A Father’s Vow: 1882

A FATHER’S VOW

He Declares That His Dead Children Shall Never Leave Him

He Has Their Bodies Embalmed, and the Casket Placed in a Room Where He Keeps Them for Twenty Years.

[Philadelphia Press]

A funeral took place in Palmyra, N.J., on Tuesday last, which furnishes the sequel to one of the most remarkable cases ever known. The bodies of three embalmed children, which had been preserved by an eccentric father for twenty years, were interred in one grave, the father having died three months before, and the remaining members of the family being unwilling to perpetuate his singular ideas, in violation of common custom.

In 1859 Henry Coy lived in a comfortable old-fashioned dwelling, on the northeast corner of Front and Cooper streets, Camden. His family then consisted of himself, a wife and two children—one a girl of five years and the other a curly-haired, handsome boy of two. Mr. Coy was a surgical instrument maker, engaged in business in this city, on Eighth street, near Walnut, and afterward in the neighborhood of Second and Dock streets. He was regarded as a skillful man at his trade, and was said to be worth money, but his reticent disposition and disinclination to mix in society prevented any specific inquiry as to his exact financial standing. People who knew him in a business way, however, were content to spread the rumor that he was a man of no inconsiderable wealth. His entire time out of business hours was spent with his family, to whom he appeared devotedly attached.

THE FATHER’S STRANGE CONDUCT

Soon after the war began, Mrs. Coy died, after giving birth to another child—a girl. She was buried, and after that the father seemed more than ever in love with his children. The little daughter was rather a delicate child, and in 1862 she was taken ill and died after a few weeks’ sickness. Unceasing attendance at the little one’s bedside, and the constant loss of sleep, seems to have strangely affected the fathers mind. He would not permit any of the neighbors to touch or even look at the dead body, and declared that it should never leave his sight while he lived. And the eccentric man then went to work to accomplish that purpose. With the assistance of a mysterious stranger the little corpse was subjected to an embalming process and then incased in an air-tight casket and carefully deposited in one of the upper chambers of the dwelling. Old-time residents of Camden remember well that it was a popular superstition that the spirit of the child used to regularly appear at the windows in a supplicating attitude, and the house was said to be haunted. All attempts to see the mummified corpse or to learn the truth of the queer story were fruitless, and in a few months there were not many persons who gave it credence. Some time between the latter part of 1863 and the summer of 1864 observing people noticed that the baby had disappeared, and the previous appearance of a physician’s chaise at the door a dozen times during the week led to the believe that the infant had died and had been embalmed, as the first one had been. The doctor was a strange one, and nothing could be gleaned from him. Just when the boy died is not known, but it is supposed that he followed not long after the second death, and was also put in a casket and laid alongside his brother and sister.

MOVING THE BODIES

In 1866 the story of the mysterious embalming was renewed, and for some unexplained reason it was whispered about the upper part of Camden that Mr. Coy was a Mormon; that he had a dozen or more wives concealed in the house, and that every night prayers were said over the bodies of the dead children. There appeared no just foundation for these stories, for the father was rarely seen on the street, and during his brief absence from home the dreary-looking old house seemed entirely deserted. The upper stories were never opened, and cobwebs collected over the windows and under the eaves. The man became such a thorough mystery that all efforts to ferret out his secret were abandoned, and the gossips were obliged to build their startling stories of ghosts and uncanny noises by night purely from imagination. Mr. Coy left Camden for a time, and, it was popularly supposed, took the bodies of his children along with him; but nothing definite was known of his movements nor of the truth of the rumor, until five or six years later, when he moved. It was then noticed that three oblong boxes were carefully packed in a wagon, and the father drove away with them.

Nothing more was heard of Coy until his recent death was announced, and then the story of twenty years ago was either forgotten or deemed too incredible for revival. The triple burial at Palmyra on Tuesday, refreshed the strange tale in the minds of a few, and it was shown that the rumor had been correct.

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 6 May 1882: p. 10

Henry is buried at the Epworth Methodist Church Cemetery under a stone which reads “Henry – Sarah Coy and Family.”

