The Black Cat Horror: 1880

black cat horror

Winter set in very early that year, and it was extraordinarily cold. By late fall, they were cutting ice two feet thick on the canal, and storing it in the great ice houses which then lined the banks. A certain man had died, when the weather was at its coldest, and I was one of the three men chosen to keep the night watch.

The body was laid out in the parlor of the home on an old-fashioned bier, which was too short, as he was a very tall man, and was covered with a black pall, which hung down over the feet. There was no fire in the room, and the window was opened about two inches, with the result that the corpse was frozen as hard as marble. Notwithstanding this, the undertaker left a jar of some embalming fluid, with which the body was to be covered every two or three hours. We three sat in another room, and punctually at the proper hours performed this gruesome function, whiling away the rest of the time as best we might.

Just as the clock struck midnight we heard one of the women come downstairs to prepare some coffee and food for us, and I suggested that before we partook of it we should attend to the body again. We crossed the wide hall, the wind moaning in gusts around the house, and the freezing atmosphere already chilling our blood, and entered the parlor. I went in first, the candle in my hand. I had taken two or three steps when I stopped, simply appalled. One leg of the frozen corpse was rising and falling beneath the pall, silently, but unmistakably, as though kicking in convulsive agony. Peterman, a powerful young German, who was next to me, caught sight of it the next moment, and, throwing his hands, with a cry of “My God!” fell fainting to the floor.

How long I stood gazing at the ghastly movement I do not know. The hot tallow fell unheeded from my hand, until it formed a little mound. At length I was aroused by Peterman coming to his senses, and commencing to vomit terribly. This changed the current of my thoughts, and I ran out for a basin. Before I could return he saw the leg move again, and fell in another swoon. Finding him thus, my fear suddenly left me, and I was determined to solve the mystery. I walked to the bier and pulled back the pall.

I found there a lean and savage black cat, gnawing at one of the frozen legs, and the arching of whose back, in the effort to tear the flesh, had caused the horrible appearance. Though I knocked it away and kicked it, the brute, with eyes glowing like coals, sprang back each time to its awful meal and I dared not touch it with my hands for fear a bite or scratch from those tainted fangs and claws should cause blood poisoning. It was literally mad with hunger. At length I fetched a long, heavy bootjack, and beat it over the head with that until it lay still, when I threw it out of doors. The only way it could have gotten in was through the window, but how it squeezed through such a narrow aperture is a mystery. Peterman was sick in bed for months after the shock, while as for our third companion, he ran at Peterman’s first scream and did not appear at all.

Sidney Journal, December, 1897

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Mrs Daffodil thanks Mr Rich Wallace of the Shelby County Historical Society for unearthing this dire eyewitness account of an event which occurred in Cynthian Township, Ohio in the fall of 1880.  In a case of art imitating life, the Ohio author, Ambrose Bierce [1842–1914] wrote the equally dire “John Mortonson’s Funeral,” published in Can Such Things Be? [1893]  The ignorant and superstitious held that if a cat jumped over a corpse, the dead person would become a vampire.

For more tales of malign cats, please see this post at the Haunted Ohio blog. The story above is also found in The Face in the Window. Other stories of cats as a menace at wakes may be found in The Victorian Book of the Dead, available as a paperback here and at other online retailers (or ask your library or local bookstore to order it) 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.

Pickled to Death

Old Croak embalming fluid
Pickled to Death   Joke bottle for Old Croak Kentucky Straight Embalming Fluid

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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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:


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.


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:


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.


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.


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.


But Coroner Krause Says Almedia Bretz Swallowed Embalming Fluid


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?


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.


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

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 Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Embalmed Alive

Embalmed Alive Embalming set, 1790-1820

Recently a horrific news story about a young Russian woman who was killed by the accidental infusion of formalin instead of a saline IV has been been making the rounds with painful headlines of “Embalmed Alive!”

Since this blog is nothing if not topical, I wondered if, like premature burial, there was such a thing as “premature embalming.”

