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.

Christmas Mourning: 1895

1895 mourning accessories. 65.231.4a-b 0004 http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/156835?rpp=30&pg=3&ao=on&ft=mourning&pos=69

ONLY A MOURNING VEIL

Glimpses at a Modern Pawnbroker’s Sale in New York.

BAB BEFRIENDS A WOMAN

It Was at the Humane Establishment on Fifth Avenue and Many Unredeemed Pledges Were at Auction

A Pathetic Christmas Story of a Fallen Daughter.

 New York, December 20, 1895

It was a very queer crowd—in the extreme front were the pawnbrokers from off the Bowery. Among them, and around them, were fashionable women, who looked frightened because their sables were a little too close to shabby coats, and because their ears were shocked by loud voices. It was the sale of society’s pawnshop—that is to say, the pawnshops that society, properly enough, is backing. The pawnshop permits you to get back whatever you pawn on the installment plan, and all the percentage that is asks is a very small one, so that your heart’s blood is not dragged from you, and there is some chance for the poor. But there were so many things no called for, and there had to be a sale. To be in harmony, this sale took place in a fashionable auction room on the Fifth avenue. The day before some beautiful pictures were sold, and the newest beauty flirted with the handsomest millionaire, and there was a mixed odor of violets and sable, while the seats were filled by the people who at night occupy boxes at the opera. The Four Hundred usually go to this auction room, but to-day it was the representatives of the four million who were there.

How the dealers did lean forward to look at the diamonds! They were so eager that they were told to sit down. And such pitiful diamonds as they were! Good enough stones, but those in rings were set as you remember your mother’s engagement ring was. Those in brooches were in the deep, old-fashioned way that didn’t bring out the brightness of the stone, but which was though very smart fifty years ago. There were old-fashioned breast-pins, such as gentlemen used to wear in their scarfs; there was a flounce of Spanish lace—whose dress had it trimmed? There was a little watch with an open face, and on the back engraved “To the One Woman from Him” –who was she?

Poverty at the Sale.

My neighbor on my right was a shabby woman, not pleasant to look upon. She was thin, she was tall, her features were sharp, and she had that peculiar air that one sees among the people of the other side of never having been satisfied. Never having been warm enough, never having had clothes enough, and never having had quite enough to eat. She had on a black alpaca dress, a miserable looking black crape bonnet, while a shabby blue and green shawl was wrapped around her shoulders. She pushed her way through the crowd, bringing a stool with her, shoved me closer to the wall, placed her stool and seated herself. Then she borrowed my catalogue. She turned over several pages, and I heard her say to herself, “’Taint come up yet.” She continued talking, and although I did not understand every word, I did heard her say, “if I’d a got here before the sale commended, there’d a been no trouble; but when you hire out for a day, people they say ‘gimme a day,’ but I was bent on comin’ here this afternoon to get that.”

Rings were sold, watches were sold, there were so many wedding rings sold, and then there was a child’s necklace put upon a string of coral beads with a tiny enameled clasp. I glanced at my neighbor, thinking it was that in which she was interested, but no; she evidently cared nothing for it. In a few minutes I felt her touch me on the arm. I looked around and smiled. She said, “Lady, would you be afraid to bid on anything?” I told her I wouldn’t, and then she asked, “If I start and don’t get right will you straighten me?” I promised. Then I heard her say, “I had enough to pay for the ticket, but a handsom’ thing like that—well, there’s no telling what some of these fashionable folks will do.”

Bid All the Money She Had.

Suddenly the auctioneer said: “I am not in the habit of selling dry goods, but—“

There was a hush, and for once the brokers were silent. And I knew, in some queer way, some inexplicable way, that what my neighbor had come for was put up. It was not a diamond ring, it was not a beautiful watch, it was not a long gold chain; it was only—a mourning veil. For a second—and it seemed like an hour—nobody bid. Then the auctioneer said, “Won’t somebody start this?” Somebody did for 50 cents. In a second my neighbor was on her feet, and it was raised to 75 cents. Her opponent called out a dollar. She raised it a quarter. He made it a dollar and a half. She raised it another quarter. He made it $2. She sat down, the tears streaming down her face. I heard her say, “I ain’t got a penny more, an’ can’t get it.”

I lifted my muff way up in the air. The auctioneer saw it, and the veil was knocked down to me for two dollars and a half. She looked at me quickly. She saw the smile on my face, the smile that struggled with tears for supremacy, and she realized the truth. Grasping my gloved hand in her hard, rough one, she said: “I’ll work it out.” But I whispered good-by, gave my card to her, and was glad that I had been of use to somebody in the world.

The next morning I went in to pay my bill, and the cashier said to me: “There is a woman here, a woman who was here when we opened the door, and she is waiting for you.” It was my friend of the day before. I felt that she was unusual in her desired to say “thank you,” for experience has taught me that thanks are the scarcest things in this world and yet they cost the least. But here she stood, stiff and starved looking, and with the precious veil in her hand. After the ordinary thank you, she said to me, “You must let me pay you the money I’ve got, lady, and as I told you yesterday, I’ll work out the rest.” I told her it was not necessary, that I was glad to think I had been able to make her happy. And then she began to cry.

Her Daughter an Actress.

She said, “It mayn’t seem much to you, but it’s a great deal to me. Times has been hard with me, else this’d never gone into the pawnshop. I’m common, lady, but I had a girl and you’d never thought she was my girl. And she was like you and the other ladies and wore soft furs, and dresses that rustled, and always had a nice perfume all around her. She was pretty when she was a baby, and when her father died some kind people got the Sisters interested in her, and they took her in the school for nothin’. An’ she was so bright and pretty that they taught her to play on the piano, an’ she could sing and talk to the laundress that lives in the same house with us, and who comes from way off across the sea just as well as she could to me, though the langwidges was different. I always thought she was goin’ to be a teacher, an’ when she came home to my poor place, just one room, I used to think how comfortable we’d be when she got a situation an’ we could take a cheap little flat and enjoy ourselves. But no, she said she was goin’ to be an actress. I don’t know how she managed it. No, I never went to see her act. Somehow it didn’t seem right to me. But she sent for me once, an’ I went to a big hotel, an’ there she was lookin’ like a queen, an’ she told me she was married, an’ showed me the picture of a handsome young man. An’ she wanted to give me some money, but I said ‘No, my dear, I know just how fussy some son-in-laws are, an’ this one shan’t say that your mother’s interferin’ with you.’

