The False Funeral: 1860

THE FALSE FUNERAL.

I never liked my uncle’s business, though he took me when my father died, and brought me up as his own son. The good man had no children. His wife was long dead; and he had an honest old woman for a housekeeper, and a flourishing business in the undertaking line, to leave to some body; but he did not leave it to me, and I’ll tell you the reason.

When I had been about five years with him, and had grown worth my salt, as he used to say, a death occurred in our neighborhood, which caused greater lamentation than any we had heard of since my apprenticeship began. The deceased gentleman was a Mr. Elsworthy. The family had been counted gentry in their day. I should have said my uncle lived in York, and all the world knows what Yorkshire families are. Well, the Elsworthys were of good family, and very proud of it, tho’ they had lost every acre of an old estate which had belonged to them time out of mind. I am not sure whether it was their grandfather’s dice and cock-fighting. or their father’s going surety for a friend, who did something wrong in a government office that brought them to this poor pass; but there was no house in all York where candles went further, and tea leaves were better used up. There was a mother, two sisters, and a cousin who lived with them. The mother was a stately old lady, never seen out of the black brocade. The sisters were not over young or handsome, but they dressed as fine as they could. The cousin was counted one of the prettiest women in Yorkshire, but she walked with a crutch, having met with an accident in her childhood. Master Charles was the only son, and the youngest of the family; he was a tall, handsome, dashing young man, uncommonly polite, and a great favorite with the ladies. It was said there was some red eyes in the town when the story got wind that he was going to be married to the Honorable Miss Westbay. Her father was younger brother to the Earl of Harrowgate, and had seven girls beside her, without a penny for one of them; but Miss Westbay was a beauty, and the wonder was that she had not got married long ago, being nearly seven years out, dancing, singing, and playing tip-top pieces at all the parties. Half-a-dozen matches had been talked of for her, but somehow they broke down one after another. Her father was rather impatient to see her off; so were her sisters, poor things, and no wonder, for grow up as they might, not one of them would the old man suffer to come out till the eldest was disposed of, and at last there seemed something like a certainty of that business. Young Mr. Elsworthy and she struck up a courtship. He was fascinated–isn’t that the word?–at an assize ball, paid marked attentions at the bishop’s party, and was believed to have popped the question at a picnic, after Lord Harrowgate, the largest share holder in the North Eastern Bank, got him promoted from a clerkship to be manager. It’s true he was some years younger than Miss Westbay, and people said there had been some thing between him and his pretty cousin; but a Lord’s niece with beauty, accomplishments, and a serviceable connection does not come in every young man’s way; so the wedding-day was fixed for the first of January; and all the milliners were busy with the bride’s bonnets and dresses.

It was just a month to come, and everybody was talking of the match, when Mr. Elsworthy fell sick. At first they said it was a cold; then it turned to a brain fever; at last the doctor gave no hopes of his recovery, and within the same week Mr. Elsworthy died. The whole neighborhood was cast into mourning. A promising young man, in a manner the only dependence of his family, newly promoted to a station of trust and influence, and on the eve of marriage, everybody lamented his untimely death, and sympathized with his bereaved relations, and his intended bride. I think my uncle lamented most of all. None of his customers, to my knowledge, ever got so much of his sorrow. When he was sent for in the way of business, it struck me that he stayed particularly long. The good man could talk of nothing but the grief of the afflicted family–how the mother went into fits and the sisters tore their hair– how the cousin talked of wearing mourning all her days–and how it was feared that Miss Westbay, who insisted on seeing him, would never recover her senses. The country papers gave expressions to the public grief. There was a great many verses written about it. Nobody passed the house of mourning without a sigh, or a suitable remark. My uncle superintended the making of the coffin, as I had never seen him do to any other; and when the workmen were gone home, he spent hours at night finishing it by himself.

The funeral was to set out for the family vault in the Minster church, at Beverly, about three o’clock in the afternoon. It was made a strictly private affair, though hundreds of the towns men would have testified their respect for the dead by accompanying it all the way. The members of the family, in two mourning coaches, and the undertaker’s men, were alone allowed to follow poor Elsworthy to his last resting place, and the coffin was not to be brought till the latest hour. My uncle had got it finished to his mind, but evidently did not wish me to look at his work. He had a long talk with Steele and Stoneman, two of his most confidential assistants in the workshop, after hours, and they went away looking remarkably close. All was in train, and the funeral to take place the next day, when, coming down his own stairs they were rather steep and narrow, for we lived in one of the old houses of York my uncle slipped, fell, and broke his leg. 1 thought he would have gone mad when the doctor told him he must not attempt to move, or mind any business for weeks to come, and I tried to pacify him by offering to conduct the funeral with the help of Steele and Stoneman. Nothing would please the old man; I never saw him so far out of temper before. He swore at his bad luck, threw the pillows at his housekeeper, ordered me to bring him up the key of the workshop, and kept it fast clutched in his hand. I sat up with him that night. In a couple of hours he grew calm and sensible, but could not sleep, though the house was all quiet, and the housekeeper snoring in the corner. Then he began to groan, as if there was something worse than a broken leg on his mind, and

“Tom,” said he, ” haven’t I always been kind to you?”

“No doubt of it, uncle,” said I.

“Well, Tom, I want you to do me a great service–a particular service, Tom, and I’ll never forget it to you. You know Mr. Elsworthy’s funeral comes off to-morrow at three, and they are very high people.”

“Never fear, uncle; I’ll take care of it as well as if you were there yourself.”

“I knew you would, Tom,–I knew you would. I could trust you with the hearsing of an earl’s coffin ; and for managing mutes, I don’t know your equal. But there’s something more to be done. Come over besides me, Tom; that old woman don’t hear well at the best, and she’s sleeping now and no mistake. Will you promise me”–and his voice sunk to a whisper–“that, whatever you hear or see, you’ll make no remark to any living, and be as cautious as you can about the body? There’s foul play,” said he, for I began to look frightened; “but maybe this leg’s a judgment for taking on such a business. Howsomever, I’m to have three hundreds pounds for it; and you’ll get the half, Tom, the full half, if you’ll conduct it properly, and give me your solemn promise. I know you’ll never break.”

“Uncle,” said I, “I’ll promise, and keep it too; but you must tell me what it is.” “Well, Tom,” and he drew a long breath “its a living man you’re going to put in that coffin in the workshop! I’ve made it high and full of air holes; he’ll lie quite comfortable. Nobody knows about it but Steele and Stoneman and yourself; they’ll go with you. Mind you trust no one else. Don’t look so stupid, man; can’t you understand? Mr. Elsworthy didn’t die at all, and never had brain fever; but he wants to get off with marrying Miss Westbay, or something of that sort. They’re taking a queer way about it, I must say; but these genteel people have ways of their own. It was the cousin that prepared my mind for it in the back parlor; that woman’s up to anything. I stood out against having a hand in it till I heard that the sexton of Beverly Church was a poor relation of theirs. The key of the coffin is to be given to him; it will be locked, and not screwed down, you see; and when all’s over at the vault–it will be dark night by that time, for we don’t move till three, and these December days are short–he’ll come and help Mr. Elsworthy out, and smuggle him off to Hull with his son the carrier. There’s ships enough there to take him anywhere under a feigned name.”

