictured at the head of this post, seems to be a different one than currently stands in Yantic Cemetery, and the vault built so secretly seems to have disappeared altogether, but the rich and eccentric (or their heirs) often changed their minds about monuments.

Mrs. Henry Hiller also changed her mind and had a second set of wildly expensive caskets made for her husband and herself. You can’t take it with you, but Mrs. Hiller really did give it her best try.

Mrs. Henry Hiller's Coffin and tomb.
Mrs. Henry Hiller’s Coffin and tomb.

A CONNOISSEUR IN COFFINS

Mrs. Hiller Spends Twenty Thousand Dollars For Her Own Burial Robe

[Boston Special to New York World.]

The eccentricities of the late Dr. Henry Hiller and wife, of Wilmington, Mass., whose fad was magnificently carved and luxuriously upholstered burial caskets, have been described in the World already. The doctor’s funeral took place a year ago to-day and the corpse was carried to its last resting place in a silk-lined, gold-plated, elaborately carved casket of solid mahogany, enclosed by another casket no less extravagantly appointed. Six richly caparisoned coal-black Percherons in gold-mounted harness, each attended by a colored groom, carried the casket to the temporary vault. There the doctor’s body has been guarded night and day by a grim old watchman. A $500 lamp standing in front has shed its bright rays in the path of possible body-snatchers or grave desecrators, and every morning the faithful widow has gone to see that everything about the place was all right.

Not satisfied with the ghostly magnificence of a year ago, the widow has been at work on the construction of new caskets, one for her husband, the other for herself, which easily surpass in magnificence and grotesqueness of ornamentation any thing of the kind the world has ever seen. Each casket is in two parts—the casket proper and the sarcophagus. The material in all four is solid mahogany, imported specially from South America. The upholstering inside is as elaborate as money could make it. Corded silk of the value of $10 a yard is the material used. The lids are made of separate panels, highly polished, richly carved and fastened by solid gold hinges with knobs of solid gold for opening them. The doctor’s new casket is fastened by a heavy brass door of Gothic design, having a knob made of six pounds of solid gold. On the panels are solid gold tablets, inscribed with the doctor’s favorite passages of Scripture, such as “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” “Blessed are they that die in the Lord.”

Standing at the head of the coffin is a figure of the doctor built out of solid mahogany and reduced to a height of eighteen inches. About him are the figures of four angels welcoming him to Paradise. Mrs. Hiller’s coffin, on the other hand, has her figure recumbent on the lid, with three angels ministering to her and the doctor kneeling beside her with his right arm supporting her head. But the most remarkable feature of this remarkable burial casket is the carving on one of the side panels. The sculptor has drawn a sketch of a landscape, showing at intervals a meadow, a river, a hill, a forest, a valley, and, last of all, a mountain, at the apex of which is a white cross. Clinging to the cross is a naked cherub, and behind another cherub, and then another, until twenty-three are counted climbing toward the cross. During the twenty-four years of her married life, Mrs. Hiller says she bore her husband twenty-three children, none of whom lived. The procession up the mountain, she says, perpetuates the memory of her little ones.

Mrs. Hiller has also had made for herself a burial robe, of which it may be truly said that it beggars description. The dress-maker completed it after four months’ labor and an outlay of $20,000. The robe is made of white ottoman silk, corded heavily. There is also a wilderness of white silk lace running in perpendicular panels and tucked and gathered and fluted until it stands out to a distance of five inches. There are other panels of white surah of the most expensive manufacture. Between the panels of silk and lace are intermediate panels constructed solely of daisies made in France of pure silk after a design bought in Boston for $40. It is estimated that 5,000 of these daisies are sewed into this gown. The robe opens in front and is fastened by upward of 200 solid silver hooks designed like a serpent’s head.

The total outlay by Mrs. Hiller will be not far short of $500,000. The mausoleum will be of hammered granite. In the four walls will be gilt windows, through which it is planned to have rays of colored light enter, a different light to each window, which, blending, will fall upon the caskets resting side by side within. The caskets will stand each on four huge brass legs and chairs of magnificent design will be in the mausoleum for the accommodation of sight-seers. Mrs. Hiller will soon hold a reception for the exhibition of the caskets, the invitation to which is a picture of a coffin with “Admit one,” written beneath.

Mrs. Hiller says Queen Victoria sent to her for all the American papers that contained notices of the doctor’s funeral. When she had read them she said that Mrs. Hiller was the only woman who had surpassed Her Majesty in doing honor to a dead consort. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 21 December 1889: p. 11

A little more detail on the coffins, which sound like an artistic nightmare with their jumble of figures and mythologies.

The Hillers have spent $10,000 on their new coffins, which are beauties of mechanical and artistic skill. Each casket consists of two parts, or, in other words, each body will have two coffins. The inner coffin is composed of mahogany, made air-tight by being completely enveloped in copper. It rests within the outside casket on two elegant brass supports which represent the big paws of a lion.

It is on the outside casket, however, that the most lavish expenditure has been made. This is of mahogany also, the interior being lined with copper, the mountings of the latter being noticeably fine. Every panel contains a group of figures, and it is here the beauties of the carver’s art are made apparent.

Every figure is carefully and accurately made, and stands out in bold and striking relief. Each panel and its figures must have provided weeks of labor. To enumerate the symbols and figures which the artist has imparted with a living flourish to the receptacle of the dead would be to rehearse the names of all the familiar reproductions of the animate and inanimate in decorative art. A lion rampant here, a fierce-fanged griffin, birds of every species, fishes, flowers, plants, trees, the bow and arrow, &c., while in central positions are seen Flora and Ceres, cherubs blowing trumpets, angels tuning harps, Apollo with his lyre, Jupiter with thunderbolts, Neptune with his trident, &c., The caskets have been constructed at Dr. Hiller’s house. He says he has been offered $50,000 by a prominent showman to exhibit them. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 20 November 1887: p. 12

Dr. Hiller died in 1888 and was interred with much pomp. Mrs. Frances Hiller died in May of 1900. She had married her coachman, Peter Surrette, who, at her request, changed his name to Henry Hiller. He waived all rights to her estate, which was said to be worth $500,000. The funeral was a spectacle, with over 2,000 people turning out to stare at the much-vaunted casket, which rode on what looked like a crape-draped float from a morbid parade.