“I could always keep myself decent, but I just made up my mind I’d have to give her up. Once in a while the neighbors would show me a paper, where there would be a picture of her, and it’d tell how she played and sang and how much people liked her. But I never saw her again ‘till one night last winter near Christmas. I’d gone to bed. There was a knock at the door, and who should it be but my girl.

She and the Baby Died.

“I saw she was in trouble, and when she says to me, ‘Mother, I’m a bad girl, but I have come back to you,’ I remembered that story in the Bible where his father went far out to meet him, an’ I never blamed her. She had a few trinkets, and they went first to get medicine. Then came that awful night when her baby was born. They both died. The poor little baby seemed to know it wasn’t wanted in this world, an’ it just opened its eyes an’ closed them again. But she, she said to me,’ Mother, I don’t want you to forget me’ an’ I promised her I wouldn’t. An’ to show I didn’t, I got this crape bonnet and that veil and wore them to the funeral. That was Christmas Eve she died, nearly a year ago, and during the year I have been strapped pretty tight, and I bundled up a lot of things and took them to the pawnbroker so I might square myself with the undertaker. They was things I didn’t care for, but he wouldn’t gimme enough on the, so I just yanked off my veil and left it. An’ I have been worrying for it ever since. I thought I’d get here in time to redeem it, ‘cause I kept my ticket, but I appreciate your kindness, lady, an’ I think you can understand why just when it was getting’ near Christmas I wanted to have my veil on, ‘cause it seemed to tell those people who knew her that, no matter what she was, no matter how she acted, she was my girl, an’ I wore the veil in memory of her. God give you and yours a happy Christmas.”…

It is strange how that spirit of Christmas brings up in our hearts the desire to keep before us always those for whom Christmas was made joyful many years ago. There are processions of children who are thought of, and the memory of each one comes back to the mother heart that has each missed a little child. And that mother heart can sympathize with the hard, common-looking old woman who longed so for her black crape veil that she might show on Christmas Day she had not forgotten her daughter….

The Washington [DC] Post 22 December 1895: p. 22

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil has previously written about the desperate desire by the poor for respectful and respectable mourning. To those comfortably well-off, it seemed a foolish mania to spend all the burial club money on crape and display. This struggling woman, however, points the moral that wearing mourning was not always about what the neighbours thought, but of love for the unforgotten dead.

For more on mourning veils and Victorian mourning, see The Victorian Book of the Dead.

http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/156835?rpp=30&pg=3&ao=on&ft=mourning&pos=69

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 Grief Department – Shopping for Mourning Goods

 

mourning for families Jay's warehouse 1880s
1888 advertisement for Jay’s General Mourning Warehouse, London

FASHIONABLE MOURNING. THE HABILIMENTS OF GRIEF,

FROM A COMMERCIAL POINT OF VIEW.

On the occasion of a recent visit to London, whilst I was debating with myself over the breakfast things as to how I should spend the day, I received by the post a letter deeply bordered with black, evidently a messenger of affliction. I tore the white weeping willow upon a black background which formed the device upon the seal, and read the contents. It proved to be an intimation from a relative of the sudden death of her brother-in-law, and a request that, under the circumstances of the sudden bereavement of the widow, I should undertake certain sad commissions relative to the articles of mourning required by the family. I at once set out upon my sad errand.

I had no difficulty in finding the maison de deuil to which I had been referred. It met me in the sad habiliments of woe; no vulgar colors glared from the shop windows, no gildings amazed with its festive brightness. The name of the firm scarce presumed to make itself seen in letters of the saddest gray upon a black ground. Here and there heads of white set off the general gloom of the house-front, like the crape piping of a widow’s cap. The very metal window frames and plates had gone into a decorous morning–zinc having taken the place of what we feel, under the circumstances, would have been quite out of the character: brass.

On pushing the plate glass door, it gave way with a hushed and muffled sound, and I was met by a gentlemen of sad expression, who, in the most sympathetic voice, inquired the nature of my want, and, on my explaining myself, directed me to the Inconsolable Grief Department. The interior of the establishment answered exactly to the appearance without. The long passage I had to traverse was paneled in white and black borderings, like so many mourning cards placed on end; and I was rapidly becoming impressed with the deep solemnity of the place, when I caught sight of a neat little figure rolling up some ribbon, who on my inquiring if I had arrived at the Inconsolable Grief Department, replied almost in a tone of gaiety, that that was the half-mourning counter, and that I must proceed further on until I had passed the repository for widowsilk.

Following her directions, I at last reached my destination–a large room draped in black with a hushed atmosphere about it as though somebody was lying invisible there in state. An attendant in sable habiliments, picked out with the inevitable white tie, and with an undertakerish eye and manner, awaited my commands, I produced my written directions. Scanning it critically, he said: “Permit me to inquire, sir, if it is a deceased partner?” I nodded assent. “We take the liberty of asking this distressing question,” he continued, “as we are extremely anxious to keep up the character of our establishment by matching, as it were, the exact shade of affliction. Our paramatta and crapes give satisfaction to the deepest woe. Permit me to show you a new texture of surprising beauty and elegance manufactured specially for this house, and which we call the inconsolable. Quite a novelty in the trade, I do assure you, sir.”

With this he placed a pasteboard box before me full of mourning fabrics.

“Is this it?” I inquired, lifting a lugubrious piece of draping.

“Oh, no!” he replied, “the one you have in your hand was manufactured for last year’s affliction, and was termed, ‘The Stunning Blow Shade.’ It makes up well, however, with our sudden bereavement silk- a leading article–and our distraction trimmings.”

