Posing the Corpse: 1890-1913

https://wellcomecollection.org/works/h4mhu4fu

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

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

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

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

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

A CORPSE’S ORGIE

It Is Made to Join a Revel,

And Stands Propped Against a Stove-Pipe,

While the Gang Drinks to Its Health.

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

During Which the Watchers Get Into a Fight,

But Are Interrupted By the Arrival of Officers.

A Sacrilegious Affair That Has Stirred Up the West Side.

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

An orgie [sic] with a corpse.

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

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

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

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

A HEAVY STOCKHOLDER

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

A READY VICTIM.

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

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

THE SOUNDS OF WEEPING

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

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

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

USUAL AMOUNT OF NERVE

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

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

SET THE REMAINS ON THE STOVE.

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

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

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

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

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

THE ACCUSING FINGER.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CORPSE PLACED AT THE TABLE

HIDEOUS JOKE PERPETRATED AT A CLEVELAND WAKE.

MOURNERS FLEE AND THE POLICE ARE CALLED.

WOULD-BE JOKERS ARE SENTENCED TO WORKHOUSE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hell-wain Spotting:

white hearse Street Railway Review 1891
Child’s trolley hearse, 1891 Mexico

[Originally published 1 November 2016 at HauntedOhiobooks.com]

Dia de los Muertos begins today. I hope you have your ofrendas decorated and have laid in a good supply of sugar skulls and marigolds. Although I’ve previously told ghost stories about dead nuns and sinister ravens and corpse-confessors to celebrate, this year I’d like to visit the fascinating world of Hispanic street-car hearses. They are perhaps, not strictly speaking hell-wains, the common carrier for the souls of the damned, but rather vehicles for Purgatorial passage. (Incidentally, I had thought about calling this post “A Streetcar Named ‘The Crier.’” There was a funeral street car in Baltimore christened “Dolores.”)

While trolley hearses were used in the United States, there did not seem to be as much enthusiasm about the idea as there was in Mexico and South America where they were seen as a modern innovation and a symbol of progressive government policies towards the poor, offering various levels of service and conveying the bodies of paupers to the grave without charge.

Despite the egalitarian public’s fondness for private funeral trains and carriages in the United States, the press seemed fascinated by this “class system” of Mexican funerals.  The trolley funerals were often the subject of “curious customs from our neighbors to the south” articles, complete with the casual racism of the time.  I’ll caution you that there will be a bit of overlap with the articles here because I’m a completist when it comes to documenting mortuary history.

Here we see how the trolley hearses did not start out as a program of government beneficence, but as a capitalist venture.

first class funeral car
First-class funeral car, 1884

FUNERALS ON STREET CARS

When the street-car line was first opened in [the City of] Mexico an enterprising stockholder, Senor Gayosso, bought up all the hearses in the city. He then had funeral cars built for the tracks and procured the sole right to prepare passengers and haul them to their last resting-place. He is to-day one of the wealthiest men in Mexico. The first-class funeral cars for adults are built of fine black wood. A raised part is in the center of the car on which the coffin is placed. A canopy, exquisitely finished, covers the entire car, the sides being artistically draped. From four to eight beautiful black horses, with long, black plumes in their heads, haul this strange car.

The two drivers are dressed in fine black suits, gloves and high silk hats, bound with wide crepe bands. The coffin is placed on the rest prepared for it, and all around and over flowers are placed. Following this comes a train of cars with the friends. The windows are draped with white crepe and the doors with black. A funeral train will average twenty cars and more, if it is a person of wealth who has died. But in the hundreds who follow a body to the grave cannot be found one woman or child.

I have asked the reason why no women ever attend funerals in Mexico. It is against the rules of society. Mr. Gayosso says women are not allowed to go to funerals because they cry too much. However, a wife cannot go to her husband’s funeral, nor can a mother follow her babe to its grave.

