While researching my recent post on the young woman labelled “embalmed alive” by the tabloids, I was stunned to discover a large corpus, as it were, of stories of people poisoned, not by having formalin or formaldehyde injected into their veins, but by ingesting embalming fluid in various ways, either by chance or by choice.
As we saw in the previous post on this subject, embalming fluid was frequently mistaken for something drinkable like whiskey or beer, or even plain water. I find this a bit baffling. I admit I do not know how vintage embalming fluid smelled, but I would assume that there was enough of a smell to alert the drinker that it wasn’t whiskey. But given the copious amounts of alcohol served to mourners at wakes, were there any alert drinkers? The overflowing cup of cheer (along with an apparent shortage of cups) lies behind many of these tales. “Dead drunk” was no mere figure of speech.
EMBALMING FLUID IN THEIR BEER.
Mourners at a “Wake” Poisoned, One of Them Fatally.
Racine, Wis. Oc. 5. Special Telegram.
While attending an Irish wake last night James Payton, James Callahan and Mrs. George Diven were poisoned by drinking embalming fluid. During the night refreshments were served, and beer was poured into a tumbler which contained embalming fluid left by the undertaker. Payton is not expected to recover. Daily Inter Ocean [Chicago IL] 6 October 1888: p. 9
FUNERAL DRUNK FATAL
Centralia, Wash., April. 2. William Maginniss’ wife died a few days ago. The undertaker neglected to remove from the house a bottle of embalming fluid. Last night Maginniss came home drunk. He mistook the fluid for liquor and drank it. Then he died. The Spokane [WA] Press 2 April 1908: p. 4
This story of a practical joke is both horrifying and puzzling.
NOT EMBALMING FLUID.
Moran Drank Whiskey at the Wake and Was Not Poisoned.
Dr. A.J. Downey of 350 Union street, Brooklyn, this morning sent a certificate to Justice Tighe, in the Butler Street Police Court, stating that Patrick Moran, of 162 Walcott street, who, it was supposed, would die from the effects of drinking an embalming fluid for whiskey at a wake, was suffering from alcoholism.
Thomas Ryan and James White, who gave Moran a solution used to wash the face of the corpse as a joke, will now be released.
They had been held until the doctor could determine if Moran had been poisoned. The Evening World [New York NY] 5 October 1894: p. 1
Did the pranksters think they were actually giving Moran embalming fluid? Or did they just give him whiskey they claimed was the poisonous liquid? If the former, what did they think was going to happen? If the latter, why the hell did he drink it?
Aside from mistaking it for whiskey and ingesting it from the lips of a corpse, there were a variety of ways to be poisoned by embalming fluid. Here are two of the more unusual:
Miss Emma Conrad, of Nevinsville, narrowly escaped death from poisoning. She is the daughter of the late Rev. Mr. Conrad. In preparing the body for burial the undertaker spilled embalming fluid on the carpet and bed clothing. When washing these articles Miss Conrad inhaled the poison in the steam arising from the tub. Estherville [IA] Daily News 2 May 1895: p. 2
Poisoned by Embalming Fluid
Iowa Falls, Oct. 10. Mrs. E.W. Stewart and Mrs. S.B. Couenhoven, two women living just west of this city, are suffering from a severe case of poisoning of the hands and they have been under medical care for several days in hopes of alleviating the suffering the poisoning entails. The accident occurred from the women washing their hands in some embalming fluid which the undertaker had left at the home of a neighbour where a death had just occurred and where the women were assisting at the time. Ottumwa [IA] Semi-weekly Courier 12 October 1899: p. 1
Even undertakers were not immune to its malign effects.