“Could he get off from the marriage no easier?” said I, for the thought of taking a living man in a hearse, and having the service read over him, made my blood run cold. You see I was young then.

“There’s something more than the marriage in it, though they didn’t tell me. Odd things will happen in my business, and this is one of the queerest. But you’ll manage it, Tom, and get my blessing, besides your half of the three hundred pounds; and don’t be afraid of anything coming wrong with him, for I never saw any man look so much like a corpse.”

I promised my uncle to do the business and keep the secret. A hundred and fifty pounds was no joke to a young man beginning the world in an undertaking line; and the old man was so pleased with what be called my senses and understanding, that before falling asleep, close upon daybreak, he talked of taking me into partnership , and the jobs we might expect from the Harrowgate family; for the dowager-countess was near fourscore, and two of the young ladies were threatened with decline. Next day early in the afternoon, Steele, Stoneman, and I were at work, The family seemed duly mournful; I suppose on account of the servants. Mr. Elsworthy looked wonderfully well in his shroud; and if one had not looked closely into the coffin, they never would have seen the air-holes. Well, we set out, mourning-coaches, hearse and all, through a yellow fog of a December day. There was nothing but sad faces to be seen at all the windows as we passed; I heard them admiring Steele and Stoneman for the feeling hearts they showed; but when we got on the Beverly road, the cousin gave us a sigh, and away we went a rattling pace; a funeral never got over the ground at such a rate before. Yet it was getting dark when we reached the old Minister, and the curate grumbled at having to do duty so late. He got through the service nearly as quick as we got over the miles. The coffin was lowered into the family vault; it was more than half filled with Mr. Elsworthy ‘s forefathers, but there was a good wide grate in the wall, and no want of air. It was all right. The clerk and the clergyman started off to their homes; mourning-coaches went to the Crown Inn, the ladies were to wait till the sexton came let them know he was safe out—the cousin would not go home without that news–and I slipped him the key at the church-door, as he discoursed to us all about the mysterious dispensations of Providence.

My heart was light going home, so were Steele and Stoneman’s. None of us liked the job, but we were all to be paid for it; and I must say the old man came down handsomely with the needful, not to speak of Burton ale; and I was to be made his partner without delay. We got the money, and had the jollification; but it wasn’t right over, and I was just getting bed, when there was a ring at our door bell, and the housekeeper came to say that Dr. Parks wanted to see me or my uncle. What could want and how had he come back so soon? Parks was the Elsworthy’s family doctor, and the stranger at the funeral; he went in the second mourning coach, and I left him talking to sexton. My clothes were thrown on, and I down stairs in a minute, looking as sober as could; but the doctor’s look would have sobered any man. “Thomas,” said he, “this has turned out a bad business; and I cannot account it; but Mr. Elsworthy has died in earnest. When the sexton and I opened the coffin, we found him cold and stiff. I think he died from fright for such a face of terror I never saw. It wasn’t your uncle’s fault; there was no doubt he had air enough; but it can’t be helped; the less said about it, the better for all parties. I am going to Dr. Adams to take him down with me to Beverly. The sexton keeps poor Elsworthy, to see if anything can be done; and Adams is the only man we could trust; but I know its of no use.”

The doctor’s apprehensions were well founded–Mr. Elsworthy could not be recovered; and after trying everything to no purpose they laid him down again in the coffin with air holes. The ladies came back, and we kept the secret; but in less than six months after, a rumor went abroad of heavy forgeries on the North Eastern Bank. On investigation they proved to be over fifty thousand, and nobody was implicated but the deceased manager. His family knew nothing about it; being all ladies, they were entirely ignorant about banking affairs; but they left York next season, took a handsome house at Scarborough, and were known to get money regularly from London. They never employed any doctor but Parks; and his medical management did not appear to prosper, for they never were well and always nervous; not one of them would sleep alone or without a light in the room; and an attendant from a private asylum had to be got for the cousin. I don’t think the matter ever left my uncle’s mind; he never would undertake an odd job after it; and all the partnerships in England would not have made me continue the business, and run the risks of another false funeral.

Altoona [PA] Tribune 30 August 1860: p. 1

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

The Druggist and the Dagger: 1890

The Druggist and the Dagger pearl handled dagger. http://www.sharppointythings.com/gallery.html
The Druggist and the Dagger pearl handled dagger. http://www.sharppointythings.com/gallery.html

The shocking story reported from Greece about a woman thought to have died of cancer, screaming from the grave, brought to mind the many stories of burial alive from the 19th- century press. This was something of an obsession for many people. Some even requested that their throat or veins be cut or that their heart be pierced or removed to ensure that they would not be buried alive. Today we look at one man’s fears and pitiful ante-mortem request: to have his sisters stab him to the heart.

INTO HIS HEART

The Remarkable Ante-mortem Request of a New York Druggist.

He Dreamed That He Would Be Buried Alive, and His Sisters Were Asked to Pierce His Heart With a Dagger After Death

How the Request Was Carried Out in Every Particular.

New York, Dec. 11 One of the most weird and tragic scenes ever witnessed in a chamber of death was the one which was enacted yesterday in the room where Druggist George W. Fay died. It took the form of the execution of a dying request, which called for a keen pointed poniard being thrust into his heart, so that all doubts as to his burial alive should be removed. This precaution was also taken with the full acquiescence of the deceased’s three sisters, who up to the last moment could hardly realize that their brother was dead, so life like did he appear as he lay in his casket. They were, therefore, fully determined to allay their apprehensions and resorted to the heroic method of an application of a steel blade.

Mr. Fay died thirteen days ago. He was a well-known druggist in the ton of Hammonton, N.J., and was proprietor of one of the largest pharmacies in that place. He was taken sick Nov. 12. He was a widower, his wife having died several years before, leaving him a child, a little girl, who is at present in a convent.

Two nights before his death Mr. Fay suddenly sat upright in bed. He glared wildly about him and clutched the bedclothing. Large beads of perspiration stood out on his brow, and his breathing came thick and fast. His elder sister, who had dozed off in a chair near the bedside of her sick brother, was startled at the loud and rapid gasps for life. She was terrified at his appearance for an instant, but recovered from her fright when he beckoned to her to approach. She asked him what was the matter. It was several minutes before he could speak, and then in a disjointed way the patient told her that he had just had a terrible dream. He said that the dream pictured him as having fallen into a trance. He remained in this condition he said, for days, and his friends and sisters thought he was dead.