“I fear,” said I, “my commission says nothing about these novelties.”

“Ladies in the country,” he blandly replied, “don’t know of the perfection to which the art of mourning genteelly has been brought! But I will see that your commission is attended to to the letter.”

Giving another glance over the list, he observed; “Oh! I perceive a widow’s cap is mentioned here, I must trouble you, sir, to proceed to the Weeds Department for that article–the first turning to the left.”

Proceeding, as directed, I came to a recess fitted up with a solid phalanx of widow’s caps. I perceived at a glance that they exhausted the whole gamut of grief, from the deepest shade to that tone which is expressive of a pleasing melancholy. The foremost row confronted me with the sad liveries of crapen folds, whilst those behind gradually faded off into light, ethereal tarleton, and one or two of the outsiders were even breaking out into worldly features and flaunting weepers. Forgetting the proprieties of the moment, I inquired of the grave attendant if one of the latter would be suitable.

“Oh! no, sir,” she replied with a slight shade of severity in the tone of her voice; “You may gradually work up to that in a year or two. But any of these,” pointing to the first row of widows’ weeds- -are suitable for the first burst of grief.”

Acquiescing in the propriety of this sliding scale of sorrow, I selected some weeds expressive of the deepest dejections I could find, and having completed my commission, inquired where I could procure for myself some lavender gloves.

“Oh! for those things, sir,” she said, in the voice of Tragedy speaking to Comedy, “you must turn to your right, and you will come to the Complimentary Mourning counter.”

Turning to the right, accordingly, I was surprised, and not a little shocked, to find myself amongst worldly colors. Tender lavender, I had expected; but violet, mauve, and even absolute red, stared me in the face. Thinking I had made a mistake, I was about to retire, when a young lady, in a cheerful tone of voice, inquired if I wanted anything in her department.

“I was looking for the Complimentary Mourning counter,” I replied, “for some gloves; but I fear I am wrong.”

“You are quite right, sir,” she observed. “This is it.”

She saw my eye glance at the cheerful colored silks, and with the instinctive tact of a woman guessed my thoughts in a moment. “Mauve, sir, is very appropriate for the lighter sorrows.”

“But absolute red!” I retorted, pointing to some velvet of that color.

“Is quite admissible when you mourn the departure of a distant relative. But allow me to show you some gloves?” and, suiting the action to the word, she lifted the cover from a tasteful glove box, and displayed a perfect picture of delicate half-tones, indicative of a struggle between the cheerful and the sad. “There is a pleasing melancholy in this shade of gray,” she remarked, indenting slightly each outer knuckle with the soft elastic kid as she measured my hand.

“Can you find lavender?”

“Oh, yes! but the sorrow tint is very slight in that; however, it wears admirably.”

Thus, by degrees, the grief of the establishment died out in tenderest lavender, and I took my departure deeply impressed with the charming improvements which Parisian taste has effected in the plain, old-fashioned style of English mourning.

The Christian Recorder 19 September 1863

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: For more about the Byzantine conventions of Victorian mourning see Mourning Becomes Elective. For a look at a strange garden party at the London home of the Duke of Sutherland, promoting funeral reform and wicker-work coffins, see Wicker Man. The story “Crape” in the neo-Edwardian collection A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales , tells of the revenge exacted from beyond the grave by an aunt determined to be “mourned relentlessly.” For further reading, see Mourning Dress: A Costume and Social History, by Lou Taylor.

The piece above appears in The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition.

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

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.

Alternatives for Mourning During the Great War: 1914-1918

mourning hat and veil 1914

On this week of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, we remember some of the alternative methods of mourning suggested during the Great War.

In 1917 Reformer Dorothy Dix strongly urged an end to traditional deep mourning. She pointed out that “What the psychological effect, not only upon the minds of women, but upon men of the sight of thousands of women dressed in mourning is appalling to consider…[a woman who puts on a colored dress] saddens no one else with her sorrow. She stabs no other woman to the heart with a remembrance of her own loss…Her colored dress, worn when her very soul is black with mourning, is the red badge of courage.”

Further, mourning is costly: “the cost of a complete mourning equipment for a well to do family would buy many liberty bonds…It is said that this war is going to be won by money…Therefore, the women of the country cannot only do a big patriotic duty, but avenge their dead by putting their money into bullets instead of crepe.”

And, finally, wearing mourning is literally sickening: “That women are depressed by wearing mourning and are made sick and nervous is a well-established fact…it wrecks her own health and makes her sacrifice the living to the dead…I hope that the women of America will rise above the heathenish custom of decking themselves out in black to show that they grieve. There will be no need of flaunting personal grief, for at the bier of every soldier who dies for his county the whole nation will bow in sorrow…” Augusta [GA] Chronicle 5 December 1917: p. 5

1918 New York State National Guard jacket, made in England, with mourning band. http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/159419?rpp=30&pg=1&ft=military+jacket+Henry+Poole+%26+Co&pos=1

In 1914 Mrs Edward Lyttleton, wife of a clergyman soon to be criticised for his German sympathies, suggested that mourning for the dead of the War should consist of a “simple narrow band of purple cloth to be worn on the left arm by every man, woman or child who had lost a relation in the war.” She pointed out the economical advantages and that the badge “would be the same for all classes.”  In addition, “If the well-to-do women of the empire would lead the way in this matter they would make things easier for their poorer sisters, who surely must often stint themselves of necessities in order to get the “bit of black” so dear to their hearts.” The Denver [CO] Post 16 October 1914: p. 10

The mourning armband with a star. The patent application was filed in 1918, but it was not patented until 1920.

Another arm-band scheme was suggested much later in the conflict and endorsed by the President of the United States.