Of course, we’ve all heard of the urban legend tale “The Poisoned Dress” or “Embalmed Alive” about the young woman who dies after absorbing embalming fluid from a used dress. And if you’ve ever seen that noirest of films, The Loved One, based on Evelyn Waugh’s novel, you may remember Miss Aimée Thanatogenos, who embalms herself. I’m not a fan of needles or trochars so this is a subject that makes me queasy.

Thankfully the numbers of the near-embalmed are not large, and those embalmed alive are mercifully few. Yet two cases with a remarkable similarity to the Russian tragedy occurred in Norfolk, Virginia in 1929.

On 17 May 1929, a modest notice in The Independent newspaper of Elizabeth City, North Carolina told of funeral services held for Mrs. Ruth Garrett, 36, wife of Cecil F. Garrett, “who died in a Norfolk hospital at 10:45 Sunday morning following an operation.”  She died on her birthday 12 May. But early in June, The Independent, tipped off by a confidential informant inside the hospital, began a relentless campaign to uncover the truth about Mrs. Garrett’s untimely death.

“Light is beginning to dawn on the mysterious death of Mrs. Cecil F. Garrett of this city who came to her death in a Norfolk Hospital on Sunday May 12th, 1929. Her death, following a sudden and unexpected operation, is believed to have been caused by a deadly injection for which a bungling laboratory nurse was responsible.”

That deadly injection, it soon emerged, was of formalin. Mrs. Garrett was, as the papers blared, “embalmed alive.”

As The Independent wrote,

Mrs. Garrett, 36 years old, was one of the healthiest young matrons in Elizabeth City. Her sudden death in St. Vincent’s Hospital on May 12th stunned everybody who knew her. But her husband suspected nothing wrong until weeks afterwards. Murder will out.

(Frankly, I’m surprised the newspaper got away with that kind of potentially libelous language.)

Mrs. Garrett’s personal doctor had discovered kidney disease and referred her to Dr. R.L. Payne of Norfolk, who recommended injections of an antiseptic silver nitrate solution. The first injection went smoothly, but the second caused her great pain. Despite this, she waited another two weeks to see the doctor, when it was discovered that one kidney had been destroyed and the other was badly damaged. An operation was hastily performed to remove the dead organ; the other kidney was too far gone and Mrs. Garrett died on Sunday morning, 12 May, 1929.

There the matter would have rested, with spouse and friends grieving for their loved one, but someone at the hospital decided to talk anonymously to the newspaper. The Independent asked Mr. Garrett for comment and he was stunned by what he heard. When he asked Dr. Payne for an explanation, the doctor admitted that the wrong solution had been used for the injection; he had ordered silver nitrate, but the bunglers in the laboratory had sent a mislabled bottle…. [The Independent [Elizabeth City NC] 7 June 1929: p. 1]

Next, readers of The Independent were stunned to find that Mrs. Garrett’s “Death Came Fourteen Days After an Injection of Formalin Into Kidney by Dr. R.L. Payne in a Norfolk Hospital.”

The article makes it clear that Dr. Payne smelled formaldehyde when he examined the kidney which he had removed.  He “explained that he was so distressed over the death and the complications that had arisen that it never occurred to him that he should notify the coroner.”

Twisting the scalpel, the newspaper added: “No one professes to know how the pharmacist in St. Vincent’s hospital got formalin in the silver nitrate bottle.”  The Independent [Elizabeth City NC] 21 June 1929: p. 1

The newspaper was on a self-congratulatory roll:

The hospital, upon instructions from Dr. Payne or for reasons best known to itself (this detail is not clear) issued a death certificate stating as the cause of Mrs. Garrett’s death “acute nephritis and heart failure.” And the public might have remained in ignorance of the truth forever if this newspaper had not questioned the mystery of Mrs. Garrett’s sudden death and forced an investigation. The Independent [Elizabeth City NC] 28 June 1929: p. 5

But the newspaper was far from satisfied with the Coroner’s investigation and report.