He described how in his dream he was laid in his coffin, and he heard the preparations made for his funeral. “O, Matilda,” said the dying man to his sister. “It was a most dreadful dream. I was conscious of all that was going on about me. I could hear your sobs as you bent over my dead body, when taking a last farewell. I realized everything that was going on around me, and that was what made it more terrible. I distinctly heard every word that was said, and yet I was powerless to help myself or move a muscle to betray the fact that life still remained in my poor, wasted form. I heard the minister’s words when the services for the dead were read the day of my funeral. I seemed to experience a choking sensation when the undertaker screwed down the lid upon the coffin. At that moment I made an almost superhuman effort to cry out, but could not utter a sound. I felt the coffin raised and borne away. I fairly shuddered as I was lowered into the grave prepared for me, and again I tried to make known the fact that I as alive, but I could not do so. I was like an image of marble. I could not even give vent to a wink or a nod.

“When the grave diggers began to throw down the sods of earth upon the coffin I again tried to cry out. I felt myself growing weaker, while my mental faculties began to fail me. At that moment a sudden desperate impulse possessed me, and with an effort that I had not been able before to summon to my aid, I burst open the top of the coffin and sat bolt upright in my funeral shrouds. I heard the shouts from the above, and then I fainted away.”

After reciting his awful dream the dying man sank back in his bed. He asked his sisters to satisfy themselves that he was dead before they buried him. He was fearful lest the dream was a premonition of his approaching fate. The following night he had a similar dream, which he recounted to his sisters, and it proved to be even a more thrilling experience than his former one. Then it was that he called them to his bedside and begged them to thrust a dagger into his heart before they buried him.

“My death is to be a hard one, I believe,” said he. “Those horrible dreams are full of meaning, and I have always had a horror that I would go into a trance, and be buried alive. It is not at all improbable that these terrible dreams were superinduced by these thoughts, but I cannot throw off the feeling that I will be buried alive if some precaution is not taken to guard against it.

“Now, dear sisters, I feel I am about to die. I feel that I will go into a trance from which I shall never awaken, so as my dying and last request promise me that you will faithfully carry out what I am about to request of you. It is this: Do not bury me if you have the slightest doubts as to my death. Keep my body until signs of dissolution are apparent. Keep me for weeks if necessary. If then you have reason to believe that I am still among the living, end my terrible sufferings by thrusting this dagger through my heart and leave it there.”

The dying man held up a keen, pointed, new pearl handled dagger, which he passed to his sisters and then sank back to the bed. In a few minutes he apparently died, but not before his sisters had promised him that they would carry out his last wish.

The body was kept until yesterday in order that Druggist Fay’s dying request might be observed to the letter. Ever since his death the body has rested in a rich casket in the front room. The sisters watched it day and night. In his coffin Fay looked like a man in robust health. His cheeks were full of color and his whole appearance was that of a person calmly sleeping. His sisters refused to permit his body to be buried. At the end of a week the life-lie appearance of the body had not changed, and even the physicians who examined it had doubts as to the presence of death. Great interest was manifested in the case by the residents of Hammonton, and it came to be regarded as one of the strangest phenomena of its kind that had ever occurred in the country. As the days went by and the body was kept above ground interest increased. The body still preserved all the appearance of life and the sisters resorted to electricity with a view of bringing about some kind of action in the body. At the earnest solicitations of relatives, the sisters agree last Saturday that if more distinct signs of life did not appear by the morrow they would carry out to the letter the dying wish of their brother. For the first time faint signs of dissolution began yesterday to manifest themselves and the sisters appeared to be reconciled. They also notified their friends of their intention of carrying out their brother’s wish, and would have the dagger he had handed them plunged into his heart.

Preparations were accordingly made for the tragic event. The physician who granted the death certificates signified his willingness to officiate. Word was sent to the immediate relatives and they came as witnesses. The dead man’s little daughter arrived from the convent in the custody of an aunt—and took a last farewell of her father. The body was lying in a front room between the windows. The top of the casket had been removed and the shroud had been thrown on one side so as to make the region of the heart accessible. An aperture was made in the under garments with a pair of scissors, and the severed flaps held back by pins, exposing the surface of the skin directly above the heart. The skin was of a faint red color. After all the friends and neighbors had taken a last leave of the deceased, only the immediate relatives and the physician remained, and the others left the room.

The street outside the house was lined with hundreds of persons who had assembled out of curiosity. Their gaze alternated between the windows of the room in which the body lay and the piece of black crape which had fluttered form the handle of the doorbell for thirteen days.

In the meantime the sisters and relatives congregated around the casket and wept. The bright dagger, which was to allay their doubt lay upon the dead man’s breast. The physician came forward and unhesitatingly picked it up, and placing the point directly in the center of the exposed space of the skin, with a quick thrust the keen point was plunged downward into the dead druggists’ heart. The physician said that not a drop of blood came from the wound made by the dagger.

The little dagger was left in the body, the pearl handle protruding. The sisters breathed a long drawn sign of relief when their brother’s last wish had been executed. The undertaker then stepped forward and closed down the lid. The relatives and friends retired to the carriages, which followed the body to the cemetery. Here services were read, and all that was mortal of Druggist Fay was laid away to rest.

Kansas City [MO] Times 12 December 1890: p. 9

What a thoroughly melodramatic tale! So much so that I wondered if Mr. Fay existed at all.  Additional news items confirm that the events above are likely to have taken place very much as they are related.

 THEY THINK HE’S IN A TRANCE

A Very Lifelike Appearance Returns After Death to Mr. Fay’s Face.

May’s Landing, Nov. 23. About ten or twelve days ago George W. Fay, who is a druggist of Hammonton, about twelve miles from here, was confined to his bed with an abscess of the brain. Later dropsy appeared, and on Tuesday evening last he undoubtedly died. He was pronounced dead by the attending physicians. His limbs were then much swollen and his face much discolored. On Thursday morning members of his family were much surprised to find that the swellings had almost entirely disappeared and a lifelike look had come back into his face. His cheeks became red and under his left ear a small bright red spot appeared. The family concluded to postpone the funeral until Friday. On that day, as no other signs of life had appeared, the body was taken to the cemetery for interment. The funeral sermon was preached and the coffin was opened for the friends and relatives to view the remains. At this time the face appeared so lifelike that the family refused to allow the burial to take place, and insisted on the body being taken back to the house again. This was done, and now the family anxiously await further developments. Many are of the opinion that Mr. Fay is in a trance.

Mr. Fay kept a large rug store in Hammonton. Once he had to serve a term in the county jail for illegal liquor selling. He was so popular that on his release the Court House bell was rung and hundreds flocked to escort him to his home. The Sun [New York, NY] 24 November 1890: p. 2

Spirits Didn’t Work.

Mays Landing, N.J., Dec. 4. The body of George W. Fay, a prominent druggist of this place, was buried in Green Mount cemetery about two miles from Hammonton, this afternoon. Fay died 16 days ago, but his three sisters, who are spiritualists, would not consent to his burial, believing that he would return to life. The corpse still retained its life-like appearance, the cheeks being as red as roses. Not for one moment during the past 16 days have the sisters left the corpse They took turns in watching the lifeless form of their brother, and have not doubted or lost faith in the spirits. The other spiritualists of the place had long ago given up the idea that Fay was alive and were anxious for the burial to take place. Vancouver [BC] Daily World 4 December 1890: p. 1

According to Findagrave.com, Fay is buried in Greenmount Cemetery, Hammonton, NJ.