“No mourning costumes during war time, but rather the substitution of a mourning badge or an arm-band of black with a gray star,” was the recommendation of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs at a session at Hot Springs, Ark. Mrs. L. Brackett Bishop, of Chicago, suggested that the conventional period of mourning be abolished during the war. Mrs. Bishop has made an extensive study of colors and concludes that the wearing of black causes many mental disturbances. “Certain colors are avoided by women because their nature resents them,” she said. “But the general effect is happiness. If happiness is to be won in the world, color will do it. Another reason for this strong need of color is the fact that the earth revolves each twenty-four hours a day, and each day we are in the same plane as was the fighting of yesterday. We must be bright and cheery to overcome the cloudy days. Color will win the war for us, and it is going to be won by the colors we wear and by the brightness we can thus add to the world and to the people about us through the mental attitude expressed in our costumes.” A standard arm-band furnishes an excellent substitute for the wearing of black. It has all the objectionable features of black removed and still serves the purpose of indicating that a death has occurred.

Arm-Bands Are Advocated

Patents for a standard arm-band have been applied for. This arm-band consists of a black background symbolizing the black war-cloud with the blue sky beyond. A torch indicates the blazing path of national attainment and a lyre symbolizes the rejoicing at valor and sacrifice, while the dove of peace hovers over all. These bands are to be made in the colors of the Allies. [This design does not appear in the patent records.]

The Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defense has suggested an arm-band with a gold star for the death of each member of the family in service. President Wilson has given his approval of the suggestion in the following letter made public by Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, chairman of the committee:

“My Dear Dr. Shaw: Thank you for your letter of yesterday. I do entirely approve of the action taken by the Women’s Committee in executive session, namely, that a 3-inch black band should be worn, upon which a gilt star may be placed for each member of the family whose life is lost in the service, and that the band shall be worn on the left arm. I hope and believe that thoughtful people everywhere will approve of this action, and I hope that you will be kind enough to make the suggestion of the committee public, with the statement that it has my cordial indorsement. Cordially and sincerely yours, WOODROW WILSON.”

In an explanatory statement on the subject the Women’s Committee says:

For a long time the Women’s Committee has been receiving letters from women urging some such action on their part. The determined avoidance of mourning by English women has been much commented on and praised. One woman. who advocates this step has four sons in the service one of whom has already been killed. She wrote recently: “I know the costliness of such supreme glory and sacrifice, and have felt both the selfish temptation to hide my pain behind a mourning that would hold off intrusion and the inspiration and stimulus of keeping up to my gallant son’s expectation that I should regard his death as a happy promotion into higher service. Patriotism means such exalted living that dying is not the harder part.”

The insignia which has been chosen by the Women’s Committee is of a kind that can readily be made at home out of whatever material can be procured. The band is to be black and 3 inches wide—the stars gilt, and one for each member of the family who has lost his life in service. These stars may be gold, of gilded metal, or satin, or of cloth. The design will not be patented, and the insignia will never become a commercial article. Dry Goods, Volume 19, July 1918, p. 5

A Jet mourning brooch, c. 1880s

A return to a Victorian insignia of mourning was also suggested.

Old-Fashioned Jet Brooch Replaces Crepe.

American Women Join in Move to Discard Mourning Garments.

Now that almost all American women are joining it the movement to help win the war by banishing from the streets the depressing sight of crepe and deep mourning garments, the need is felt for some expressive symbol that shall be the privilege of those bereft by death, whether through the war or through other causes….every woman who feels it a sacrifice to give up her mourning apparel would appreciate some distinguishing symbol the wearing of which would satisfy her own heart.

When the question was being discussed the other day in a room full of women, knitting for the Red Cross, one sweet-faced little woman pointed to a beautiful old-fashioned jet brooch at her throat. “This,” said she, “is my mourning. It is a treasured family heirloom full of dear associations. The members of our family do not believe in mourning apparel, but this brooch represents to me, mourning. It is never worn except at such periods, and is then worn constantly—with all costumes. When I wear this brooch, I am in mourning as truly as though clothed in deepest black.” The idea seems a very beautiful one which may well be passed on. In every family there is some piece of jewelry of this sort beloved because of association with those who have gone before and worthy of being the special symbol of remembrance and a time set apart from worldly pursuits. Oregonian [Portland, OR] 23 June 1918: p. 73

For more information on mourning in the Victorian era, with some notes on the Great War, see The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Mrs Daffodil’s previous Remembrance Day post on the Peerage in mourning is here.

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.

Ashes à la carte

 

coffee can urn
Ashes a la carte Coffee Can Urn https://mcphee.com/products/modest-urn

Recently I noted some startling tabloid-fodder in the British press;  an article about a daughter grieving her late mother, who decided to eat her Mum’s ashes with her Christmas dinner. She was quoted as saying sadly, “I feel like she can live on by being inside of me.” Comments on the story ranged from sympathy for her loss to harsh words about her mental state.

It is such a strange and unpalatable story (is there a medical term for this curious taste–parental pica, perhaps?), but if you can’t trust the Mirror, who can you trust?

Just yesterday a report about cookies supposedly baked with human ashes was being circulated, although there is a possibility that it is merely a sensational story.

Since this blog is nothing if not topical, here is a similar story from 1901. At that date, cremation was a relatively new idea (The first modern crematorium in the United States was built in 1876; the first in England in 1878.) and its proponents were sometimes seen as eccentric or even mad. In this story, an excerpt from The Victorian Book of the Dead, we meet Mrs Matilda Francefort, who took to heart the sentiment: “bone of my bone; flesh of my flesh.”

Cremation’s Odd Phases

One Widow Reported to Have Eaten the Ashes of Her Husband

Complications That Happen

A good many queer things have happened in connection with cremation, but perhaps the strangest of them all was the case of Mrs. Matilda

Francefort. Matilda ate her husband, which sounds cannibalistic, but isn’t.

In 1896 Mr. Francefort left his sphere of usefulness in Brooklyn and his soul, it is to be hoped soared to a better world. As for his body, they took it to Fresh Pond and cremated it. Then his widow went after the ashes and took them carefully home with her. All widows do not. Some don’t even buy a niche for them at the crematory or pay storage for them in the cellar.