The pageant quickly degenerated into a fantasist’s farce: In truth, Mrs. Hiller had borne not 23, but three children—one of whom survived. The $50,000 casket turned out to have cost $2,000 and the $500,000 mausoleum with solid-gold knockers was never actually built, leaving only the original stone receiving vault, where Dr. Hiller slept, to receive the remains. The cast couchant lion pedestals (the “brass legs” mentioned above) that were to have held the caskets, proved too tall for the small vault and were discarded in a corner. Mrs. Hiller’s casket and the new one for her husband had been stored in an outbuilding and were not in the best of condition. But eventually Dr. and Mrs. Hiller were wrestled into their new sarcophagi, and the door, which had fallen into the tomb when the workmen uncovered it, was permanently bricked up. Several years later, cemetery authorities decided that the Hiller vault spoiled the look of the  cemetery entrance. They demolished the vault and had the mahogany caskets, still in good condition, buried in the ground. Sic transit gloria mundi

Other examples of funerary excess? Detailed photos of the Hiller coffins? Send engraved on a silver (solid, not plate, mind…) coffin plaque to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Portions of the post above appear in The Victorian Book of the Dead, which can be purchased at Amazon and other online retailers. (Or ask your local bookstore or library to order it.) It is also available in a Kindle edition.

See this link for an introduction to this collection about the popular culture of Victorian mourning, featuring primary-source materials about corpses, crypts, crape, and much more.

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 latest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

The Mourner A-la-Mode: A Satirical Poem: 1871

mourning walking toilettes The Milliner and Dressmaker, Goubaud

THE MOURNER A-LA-MODE.

By John G. Saxe

I saw her last night at a party

(The elegant party at Mead’s),

And looking remarkably hearty

For a widow so young in her weeds;

 

Yet I know she was suffering sorrow

Too deep for the tongue to express.

Or why had she chosen to borrow

So much from the language of dress?

 

Her shawl was as sable as night;

And her gloves were as dark as her shawl;

And her jewels that flashed in the light,

Were black as a funeral pall;

 

Her robe had the hue of the rest

(How nicely it fitted her shape!)

And the grief that was heaving her breast,

Boiled over in billows of crape.

 

What tears of vicarious woe,

That else might have sullied her face,

Were kindly permitted to flow

In ripples of ebony lace!

 

While even her fan, in its play,

Had quite a lugubrious scope,

And seemed to be waving away,

The ghost of the angel of Hope!

 

Yet rich as the robes of a queen

Was the sombre apparel she wore;

I’m certain I never had seen

Such a sumptuous sorrow before;

 

And I couldn’t help thinking the beauty,

In mourning the loved and the lost,

Was doing her conjugal duty

Altogether regardless of cost!

 

One surely would say a devotion

Performed at so vast an expense,

Betray’d an excess of emotion

That was really something immense;

 

And yet as I viewed, at my leisure,

Those tokens of tender regard,

I thought:—It is scarce without measure

The sorrow that goes by the yard.

 

Ah! grief is a curious passion,

And yours—I am sorely afraid—

The very next phase of the fashion

Will find it beginning to fade.

 

Though dark are the shadows of grief,

The morning will follow the night,

Half-tints will betoken relief,

Till joy shall be symbol’d in white!

 

Ah, well! It were idle to quarrel

With Fashion, or aught she may do;

And so I conclude with a moral

And metaphor—warranted new.

 

When measles come handsomely out,

The patient is safest, they say;

And the sorrow is mildest, no doubt,

That works in a similar way!

The Spiritual Magazine 1 August 1871

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Widows were often, alas, fair game for the Victorian press. Many marriages were not love-matches and many women were widowed quite young. In addition, there might be economic incentive to remarry. These circumstances led to the cliche of the “merry widow,” a woman who delighted in mourning finery and thought of nothing except bagging another husband. Tragically, the author, John G. Saxe [1816-1887] poet, wit, and satirist, knew too much about mourning. Only three years after this light-hearted poem was published, he began to suffer a series of losses: his youngest daughter Laura died of consumption aged 17 in 1874. His daughter Sarah died in 1879; his mother in 1880; another daughter, Harriet, his eldest son, John, and John’s wife also died of the disease in quick succession in 1881. In 1880, his wife collapsed with an apoplexy and died, worn out from nursing her sick children and husband. Saxe himself suffered head injuries in a train accident in 1875, sank into a reclusive melancholy and died in 1887.

Mead’s is “Paul Mead’s” a chop house in Brooklyn popular with lawyers and sporting men. The last stanza refers to the belief that if the rash of measles was somehow supressed or turned inward, it would go ill with the patient.

You may read more about mourning in The Victorian Book of the Dead, now available. A recent post satirizing the fashionable widow was this one.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,”where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical 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 Fad for Widows’ Rings: 1903, 1915

widow's rings cropped

FAD FOR WIDOW’S RINGS MAY SPREAD

Western Idea Will Afford Novelty for Two Varieties of Widows–at Least During Heated Season

The latest jewelry fad–special rings for the genuine, grass, and alimonied varieties of widows–is causing excitement in the hearts of jewelers all over the country as well as in the breasts of the bereaved ones who will thus be enabled to advertise their true condition to the world.

The real widow’s ring is to be a circlet of gold with a black enamel band running through the center; the grass widow will wear one with a streak of green enamel; and the weeping Rachels with alimony will display diamonds in a continuous circle through the gold band. The rings are expected to prove highly popular with two varieties at least–for their novelty, if nothing else.

Patriot  [Harrisburg, PA] 25 June 1915: p. 1

Mourning rings had another advantage: they told of the wearer’s marital status without making a vulgar announcement:

“Some young widows who find it difficult to indicate their bereavement when indoors, with hat and flowing veil removed, take advantage of the ring to announce to susceptible young men that they have returned to the matrimonial market. They need not look melancholy. A turn of the finger and the sad news is told.

“Do men use them?”

“Most assuredly. Widowers have no way of announcing their loss except by the band on their hats. With a mourning ring all embarrassing inquiries regarding the deceased wife may be avoided and knowledge of the widower’s restored eligibility quickly and neatly imparted.” Watertown [NY] Daily Times 11 February 1888: p. 2

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Mourning rings have been in and out of vogue at least since the 16th century. Here is a description of the “revival” of such rings, from 1903

Mourning Rings.

Widows have revived the fashion of wearing mourning rings, and a design that is finding great favour in the eyes of the wealthy consists of a large single black pearl, sunk in a rim of what is known as tarnished silver. Then, too, there are cameo rings, bearing the likness of the the woman’s late husband, and set in a circlet of gold covered with black enamel.

All mourning rings are large and heavy, and must be worn above the wedding circlet.

According to jewellers, the fashion for wearing rings is on the increase. Indeed, the thumb is the only digit that you may not adorn in these days; marquise rings being first favorites for wearing on the index finger. We owe to this fashion the new finger tip squeeze, for one really cannot describe such a proceeding as anything else; and a handshake would indeed be exquisitely painful to those who have rings on every finger, the gems in which would cut into the flesh if pressed in a hearty grip.

The Star [Reynoldsville PA] 25 March 1903: p. 3

Mrs Daffodil is shocked at the notion of a widow wearing a gold ring, even adorned with black enamel, in the first stages of widowhood when, according to all of the rules of mourning, nothing lustrous may be worn. However, much mourning jewellery is set in gold and the widow’s ring may be designed for the second year of mourning, when glossy silks and polished jet are resumed. And, to be frank, in 1915, mourning observances were not followed as assiduously as in the halcyon days of Queen Victoria. The horrific casualties of the Great War took a good deal of the pleasure out of mourning.