I wrote about the horrors of premature interment in last October’s “Things That Scare Us” series.  Mrs Daffodil had several posts on the topic: here and here. There are also stories of burial alive in The Victorian Book of the Dead. 

It is rather unusual to ask family members to do the dire deed; more often the family doctor was called in. One can only shudder at the thought of a loved one coming to life too late at the point of a knife. Other stories of coups de grâce gone wrong? Sharpen well before sending to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

 

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

Know When to Hold ’em: Waiting Mortuaries in Connecticut

buried alive in seattle A

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

A NOVEL SOCIETY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corpses on Ice: The Dangers of the Undertaker’s Ice-Box

corpse cooler 1885
1885 corpse cooler and “Fresh-ever.” https://www.google.com/patents/US311764?dq=%22corpse+cooler%22&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi575ev2PzUAhUGHT4KHXXFDY0Q6AEIMjAC

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I do not mince words when writing about the perils of 19th-century corpse disposal. You may have read about the grim German waiting mortuaries, the dark side of those popular Fisk cast-iron burial caskets, people who asked to be stabbed to the heart after death to make sure they were really most sincerely dead, and about the Victorian fear—actually more like an obsession—with being buried alive. It was sometimes difficult for 19th-century physicians to tell when a body was a lifeless corpse, given diseases like cholera that mimicked death and an apparent epidemic of catalepsy. Yet beyond dubious diagnoses of death leading to premature burial, there was another, lesser-known mortuary danger: the undertaker’s ice-box.

While arterial embalming had been popular since the Civil War, some undertakers, either conservative or cautious about the toxic chemicals involved, shunned embalming, feeling that they got more satisfactory outcomes using the tried-and-true method of icing the corpse. For example, this undertaker was delighted with a tub of ice so effective there was doubt about the death:

“Before the patent ice boxes were in use,” continued Mr. William, “I was called on to bury a young man whose death was caused by drowning. It was in warm weather, and the family desired that the funeral should be put off a few days. The bath tub was used, and he was laid in it, covered with ice, and kept splendidly. In fact, he looked so much better in death than he did in life that his mother could not be made to believe that life was extinct, and for this reason the hour of the funeral services was twice postponed until her family physician arrived and made an examination. Arkansas City [KS] Daily Traveler 12 July 1888: p. 6

I’d always imagined that Victorian undertakers iced their corpses by putting them on beds of ice like fish in the seafood case. But, in fact, the goal was to freeze the corpse solid, letting it thaw gradually before burial would be necessary. The illustration at the head of this post shows one such device, with a handy hose to hang out the window. The sound and smell of the water running off the corpse is one of the lost sensory landscapes of the 19th-century…. There are numerous 19th-century patents for “corpse coolers” and improvements thereof. Some were essentially immense ice-chests; several were meant to fit only over the abdomen and breast of the corpse. And, according to some physicians, these devices were a menace to the public wheal.

Dangers Of Prematurely Placing Corpses On Ice.

Dr. E. Vanderpoel, of this city is strongly opposed, and for very good reasons, to the practice of hastening to place a body on ice almost as soon as the patient appears to be dead. Some of his experiences in his own professional life have made so deep an impression on him, that he has more than once, publicly and privately, protested against the modern custom introduced by the undertakers, of putting bodies on ice before there were official proof of death. He considers it a scandal to the undertaking profession, an outrage to society, and an insult to the patient’s family that for the sake of collecting exorbitant fees, undertakers do not await the arrival of a doctor’s certificate of death before they freeze the remains.

The case lately reported from Canada, of a smallpox patient who had apparently died and was about to be buried when he came to life again, suggests to Dr. Vanderpoel the following reflections: “If that Canadian had been taken ill in this city his life would never have returned at the cemetery, for it would have been frozen out of him long before he reached the grave. In reading about this case I thought of a certain Brooklyn patient of mine who died in 1872. She was forty-five years old, and the widow of a well-known reverend doctor of divinity. She had an attack of dysentery, and had been lying ill for four or five days with a low fever but her condition was not dangerous, although it was assuming a typhoid form. I called in to see her one day at one o’clock, and returned again at five o’clock on the same day, when, to my profound surprise and indignation, she was lying in an icebox down stairs partially frozen. The undertaker had committed this atrocity without any medical certificate of her death, and he had no official knowledge that she had died at all I found that after I had left she arose from her bed and fainted while walking across the floor from sheer weakness, and because she lay there motionless the children thought she was dead; so, instead of sending for me to come and make an examination, they ran for the undertaker. He responded with like promptitude, bringing in his mortuary box full of pounded ice, and in a short time she was frozen stiff. Every part of her body, except her face was covered with the ice. I believed then and I always shall believe, that she might have revived had proper means been employed for her resuscitation.”

The following is still more tragic: In 1874 I attended a wealthy lady about fifty years old, and her house was but five doors from my own. She was perfectly well at six o’clock in the evening. She went to bed as usual. In the night she was taken ill, and I was called over to the house by another doctor, for consultation, at six o’clock in the morning. After doing what we could I left at seven to finish my toilet and to get some breakfast. The other doctor also retired soon afterward, as he found he could not be of any immediate service. I returned at half-past nine o’clock and found her, not in bed, but in the back parlor enclosed in an undertaker’s ice chest. From what I knew of the character of her case, it was one in which returning consciousness would be almost certain to follow a period of apparent sinking away of life. If there ever was a case of restoration after suspended animation that should have been one. The undertaker’s excuse was that mortification might set in when he ought to have known that it takes twelve hours for animal life to leave the body after death and before decomposition can set in.

“After death there are three stages in the processes of decomposition. On the first day the features and the flesh are sunken in and the pallid shade of death is very ghastly. On the second day there is an improved look in every respect and the remains lose a part of the pallor of the first day. On the third day the flesh becomes full again, the skin clears up, and the natural hue of life returns to a degree that in some cases is almost startling. At the end of this period discoloration sets in and decomposition does its work with great rapidity if the weather be warm. But these changes can be postponed without difficulty by the proper use of a very little ice on the stomach, and some diluted carbolic acid sprayed into the nostrils. In 1848, when the modern iceboxes were unknown, I kept the body of my mother four days in the hottest summer weather of July. My son dropped dead in the street from kidney disease. He was in full health, and I kept the remains in fine condition for five days with a simple pan of ice. I was attending on a poor little girl in Thompson street. Her mother was so poor that I did not charge her anything. When the little sufferer passed away I told the mother that an undertaker would come and order the remains to be put on ice, but I would show her how to keep the body until time for burial. It would keep without trouble, for there was no flesh to decay. I left the mother to go to my office for a certificate of death. When I returned the body was on ice as usual, and the mother told me that the undertaker had come and told her that she must have the remains put into an icebox without delay. She thought it must be some kind of an official utterance, so she borrowed $10 and gave it to the undertaker before I could return.”