But Mrs. Francefort was different. She got the ashes of the late Mr. F. and carried them home in a japanned tin box, like a tea canister or a spice box. Perhaps that was suggested to the sorrowing widow the disposition she should next make of them.

At any rate she decided to eat them. There was much to be said in favor of this plan. It was economical. She would save the expense of an urn and niche and a monument by being all that herself. Then, too, she and the dear cremated had lived together for 31 years and she was lonesome without him. She was informed that the ashes would enter permanently into her system and it seemed to be a clear case of eating your cake and having it too. Anybody could see that under the circumstances it was the only way of keeping the family together.

Having decided to eat her husband, the next question was the manner in which he should be served. Mrs. Francefort went over his qualities with a sorrowful heart. He had been a witty man; there was always a spicy flavor in his conversation. Mrs. Francefort made a note: “Spice.”

Then she defied anybody to say that he had not been the salt of the earth. Another note: “Salt.” Still she had to admit that he had a bit of a temper. Note number three: “Pepper.” But then, he was always sweet to her. Final note: “Sugar.” Clearly Mr. Francefort’s post-mortem specialty should be in the condiment line. Mrs. F. determined to take him as seasoning.

So she put a pinch of him in her coffee at breakfast and sprinkled him lightly over the boiled shad. At luncheon he went into the tea, and contributed distinction to the lamb stew. At dinner—well, at dinner the supply of Mr. Francefort’s ashes went down in more ways than one. And whatever the gentleman may have done in life, there is one thing sure, he never disagreed with his widow when he was dead, though a little of him did perhaps go a long way.

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 16 March 1901: p. 12

Was this just a whimsical flight of fancy by the author?  Mrs. Francefort is found in several other newspaper stories when she was involved in a lawsuit over timber rights. The tongue-in-cheek flavor is often found in news stories about human remains. Perhaps a little gallows humor was required for audiences to swallow such a grim tale.

Here is story of a similar piquancy, although I cannot find this “ludicrous mistake” in any of Twain’s published works. It is likely that the celebrity’s name was added to a well-known anecdote. There was a variant of the tale where the tooth-brusher was a servant girl.

A LUDICROUS MISTAKE

Mark Twain Uses Human Ashes for Toothpowder.

New York Letter Kansas City Journal

I was told yesterday a rather amusing story at the expense of Mark Twain—and the same story is already a standing joke in society. Not long ago the humorist was traveling in the country and stopped one evening at a house presided over by an elderly woman. He was shown to a room somewhat bare of ornament and furniture, yet slept peacefully until morning. When morning came and he arose, he became mindful of the fact that although he had provided himself with a toothbrush, he had forgotten his toothpowder. He consoled himself with the thought that there must be tooth powder lying somewhere about. After a brief search he discovered something in a small box on the mantel, which certainly resembled tooth powder. At any rate, he used it vigorously on his teeth and found it satisfactory. When he got down stairs he apologized to his hostess for using her tooth powder. She appeared surprised. “What tooth powder?” she inquired, blandly. “It was on the mantel,” Mark replied. “On the mantel?” she repeated. “Yes, in a small box. It was excellent,” he declared. “Good gracious!” she ejaculated. “That wasn’t tooth powder!” “What was it?” asked Mark, now slightly alarmed. “Why, that was auntie,” said she. (It seems that “auntie” had been cremated.)

San Francisco [CA] Chronicle 14 December 1886: p. 2

Similar mix-ups involving human ashes are found in a previous post on stolen cremains.

I’ve speculated before about the possibility of a hoarding disorder involving a loved one’s remains. If the stories about eating Mum or Mr. Francefort are not urban legends, they, too, might fall into this rare category.

In 2011 a widow who said that she was addicted to eating her husband’s ashes was profiled on a show called My Strange Addiction. Other historic cases of dining on the detritus of the dead?  (Other than the well-known ritual to prevent a vampiric relative from preying on surviving family members….) 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.

 

The Woman in Black – Victorian Mourning as Criminal Disguise

 The Woman in Black – Victorian Mourning as Criminal Disguise A classic mourning ensemble c. 1870-2. http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/159185?rpp=30&pg=1&ft=mourning+ensemble&pos=1
The Woman in Black – Victorian Mourning as Criminal Disguise A classic mourning ensemble c. 1870-2. http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/159185?rpp=30&pg=1&ft=mourning+ensemble&pos=1

 

The Victorian widow, swathed in her “habiliments of woe,” was a familiar figure on the streets of the nineteenth century. The dull fabrics, the crape, the veil: all marked the wearer as one touched by Death and entitled to special consideration. Mourning garb both protected the wearer from the public gaze and elevated societal expectations for the widow. This made it all the more shocking when mourning dress was used as a criminal disguise.

Let us look at the rogues’ gallery of crimes committed in the United States from about 1860 to 1929 under the cover of crape. The list is a long and distressing one: Assault, inducing panic, menacing threats, armed robbery and pickpocketing, burglary, kidnapping, arson, murder, and most heinous of all to a 19th century audience: transvestism.

Why was mourning  such a useful disguise for criminals?

The phrase the “Woman in Black” was in common use by the 1870s, referring to a series of mysterious black-clad apparitions who stalked and startled people in the dark. They usually wore the veil of the Victorian widow and melted uncannily into darkness when challenged. There was ambiguity as to whether “The Woman in Black” was some flesh-and-blood woman in mourning clothing, a man in disguise, or a supernatural omen of death. Inexplicably—since widows were scarcely an uncommon sight—these appearances often escalated into full-scale panics, and, as the New York Times of 7 January 1887 wrote, afforded “unscrupulous and criminally disposed persons an opportunity to do their wicked work under the mask of the Woman in Black.”

These veiled supernatural horrors apparently provided inspiration for copy-cat wearers of crape because it is apparent from newspaper reports that, far from being ghostly, the Women in Black were corporeal enough to commit assault.