“Grass widow” is a term with several possible meanings. She might be a woman whose husband was away on business. She might be “a woman who is separated, divorced, or lives apart from her husband,” as defined by a 19th-century dictionary. Or she might be a female living irregularly with a man already equipped with a wife. The phrase “grass widow” may also carry a suggestion of illicit trysts on the grass, alas. The “alimonied” widow, however, is no widow, but a divorcee. One wonders why diamonds are used to mark the failure of a marriage: was it a case of the former husband paying handsomely for his guilty conscience or the wages of sin?

 

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.

Several articles on mourning jewellery will be found in The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Mr Mathias Rises from the Grave: 1888

a mausoleum.JPG

MONSIEUR MATHIAS

[From the French of Jules Lermina, in the Paris “Figaro.”

Everybody in the little town of Lyre-sur-Ys was astonished when it became known that Mr Mathias was dead.

He was barely forty-five years of age, and was a robust man, as straight as an arrow. About three years before he had become the husband of a young girl of twenty, a niece of the tax collector, and whom he had loved with frenzy.

Of course, once dead, Mr Mathias was credited with having been during his lifetime the possessor of every virtue. It would have gone hard with the one who should have dared speak of him as having been a usurer or a miser, as people termed him while living.

No man would have dreamed of publishing anew the account of that celebrated marriage, which certainly did him honour, and which would have brought back to mind the remembrance how all had feared that tall, artful, avaricious and rich man whom people supposed to occupy his spare moments in concocting poisons, with which he experimented on dogs. It was no time to talk about that then. He was dead. Peace to his ashes.

After all, thinking the matter over, was there anything so very extraordinary about this death It was plain that Mr Mathias had had forebodings of its approach, for had he not, but a short time before, sent to Paris for workmen to erect in the cemetery the mortuary chapel that was at that moment waiting to receive his mortal remains? Besides it had been noticed that of late he had prowled about the house as if fearing mysterious robbers. He sequestered his wife and closed himself up for weeks in his laboratory, the chimney of which seemed in ablaze every night. All these were the premonitory symptoms of brain trouble had said Dr Labarre, who had decided that death had resulted from apoplexy.

Mr Mathias had a splendid funeral. One-third of the population of the town had followed his remains to the grave-yard, and it may even be said there were a few moist eyes when the oaken coffin was lowered into the crypt of the chapel, a real monument in itself, where two men of his size might have slept at their ease.

The mourners returned from the funeral, wondering what the widow would do.

* * *

Now, the truth of the matter is that Mr Mathias was not dead.

Two hours after the ceremony, any one who might have been in the vault where the coffin rested would have certified to the truth of this statement. Two sharp clicks, like the snap of a spring-, resounded, and the coffin opened like a closet. Mr Mathias sat up, stretching his limbs just like a man waking up. Through a grating in the ceiling a little light entered. Mr Mathias stood up, slowly rubbing his slightly benumbed knees.

Taking all in all, he felt comfortable, quite comfortable. The dose of the narcotic, which he had carefully measured himself before taking, had had the effect he desired. People had supposed him dead and buried, so much the better.

Since a long while Mr Mathias had made his preparations. The vault had been fitted up with great care. In it were suitable clothing, food, and a few bottles of good wine. As nothing stimulates the appetite more than a funeral, even if it is one’s own, Mr Mathias seated himself comfortably on his coffin, broke his fast and drank good luck to the future.

It is about time to say why, of his own free will, Mr Mathias was at that moment six feet below the surface of the ground.

As usual, there was a woman mixed in the matter. Unmoved by feminine charms until the age of forty, Mr Mathias, formerly an apothecary, who made a fortune with anti-spasm pills, fell in love with pretty Anne Peidefer, the niece of the tax-gatherer at Lyre-sur-Ys. He had bluntly proposed to the young girl, who had just as bluntly refused to become Mrs Mathias, in consequence of which he fell in love like a fool. I beg pardon I should say like a man of forty who allows himself to fall in love. Not being of an over-honest nature, he had woven such a subtle web about the tax-gatherer, that in less than a year’s time, knowing that the Government’s cash did not count up right, the unfortunate man was seriously considering the advisability of committing suicide. It was at this moment that Mr Mathias appeared in the guise of a saviour and made his terms. The niece offered herself up as a sacrifice to save an uncle who had been a father to her, although her affections were already pledged to a clerk in the office of a notary in the neighbouring town. As a sad victim on the altar of duty, Anne became Madame Mathias.

She soon felt all the consequence of the catastrophe. Mr Mathias (and perhaps he was not far wrong) was convinced that his wife hated him. From this conviction to the belief that she was deceiving him, there was but one step. Ever tormented by this suspicion, he became a monomaniac. His wife never put her foot out of doors, and nobody came to see her. Still, Mr Mathias imagined that the reason he did not catch his wife wrongdoing was on account of his awkwardness, and in his own mind he voted himself an ass.

It was then that a bright idea struck him. He would pretend that he was going on a journey, not to Versailles or Havre, as do comedy husbands, but on a long, long journey, from which it would seem very difficult for him to return.

And then, some night, he would come back as much alive as ever, to the great confusion of the guilty one.

He allowed himself three days’ time, and he was quite pleased with himself as he thought of all this, in stretching himself out comfortably in his coffin once more.

Mr Mathias was getting impatient as the third day drew to a close. He waited until the cemetery clock struck eleven, the hour he had chosen to begin operations.

His plans had all been well laid. The wall of the graveyard bounded his property. He had on hand a complete suit of black clothes in which to array himself as a phantom druggist. In the graveyard only would he wear his shroud, to be in keeping with the predominating colour of the locality. Once over the wall he would hie straight to his wife’s apartment. Then the fun would begin!

Mr Mathias dressed himself, and, everything being all right, he tilted over the marble slab covering the vault, climbed up into the mortuary chapel, opened the door, and walked out into the graveyard with his winding sheet on his arm.

As soon as he got into the alley, he unfolded the ample shroud and tried to cast it around his shoulders. But the sheet was quite heavy, and he failed in his attempt. Just as he was about to try it over again he heard a voice behind him say:

‘Hold on! I will give you a hand.’

Not to realise what a disagreeable surprise this was, would be a certain proof that one had never been at midnight in a graveyard trying to put on one’s shroud.

The voice that had addressed Mr Mathias came from the sexton of the graveyard, old Grimbot, an odd fish, well known in all the neighbouring taverns. He drew near and looked Mr Mathias full in the face, exclaimed:

‘Hello! is that you, Mr Mathias? Already!’