AN UNDERTAKER POISONED
Undertaker Tom Hendricks of Kellerville was poisoned while embalming a corpse last Thursday, by puncturing his finger with the embalming needle. Thirty minutes after the wound was received the fingers began to tingle and the whole arm soon became numb. The pain was intense. He came to town and had temporary medical assistance and went on the evening train to Dr. Prince at Springfield. The doctor told Tom that he had about one chance in a hundred for life and that if swelling continued within thirty-six hours he would not survive. Fortunately the swelling was arrested. Tom has a very sore hand, but the feeling is returning in his arm and it is believed the effects of the poison are counteracted. The Decatur [IL] Herald 12 October 1895: p. 1
One of the most startling categories of formalde-cide was that of food or drink from a recycled embalming fluid keg or cask. Some of these were clearly marked as toxic. Apparently some people took “Name yer poison!” for guidance.
Poisoned by Embalming Fluid.
Saco, Me., October 20. Frank Wilds, of Union Falls, yesterday sold a cask of new cider to Winfield S. Dennett, of Saco. The latter’s son James, aged nineteen years, drank a third of a glass of the cider, Dennett took a teaspoonful and his wife tasted it. All of them were taken sick and the son died early this morning. Mrs. Dennett is very sick, but the physicians think she will recover. On the head of the cask was branded the word “poison.” The cask was purchased from a Biddeford undertaker and originally contained embalming fluid. The Times [Philadelphia PA] 21 October 1886: p. 1
A suit brought against undertaker Dennis O’Connor by the elder Mr. Dennett for $20,000 damages in causing the death of his son ended in a hung jury; I have not been able to find a final verdict from the retrial. O’Connor used to sell liquor casks to a local cider maker; somehow an embalming fluid cask was included with one lot and it was this that was filled with cider and sold to Mr. Dennett. The testimony transcript describes O’Connor’s handling of the casks and it is easy to see how the jury might have had reasonable doubt about the case.
Beverages were not the only foods tainted by embalming fluid:
Poisoned by Embalmed Kraut.
At Downs the families of Willis DeLay and Orrin McAfferty were seriously poisoned. At dinner they partook of some sauerkraut which had been “put down” in a keg originally filled with embalming fluid. The Miami Republican [Paola KS] 26 December 1902: p. 1
Nineteenth- and early-20th-century health authorities frequently railed against death-dealing rogue ice-cream vendors.
FIFTY COLORADO PEOPLE POISONED BY ICECREAM
Analysis by Health Officer Shows That Embalming Fluid Was Used as Preservative.
Colorado Springs, Colo., Aug. 18. More than fifty persons, the majority of whom are tourists in this city and Manitou, have been poisoned by eating ice-cream made by local dealers from a consignment of cream received on Sunday morning from one of the largest creameries and dairies in the State situated near Denver. Analysis by the health officers of Colorado Springs reveals the fact that the cream was charged with formaldehyde, better known as embalming fluid, to keep it from souring. No deaths have resulted, although several cases are critical.
The name of the company supplying this cream has not been made public. Health Officer Hanford of this city states that arrests will be made at once. The case promises to be sensational. The San Francisco [CA] Call 19 August 1903: p. 7
When the corpse was laid out at home, extra embalming fluid was sometimes left by the undertaker with directions to sponge the face or pour on exposed flesh. Undertakers and embalmers were often remarkably careless about retrieving or storing left-over supplies, to fatal effect.
Kansas City, Mo. Feb. 26 A special from St. Joseph, Mo. Says: A.J. Smith was buried today. During the absence of the family at the funeral, the 2 year old child of the dead man, found a bottle of embalming fluid, which the undertaker had used in preparing her father’s body for burial and drank a portion of it. The child died in great agony. Arkansas City [KS] Daily Traveler 27 February 1891: p. 1
Sadly, this was not a unique case.
Poisoned With Embalming Fluid.