For example, a veiled Woman in Black attacked citizens of an Illinois town in 1898. A man and his wife were confronted by the woman and, “without making the slightest sound, except the rustling of skirts,” the creature “struck the wife a sharp blow on her cheek.” …The assailant was described by multiple witnesses as nearly 6 feet tall, wearing a solid black gown with a heavy veil reaching almost to the bottom of her skirts. Her step was noiseless, and, said the papers, “she invariably strikes a blow with her hand as she peers into the face of any one she meets.” Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 29 December 1898: p. 4

Not something you would want to meet in a dark alley…

“Menacing threats” was another crime associated with The Woman in Black. I have collected many examples of the lost art of the “crape threat.” This is the practice of hanging mourning crape streamers on the door of an enemy as a threat, rather like sending funeral flowers to a rival mobster.  In one classic case, for nearly five years a veiled woman in black stalked Mrs. Amy Thornley of Brooklyn, lurking around her house, hanging crape on the door and throwing threatening letters into her yard. One of the letters read: “Murder for you. Crape is for Amy T. May you soon be sleeping with your dead son.” Mystifyingly, despite several witnesses who also saw the Woman in Black, the case was never solved. Evening News [San Jose, CA] 20 January 1906: p. 3

Moving from menacing threats to felonies, we find a woman at the peak of her disreputable profession: In 1887 a woman nicknamed ‘The Widow’ used to attend the funerals of the rich wearing a long black veil drawn over her face. When the time came for the friends to take their last look at the departed she contrived to be among the last in line. “When she came opposite the head of the coffin she would sob passionately, and fling herself on the bier so that her veil covered it.” Under the cover of the mourning veil, she would loot the corpse of jewelry and valuables. Lawrence [KS] Daily Journal 15 December 1887: p. 2

Pick pocketing was another fertile field for widow impersonators. In 1875 a besotted reporter on a New York street car described how he could not take his eyes off “the most saintly looking widow that I ever set eyes on,” wearing “the sweetest little widow’s cap imaginable.” When another widow boarded the car, the saintly widow kindly made room for her to sit down. “The car stopped, and widow No. 1 got out; she was hardly out of the car when widow No. 2 discovered that her pocket had been picked by that saintly widow who had been sitting by her side. Bruce [NZ] Herald, 12 January 1875: p. 3

The Women in Black were not afraid to use firearms as this story from 1911 shows.

A woman, or a man in female attire, armed with a small revolver and with a heavy black veil covering the face, entered the store of the Sanitary Grocery this morning about 7:40 o’clock, held up two woman clerks and the porter, and robbed the cash register of about $10.

So quietly was the robbery perpetrated and so slowly did the robber walk away from the store after getting the money that neighbors and passers-by knew nothing of the occurrence until the clerks gave the alarm. Evening Star [Washington, DC] 3 April 1911: p. 1

 

Ellen Gibbons, a burglarious Woman in Black
Ellen Gibbons, a burglarious Woman in Black

One of the most adroit American burglars was a lady who wore widow’s weeds. Her name was Ellen Gibbons; she was described as one of the “most notorious female house-breakers” in the country. She went by many aliases, but was best known as “the woman in black,” because often she “dressed in the deepest of black, and was closely veiled when she committed her depredations.”   Wherever she went, her neighbors would be startled by a sudden surge in robberies and burglaries. Although the police initially thought the thefts were the work of a well-organized gang, it was quickly realized that a veiled woman dressed in mourning was frequently seen near houses that were robbed.  Gibbons’ house was found full of plunder that she had spirited out of homes under cover of crape. She was repeatedly arrested, sent to prison, then repeatedly pardoned.  I’m not sure why, except she claimed to be a kleptomaniac and she was said to be the wife of a police officer in Brooklyn. In 1877 The Chicago Daily Tribune paid her a well-earned tribute: “Her long-continued life of crime ranks her with the most daring and skilful of male robbers and burglars.” Chicago [IL] Daily Tribune 14 October 1877: p. 11

A far more dire crime was that of kidnapping. A widow’s garb is frequently mentioned in high-profile stories of child enticement. For example, the terrifying “Black Ghost” of Toledo was reported by the Cincinnati Enquirer:

A “woman in black” has put in an appearance on the East Side… and is causing a reign of terror. The mysterious stranger is believed to be a man. ..This morning while Johnny Barror, aged 12, was hurrying on his bicycle for a doctor, he was seized by the “black ghost” and pulled from his wheel and told that he would be instantly killed. The black-robed figure tried to carry the lad away, but the little fellow fought like a tiger and broke away, and after a chase of several blocks met two policemen, who hurried to the place… but the “black ghost” was gone….  Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 26 November, 1902: p. 1

Mourning costume was particularly alluring to murderesses. In 1896 a St. Louis family was nearly poisoned by a veiled woman in black who gave their little boy a pie to give to his family. When his mother cut the pie, she found green powder under the upper crust, indicating Paris Green. A chemist examined the food and found that it was laced with arsenic. No one was ever charged with the crime. St. Louis [MO] Republic 29 February 1896: p. 6

In 1914, in Newark, New Jersey, 20-year-old Hazel Herdman donned a mourning veil to hide her face, and shot dead the wife of the man with whom she was infatuated. The veil effectively confused the police, who spent a day rounding up other suspects before Herdman, who had swallowed poison, confessed. Seattle [WA] Daily Times 7 February 1914: p. 1

One of the most startling murderous crimes by a veiled woman in black was an attempt in 1892 to blow up the residence of Charles D. Irwin, a wealthy speculator in Chicago. The woman was interrupted at her fiendish work by passers-by and ran toward the lake, leaving behind a container filled with 10 pounds of high explosive, more than enough to have blown the building to atoms. The description given to the police was that she was attired in deep mourning and wore a heavy black veil that fell below her waist.”  Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 5 August 1892: p. 5

Once again, there was no capture of the black-clad bomber.

You will have noticed that none of the veiled criminals in the preceding cases were conclusively identified as a man disguised in mourning. While some male criminals wore women’s clothing, usually to avoid detection after a crime had been committed, only rarely are they described as wearing widow’s weeds. The criminal Women in Black I’ve studied are sharply divided between women criminals and male transvestites.