In conclusion, Dr. Vanderpoel thinks that physicians, the Board of Health, and the law, should take measures to put a stop to such indecencies. There is no necessity for the practice, no excuse for it, except the sordid anxiety of the undertaker to make an exorbitant fee. He strongly favors the Neurological Society, which, he understands, is making efforts to have a medical expert especially detailed to investigate each case of reported death, and to make a scientific examination as to whether the doctors themselves might not have erred and issued certificates before the vital spark of life had really fled. The Medical Advance, Volumes 9-10 1881

Dr. S. Oakley Vanderpoel, had been Health Officer of the Port of New York and also Surgeon General of that state.

This next article’s headline is even more candid.

SENT TO UNTIMELY GRAVES

The Perils of Undertakers’ Ice-Boxes

Inanimate People Frozen to Death

[New York News.]

The medical profession and embalmers are soon to wage war against the undertakers on the subject of preparing the dead for burial. The physicians nearly all claim that persons still alive are frequently taken by undertakers and placed on ice, thereby making death certain, whereas, if the body was kept until the first signs of decomposition set in, all uncertainty would be dispelled. The late occurrence in this city, where a prominent physician attending a lady left the patient after prescribing for her, and returned the following morning only to find her body packed up in an undertaker’s ice-box has given rise to severe indignation among medical men. The doctor who attended the lady expressed the belief that the patient’s blood could not have been cold in so short a space of time, and he considered that the undertaker iced her while she was yet alive, lest in delaying he might lose the job.

The embalmers charge that many bodies are rapidly hustled into the grave through the undertaker and his ice-box, and they are endeavoring to get the physicians to cooperate with them, so that in a short time the use of ice will be entirely put out of practice. It is claimed that the process of embalming will not cost any more than icing, and through its use, nobody can be placed in a coffin before life is undoubtedly known to be extinct. One of the embalmers, when spoken to on the subject, said: “I have been in the business for at least twenty-five years, and can say I never knew bodies to be packed and placed completely in ice until I came to this city. Of course I have seen ice used a little, but not to such an extent as to entirely envelope every portion of the form. In my opinion, bodies are certainly put on ice too soon after death; they should be kept for some time, so that signs of positive death would make their appearance. If the breath ceases, or the pulse stops beating, and the lips become blue, while the face is livid, you have no positive indications of death, for there have been cases where all these symptoms were perceptible and yet life returned.”

“What would be the result if a person so attacked would be seized and crowded into a box of ice?” “Why, they would have been frozen to death, and their morbid or temporarily-stilled blood-vessels made dead forever. No body should ever be placed on ice unless it is rigid in the extreme….

“Another occurrence like this took place over on Seventh avenue not long ago. A woman lived with her husband and two grown children in a tenement house. The husband, son and daughter all worked in a theater. One evening the woman, while walking about the room, was seized with apoplexy, and dropped powerless upon the floor. Some of the neighbors in the house heard the fall and went to the room, and, finding the woman speechless, immediately sent to the theater for her son. The young fellow immediately went for a physician, who pronounced the woman dead. The body was then lifted into bed and left there until the return of the husband and daughter and when they came an undertaker was sent for. He was assisted by two old women, neighbors of the deceased, in laying out of the dead body preparatory to placing it on ice. While the body was being disrobed one of the women suddenly cried, ‘Oh, my God! She’s warm! She’s not dead yet!’

”At this the husband rushed to the corpse, and sure enough it was warm, but the undertaker hastened the body to the ice-box, saying that the body was made warm by being left in bed so long without being undressed. This was received as probable, and the body was put on the ice without further comment. But two old women sent the story all over the neighborhood that the woman was buried alive. This created no little excitement at the time, and a crowd gathered around the house to see the funeral, while the poor husband and son and daughter were nearly distracted with shame. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 16 February 1881: p. 2

I can see how the embalmers might go to war over corpse coolers. Obviously icing cut into their profits. Yet, it seems a bit disingenuous. Though I’ve collected a few anecdotes on the subject, I have not yet investigated in any detail how many of the dead awoke during embalming before it was too late. Dead men tell no tales…

On the bright side, you will be relieved to know that being packed in ice had one important benefit to recommend it:

The morbid dread of being buried alive that is entertained by some nervous people, is entirely groundless. Such a thing is practically impossible, for the simple reason that a person supposed to be a corpse, but not really such, would inevitably be frozen to death in the ice box long before the funeral. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 21 June 1896: p. 25

Other stories of corpses on ice? Check carefully for signs of life before sending to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

See this post, A Stiff Drink for more iced corpse contretemps.

 

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.

A Man Buries Himself Alive: A Story for Father’s Day

A Man Buries Himself Alive: A Story for Father's Day urn willow

In this heart-rending story, a father’s grief drove him to literally join his lost child in the tomb.

Extraordinary Suicide in New Orleans.

A MAN BURIES HIMSELF ALIVE

HE TAKES POISON IN A TOMB

The New Orleans Crescent of the 24th gives the following remarkable story of a suicide

Sylvester Rupert, 37 years of age, an Englishman by birth, and by trade a ship carpenter, lived with his wife and two children in a house on Perdido street. In October last the yellow fever, then prevailing, counted among its victims the youngest child of the Ruperts—their little girl Lizzie, about four years old, and the particular pet of the father. This was a blow from which the father never recovered. Not able to buy a tomb, he had the child buried in the ground in Greenwood Cemetery. The grief preyed heavily upon him. It was his only thought; and, being out of his regular employment, he found employment in his grief.

He bought a burial lot and some bricks and other material, and with his own hands, and all alone in the Cemetery, built him a brick tomb. He had not the means to make the tomb a stylish one; so in its mouth or entrance he fitted a wooden frame, and on this frame he fitted a piece of board and secured it with screws in its four corners. On this board, with which he enclosed the vault,  (in lieu of the usual brick and mortar or marble slab) he had carved nicely with his knife the burial inscription of his child. The tomb finished, he disinterred the child’s body and placed it there. He fastened the board with screws, in order that he might afterward have no trouble in removing it when he felt like gazing upon the decaying remains of his child.

This employment finished, it was his habit to visit the Cemetery, open the tomb, and look at the corpse of his pet. He always carried a screw-driver in his pocket with which to remove and replace the board and also to remove and replace the lid of the coffin. Neither the haggard aspect of the shrinking little corpse, nor the foul odor of its decay could repel him, and his morbid grief. His visits were frequent, and sometimes his wife went with him. He frequently complained to her that he could not get work; and this inability doubtless fostered the despondency which was drawing him to death. He frequently spoke of having no faith in the future, and of death as a desirable thing.

On Wednesday he went to the Cemetery with two shrubs which he had purchased and planted them in front of the tomb. On Thursday, when he left home, he told his wife that if he had no better luck in finding work she would never see him again. He also said something about having a place in which to rest.

That evening, or that night—for no one saw him in his gloomy proceedings—he visited the cemetery; taking with him his screw-driver, an iron trunk-handle, a small rod of iron, a piece of wire, some new screws, and a large vial of laudanum. Unscrewing the board of the tomb, he threw away the screws and filled the screw-holes in the board with clay.