According to Coroner McDonald Mrs. Garrett merely died of heart failure, following nephrosis. “A more evasive and innocuous document would be hard to find. All of the ingenuity and cunning of all of St. Vincent’s legal advisers could not have produced a more obvious whitewash and any high school boy could have contrived a more plausible and ingenious exculpation of the hospital staff. The Independent [Elizabeth City NC] 5 July 1929: p. 1-2

As the paper kept digging, a second victim, Mrs. Leslie McLemore, was identified as having been poisoned by formaldehyde at St. Vincent. Her symptoms were identical to Mrs. Garrett’s. The Independent [Elizabeth City NC] 12 July 1929: p. 1

Mr. Garrett retained a lawyer, but.

But Cecil F. Garrett, Husband of Woman Who Was Embalmed Alive,

Will push The Matter To Its Limit.

A special Norfolk grand jury last week investigating the death of Mrs. Cecil F. Garrett of this city, who died at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Norfolk after an operation following an injection of formalin from a bottle labelled nitrate of silver failed to find sufficient evidence to bring charges against anyone and was dismissed by Judge W.H. Sergeant in Corporation Court.

Cecil F. Garrett, husband of the dead woman, told a representative of this newspaper this week that while he was satisfied that the grand jury was composed of intelligent and conscientious men who discharged their duties the best they could and that he was satisfied with their report, considering the evidence they had gathered, he would not be content to let the matter drop. He stated that his attorneys were still investigating and that some sort of suit would eventually be started against someone.

In commenting on an article in a Norfolk paper quoting him as saying that it seemed that there was an unfortunate error in making up the prescription in the drug store or laboratory and that he held no one to blame for the unfortunate error, Mr. Garrett absolutely denies that he said anything of the kind. “The reporter just assumed that I said these words from a former statement in The Independent where I said that there had been an unfortunate error made,” said Mr. Garrett.

But there was something lacking at the hearing that grand jury. There was one Sister Evelyn Fitzsimons, who was in charge of the hospital pharmacy where the bottle labelled “Nitrate of Silver” was filled with a solution of formalin. A few days after the death of Mrs. Garrett from the fatal injection, Sister Fitzsimons’ health became bad and she had to be sent to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Philadelphia. She was not available at the grand jury investigation. Another nurse was ill from an operation and could not be present at the investigation. She was a Miss Eggleson. Had these two important witnesses been able to attend the investigation and shed what light they could on the terrible death of a woman who was embalmed alive, the report of the grand jury may have been altogether different. But they were ill and the grand jury did not wait.

The whole thing, as terrible as it was, has been hushed up by the hospital officials and by the Norfolk coroner, as best they could Mr. Garrett feels that if Coroner C.D. J. McDonald of Norfolk had fully discharged his duties in the investigation of the death of his wife, the grand jury would have had something more to work and that their report would have been different from what it was last week. “I am going to push the matter just as far as I can,” says Mr. Garrett. “Not that I can get any satisfaction in the prosecution of the guilty parties, but to fulfil a duty that I owe the general public.

Norfolk officials would probably never had done as much as they did in the investigation of Mrs. Garrett’s death had it not been for the fact that The Independent gave the case relentless publicity, presenting the facts to the public in a way that made the officials feel that they had to do something.

Mrs. Garrett was not the only one to receive an injection from that bottle of fatal formalin. The solution in the bottle was used on one other occasion before it was used in the case of the Mrs. Garrett; and that other case is believed to have been Mrs. Marie McLemore, a niece of Mrs. M.M. Spruill of this city. Mrs. McLemore died after an operation in St. Vincent’s Hospital in April [28 May, actually] and the circumstances surrounding her death were similar to those in Mrs. Garrett’s case. But the grand jury did not go into the McLemore death further than to ask a few questions and the people of Mrs. McLemore are reluctant to push the matter.

The Independent [Elizabeth City NC] 16 August 1929: p. 1

While Mr. Garrett seemed to be making no headway, Mrs. McLemore’s people filed suit.