The newspapers are full of stories of plucky girls who tucked their hair up under a cap and put on boy’s clothing to escape an unhappy home life. Boys who put on girl’s clothes, however, never do so except with evil intent. And donning widow’s weeds was an unmistakable signal that the men so dressed were up to no good. A common theme of the Women in Black panics I mentioned earlier is the ambiguity of the sex of the veiled spectres. While never explicit, the coded language used in reporting these panics reflects this:

1866 It was a terrible creature, shrouded in black, the garments of a female and the stature of a man, moving awfully about the streets o’nights, and creating panic…   Freeport North West July 19, 1866: p. 2

1911 A man disguised as a woman and out for a sinister purpose…Greencastle [KN] Herald 29 November 1911: p. 2

1912 A man is masquerading in women’s clothing and is either crazy or is trying to perpetuate a huge joke on the community. New Castle [PA] News September 26, 1912: p. 1

1886 There are yet others who suppose that the “woman in black is some evil-minded man who is masquerading in female attire for the purpose of frightening timid persons.Columbus [GA] Daily Enquirer 12 November 1886: p. 5

1903 One of the current theories in the village is that the masquerader in mourning is a man, who is either bent on mischief or is mentally unbalanced Boston [MA] Herald 15 October 1903: p. 8

“Mentally unbalanced” may have been a euphemism for “transvestite.” Cross-dressers were considered mentally aberrant and were sometimes sent to lunatic asylums. In 1848 Columbus, Ohio, was one of the first cities to pass anti cross-dressing laws;  some 40 other cities soon followed their example, making it illegal to wear clothes contrary to one’s sex.  Penalties became increasingly severe. In San Francisco, for example, Revised Orders 1863 said that cross-dressers would be guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction, would pay a fine not exceeding five hundred dollars. In 1866, the penalty increased to a $500 fine or six months in jail; in 1875, it went to a $1000 fine, six months in jail or both (General Orders 1875)

Of course none of these laws stopped men from dressing as women. Few were criminals trying to escape detection, but the act of wearing women’s clothes made them criminals. As Clare Sears writes in “Electric Brilliancy: Cross-Dressing Law and Freak Show Displays in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco,” public, but not private cross-dressing was against the law and, she notes, “As such, cross-dressing was marked as a deviant and secretive practice, rather than a public activity and identification.”

A widow’s garb was the perfect cover for a transvestite, who, given the usual domestic organization of a 19th-century working-class household, had little privacy or time for cross-dressing. It allowed him to walk abroad publicly, dressed as a woman; hiding in plain sight. The act of wearing widow’s weeds was, for transvestites, both a criminal act and the concealment of that criminal act.

In addition, mourning clothing was readily accessible. A man might borrow the weeds his wife had at home. Mourning goods could be purchased second-hand or through the mail. And security was guaranteed by the fact that few persons would have the courage or the impudence to walk up to a veiled widow in the dark and remove her veil. I found only a single case among hundreds of spectral Women in Black sightings, where a young Connecticut woman pulled the veil from the face of what turned out to be a well-known young man in widow’s weeds. His motive for doing so was elided by the newspaper.

how a burglar really looks burglar mask

 

What were the advantages to a criminal of donning widow’s weeds? Why not simply wear some other disguise or perhaps an automobile veil, a medical mask or a traditional burglar’s mask?

motoring veil

 

There are two primary advantages: First, of course, the physical concealment offered by the veil. Second, the social barrier created by the societal expectations and status of widows.

Let us look at the physical concealment advantage. While there was much discussion among physicians about the hygiene of mourning textiles, a widow in deep mourning generally wore a thick veil, of near opacity, made of or bordered with crape. We can see by the surviving fabrics—which in practice were often doubled–that the veil effectively obscured the face when lowered. This all-encompassing veil was the defining symbol of the widow.

mourning veil 1800-99

 

Unlike the ordinary fashionable veil, which was thin or semi-transparent, the mourning veil was meant to conceal the face, not for nefarious purposes, but for the protection of the widow.

In 1907 The Illustrated Milliner wrote: “The sorrowing when death comes, turn instinctively to the protection of the mourning veil.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer 1899 commented about mourners:

“the struggle to retain one’s composure is a cruel one. Against it crape is the only protection.” Philadelphia, [PA] Inquirer 30 December 1899: p. 11

The mourning veil protected the painfully sensitive widow from the prying eyes of the world. It conferred anonymity, even invisibility. It explained and it excused. The veil was psychologically impregnable, leaving the widow shrouded and shielded in grief and crape.

What made mourning clothing such a powerful social barrier? The answer lies in the communal expectations of widows. Leaving aside the “Merry Widow” jokes endemic in 19th-century popular culture, if we judge by what we read in newspapers, etiquette books, and popular fiction the average person, on encountering a widow in the street, might feel pity for one who was too often struggling to raise her family alone and in poverty.  A woman in mourning was essentially an invisible woman, yet one who had the instant sympathy of all right-thinking spectators.

Victorian literature is filled with quotes emphasizing that a widow was thought to be more spiritual, closer to heaven, than an ordinary woman. Mourning costume assumed the status of a religious garment:

Harriet B. McKeever wrote in 1867, in her novel Heavenward-Earthward, “now in her widowed state she was invested with a holy sanctity.” And McKeever described a widow “In her mourning-dress, an expression of holy resignation resting upon her face,”

“The Mourning Veil,” an 1857 short story by Harriet Beecher Stowe, makes the connection even more explicit. When a mourning veil is delivered by accident, a beloved dying child says to her mother: “Oh, mamma, that veil was for you; our Father sends it, and he knows best. Perhaps you will see heaven through that veil.” [Source: “The Mourning Veil,” by Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Atlantic Monthly, November, 1857]

There was an odd dichotomy between the wink-and-nudge widow jokes and the adjectives and phrases often used in literature to describe the widow, which emphasize her passivity and harmlessness: delicate, sad-faced, pale and careworn, weak, helpless, and unprotected, gentle, sanctifying.