Mr Mathias, not a little embarrassed kept on trying to wind his shroud about him, hoping that a ghostly appearance would rid him of his inopportune companion. It did not, however. On the contrary, Grimbot kindly assisted him in putting on his sheet and arranging it so that the folds fell gracefully.

‘I have just left my tomb,’ began Mr Mathias, in a hollow voice.

‘So I see,’ said Grimbot interrupting him. You seem to be in a much greater hurry than the others.”

Mr Mathias did not listen to him. He was now taking long strides, walking on tiptoe, just like a ghost. Grimbot kept up with him and continued

‘’The idea does not come to the others so soon. They generally let a month or two go by.’

Mr Mathias suddenly turned toward him and extended both arms, exclaiming:

‘Begone, profane man! Begone!’

‘Tush! Tush!’ said Grimbot, in a fatherly tone. ‘Don’t mind me—after all I suppose you want only to take an airing like the other fellows.’

Mr Mathias kept on straight ahead, not deeming it worth his while to answer. He soon perceived, through the darkness, the gate of the cemetery. Being always prepared for the worst, he had a few louis in his pocket. ‘Come,’ said he, offering a couple of gold pieces to Grimbot, ‘let’s waste no time in talk. Here let me have the key.’

‘What! The key! you want to go out! That’s a funny notion! But, I say, none of that!’

‘I will give you four louis!’ groaned Mr Mathias.

‘Say now, stop that,’ replied Grimbot, ‘or else I’ll knock you on the head. I have no objection to your leaving your tomb and walking about. The others do so too ‘

‘The others! what others?’

Grimbot gave a wide sweep around with his hand, as he replied:

‘Why, the dead, of course!’

‘The dead—who is talking to you about the dead? Why man, I am alive, still living don’t you see?’

‘Phew! that is an awful joke; but, see here, l am a good fellow. Come along and take a drink with me.’

Like a pair of pincers his hand grasped Mr Mathias’ wrist. He dragged him to a small building, where he lived, and made him enter on the ground floor.

Mr Mathias was literally dumbfounded. After closing the door Grimbot got a bottle from a shelf, and, filling two glasses he took one and held it up, saying:

‘Here’s to you, Mr Mathias.’

‘Listen to me, good man,’ said Mr Mathias. ‘You want to have your little joke at my expense. Well and good. But there is a time for all things. For a reason that concerns me only, I have allowed myself to be buried. Now business of great importance requires my presence outside. Let me go, and, I assure you, I shall pay you well.’

While he was speaking, Grimbot had slowly walked around the table and taken a position, standing, his back against the door.

‘You are a good talker,’ sneered he. ‘So you are alive, eh? Well, you are not the first who told me that. You see I hear such strange stories. I am quite fond of my subordinates. Every night one or two of them come without ceremony to take a drink with me. Last night it was the notary. You know whom I mean your neighbour, Radel, the one that has the broken column. The night before last I had a call from Mme. Claudin, a mighty fine looking woman I can tell you. I am a good fellow. I let them walk about at night and chat with them but as to letting them go out, that is quite another thing.’

Mr Mathias began to feel uncomfortable. And no wonder, for Grimbot spoke with perfect composure, like a functionary who understood the responsibilities of his office.

He was a medium-sized, thick-set man, with hands like a gorilla’s. His eyes were black and glistening. A shiver ran through Mr Mathias’ frame as the idea struck him that the man was crazy.

Yes, that must be it. He must be a visionary fellow, who believed his graveyard peopled with ghosts. He lived in a fantastic world, the creation of a drunkard’s brain.

Mr Mathias began talking, pleading, supplicating. Why, how could he, the good, kind, intelligent, Grimbot, make such a mistake as to take him for a dead man, and he burst into a laugh.

‘Here!’ said Grimbot curtly; ‘enough of this! so long as you won’t behave reasonably, you will have to go in again.’

‘Go in again! go in where?’

‘Into the tomb!’

‘Never!’

‘You won’t! Once! Twice!’

Mr Matias looked at the enormous hands. Overcome with terror, he glanced around, looking for an opening to escape through. There was but one, the door, and there was Grimbot propped up against it! Anyhow, he had to pass, cost what it may! So he rushed forward with a scream.

Grimbot quietly put forward his open hand, into which the throat of his assailant fitted closely. Mr Mathias hiccoughed and tried to struggle. The hand closed more tightly. Mr Mathias slid down on the floor, kicked about for a little while, and then remained motionless.

Grimbot, like one used to occurrences of this kind, picked him, and, walking with the dignified step of a man conscious of having done his duty, he carried him back to the tomb, where he cast him into the crypt. He then kicked the slab back into its place, closed the grated door, and resumed his walk among the tombs muttering:

‘Did you ever see the like? Wanted to go out, eh! And me lose my situation? Not much.’

This is why Mr Mathias’ widow was able shortly after, to marry the one she always loved.

Tuapeka [NZ] Times, 25 April 1888: p. 6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The husband-pretending-to-be-dead motif is well-known to folklorists; usually it ends in tears, murder, or divorce. Here is a representative specimen:

A FAITHLESS WIFE TRAPPED BY HER HUSBAND

Stockholm, April. 10. Karl Peterson, a wealthy merchant, who had only been married a year, became suspicious of his wife, and arranged with a doctor and a solicitor for a mock death. The husband was placed in a coffin, and his will was read, leaving all his property to his wife.

Directly the doctor and solicitor departed, the wife telephoned to her lover the splendid news that her “monstrous husband was dead.” The lover arrived and kissed the wife, and Peterson thereupon leaped out of the coffin and confronted them. The wife fainted and the lover fled. Petersen was subsequently granted a divorce.

Press, 13 April 1914: p. 7

But in this month of loves and doves, one does like a happy ending, particularly for the much-tried Madame Mathias.

And how refreshing it is to find a public functionary so assiduous in his duties as well as impervious to bribery!  The citizens of Lyre-sur-Ys, alive or dead, must surely congratulate themselves on the efficient M. Grimbot. Mrs Daffodil feels confident that he never lost a corpse to a Resurrectionist.

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 Inconsolable French Widow: 1890

freja mourning

THE INCONSOLABLE WIDOW *

IN THE MONCEAU PARK DISTRICT.

Time, 2 P.M. Place, a small room next to madame’s bedroom. Madame’s husband has died during the night, and early in the morning madame summoned, by numerous telegrams, the various persons who appear. She has not obtained her mourning, and wears an old evening dress of black satin embroidered with jet, with a waist improvised out of a black lace scarf. Everything is indifferent to her. She is cast down. She speaks in sighs, replies in onomatopes; but she was so much attached to her husband and their married life was so exemplary that she wishes to give him a splendid funeral. She undertakes the whole business herself. In spite of her grief she accepts the services of nobody, but decides to attend to the whole affair.