With his new screws he then secured the trunk-handle to the inside of the board. This work, of course, had to be done outside the tomb. Pushing his child’s coffin aside, he got in by its side, taking with him his poison and the other articles with which he had provided himself. His hat he placed upon the coffin; his coat which he had taken off, he wrapped around a brick for a pillow. He shut himself in with the board, by means of the handle he had screwed to it; the board fitting outside the wooden frame. The iron bar, which was of the proper length, he placed across the frame inside. The thickness of the frame would not allow the bar to pass through the trunk-handle on the inside of the board; so he secured the handle and the bar by means of his wire, coiling it through the one end around the other. He did not succeed in fitting the board squarely upon the frame. One corner of it caught upon the brickwork outside the frame; this he did not discover, probably owing to the darkness of the night; and but for this little circumstance his fate would probably have never been discovered, or not at least for many years. Having thus hid himself away, as he fancied, beyond mortal discovery, he drained off the contents of his laudanum bottle, composed himself on his back, placed the brick and coat beneath his head, and went to sleep, and on into the unknown region of the suicides.

As he did not return home on Thursday night, his wife feared the worst, remembering well the tendency of his late conduct and the tenor of his parting words. On Friday morning she rose early and went out to the cemetery. She looked all around, and failed to find her husband. She went and looked at their tomb, and was about to leave, when she happened to notice that the board did not fit snugly into the frame as usual. Looking closer, she discovered the mud in the screw-holes; and putting her hand on the board, found it was standing loosely. She pulled it out a little, and the first thing she saw was the dead face of her husband. She fainted away, and laid in the grass she could not tell how long. She recovered at last, got up and went and informed the sexton, Mr. Merritt, of her discovery. The latter went and looked at things, and sent word to the coroner; and the inquest was held, as we have stated, on Saturday.

The coroner’s verdict was in accordance with the facts so plainly apparent—suicide by laudanum.

Albany [NY] Evening Journal 2 February 1859: p. 2 LOUISIANA

This story was so detailed, yet so bizarre in its unique details of self-immurement, that I thought it might have been a journalist’s invention. Grave records show that Sylvester Rupert, who died 20 January 1859, is buried in Greenwood Cemetery.

Often the 19th-century press focused on brutal, drunken, or absent fathers, yet there are a distressing number of stories of fathers pining themselves to death or committing suicide to follow a dead child or being visited by the  prophetic ghost of a lost darling. A Cincinnati man who said that his daughter came and stood by his bed at night, begging him to come to her, cried, “There’s the wraith of my child—she’s winking at me—I shall, shall go.” He eluded his terrified family, ran upstairs, and cut his throat. In another sad case, a railroad engineer whose child had died set a place for her at the dinner table and spoke to her as if she was still there. He told his wife that the little girl accompanied him on the locomotive and assured him that he would be with her soon. Shortly afterwards, he was killed in a train wreck.

This is an excerpt from The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available for Kindle. Or ask your library/bookstore to order it. You’ll find more details about the book here and indexes here.

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 Death Bell: 1866

Munich Leichenhaus
The Munich Leichenhaus or Waiting Mortuary, meant to prevent burial alive.

In some parts of Germany, such is the general dread of being buried alive that a system of precaution against this premature act is in vogue, by which more than one person has been restored to life and friends after being mourned for dead. The plan is, for the corpse to be placed in a comfortable apartment, with face uncovered, and with a cord or wire attached to the hands in such a manner that the slightest movement will cause the tinkling of a little bell in an adjoining apartment where some one is always on the watch till there are either signs of life or decomposition, to give the assurance of hopeless death. This custom has led to some striking scenes and curious revelations; and one of the most remarkable of these we are now about to put on record, as we received it, not long since, from the lips of the narrator:

“I had two bosom companions, and we three were nearly always together when our circumstances would permit. We were not alike in scarcely any particular, and for this reason, perhaps, we liked each other all the better. We differed on nearly every point in science, art, literature, philosophy, and religion, and argued every point we differed on.

“On one thing, however, we did agree, and that was, the possibility of being buried alive and the unutterable horror which must attend the subsequent consciousness of the fact. So, in health, we solemnly pledged ourselves, that if within reach of one another at the time of the supposed decease of either, the living should faithfully watch by the senseless form till the return of life or the certainty of death.

“My young friend, Adolph Hofer, was the first to go. He was a believer in the immortality of the soul, and the identity of the spirit with that occupying the mortal tenement. Of course we made our arrangements for watching the corpse according to our compact, but without the slightest hope of ever seeing another spark of life in that loved form.

“It was on the second night after the death of Hofer that Carl and I were sitting in an adjoining apartment conversing about the deceased and his religious belief. We had attached a small cord to the fingers of the corpse, and connected it to a little bell close to us, so that we could be warned of any movement, without being obliged to remain beside the body, which, for various reasons, would not have been agreeable to us.

“If Adolphe’s ideas in regard to the future state are correct,’ observed Carl, in the course of his remarks, ‘there is no certainty that he may now be with us, even in this room.’

“Yes,” returned I, “ if they are correct, Which I do not believe. When a man dies, he is dead, at least so far as this world is concerned.”

“That is your opinion, Jules,” said Carl; “but opinions don’t make facts.”

“It may fairly be presumed they are based on facts, when they cannot be reasonably controverted. If man exists after death as a roving spirit, give me some evidence of it, and then ask me to believe.”

“And what about ghosts?” said Carl, who was both skeptical and superstitious—and he glanced furtively and timidly around the room as he spoke, as if he expected to encounter some fearful apparition.

“Bah!” exclaimed I, contemptuously, “you know my opinion of ghosts and hobgoblins— that they have no existence except in the brains of timid fools.”

“At this moment we heard, or rather fancied we heard, a strange noise in the adjoining apartment.

“What is it?” inquired Carl, in a timid whisper.

“Nothing,” replied I, rousing myself, with a full determination to shake off what I conceived to be foolish fancy. “Are we men or children, to get frightened at the noise of a rat?”

“Hush! hark! I hear something still,” whispered Carl, now fairly trembling with fear.

“Then, if there is anything, we must know what it is!” said I, as I rose and took up the light for the purpose of going to look at the corpse. “Will you accompany me, or shall I go alone?”

“Carl Heilsten slowly and silently arose, as one who felt called upon to perform a fearful duty; but scarcely had he got on his feet, when the little bell connected with the dead was rung violently.

“My nervous system never received such a shock before or since. It seemed for the moment as if I was paralyzed. The light dropped from my hand and was extinguished, and great beads of perspiration stood all over me.

“But I remained inactive only for the time it would take one to count ten. Reasoning that my friend had come to life, and needed immediate assistance, I hastily procured another light; and merely glancing at Carl, who had fallen back upon his seat, white and helpless from his sudden fright, I rushed into the apartment of the corpse, expecting to find Andolphe living, if not actually sitting up or standing.