Albany, N.Y., Sept. 5 While an eleven-year-old daughter of Byron Welch was carrying in her arms her infant sister, eleven months old, today, the little one cried for a drink of water. The girl picked up a bowl containing embalming fluid, which stood beside the corpse of another child of the family and allowed the babe to drink of the poisonous mixture. A physician was summoned but the child died soon afterward. The Wichita [KS] Beacon 5 September 1889: p. 1
There was a criminal lack of communication in this next story:
Poisoned on Embalming Fluid
Sabina, Ohio, December 11. Mrs. Nathan Pike died Sunday night at the ripe old age of eighty-six. Her husband, who is a cripple and about her age, and a son, an old bachelor, composed the household. Mrs. Dunham and Mrs. Hallady, two married daughters living here, were with their mother’s corpse. There had been another death in town a few weeks ago, where the undertaker had taken a jug of embalming fluid, which he had not brought back to his office. The undertaker last evening sent a messenger to the place where the fluid had been left, and had him take it to Mr. Pikes. He carried it there, and said that here was a jugful of something that he had got at Mr. Plymire’s. The undertaker not being there the parties concluded it was hard cider that Mr. Plymire had sent them, the messenger having made no explanation of its contents. Being worn out on account of their attention to the wife and mother, they thought they would drink a little hard cider. Mr. Pike and the daughters took small quantities, but the son Dan enlarged on the quantity. The son had not more than drunk his down till the others began to vomit, and he followed in close pursuit. Doctors were soon present, examined the jug and were satisfied the fluid contained arsenic and corrosive sublimate. So they at once used the antidote for such poisons. It had the desired effect upon those who partook of it sparingly, and although Dan is in a critical condition the doctors think he will recover. Druggists are compelled to label all poisons, why not others who use them in their business? The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 12 December 1883: p. 7
And a certain lack of common sense in this one:
HARD TO KILL.
A Sensational Incident at a Wake in New York.
New York, August 1. Last night Rebecca Davis, 67 years old, was assisting at the ceremonies of “waking” the remains of a friend and neighbour who had just died. The ceremonies began early in the evening and as Rebecca endeavoured to assuage her grief and her thirst in the liquid refreshments incidental to the occasion, she gradually became exhilarated. The body was being taken charge of by a friend, who enjoys some reputation as an undertaker, and had just finished embalming the corpse preparatory to removal for burial in a distant part of the country. He carelessly left a bottle containing part of the embalming fluid on the mantelpiece. About 10 o’clock Rebecca’s glass was empty, and to join in a toast to the health of the survivors, she filled it from the first bottle that came handy. That bottle happened to be the one containing the left-over embalming liquid.
In a very short time afterward Rebecca was seized with such pains that she began to think that she was undergoing the tortures of purgatory herself, and her wails persuaded her companions to investigate. When the truth became known a policeman was called for assistance. He rang an alarm for an ambulance, which caused consternation in the neighbourhood by dashing up to the house of mourning at full speed. A surgeon and a stomach pump soon brought Rebecca around, but if she had not been under the influence of liquor at the time she certainly would have been embalmed alive from the inside, for the liquor she drank was a very powerful and penetrating preparation with poisonous ingredients. San Francisco [CA] Chronicle 2 August 1888: p. 1
But embalming fluid in a champagne bottle takes the cake.
POISON FOR CHAMPAGNE
Thomas Karns Imbibed of Fluid Intended to Embalm His Father.
Ouray, Colo., Dec. 27. Closely following the sad death of Michael Karns, who was frozen to death, occurs the tragic death of his son, Thomas at 4 a.m. today.
The remains of the elder Karns arrived from Telluride for burial at this city and were at the house of his son, Thomas.
The undertaker had left some embalming fluid, composed of corrosive sublimate and arsenious acid in dilute alcohol at the house, and in the room with the corpse. The poison fluid was in a bottle labeled “Champagne,” and although the undertaker had warned the members of the household of the dangerous character of the fluid, Karns must have forgotten the warning or failed to have heard it.
The first the family and watchers knew that he had taken poison was the query from him as to “what that stuff was,” and then he said that he had taken two swallows of it and thought it was whisky.
That was 9 p.m. and both Drs. Rowan and Ashley were hurriedly summoned, but their efforts were without benefit to Karns, who died at 4 in the morning. The Topeka [KS] State Journal 27 December 1897: p. 1
This was a particularly egregious case with no appalling detail spared by the press:
POISONED CANDY MAY KILL FOUR
Three Generations of Family Ate Sweets Saturated With Embalming Fluid
Tongues and Tonsils of Victims Eaten Out by Virulent Stuff Given Them While Attending Funeral of Twin Babies.