The Widow [stretched upon a long chair supported by numerous cushions, to the dressmaker. She is hardly audible; her voice is like one long wail]—Whatever you wish and anything you wish. You know better than I do what I want. Only I would like to have one of the dresses as soon as possible; say to-morrow morning. I can’t bear to see myself in this one. The last time that I wore it [she sobs] it was at the bal de l’Opera with my poor husband. [She takes her pocket handkerchief and wipes her eyes.] We had dined with the Lalgarades, and we decided to go to the bal de l’Opera. I even had on this mantilla. Now, won’t you let me have the dress to-morrow morning?

The Young Person from the Dressmaker—Certainly, madame. We can try on the corsage this evening.

The Widow—I don’t feel strong enough for that. It will fit well enough.

The Person from the Dressmaker [after a few moments’ hesitation]—How about the sleeves? Shall they be tight-fitting or wide? [Seeing that she does [not reply.] The sleeves ?

The Widow—Ah, yes, the sleeves. [She sighs.] He couldn’t bear to see me with leg-of-mutton sleeves. Everything you do will be well done, provided I haven’t got to trouble myself with it.

The Person from the Dressmaker—We might be able to follow the last measurements in the dress vieux paon that fitted so well.

The Widow [with a far-off look in her eyes]—The-dress vieux paon. ’ [old peacock]

[Enter the waitingmaid. The Young Person from the dressmaker retires]

The Waitingmaid—They have sent from the liveryman. The messenger wishes to know if madame can receive him.

The Widow—Let all the persons to whom I have sent telegrams this morning come in. It isn’t M. Mulhtropcher?

The Waitingmaid—No, madame, it is one of the employees of his house.

The Widow—Let him come in. I am glad it is not Mulhtropcher. I prefer to speak to people who have not known my poor husband. .

[Enter the employee of Mulhtropcher.]

The Person from the Liveryman—Madame—

The Widow—Are the carriages at your place?

The Person from the Liveryman—They have just arrived. We will drape the coupé for the day after to-morrow.

The Widow—I know nothing of what is done, and I must depend entirely upon you. You prefer the coupé to the landau? He liked the landau so much; it was after his design.

The Person from the Liveryman—The coupé should follow. It is the vehicle that is used.

The Widow—He never went into it. He detested to be shut up. Nothing but the most abominable weather could induce him to return with me from the opera. He only liked his phaeton. You will have very thick crape upon the lanterns, will you not, so that the lights can scarcely be visible?

The Person from the Liveryman—Can we not also put crape inside on the windows? That is very much the fashion in England now.

The Widow—Crape inside on the windows? Oh, certainly, then we won’t have to meddle with the blinds. I like that better. I must say that I have always been shocked at seeing a carriage with the blinds lowered following a hearse.

The Person from the Liveryman—We can also drape the inside of the carriages with black satin.

The Widow—Can you have it finished day after to-morrow?

The Person from the Liveryman—Certainly, madame. We will only attend to the draping. Plain black satin. The interior of the carriage seen through the crape on the windows makes an extraordinary effect.

[The employee salutes profoundly and retires. The waitingmaid brings in another person who looks more like an attaché of the English Embassy than the clerk of a great livery-tailor’s establishment.]

The Widow—Monsieur—

The Person from Mr. Sutton—Madame, I have come from Mr. Sutton.

The Widow—I want to ask what I ought to do for the liveries during my mourning, and for the funeral of my husband.

The Person from Mr. Sutton—For the coachman, a black overcoat and black trousers. For the others, the coat, waistcoat, trousers black, white cravats.

The Widow—But during the first year?

The Person from Mr. Sutton—Trousers black and cravat white. Aiglets in black linen. Powder can only be resumed at the end of the year, when they put on white gloves.

The Widow—Then for the ceremony black gloves of course? Glossed or plain?

The Person from Mr. Sutton—Glossed. The family only wear black suede.

The Widow—Please be good enough to arrange with the coachman and my steward.

[The person from Mr. Sutton retires. The waitingmaid ushers in another gentleman, completely dressed in black with a great overcoat, eminently appropriate.]

The Widow [recognizing her picture framer]—It is you, yourself! You have learned of the misfortune that has fallen upon me, and I requested you to come to me. It will be necessary to wrap the large portrait of my husband by Bonnat in a veil of crape, quite simple, as simple as possible.

Picture Framer—With a few bouquets of immortelles?

The Widow—Oh, no! No immortelles; there would be too much of Victor Hugo about that. I will have at the foot of the portrait a large cushion, the full length of the frame, and a phoenix at the right and left. It will also be necessary to remove the two or three water-colors, you know; the large one which is over the piano especially. They are a little too cheerful. I was at a funeral lately, and in the house everybody was looking at the picture of a little woman, completely naked, getting carried up into the clouds by a big, savage butterfly. You will put the water-colors in the little room, which will be closed after to-morrow. I will only keep open the drawing-room salon and the gallery.

Picture Framer—Madame also spoke about a frame.

The Widow—In a few days. You will go to Mr. X. [She dries her eyes.] He is making a sketch of my poor husband. You can arrange with him.

[The picture framer retires. The waitingmaid brings in one of the workmen from madame’s shoemaker.]

The Widow [to the waitingmaid]—-Bring down two pairs of shoes; the last that they made for me. [To the shoemaker.] I must have a pair of shoes immediately. I have no mourning shoes. Dark kid, eh?

The Person from the Shoemaker—Oh, no, madame. For heavy mourning we only employ dark suede.

The Widow—Very well, dark suede. You will also please blacken the soles. I know nothing so ugly or so shocking as to see yellow soles when one is in heavy mourning with one’s feet on the cushions. [The waitingmaid comes back with two little pairs of shoes in her hand.] You will perform the same operation for- these two pairs. [The shoemaker goes out. Enter the corset maker.]

The Person from the Corset Maker—I beg a thousand pardons, madame, for being late, but at the present moment Madame Leoty is absent, and I have to take her place. I have come to say to madame how much we feel—I telegraphed immediately to madame—madame needs something.

The Widow—I want one corset immediately. You can make the others at leisure. I haven’t one suitable at present. Of course, it must be black. I would wish to have a plain, dull stuff, and above all things no satin, nothing that is loud. It is so troublesome to hear the noise of the new corset when one is weeping.

The Person from the Corset Maker—Yes, madame, I understand perfectly, and I will put in it, as we always do, little pieces of elastic for sobs.

[She retires and the maid comes back.]

The Widow—What is it now?

The Waitingmaid—Madame, it is the photographer. He is here with his apparatus. Shall I show him into monsieur’s room?

The Widow—Tell him to come and speak to me. I have not the courage to go into the room of my poor husband. I would be afraid to trouble Mr. X., who has been kind enough to let me have a last souvenir

[Enter the photographer.]

The Widow—Monsieur, they will conduct you into the room of my husband. You will find Mr. X. there at his bedside. I want you to catch the last impression of his features for me. I am very much obliged to Mr. Nadar. I know that this is altogether outside of the usage of his house.