St. Vincent’s Sued for Death Mrs. McLemore

Murder will out. A suit for $10,000 filed in the Law and Chancery Court of Norfolk, Va., against St. Vincent’s Hospital last Friday, by Mrs. Ernestine Cahoon of South Norfolk… confirms the bold guess made by this newspaper last June that Mrs. McLemore was the victim of a medical blunder in St. Vincent’s….Every effort was made to conceal the facts regarding the deaths of the two young women….” The Independent [Elizabeth City NC] 2 May 1930: p. 1

Mrs. McLemore’s family shared gruesome details of the unfortunate woman’s agony. Still, the paper, who had made the case against the hospital, was not sanguine about the outcome:

“Nothing much will come of the suit against St. Vincent. St. Vincent’s is a semi-charitable hospital and enjoys a certain immunity in law. Cecil F. Garrett of this city started a suit against St. Vincent’s but made no progress.

Later Mr. Garrett sought redress from Dr. R.L. Payne, Norfolk surgeon who administered the fatal injection. How Dr. Payne evaded summons in this city and fled from town with the connivance of Dr. R.L. Kendrick and Dr. Howad J. Combs, of this city, has been told in this newspaper. It was learned later that attorneys for Dr. Payne and attorneys for Mr. Garrett were discussing a compromise.” The Independent [Elizabeth City NC] 2 May 1930: p. 1

And there the grim story ends. I assume that “compromise” was reached in both cases; I could find nothing more about lawsuits or settlements.

The joke about doctors burying their mistakes apparently applied to embalmers as well. Surprisingly, in early 20th century Massachusetts “under the present law an undertaker can embalm while the person is alive or bury the person before death and he commits no crime.” The Evening Statesman [Walla Walla WA] 30 October 1906: p. 3

Was He Embalmed Alive?

[Special to the Evening World.]

Rutherford, N.J., Aug. 9. Relatives of Dr. Charles Howard, who was reported to have died July 31 from an overdose of chloral, are taking steps to have the body exhumed for an autopsy, as they claim now that the doctor was alive when embalmed and death was due to the embalming fluid. Undertaker Collins officiated at the burial. The Evening World [New York NY] 9 August 1890: p. 4

But grief sometimes overtook common sense.

Anderson, Ind., Oct. 5. The attention of county officers has been called to a strange case at Summittville. It is claimed that Ed Hunter, a glassworker, was embalmed alive last Friday. Thursday evening Hunter retired with a headache. At midnight he called his wife, but before she got to him he was unconscious. The doctor who was called said Hunter was dead. The wife was not satisfied. After the embalmers had left the body she took a small glass, and, placing it over the nostrils, observed that moisture, a sure sign of life, gathered on the surface. She is almost distracted. Daily News-Democrat [Huntington IN] 5 October 1899: p. 1

The professionals were swift to comment:

Physicians and undertakers say the story is absurd. That had Hunter been alive when embalmed with a quart of the fluid of arsenic and other stuff of deadly poison it would have been out of question about him breathing 18 hours after being embalmed. The undertaker says that the veins on the forehead are filled with air, the pump having been pumping air into the veins before the fluid had started and the air in the veins caused them to feel as though they were in a normal condition. The Elwood [IN] Daily Record 5 October 1899: p. 1

There is a peculiar detail in this next story of partial embalming—that the undertaker would begin the embalming process with “weeping friends” in the room.


When the Undertaker Began the Embalming Process

Wilkesbarre, Penn., December 5. Mrs. Sarah Ramanski, the wife of a baker residing at Duryea, was taken suddenly ill on Monday and grew worse until Wednesday, when she showed signs of death. Toward evening she appeared to sink into a state of collapse and apparently died. The neighbors dispatched a message after Undertaker Koons, who took charge of the remains. Mr. Koons proceeded to arrange the preliminaries, such as tacking the crape on the door, &c., He began to inject fluid into the body, when, to his horror, the supposed corpse opened her eyes and glanced around the room at the weeping friends as if at a loss to understand the meaning of the proceedings. While her astonishment was great, that of the assembled friends was still greater, and instantly the scene was changed from one of grief to gladness. A physician was summoned and in explanation he gave it as his opinion that the case was nothing more than one of suspended animation. The Cincinnati [OH} Enquirer 6 December 1895: p. 4

It was bad enough when unembalmed persons in cataleptic trances awoke in their coffins while being transported to the graveyard. It piles horror upon horror to imagine being in a trance, able to hear what was going on, as the undertaker draws near with his needle….