Widows’ weeds sanctified the wearer, who was assumed to be patiently submitting to the will of Heaven. Few would dream of invading the privacy of one so dressed. And so it was the perfect criminal disguise.

A criminal might exploit these two facets of mourning garb and operate in perfect safety, knowing that while wearing mourning, she could not be identified and as a widow, she might be given the benefit of the doubt long enough to perpetrate the crime and escape. Who could possibly suspect a woman of “sanctified affliction” of any criminal act? And while the black mask of the penny-dreadful fiend or the kerchief of the desperado would be highly conspicuous if worn in the street, the veiled widow was a familiar and disarming sight.

While I have emphasized the female Women in Black, some male criminals, too, found crape a convenient disguise, although they tend to be less well-represented in the papers, except by inference. Of course, today we draw a sharp distinction between the “crime” of cross-dressing and criminals trying to escape detection; it is the difference between an enthusiast who enjoys passing as female in public and, for example, an embezzler wearing widow’s weeds, trying to evade capture, as was reported in the Macon Telegraph:

A Missouri railway express agent named William Page stole $8,000 in cash. He donned the full mourning his wife had been wearing for her father, and hopped a train. “In this costume he started on his travels, but his walk gave him away to the train men, and the conductor telegraphed to the chief of police here. Detectives met the train and took the charming young widow into custody, when she weakened and confessed.” Macon [GA] Telegraph 1 January 1886: p. 4

I finish with one final mourning costume disguise: that of grieving innocent. There are stories of an unsettling number of murderers taking their places in the witness box wearing mourning for their victims to give the illusion of innocence. In 1872, accused serial poisoner Mrs. Emily E. Lloyd, “The Leesburg Borgia,” on trial for giving arsenic to her husband, aunt, and four children, appeared in court dressed in deep mourning, weeping piteously.

One man asked to wear his “Sunday Blacks” at his execution, as a mark of respect for the wife he had murdered.

In 1929 Jane Weyler, who killed her husband after an orgy was reported as wearing “deep mourning, with just a wee bit of white under the rim of her widow’s bonnet to match the pale cream of her face. Her eyes were delicately penciled to express black sorrow.” Auckland Star, 28 December 1929: p. 3

Sadly for our sense of mystery, the Women in Black no longer roam our dark back alleys. Rising hemlines and the First World War’s ban on deep mourning for considerations of morale meant that the veil went the way of the horse-drawn carriage. Female pickpockets and male transvestites clothed as “The Women in Black” had to find some other method of disguise. The very term “The Woman in Black” slipped to the level of a journalist’s catchphrase for any mysterious or seductive female and as an undertaker’s euphemism for “widow.”

What strikes me most in reflecting on the cases of criminal Women in Black I have studied is this: Mourning dress was an exceptionally effective method of concealment. I have searched for follow-up stories, but very few of the women in black were ever caught or brought to justice. Those mistresses of the dark had, under the shelter of their veils, discovered the perfect criminal disguise.

Other examples of Victorian criminals disguised as widows? Or of confirmed men in crape? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

This post is adapted from my presentation “The Woman in Black: Victorian Mourning Dress as Criminal Disguise,” given in 2015 at the fall symposium of the Southeastern Chapter of The Costume Society of America, a professional organization for historians of dress and costume/textiles curators. Parts are included in The Victorian Book of the Dead and The Ghost Wore Black.

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

 

The Mourning Boudoir: 1889

chambre de deuil
A much older “Mourning Boudoir” at the Chateau of Chenonceaux. The Chambre de deuil of Louise de Lorraine

A MOURNING BOUDOIR

The Latest Alleged Absurdity in Grief for Lamenting Widow

“Come upstairs until I show you my room. It has all been done over in the neatest fashion, and is too sweet for anything,” said a fashionable widow to our sweet girl reporter.

The handsome leader of fashion, who had been widowed for a year or so, led the way to a large room on the second floor.

The door was thrown open and the reporter took one glimpse and then started back. The place at first sight looked like the inside of a hearse.

“It’s the latest English don’t you know, and so in keeping with my crape gown. I did not like it at first, but I do not believe I could sleep in colors again.” The room was furnished with a handsome suite of white enamel and the bedspread and the pillowshams were of black satin merveilleux, embroidered in black velvet applique with silver thread, the monogram of the widow being worked in silver on the centre of both spread and shams. The toilet table and little escritoire were draped in the same manner, and at the windows were thin curtains of black liberty silk against white lace.

“Look here,” said the pretty widow, and she threw back the bed covers, displaying sheets of black silk hemstitched in white, and black silk slips on the pillows.

“I dress in black from top to toe,” she continued. “I wear black silk underclothes, black satin corsets, and a black silk petticoat, and I even have my gowns lined with black. My friends tell me they would sleep as comfortable in a coffin as in my bed, but I find it a delightful resting place.

“And do you know” she continued, “a friend, who has just been made a widow, is having a room fitted like mine, only with black jet monograms. A great many English women who are not in mourning have black rooms, and that is where I got my idea.”

Then she led the way into the boudoir all furnished in vivid yellow, even to the two canaries that piped in their golden cages.

“Yellow is the next color to black you know,” she explained. “And then my husband was a Baltimorean, and I have the oriole colors, black and yellow, too, you see.” The Upholsterer

St Paul [MN] Daily Globe 14 May 1889: p. 6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It was an old French custom that a widowed Queen must be isolated for 40 days in a black-draped chambre de deuil. This was to ensure the paternity of any heirs-to-be, a notion which Mrs Daffodil finds laughably optimistic considering the notoriously lax morals of the French court. Mrs Daffodil suggests that the lady in the account above—whose emphasis seems to lie on the “departed” portion of “The Dearly Departed”—was thinking more of how the black silk sheets and black satin corsets enhanced her milky complexion than of her loss.

Portions of this post appear in The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition.

 

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.