The Person from Mr. Nadar—He places himself entirely at your disposal.

The Widow—I would wish a few proofs. The bust, natural size, for the family, and then the others smaller, and the bed complete. When the drawing of Mr. X. is finished, I will want you to photograph that also, very pale.

The Person from Mr. Nadar—A proof upon ivory?

The Widow—Just so. My maid will now show you the room while there is still light.

[The photographer retires.]

The Widow—I’m completely exhausted! One could not imagine all that there is to do! [She uses her little flask of lavender salts. There is a knock.] Who is there?

The Waitingmaid—Madame, it is the rector’s assistant. He says that madame wrote to the rector.

The Widow—I wrote to the rector? Do you remember that I sent a dispatch to the rector? Ask him to come up. My poor husband often said to me, “If I die before you, neither the march of Chopin nor the air of Stradella.”

[Enter the assistant minister.]

The Person from the Rector—Madame.

The Widow—Monsieur, be good enough to sit down. I am so sorry for having troubled you. It was to the organist, rather, that I had to speak.

The Person from the Rector—Madame, if I could…

The Widow—You will see him before the ceremony?

The Person from the Rector—I will see him at once. He is at this moment in the church, where the artists of the opera who are to sing at the service are rehearsing.

The Widow—I will be extremely obliged to you if you will tell him not to play Chopin’s funeral march nor to have the air of Stradella sung. My poor husband could not bear them. He made me promise

The Person from the Rector—Nothing easier. We can replace the march of Chopin by that of Beethoven.

The Widow—Neither could he bear that. He was an officer, and every time that one of his comrades was buried…

The Person from the Rector—Generally these marches…

The Widow—That’s just the reason.

The Person from the Rector—We have a religious march of Ambrose Thomas, less known, but which pleases generally.

The Widow—Ambrose Thomas was his bête noir. He only came in time for the ballet of “Hamlet,” and, indeed, very often we gave up our box at the opera. [After a moment’s reflection.] There was one thing that he adored, and that is the march which is found in the “Wanderer” of Schubert.

The Person from the Rector—? ? ? ? ?

The Widow—You don’t know it! It is magnificent. I have it here in the volume of Peters. [She rises and goes over to the music case.] Here it is. You will show it to the organist. As it is very short, he can, by seeing it beforehand, make a paraphrase. [She hunts through the volume, turns down a leaf, and hands the book to the abbé.]

The Person from the Rector—As for Pie Jesu, to replace the air of Stradella, which is certainly a little known, we have some from Faure.

The Widow—From Faure! My dear sir, what did my poor husband ever do to you? That would be a posthumous penance, and altogether too severe. [She considers for a moment.] What he adored above all things was the Danse Macabre, the Adieux de l’ hȏtesse Arabe, by Bizet. He was never tired of hearing it. Every time that I went to the piano the hȏtesse Arabe and Carmen were his two passions. Of course, I know that for a Pie Jesu—say to your organist that I will depend upon him. But nothing from Thomas or Faure. In old music let him search through Mozart or Berlioz, Schuman or Wagner. Of course, you understand, Monsieur l’Abbé, that at such a moment as this…

The Person from the Rector [rising and carrying off the volume of Peters]—Madame, I will communicate your instructions.

The Widow—Accept all my apologies for the trouble I have put you to. [He retires] That is an inspiration from heaven. Just fancy if they had played the march from Chopin and sung the air of Stradella!

[The Waitingmaid enters.]

The Widow—What is it now?

[The waitingmaid, seeing madame in tears, does not dare to speak.]

The Widow—What do you want?

The Waitingmaid [still embarrassed]—They have sent from the undertaker. The employee says that madame wrote this morning to come without delay.

The Widow—Oh, yes. Let him come up. Haven’t they also sent from the florist’s?

The Waitingmaid—Yes, madame; the messenger is below, and is also waiting.

The Widow—There is not enough light. Bring the lamps, and let them come up.

The Waitingmaid—Both together?

The Widow—Yes, I have to speak to them together. I wonder why I did not receive a reply to the dispatches which I sent to Cannes and to Trouville. [Enter the florist and a young man sent from the undertaker.]

The Widow [to the waitingmaid]—Are there no dispatches?

The Waitingmaid—There are so many that I didn’t dare…

The Widow—Bring them to me. I am expecting two. [To the florist.] Have you received my dispatch? You will have time enough. It is for the day after to-morrow.

The Person from the Florist [taking a dispatch from his pocket-book]—Seventeen crowns.

The Widow—Yes, each servant must send a crown. They will charge them to me, but each servant and the porters must send crowns. Of course they must not all be alike.

The Florist—Tea roses and marguerites. Marguerites among the tea roses. [The waitingmaid brings in the dispatches to her mistress, who reads them with emotion.]

The Widow—Ah! here is the reply from Cannes. The gardener of my villa telegraphs to me that the mimosas are in blossom. Therefore you need not put in any mimosas. I will have an enormous crown of them sent by my people, and on a ribbon, printed in silver, the words: “To Our Excellent Master.” [She reads another dispatch] This is from my villa at Trouville. They will also send me a crown of hortensias and gloires de Dijon. That will make nineteen crowns, two of them of extraordinary size sent by Cannes and Trouville. How will you manage to carry them?

The Person from the Undertaker—We must have wagons. We generally count six crowns for a wagon, but as those from Cannes and Trouville will be enormous we can put them in two little separate wagons.

The Widow-—And the wagons, how are they to be?

The Person from the Undertaker——Quite simple, draped in black; upon the hearse one cross, from you, about as long as [The widow weeps.] All in mauve orchids.

[The waitingmaid brings in another dispatch. The widow reads it and bursts into tears.]

The Widow—The stearine factories send me their condolences and announce the coming on the day after to-morrow of two deputations from the establishments and two immense crowns, to be carried by twelve of the oldest employees [she weeps], and the other by twenty-four [she sobs]—little orphans. The engineers will also send their private crowns. I think about a dozen wagons—don’t you think so, sir?

The Person from the Undertaker—There will be time enough if madame…

The Widow [to the florist]—Won’t you be kind enough to look into the glass house and see if there are two phoenixes fine enough to place before the portrait of my husband, on each side of the cushion of violets? If not, you can send me two to-morrow, and as high as possible; won’t you, please? [The two gentlemen go out. The widow again takes the dispatch sent from the factory, and again reads it attentively. It is 7 o’clock.]

The Chambermaid [entering] — Madame, Miss Camilla wishes to know if she can present her respects to madame. It was impossible for her to come sooner.

The Widow—Let her come in. I can’t understand why I’m not dead. [The young person enters.]