Special to the Philadelphia Times.
Altoona, December 29. As the result of eating candy, poisoned by embalming fluid four women of Blue Knob, Freedom township, Blair county, had their tongues and tonsil practically eaten out and are now lying in a critical condition from having swallowed some of the poison. They are:
Mrs. George J. Noffsker, 85 years old, and her daughter, Mrs. John Allison, and her granddaughters, Miss Rose and Miss Viola Ickes.
Christmas night the 3-months-old twin sons of Mrs. John Allison died. A country undertaker embalmed the bodies, using an extra strong fluid to preserve the bodies until Saturday. His assistant accidentally overturned the bottle on the board adjoining the sink in the kitchen and, dripping through the cracks, it saturated a pan of soft candy that had been placed underneath to cool. The fluid was mopped up, but it was not noticed that any had reached the candy.
MOURNERS ATE CANDY.
Yesterday afternoon after the funeral the candy was passed among the mourners. Several noticed an odd taste and did not eat it. The four women each ate freely and shortly afterward were seized with terrible pains. Mrs. Noffsker and Viola Ickes were made unconscious.
When a physician arrived it was found the poison had burned great holes in the tongues and tonsils of the victims until they were practically eaten away. Mrs. Noffsker’s false teeth plate was disintegrated, the teeth falling out.
To-night all are under the influence of narcotics, made necessary by their terrible sufferings. It is not believed they can recover. The Times [Philadelphia PA] 30 December 1901: p. 4
The only victims’ grave I could find was that of Mrs. Viola Ickes, who apparently lived until 1934, albeit perhaps not in the best of spirits.
ATE CANDY, NOW INSANE.
Sweetmeats Had Been Poisoned by Saturation With Embalming Fluid.
Altoona, Pa., Jan. 21. Mrs. Jacob Ickes, one of the women residing at Blue Knob, this county, who ate candy on Christmas day had had been saturated with embalming fluid through the carelessness of an undertaker, has gone crazy.
It is thought she is now incurably deranged. The Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 22 January 1902: p. 1
Like Miss Aimée Thanatogenos, the pretty cosmetician of The Loved One, some chose embalming fluid as the horrific agent of suicide. These make for dire reading.
DENIED SUICIDE WITH LAST BREATH
But Coroner Krause Says Almedia Bretz Swallowed Embalming Fluid
PARTIALLY FILLED BOTTLE FOUND
Pretty Seventeen-Year Old Girl Ended Her Life in Awful Agony Yesterday Morning.
Actuated by some unknown motive, Almedia Bretz, a pretty 17-year-old girl, 1420 North Fourth street, yesterday morning committed suicide by drinking embalming fluid. Although she protested to the end that she had not swallowed the poisonous stuff all the evidence seemed to contradict her statement and Coroner George C. Krause, after an investigation, decided it was a pure case of suicide.
The girl lived with her mother, Mrs. Kate Bretz, and her father lives in Steelton. She was employed at the Harrisburg Cigar Factory where she was known as an intelligent and industrious worker. She was unusually cheerful upon her return from work on Tuesday and spent the evening with some of the girls of the neighbourhood who are entirely at a loss as to what could have led her to take her life.
Became Ill Early in the Morning.
It was at 5 o’clock yesterday morning when the girl awakened her mother by her violet vomiting. As this ceased shortly nothing unusual was thought of the matter until 8 o’clock when the girl became sick again.
About this time the bottle of embalming fluid which an undertaker had forgotten was found in the girl’s room and a glass showed that some of the fluid had been taken by the sick girl. A month before the death of an infant son of John Bretz, a brother of Almedia, had occurred at the house and the undertaker had neglected to carry away a half-filled pint bottle of the fluid used in embalming.
Declared She Had Taken Nothing.