“To my utter astonishment, however, I found only the dead form of my friend— cold, rigid, motionless. There was such an inflexible look of death on his features, that I could not believe there was a single spark of life in the body, and a close examination of lips and heart proved there was none in reality. And yet the hands had been moved, and were drawn to one side, but rather as if jerked there by the bed-cord, which was hanging somewhat loose, than as if stirred by any internal power.

“But what had moved the hands and rung the bell? This was the startling mystery. The room was not large, and contained no great amount of furniture, and was easily searched. I had just passed the light under the bed and around and behind everything, when Carl, appeared at the door, pale, trembling, and covered with a cold, clammy perspiration.

“Is he alive?” he rather gasped than said.

“No,” I replied, “nor has there been any life in him since his breath went out.”

“Merciful God!” he ejaculatd, nervously grasping a chair for support—”what rung the bell, then.”

“That is the mystery I am trying to solve,” said I “It is possible there may be some person concealed here.”

“I cautiously opened the door of a long, deep closet as I spoke, in which hung the clothes of the deceased, and went in and examined it thoroughly. No other human being was there, and nothing had been disturbed. There was no outlet to the room except the door communicating with the apartment in which we had been watching, and two windows looking out upon a lawn, and the sashes were closed and the curtains drawn. showing no signs of recent disturbance. I then re-examined the room, and particularly the bed, but without making any new discovery.

“This is all very strange!” said I, half musingly, and looking inquiringly at Carl— “very strange indeed!”

“It must have been something supernatural!” he replied, in a hollow whisper, and moving over to the chest in the corner, he sank down upon it.

“As he did so, the sharp click of the spring lock caused him to bound up as if shot. For a moment or two he stood trembling, and then said with more nerve:

“I believe I am a cowardly fool, to be scared at everything! I do not fear anything human, though,” he added, “but this unearthly business unmans me.”

“I now re-examined the corpse, to be sure there were no sign of life in it, and found not only death there, but the beginning of decomposition. Perfectly assured of this, we went into the other apartment, and sat down, to watch through the remainder of the night and ponder the mystery. Scarcely were we seated before we fancied we heard dull, muffled sounds in the dead room, followed by something like a smothered human groan. Carl’s teeth now fairly chartered with terror, and I confess I never felt less courageous in my life. These strange noises only continued for a short time, then gradually died away into silence, after which we were disturbed no more.

“In the course of time our friend was buried, and some time after the funeral we proceeded to open his strong box or chest, according to his direction. Then it was that our supernatural mystery had a natural but horrible explanation:

In that chest was the black and decaying corpse of one whom we had known in life !

“The following is our conjecture:

“Cognizant of Adolphe Hofer’s money and jewels, of their place of deposit, and of our mode of watching the dead, he had, on that eventful night, entered the dead-room through a window, at an early hour, and concealed himself in the closet till midnight; and then set about his work of robbery. Some accidental noise having alarmed us, as he could tell from our conversation, he had either in his haste to secrete himself, or intentionally to frighten us still more, rung the bell in the manner stated, and then got into the chest, which had a powerful spring-lock. My friend Carl, by accidentally sitting down on this, had sealed his doom; and his subsequent groans, and terrible efforts to burst from his narrow prison, were the strange noises which had so disturbed us the second time. The man’s death was a fearful retribution, and the discovery of his dead body spoiled an otherwise wonderful ghost story.

The Vincennes [IN] Weekly Western Sun 3 November 1866

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: While deploring their corseted officers and their penchant for invading Belgium and France, Mrs Daffodil must express guarded admiration for Germany’s zeal to ensure that no mistakes—such as burial alive—occur to deplete the ranks of the Fatherland’s citizenry. The London-based Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial was equally complimentary, saying that Germany and Austria were the only countries to take the peril of premature interment seriously. In point of fact, there seem to be no records of corpses actually reviving in the so-called “Waiting Mortuaries,” or “Totenhaus,” although the gases of decomposition stirred many a false alarm, but it is the thought that counts.

mortuary chamber Munich Death Waiting Mortuary 1897

For more tales of the grim and grewsome, see The Victorian Book of the Dead, available on Amazon and for Kindle.

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

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

 

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.

A Grave Warning About Iron Coffins

fisk burial casket

On 14 November 1848, Almond D. Fisk patented his “air-tight coffin of cast or raised metal.” The patent contained the further suggestion that “the air may be exhaused so completely as entirely to prevent the decay of the contained body…or…the coffin may be filled with any gas or fluid having the property of preventing putrefaction.”

Retailers of Fisk Burial Cases rhapsodized over their ability to preserve the body and their aesthetic qualities:

The idea of preserving the features of the dead unchanged—of staying the execution of the sentence, “dust to dust,” is a beautiful one, and had its origin in the gentlest affections of our nature.

The hand that cherishes the flower above the low bed of the dreamless, and bedews its leaves with tears, would, if it could, preserve the form from mingling with the elements, that the share of the ploughman might not rend it—that the winds of heaven might not strew it.

We love to think that the Corinthian column sprung from the tribute of memory to the dead—that the votive basket wreathed with Acanthus, and placed upon the grave of some dear lost one, suggested to the sculptor, that most elegant of all the orders that grace the temples of the world.

But the houses that shall “last till dooms day,” aside from the associated pall, and knell and tear, and clod and silence, offend the eye from their want of all symmetry and beauty. No matter of what material composed, how richly lined or how rarely adorned, they are repulsive still. A sense of oppression comes over us, as we look at them—those windowless apartments—those cold and gloomy boxes for the dead to lie in.

Fisk’s Metallic Burial Cases are not liable to these objections. While they preserve the forms we love, in something more like a pulseless slumber than a dread decay, they have the appearance of rich and heavy folds of drapery, thrown over the form, adapted to the shape, and realizing the line of “Thanatopsis.”

“Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch

About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

Many a heart, whose kindred heart beat, but afar from home, will bless him who has thus devised and disposed a mantle beneath which that heart may be borne by ship and shore, to sleep amid the dust that once throbbed symphonious with its own.

Specimens of these Burial Cases may be seen at W.T. Woodson and Co’s, 232 Lake Street. To those who admire beauty of proportion and elegance of design, so far from there being anything chilling or repulsive, one of them might appropriately enter into the imagery of a morning dream from which we grieve to wake.

Chicago [IL] Daily Journal 29 May 1851

To my critical eye they look grotesquely like diving suits, but they obviously struck a throbbing, symphonious chord with the bereaved.  Sometimes they even did what it says on the tin:  there are reports of bodies shipped long distances arriving in excellent condition and the faces of the dead, unearthed a century after burial and seen to be incorrupt through the coffins’ plate-glass windows, testify to the Fisk’s effectiveness. Iron coffins were also advertised as a deterrent to body-snatchers:

A Ypsilanti burial case company propose to beat the resurrectionists, by means of armor plated coffins. Jackson [MI] Citizen 22 February 1876: p. 6 

Obviously a sealed iron coffin was more difficult to open and it was impossible to follow the usual protocol of the resurrectionist of digging down to the head of the wooden coffin, breaking it open, and dragging out the corpse by the neck. Their use as a kind of personal, rather than parish, mort-safe was yet another of the advantages touted for the metallic burial case, but there was a darker side to the cast-iron coffin.  Human decomposition did not always follow the predictable, desired path, particularly when a dead loved one had to be shipped a long distance. Air often needed to be pumped out of the Fisk or a corpse might need to be embalmed to ensure a better outcome. Even so, I’ve seen reports from, for example, a man called in to paint the blackened face of an iron-coffined corpse, so it would look presentable for a few hours through the little window. Ideally the cast-iron coffin would protect the body from decay and grave robbers. The reality might be rather different and horrifically inaccurate conclusions might be drawn from that reality, as we will shortly see.