There is a similarity in all the funeral cars. Those for children are white, drawn by white horses. Those for the poor are, like other things in this world for the poor, cheap and shabby. The poor Indian can have a funeral-car and two passage tickets for fifty cents by applying to the police. He can even hire a plain, unpainted coffin to carry the dead to the grave. Once there, the body is wrapped in a serape and consigned to a grave which has been rented for from two to five years. At the end of that time the grave is opened and the bleaching bones are cast into a corner kept for that purpose, where they lay bleaching in the hot Southern sun, exposed to the gaze of the public.

Funerals cost from fifty cents to $2,000. One of the prettiest customs in Mexico is the universal respect which greets a passing funeral. Every man, from the millionaire to the poor, half-clad peon, takes off his hat until the sad train is passed. Well-dressed senoras bow their head and silently cross themselves, while the Indian women kneel in prayer. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 21 May 1887: p. 15

Even today “Agencias Funerarias Gayosso” appears to be one of the most prominent funeral directors in Mexico.

cheap funeral car, Mexico Street Railway Review 1891
The cheapest class of funeral car, except for the multi-compartmented one for pauper funerals. 1891

Among the poor, there was a custom of carrying the coffin to the cemetery by hand or on the head.

The Mexicans have a queer way of burying the dead. The corpse is tightly wrapped in century plant matting, and placed in a coffin rented for about twenty-five cents. One or two natives, as the case may be, place the coffin on their heads and go in a trot to the grave, where the body is interred, and the coffin is then returned. The wealthy class use the street cars as hearses, and the friends follow behind the cars on foot. Evening News [San Jose, CA] 23 February 1889: p. 3

elaborate street car hearse mexico city 1923
1923 street car hearse in Mexico City

The funeral trolleys were quite the lucrative business.

FUNERAL SERVICE.

The story of the splendid street car service given the city of Mexico would hardly be complete without giving a short description of the funeral service. There is a special department for this service, which is very much used, and which earns, I am told, about $400 per day. For this service the old horse cars are used to a good advantage. The company controls the funeral service of the city, whether it be by electric car, horse car or carriage, and it is prepared to furnish any kind of service upon short notice given at their office.

With few exceptions the funerals from the city to the cemeteries are conducted by the street railway company, either first-class, second-class or free, the cost varying with the amount of decoration used on the cars. It is not an uncommon sight to see five or six funerals leaving the public square, following one another on the street railway tracks, each with from one to three cars. Some have great quantities of beautiful flowers and ornamentation and others have none.

The funeral car is generally a motor car, but sometimes it is pulled by mules. It is painted and trimmed in black or white. All are single-truck cars, with four square posts supporting the roof at the corners of the car body, forming a parallelogram, say 12 feet long by the usual width of the car. Between the posts on the floor of the car is a raised portion upon which the casket and many of the flowers are placed. The friends of the dead are carried in one, two or three trailers or horse cars. I have seen as many as two trailers filled with floral decorations.

There are also two magnificently furnished and fitted cars called “Carrozas” for extraordinarily fine funerals. These cars cost upward of $10,000 each and have a place in front for the casket, with seats behind for the people. Women never attend funerals in this country. They also have 20 electric and 8 horse “Carrozas,” which are used for first and second class funerals, according as may be required and are decorated to suit for extra expense. The original cost of such a car is $3.75 silver, trailers being paid for at the same rate,

This service saves the people many thousands of dollars annually and at the same time is worthwhile to the railway company.

The free car for funerals when people are unknown or die absolutely destitute is quite another thing; instead of being entirely open it is entirely closed, with doors on one side opening from top to bottom. There are four doors, with three compartments to each (like pigeonholes), there being 12 places in each car. In each one of these places a body is placed, either in a common board coffin or sewed up in a blanket. The latter cars are furnished at the exact cost of running, twice per day. The service is paid for by the government. Electric Railway Review, Volume 19, 14 March 1908: p. 326

The trolleys were even mentioned in the papers and in guidebooks as one of the not-to-be-missed tourist attractions of Mexico City. I was interested to note that the information on trolley-hearses from an 1899 guide to Mexico was copied practically word-for-word by a 1911 travel book—a long run of popularity.