The mother accused her daughter of having taken the poison, but the girl denied this. “I took nothing,” she said, and she repeated this time and again in her agony prior to death. She remained conscious to the end and the last words on her lips were: “Mother, I didn’t take any poison.”
When it was seen that the case was a most serious one neighbors were summoned and medical aid was telephoned for, but by the time a physician arrived the girl was dead. This was about 9 o’clock.
Coroner Krause was sent for and an hour later held an investigation. He determined that an inquest was unnecessary and that all the indications pointed to suicide.
No Post-Mortem Examination.
No post-mortem examination will be made and it was learned last night that the bottle of embalming fluid and its contents had been destroyed by the family.
The mother last evening went to Steelton to see her husband and arrangements for the funeral will be made this morning. Patriot [Harrisburg PA] 24 March 1904: p. 5
Perhaps I wrong the young woman, but judging from the lack of a post mortem examination, her denials in extremis, and the fact that the family destroyed the incriminating fluid, I wonder if she thought she was taking something herbal and harmless to “bring on a miscarriage”?
This unfortunate lady managed to drink an entire half pint of the noxious liquid, while her undertaker husband tried to hush things up. Where, I wonder, did he get that certificate of death?
SWALLOWED EMBALMING FLUID.
Mrs. Ann Benson, wife of James Benson, an undertaker whose place of business is at No. 850 Fulton street, Brooklyn, committed suicide yesterday morning by swallowing embalming fluid.
The case was first brought to the attention of the authorities in the afternoon, when Benson presented a certificate of her death and requested Deputy Health Commissioner Young to keep the matter quiet, as he did not desire publicity. Dr. Young, however, referred the undertaker to Coroner Rooney.
From the statement of the husband it appears that he was attending to his duties as sexton at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Tuesday night, when he first heard that his wife was ill. After seeing her he discovered that she had taken poison. Dr. Thompson, the family physician, tried in vain for several hours to save her life.
On the floor of the shop, where the woman was found, was a pint bottle containing embalming fluid, a deadly poison, composed of chloride of zinc. About one-half of the contents of the bottle had been swallowed by Mrs. Benson. She had been subject to fits of melancholy. New York [NY] Herald 30 January 1890: p. 8
This boy’s best friend was not his mother.
Drank Embalming Fluid.
Kansas City, Nov. 4. An unusual suicide occurred here yesterday when Allen M. Bishop, an undertaker, aged 29, poisoned himself by drinking embalming fluid. Bishop had been despondent for some time, owing to the fact that his mother, with whom he had quarreled on numerous occasions, followed him about the city from place to place demanding that he give her all of his wages. Suicides among undertakers are so uncommon that no Kansas City undertaker ever heard of one. Cassville [MS] Republican 11 November 1897: p. 6
And finally, this article’s biased language about a “nervous” woman undertaker is particularly heartless.
TOO MANY BURIALS FOR HER.
Nervous Woman Undertaker at Last Succeeds in Suicide.
Siegfried, Pa., May 25. Mrs. Katie Keck, an undertaker, 43 years old, succeeded in committing suicide, this being her third attempt. A week ago she took an overdose of carbolic acid and was saved, and on Saturday slashed her wrists with a knife.
This time, when her exhausted nurse was taking a nap, Mrs. Keck managed to get embalming fluid, of which she swallowed about a pint, and death ensued in four minutes.
Mrs. Keck succeeded to the undertaking business established by her husband, on his death two years ago. It was at first thought she had become melancholy over financial difficulties, but the examination of her accounts shows that the business was very prosperous. It is thought “the business got on her nerves.” Trenton [NJ] Evening Times 25 May 1910: p. 7
As recently as 1982 “moonshiners” were using embalming fluid in their product to give it “bite.” It runs in my mind that the stuff was/is sprinkled on tobacco (or was it marijuana?) to give an extra buzz. And, of course, we still tell the urban legend of the girl at the prom poisoned by a dress from a corpse. But have there been any recent embalming fluid poisonings?
Have the coroner seal the bottle and send 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.