East St. Louis (Ill.), January 14. Mrs. Christina Hirth awoke from a trance in the “dead-room” of the County Hospital today. Only by a slight motion of her eyelids was she able to make life manifest to the undertaker who was busy embalming her. This faint quiver was sufficient to throw a weight from her eye and thereby saved her from death by embalming fluid, or, escaping that, by premature burial.

Mrs. Hirth is 53 years old, and for three months has been suffering from a complication of ailments that have greatly weakened her. Last night it was expected that she would die, and her husband remained at her bedside all night. This morning she grew much weaker, and with a deep sigh seemingly expired.

The county undertaker was called, and the supposed corpse was taken to the “dead-room,” the body was laid out, washed, and partially bleached. Cloths saturated with bleaching fluid were placed over the face and body. The shroud and clothing in which she was to be buried were prepared.

While busy with his preparations to inject the embalming fluid, the undertaker was startled by a noise proceeding from the direction of the supposed corpse. He glanced hastily, but there was no motion in the white-sheeted figure. When he came to remove the sheet from the face, however, he noticed that one of the weights had fallen off. In replacing it he thought that he detected a quiver in the eyelids, but, attributing it to his imagination, went about preparing his instruments for the injection of the embalming fluid.

He was about to inject the fluid when again he noticed a quiver, and then, to be thoroughly satisfied, he applied the most powerful test of life known to undertakers. There was an unmistakable though faint indication of the life in the response. Assistance was summoned, the partially embalmed woman was removed to a bed and restoratives were applied by doctors. She was able after several hours to speak in a whisper and move her muscles, but weakness, caused by her illness and the terrible ordeal through which she had passed, told heavily upon her, and she could make no statement as to her experiences while in the trance. From signs it is supposed that she realized how near she was to being embalmed alive.

Her husband was thrown into a paroxysm of joy over the sudden restoration of his wife to life. Several of Mrs. Hirth’s women acquaintances believe that a miracle was performed, in answer to their prayers. Doctors are doubtful as to her ultimate recovery, though they say that she may take a turn for the better. New Zealand Herald, 24 February 1900: p.  2

If we merely took keyword frequency as an indication, we might think that being “embalmed alive” was a commonplace occurrence. But the phrase was sometimes used in the jocular sense of being drunk. And there are astonishingly large numbers of stories of people who died when mistaking embalming fluid for liquor.



Northumberland, Pa., Jan. 9. James B. Dieffenbach, secretary of the board of health and superintendent of the local water works, felt chilly and swallowed from a bottle which he thought contained whiskey. The fluid was embalming fluid or formaldehyde.

He entered a doctor’s office for relief from violent pains following the drink and soon died. Arkansas Democrat [Little Rock AK] 9 January 1909: p. 5


Undertaker’s Clerk Mistakes Deadly Fluid for Whiskey.

Paterson, N.J., Feb. 7. Mistaking a pint flask of embalming fluid for one containing whiskey, William J. Cantwell, night clerk in the undertaking establishment of Robert R. Nichols, drank enough to make “four fingers.” He was found dead in bed at 8 o’clock next morning by Nichols when he entered the rear room of his office.

The flask containing the embalming fluid stood in the cabinet alongside of one containing whiskey. Winston-Salem [NC] Journal 8 February 1911: p. 5

Finally—sometimes the choice was a deliberate one:

Says a New York dispatch: Michael Ferria, aged 24, died at St. Catherine’s hospital last night, having swallowed embalming fluid, which he obtained at an undertaking establishment in Brooklyn and drank with suicidal intent. He was discouraged, not having been able to secure work. He met a party of friends in front of the undertaker’s and went in and took a bottle which stood on a shelf and laughingly said that he would embalm himself before death. He succeeded. Lawrence [KS] Daily Journal 16 November 1892: p. 3

Other stories of death by embalming? I think I’ve just about reached my limit of grue….. chriswoodyard8 AT

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 Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.