The Young Person from the fancy linen store—Desiring to come myself and personally tell you how much my mistress is concerned for the trouble which has come upon you

The Widow—It is dreadful. Nobody could have foreseen such a catastrophe. I haven’t energy enough for anything. You have received my note? You will send what I will need for to-morrow; you know what I want better than I do.

The Young Person—Precisely, but I wish to ask…

The Widow—To ask me anything! Everything that you do will be done well. I have absolutely nothing to put on in the matter of mourning linen.

The Young Person—It is already ordered. Everything will be in black cambric, with a little Chantilly lace, very simple and no higher than that.

The Widow—But the ribbons—Bear in mind that I must not have anything loud.

The Young Person—All the ribbons for heavy mourning are in peau de soie. [After a moment’s hesitation.] Now for the linen for half-mourning? Madame would do well to look out for that beforehand.

The Widow—The half-mourning! How can you speak to me of half-mourning? Can I ever quit the deep mourning of misfortune? [She weeps.]

The Young Person—I know it, madame; I never had a doubt of it; but I have not succeeded in making myself understood. I mean the linen for half-mourning that is worn after the first six months. It is in white cambric with a Chantilly border. If I spoke of it to madame it was because the work is so delicate, and in order to have it done as I would wish to have it done for madame it would take at least six months. I hope you will pardon me.

The Widow—I can count upon a dozen or two of pocket handkerchiefs for to-morrow?

The Young Person—Certainly, madame, you will have a dozen to-morrow morning; we will work all night. [She salutes and retires.]

The Widow [alone]—Who next? I’m dead! It seems to me that I have something else. Oh! my goodness, what was I going to do? [She gets up and runs to the writing table.] I forgot to notify the Grandmenils of the death of my husband. I gave them my box for this evening, and now they might easily suppose that I only gave it to them because my husband was dead. Seven o’clock! Well, a messenger must carry it. [She writes.]

The Footman enters—Madame, dinner is now ready.

The Widow [without turning round and continuing her writing]—I will be down in a moment. I’m writing a letter. Tell monsieur to commence without me.

[The footman remains nailed to the floor. Madame, becoming aware of her absent-mindedness, falls back on her chair, bursts into tears, then takes the photograph of her husband, before her in a little frame, and covers it with kisses.]

[* La Vie Parisienne: N. Y. Sun Translation.]

The Sun [New York NY] 16 November 1890: p. 26

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Mrs Daffodil would not dare to add anything to this exhaustive look at French mourning customs. Whenever she is asked about Queen Victoria’s responsibility for excesses in Victorian mourning minutiae, Mrs Daffodil simply directs the questioner across the Channel.

For more on the popular and material culture of Victorian mourning, see The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition  and The Victorian Book of the Dead blog.

My Fatal Valentine

My Fatal Valentine The Fatal Letter.

Valentine’s Day always brings out the best in mankind: the delightful box of chocolates, the gay flowers, the heart-warming sentiments, the vicious valentines…. Today we flip through a rack of gruesome, horrid, insulting and threatening valentines, and discover some missives to die for.

Several years ago, in a piece called “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacres,” I wrote about the scourge of “Vinegar Valentines” and the violence they inspired in their recipients. That post included  several stories of greeting-card-induced murder, murder/suicide, and the sad story of a young servant, Margaret Cray, who killed herself when her beloved apparently sent her a cruel valentine. I was surprised to learn that this was not a unique incident.

A FATAL VALENTINE

Mrs. Bowers Commits Suicide Because a Valentine Insults Her.

[N.Y. Tribune.]

Just at dark Thursday evening a woman was seen leaning over the coping at 401 West Nineteenth street. Then she seemingly pitched forward, hung for a moment with failing grasp upon the coping and then fell into the area in Nineteenth street, a distance of fifty feet. The neighbors, who hastened to her side, recognized her as Mrs. Delia C. Bowers. She was borne, still alive, to her apartments at 151 Ninth avenue. She died an hour later. She and her husband, Mr. Daniel H. Bowers, attended the Sixteenth Street Church, of which she was a devoted member. Their home life was unruffled until on St. Valentine’s Day Mrs. Bowers received two valentines and a letter. One was entitled, “A Seamstress,” the other, “In Love with Every Preacher,” and the letter left no doubt that the sender intended a scandalous charge against Mrs. Bowers. She handed the three missives to her husband, and he laughed at them; but a neighbour talked about them among Mrs. Bowers’ acquaintance, and despite her husband’s confidence in her, the groundless scandal dethroned her reason. The New Orleans [LA] Daily Democrat 28 February 1877: p. 8

Valentines were often used to intimidate their recipients, much like the crape and coffin threats I’ve mentioned before.

STRANGE VALENTINE Joseph Taylor Has Placed the Matter in Government Hands

Hagerstown, Md., Feb. 18. Joseph Taylor, of Washington county, received a valentine on which were drawn pictures of a hearse, skull and cross bones and the word “Beware.”

He brought it to Hagerstown and showed it to Deputy United States Marshall Oliver, who will make an investigation, as the missive passed through the mails. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 19 February 1898: p. 6

A similar valentine threat, which included some grave allegations about a “respectable man with a family,” had been sent a year earlier, in Colorado.

A GRINNING SKULL.

UNDERNEATH THE VALENTINE BORE THE WORD “BEWARE”

Chief Post office Inspector McMechen’s office is investigating a thrilling case of using the mails to intimidate. On the chief’s desk lies a hideous valentine depicting a pearly human skull staring with a stony, forbidding smile from a gory background. Beneath in letters evidently intended as a piratical black is printed, “Beware!”

In this morning’s mail came a letter from a prominent citizen of Hooper, Colo., who states that he has received the valentine and the accompanying letter from whom he has no idea, as the letter and valentine bear no names. “I am a respectable man with a family and am guiltless of the charges made. I ask you to help me. This is the second letter of this nature I have received through the Hooper post office.

The letter is written in an uneducated hand in blue pencil. It says: “Beware! You have ruined my sister’s reputation and robbed her of her virtue. You said you would go to Mosca, but did not. I have warned you before! Clear out and never let me see you again. If you remain, some of these dark nights you will turn up missing. Remember, stay and DIE!”

Prompt action will be taken on this most gruesome valentine and its skull. Denver [CO] Post 15 February 1897: p. 2

Mystifyingly, flesh-and-blood hearts were thought to be an acceptable token of esteem. Sometimes they were sent as a joke:

RECEIVES REAL HEART FOR VALENTINE TOKEN

T.F. Wilson, a Retired Ranchman, Remembered in Unique Way by His Old Friends.

Thomas F. Wilson, a retired ranchman living on South Conejos street, has received what is perhaps the most unique valentine of any residenet of this city. The token consisted of a sheep’s heart in a small tin box, and was sent by some of his friends in the vicinity of Falcon. On opening the package, Mr. Wilson read the inscription, “Take my heart and give me yours,” and was much surprised to see an organ resembling that of a human being. His fears were not allayed until a friend who had been in on the joke explained it to him. Colorado Springs [CO] Gazette 16 February 1911: p. 5

And sometimes not.