By way of introduction to the article issuing a grave warning about iron coffins, here is the back-story of the burial alive in New Orleans mentioned in that article’s first paragraph. This particular, heart-rending article had a huge circulation over several years and the way it spread and changed, suggests an urban legend. True or not, it is a reflection of the horrified fascination that premature burial held for the public.

I have just heard of one of the most horrible, heart-rending, and yet, perhaps, unavoidable affairs which it has ever been my lot, as a newspaper correspondent, to record. It is nothing more nor less than the frightful reality of being buried alive. A most estimable lady, named Mrs. Crane, whose husband is a book-keeper in Flemming & Co.’s drug store, on Magazine Street, in this city [New Orleans, LA], died very suddenly last July, of what was pronounced sun-stroke. She was a school teacher in one of our most popular public schools, and resided, if I am not mistaken, on Dryades Street. It was in the afternoon, after school was out, that she went to visit a neighbor on Felicity Street and just as she entered her friend’s house, she fell insensible to the floor and expired, to all appearance, in about two minutes, a doctor pronouncing it sun-stroke. Her body was interred the next day, at ten o’clock, and her mother, an old lady about fifty years of age, and her husband and one little son, went home almost broken-hearted and have since been nearly distracted, being at times unable to sleep, and, in fact, leading a most miserable and disconsolate life; and well they might, as the sequel will show, had they known what they had done. Well, one night last week the mother, after passing a most distressing day, fell asleep late at night and dreamed that her daughter had been buried alive. She jumped up in a frantic state and rushed to her son-in-law’s chamber crying, “My daughter is buried alive! Oh, my daughter is buried alive! What shall I do!” To sleep any more that night was out of the question; she still crying that her daughter was buried alive, whenever her son-in-law would try to quiet her. At length the proposition was made to have the body disinterred just to satisfy her. So, early the next morning the grave was opened and the coffin raised. Oh, what a horrible sight met their view. Pen is powerless to portray the scene which followed. The body, which had been placed in a metallic coffin, was turned over, the glass covering the face was broken to atoms, the ends of her fingers being beaten and battered all to pieces; her hair torn out in handfuls and her shroud torn in many places—all presenting the appearance of one of the most desperate struggles to free herself from her terrible misfortune.

If any of your readers could have seen the relatives of this unfortunate lady, when the condition of what they supposed was the perpetually silent tomb had been brought to light, it would have forced  a tear from the most stolid and adamantine heart. It was one of the most distressing affairs ever recorded in this State and I sincerely hope it will be the last I am ever called upon to record.

I have not seen this affair mentioned in any of our city papers, but as far as the truth of the matter is concerned, I can vouch for it having occurred, as I have it from parties intimately connected with the unfortunate family and whose veracity I cannot doubt. The husband and mother, it is now said, are almost entirely bereft of their reason, and it is feared they will go permanently deranged; and, indeed, they have sufficient reason.

This should be another warning to all who read this of the uncertainty of death until the body begins to decay. It is generally conceded by physicians that as long as there is a possibility of returning life the body will not show any signs of decomposition. Therefore, in warm weather, when a body does not commence to decompose immediately it is a sure sign that the life has not left it, and the body should not be buried. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 3 December 1868: p. 2

The motif of the glass window being broken outward, as well as the distortion and damage to the body appear in many stories of premature burial. Given the clearance in the form-fitting Fisk, there does not seem room for a revived corpse to break out a window, which also was made of quite thick glass. But is there a logical explanation?

IRON COFFINS

Their Effect Upon Dead Bodies

Correspondence of the Cincinnati Commercial

Washington, D.C., January 11. I read in the Intelligencer—it will be in the Chronicle next week—a frightful statement of burying alive that is said to have occurred in New Orleans, and is now going the rounds of the press, to the intense horror of all sensitive people.

The mother of the unfortunate, it is claimed, was informed of the horrible event, through a dream, and insisted upon having the body disinterred, for investigation. On opening the grave the horrible fact was manifested. The glass over the face was broken, the face was mutilated, and the fingers wounded.

Now, it would be well to let this pass as a warning to the thoughtless who hurry dead bodies into their graves, before positive assurance that life is extinct. But the case is so horrible that it is better to know the truth. The corpse had been encased in an iron coffin—called casket—made iron-tight. The consequent is that the gases generated by the decaying body produce the most frightful disfiguration, and in some instances shiver the glass over the face.

I know all about this, for I had a case come under my immediate observation—the death of a friend, in the country, caused by an accident, so sudden and unexpected that few of the friends and relatives could be called to the funeral within the ordinary time incident to such occasions. An iron coffin was procured, the body placed in it, and the lid sealed and screwed down in the usual manner with a thick glass plate over the head. To those who watched the loved face through tears, there soon appeared a singular change; the veins of the forehead began to swell, and soon stood out like cords. Then the face began to swell and soon the eyes partly opened and the lips fell apart, giving to the face a wrathful, horrifying expression that was painful to look upon. These changes continued until the dead seemed to be striving to breathe and speak, and strange noises were heard inside. Women shrieked and fainted, and at last a cloth was thrown over the glass, and persons were forbid looking in. During the night of the second day (if I remember correctly), an explosion occurred, accompanied by the sound of broken glass, and it was found that the plate, over the face, was shivered, and the room filled with the most sickening stench. The dead body was horrible to look at, and it required no active stretch of the imagination to believe that life had returned and a struggle ensued.

I doubt whether one could return to life from the counterfeit condition that had been mistaken for death, while sealed up in one of these iron cases. Such return must, of course, be slow, uncertain, and feeble. How long the air of the coffin would continue pure enough to strengthen the lungs, so as to start the circulation, I am not prepared to say, but I should think not long—certainly not a sufficient length of time to enable the subject buried alive to make much of a struggle.

Memphis [TN] Daily Appeal 20 January 1869:  p. 1

One doesn’t know whether to be reassured or appalled at the idea that burial alive was unlikely if interred in a cast-iron coffin. The author makes a convincing case for the sealed case producing all the dreadful signs of premature burial. Similar stories that I’ve collected contain many of the same details as above; this was a far from isolated incident. It was said that sextons who noticed a swelling lead coffin would tap it and burn off the gases.

Do you have a personal favorite exploding coffin/corpse story? Break the glass window to relieve the pressure and notify Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

For more stories of coffins, both eccentric and exploding, see The Victorian Book of the Dead.

fisk Chicago City Directory and Business Advertiser 1877.JPG

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.