A chapter titled “Bone of My Bone: Collecting Corpses, Relics, and Remains” in The Victorian Book of the Dead tells of other mourners who just could not let go of their loved ones. 

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

Lily’s Wardrobe: 1877

blue baby shoes embroidered with forget-me-nots 1875-84
Baby shoes embroidered with forget-me-nots. c. 1875-84 https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/pair-of-baby-s-shoes/sgE9W8oo_ImA-A

Which is Best?

“Oh, what shall I do with them?” said a bereaved mother, as she hung over the little garments whose owner had gone to be with the angels. “Can I ever put them out of my sight? Never! Never!” It was only a week since white crape on the door told the passers-by that death had taken a little child from the home. Now the mother had ventured into the nursery to touch the clothing which her darling had made sacred. They were not elegant garments, at least they were not of finest lace and cambric, but every article told of the love which made it. There were no careless stitches, no sparing of pains could be discovered. Fine, dainty, chaste in every detail, they spoke pathetically of the tenderness which fashioned them. And now what could be done with them? A beautiful box was made; it was of satin-wood and silver, and on the handle was graven the name, “Lily.” Into this, between silver paper, and with sprays of rosemary, was laid the tiny wardrobe. Here the mother came to weep, to open afresh the never-healing wound. Here she recalled each precious word, and look and her lost one; here she tried to imagine the little arms again around her neck, the soft cheek pressed to hers.

Her grief became first selfish, then morbid. The luxury of tears forbade exertion, which is one of God’s laws for healthy spiritual development.

One day a friend came. “My dear,” she said, “what is to become of these little things when you can no longer shed tears over them? Are they to be buried, as sweet Lily’s body was when her soul went up to God?”

“Buried?” said the mother. “I do not know; I suppose not.”

“Would you not rather give them away yourself,” said her friend, “than have less loving hands than yours do so?”

“Oh, I could not give away my darling’s clothes. No other child must wear them.”

“Here are a great many garments,” continued her friend; “and think how many little children are in need. I remember Lily always wanted to give to the poor.”

“Yes,” mused the mother.

The friend said no more, but her words sank deep into the stricken heart. Before her great sorrow she had been generous to the needy. Now she remembered with sharp pain that she had forgotten all those who once depended largely on her bounty. One thought suggested another, and soon she saw her future path shining in clear light—the light of love.

With tender memories, but with a strong resolve, the hoarded treasures were brought forth. Little children were made glad, and mothers’ hearts comforted. And did the angel Lily seem farther away for this sacrifice? Oh, no! When the material bond was broken, the mother’s thought went naturally to greet her child in her heavenly joy. Instead of tears of anguish over the earthly relics, there were tears of joy that her darling was so blessed. Did her love lessen? Never. But her power to love deepened as she thought of those things which are eternal, and realized that her child had entered upon them. Harper’s Bazar.

The Republican [Sycamore, IL] 17 October 1877: p. 1

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  A poignant picture of a devastating loss….

While to-day the bereaved are practically required to “get over” their loss in a few weeks so that no one is rendered uncomfortable by the spectre of their sorrow, the Victorians wisely understood the need for a specified time of grief. However, they also understood the unhealthy nature of what alienists now call “complicated grief.” Queen Victoria, for example, was widely criticised for giving way to excessive mourning to the neglect of her duties. Although it may be a later, apocryphal story, it is said that she turned Prince Albert’s death-room into a shrine, directing that his servants continue to lay out his clothes and bring hot water for shaving.  Certainly she insisted on memorialising her mourning in dozens of photos of herself and her children wearing deepest black, gazing sadly at a bust of the late Prince Consort. In the face of rising public discontent, the press dubbed her “The Widow of Windsor” and there were mutterings overheard about dismantling the monarchy. It seemed that none of her family could guide the bereaved Queen into the sensible outlook of Lily’s mother’s friend, although eventually she was persuaded back into public life by her out-spoken servant and confidant, John Brown.

 

For more on the history of Victorian mourning and death, see Chris Woodyard’s The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available 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.