A Strange Valentine

A Troy young lady received on Saturday last the most wonderful valentine on record. Neatly encased in a box she found a beef’s heart pierced with a golden arrow of elegant manufacture, set with jewels and estimated to be worth at least $75. It is probably intended to be used as a neck pin or as an ornament for the pair. There was not the least intimation who is the giver, nor can the lady or her family imagine who sent it. For the donor of so munificent a gift he shows a strange taste in sending such a remarkable valentine to a lady. A pet dog had the heart for his dinner, but what do to with the pin the lady can hardly determine. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 20 February 1875: p. 1

At least the dog appreciated it. And she could sell the pin.

Then there were the other body parts, reminiscent, in this case, of Van Gogh.

LEILA’S STRANGE VALENTINE

Human Ear Was Enclosed in a Box and Sent to a Woman.

St. Louis, Mo., Feb. 14. There was wild excitement at Miss Norma Langdon’s mansion, at 1311 Pine st., about noon today.

The cause was a valentine received by Leila Powers, one of her guests.

The valentine was a pretty fabrication of lace and pink celluloid, and within the box that contained it there was a human ear, only recently severed from the head and still bloody.

The box and its contents had lain undisturbed in Miss Langdon’s sleeping apartments about 12 hours, for Leila Powers had a short time before disappeared from the house.

No one at the house knew its contents, but the office authorities had opened the parcel to make sure there was no writing in it, and that it was entitled to third-class postal rates. They were horrified to find the bloody ear, evidently that of a delicate woman, close to the pretty valentine. The carrier hastily rewrapped the gruesome bundle, separated it cautiously from the rest of his mail, and breathed a sigh of relief when he had safely delivered it. The Boston [MA] Daily Globe 15 February 1893: p. 6

I wondered about that “mansion” and its guests. Norma Langdon seems to have run an “improper house” for “soiled doves,” if we go by various court reports and an article about Nora Way “an inmate of the house on Tenth street kept by Norma,” who attempted to stab Norma in 1886. St Louis [MO] Post-Dispatch 10 August 1886: p. 7. I could find no further word on the fate of Miss Powers or the ear’s owner.

Another ear was sent as a valentine to a Virginia man in 1903, noted with the casual racism of the day.

Mr. E.D. Foster, of Clifton Forge, received a very peculiar valentine, which caused much comment. A human ear, taken from a grown negro (supposed by some college friend), was sent him nicely decorated with ribbon and securely packed in a box padded with cotton. Mr. Foster takes great pride in exhibiting the oddity, which is indeed a peculiar valentine. Richmond [VA] Times Dispatch 22 February 1903: p. 15

 

“My Buxom Widow” vinegar valentine. http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/533291.html
Widow “to be let” Vinegar Valentine http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/534700.html

It seems incredible, but a particular class of “vinegar valentines” was directed at tormenting widows, suggesting that they were “man eaters” or “merry widows” eager to snag a man or that they were glad their husband was dead. In a heartless case in Chicago, a newly-bereaved and deeply grieving widow was the victim of one of these valentines.

Mrs. Sarah Sweeney Tries to Die Because of a Comic.

DRINKS A CUP OF ETHER

Missive Laid at Her Door at 150 Gladys Avenue.

CRUEL VERSES TO A WIDOW

Grief and mortification at finding a hideous valentine underneath her door on her return from viewing the body of her husband in the receiving vault at Calvary impelled Mrs. Sarah Sweeney, 150 Gladys avenue, a widow of one month, to swallow a cupful of ether in an effort to end her life. The valentine, on which were a picture and some unkind verses inscribed to “A Widow,” is supposed to have been sent by mischievous boys of the neighbourhood.

Mrs. Sweeney was discovered a few minutes after she had swallowed the ether by her sister, Mrs. E.L. Seaton, and a physician was summoned in time to save her life. She is still in a precarious state, however, and the prank played on her, together with her own troubles, threatens to seriously affect her mind.

Mrs. Sweeney’s husband, Philip Sweeney, was the proprietor of a prosperous plumbing business at 1025 West Lake street up to the time of his death, one month ago. The family, including two young children, was known to the neighbourhood as an unusually happy one, and when Mr. Sweeney died suddenly his wife was prostrated by the shock, and for a time her life also was almost despaired of.

The grief of the widow was so great that she was reluctant to have her husband’s body buried at once, and to please her it was placed in a receiving vault at Calvary, where she made regular visits, often looking at the remains. Her friends were unable to persuade her to stay away, although it was found that the visits only aggravated her grief.

Two weeks ago Mrs. Sweeney and her two children left the house at 1025 West Lake street, where the family had lived for almost ten years, and moved to 150 Gladys avenue. Once away from her old surroundings and partly lost sight of by her friends, grief took possession of the widow to such an extent that her relatives feared she would try to end her life. Mrs. Seaton went to live with Mrs. Sweeney and her children. The latter still continued her visits to the cemetery.

Finds the Cruel Valentine.

On St. Valentine’s day Mrs. Sweeney went early to Calvary and took what she said was to be a final glance at her husband’s remains. She reached home a short time before noon, almost hysterical. The valentine was lying underneath the door and Mrs. Sweeney found it. It contained a cruel picture, supposed to represent a widow, and verses that were even more unkind than the picture. The sight of it threw Mrs. Sweeney into hysterics, as she thought it a reflection upon her grief for her husband.

Although the neighbors, who had deep sympathy for her sorrow, assured her that the work was only a boyish prank, Mrs. Sweeney was inconsolable. She threatened to end her life, also, and for three days it was necessary to keep her partly under the influence of opiates.

On Friday morning she appeared to have forgotten all about the valentine, and her relatives rejoiced to think that she had finally gotten control of her grief.

There was a quantity of ether in the house which had been used by Mr. Sweeney in his plumbing business. Just before noon Mrs. Sweeney poured out a quantity of this, and, telling her sister she was going to end her “headache,” swallowed the drug before anyone could prevent her. The cries of Mrs. Sweeney’s sister aroused the neighbourhood and Dr. Richard H. Brown, California avenue and Jackson boulevard, was hurriedly brought. A half hour’s hard work brought the woman back to consciousness, though she was still hysterical over the memory of the valentine.

No effort has been made to discover who the senders of the offending paper were. Chicago [IL] Daily Tribune 20 February 1898: p. 12

Why the hell not? If children had left the valentine, at the very least strong words seemed in order. If an adult, charges of reckless endangerment or depraved indifference might have fit the case; involuntary manslaughter if the widow died.

And that is the big question. While I was able to find Dr. Brown in the medical rosters, Mr. and Mrs. Sweeney seem to be missing from the online record. Did she survive?

chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com, who will not be opening any mail today.

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.