1st class funeral motor body for Brazil trolley hearse
st Class Funeral Motor Body for Guinle & Company of Bahia, Brazil (Photo #2613, Order #15901–Ordered March 16, 1907, Delivered June 15, 1907) This photo depicts an open, ornate funeral car with a platform for a casket at the center of the car, draped in black cloth. The sides of the car have heavy black drapes held open with tiebacks, and there are four black plumes on each corner of the roof.. http://www2.hsp.org/collections/manuscripts/brill/inventory.html

MEXICO’S TROLLEY FUNERALS

Train of Electric Hearses and Mourners’ Cars One of the Sights.

City of Mexico, June 27.

The elaborate funeral processions which, winding gay-colored through the streets, are a feature of most Spanish-American countries, are unknown here. The electric trains are used for all funerals and the procession following the dead to the place of burial is as modern and up to date as it can be. The electric trains of Mexico are well built and run, their direction being in the hands of Americans and Englishmen. One of the main lines runs to the principal cemetery of the city and along this all the funerals go.

The company has a contract with the city under the terms of which a special burial car, containing coffins for twelve bodies, calls daily at the hospitals and public institutions to take the city charges who have died to the city cemetery. Under the contract with the city the trolley company furnishes the hearse and the car crew, and the undertakers are city employes. The funeral car is a plain black car with little ornamentation.

The company has for private use several cars ranging in elaborateness from a plain style, for which a small charge is made, to a very elaborate one, the price of which puts it beyond the reach of all but the well-to-do.

All the cars are so constructed that they can be run off the tracks and over the pavements to the house from which the body is to be taken. When the coffin is secured the car is drawn by horses back to the nearest track, where it make the necessary electric connection.

Of late the government has been repaving the streets with asphalt. It has been found that dragging the heavy funeral cars over this is ruinous to the pavement and soon another arrangement will be necessary. The trolley company intends to have a central funeral station designated, into which the electric hearses can run on spurs and to which the dead will be taken in vehicles provided for that purpose. A familiar sight on the trolley line to the cemetery is a funeral train made up of an electric hearse, with a trailer for the mourners; another hearse, with another body, another trailer, with another party of mourners, and so on. The trains run at the same speed as other electric vehicles.

Many of the hearses are elaborately embellished with statuettes, carved work, plumes, torches and similar emblems of mourning. The trolley company finds the business profitable and it is growing all the time. Grand Rapids [MI] Press 27 June 1903: p. 10

This pretty picture of funereal efficiency was rather marred by darker reports of ill-maintained tramways, which caused derailments and the spilling of corpses into the street. The admirable plan to collect pauper corpses from the hospitals with Prussian precision was tempered by the reality that the trolley did not always run on time and there were both backlogs of rotting bodies at the cemeteries and complaints by the dismayed populace of naked and decomposing bodies and body parts being run through the middle of Mexico City during the day. In addition, in 1904 there were complaints that a pulqueria across the street from the Panteon Civil de Dolores was patronized by mourners and trolley drivers, who then drove recklessly through the cemetery.

The Mexican Civil War caused the destruction of many trolley lines. The article below suggests that the Mexican trolley-hearse was on the wane. Note that the headquarters of the Mexico Tramways Company was in Canada, perhaps a remnant of those “Englishmen” who were said to have built and run it in 1903.

FUNERAL TRAINS IDLE

Toronto, Ont., Jan. 24. At his desk in Toronto, an official of the Mexico Tramways Company recently noted statistics showing that the street car hearse business in Mexico City had been dropping off gradually during recent years. Hence, an order has gone forth from the Toronto headquarters of the Mexican city’s street car system that its “funeral trains” no longer are to be operated. Times-Picayune [New Orleans LA] 25 January 1931: p. 20

It seems as though trolley-hearses still ran in San Francisco through the late 1920s. Does anyone know the date of the latest use of a trolley hearse either in Mexico or the United States? Bier-heads welcome. Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

For a really fascinating look at the historical care of the dead in Mexico City, see “The Cadaverous City: The Everyday Life of the Dead in Mexico City: 1875-1930.”

 

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.