A ‘appy Release

On the Stairs 

The house had been “genteel.” When trade was prospering in the East End, and the ship-fitter or block-maker thought it a shame to live in the parish where his workshop lay, such a master had lived here. Now, it was a tall, solid, well-bricked, ugly house, grimy and paintless in the journey, cracked and patched in the windows; where the front door stood open all day long, and the womankind sat on the steps, talking of sickness and deaths and the cost of things; and treacherous holes lurked in the carpet of road-soil on the stairs and in the passage. For when eight families live in a house, nobody buys a door-mat, and the secret was one of those streets that are always muddy. It smelled, too, of many things, none of them pleasant (one was fried fish); but for all that it was not a slum.

Three flights up, a gaunt woman with bare forearms stayed on her way to listen at a door which, opened, let out a warm, fetid waft from a close sick-room. A bent and tottering old woman stood on the threshold, holding the door behind her.

“An’ is ‘e no better now, Mrs. Curtis?” the gaunt woman asked, with a nod at the opening.

The old woman shook her head, and pulled the door closer. Her jaw waggled loosely in her withered chaps: “Nor won’t be, till ‘e’s gone.” Then after a certain pause: “’E’s goin’,” she said.

“Don’t doctor give no ‘ope?”

“Lor’ bless ye, I don’t want to ast no doctors,” Mrs. Curtis replied, with something not unlike a chuckle. “I’ve seed too many on ’em. The boy’s a-goin’ fast; I can see that. An’ then”–she gave the handle another tug, and whispered–“he’s been called.” She nodded amain.

“Three seprit knocks at the bed-head las-night; an’ I know what that means!”

The gaunt woman raised her brows, and nodded. “Ah, well,” she said, “we all on us comes to it some day, sooner or later. An’ it’s often a ‘appy release.”

The two looked into space beyond each other, the elder with a nod and a croak. Presently the other pursued: “’E’s been a very good son, ain’t he?”

“Ay, ay—well enough son to me,” responded the old woman, a little peevishly; “an’ I’ll ‘ave ‘im put away decent, though there’s on’y the Union for me after. I can do that, thank Gawd” she added, meditatively, as, chin on fist, she stared into the thickening dark over the stairs.

“When I lost my pore ‘usband,” said the gaunt woman, with a certain brightening, “I give ‘im a ‘andsome funeral. ‘E was a Odd Feller, an’ I got twelve pound. I ‘ad a oak caufin an’ a open ‘earse. There was kerridge for the fam’ly an’ one for ‘is mates—two ‘orses each, an’ feathers, an’ mutes: an’ it went the furthest way round to the cimitry. ‘Wotever ‘appens, Mrs. Manders,’ says the undertaker, ‘you’ll feel as you’re treated ‘im proper; nobody can’t reproach you over that.’ An’ they couldn’t. ‘E was a good ‘usband to me, an’ I buried ‘im respectable.”

The gaunt woman exulted. The old, old story of Mander’s funeral fell upon the other one’s ears with a freshened interest, and she mumbled her gums ruminantly. “Bob’ll ‘ave a ‘ansome buryin’ too,” she said. “I can make it up, with the insurance money, an’ this, an’ that. On’y I dunno about mutes. It’s a expense.”

In the East End, when a woman has not enough money to buy a thing much desired, she does not say so in plain words; she says the thing is an “expense,” or a “great expense.” It means the same thing, but it sounds better. Mrs. Curtis had reckoned her resources, and found that mutes would be an “expense.” At a cheap funeral mutes cost half a sovereign and their liquor. Mrs. Manders said as much.

“Yus, yus, ‘arf a sovereign,” the old woman assented. Within, the sick man feebly beat the floor with a stick. “I’m a-comin’,” she cried, shrilly; “yus, ‘arf a sovereign, but it’s a lot, an’ I don’t see ‘ow I’m to do it–not at present.” She reached for the door-handle again, but stopped and added, by after-thought: “Unless I don’t ’ave no plooms.”

“It ‘ud be a pity not to ‘ave plooms. I ‘ad–“

There were footsteps on the stairs; then a stumble and a testy word. Mrs. Curtis peered over into the gathering dark. “Is it the doctor, sir?” she asked. It was the doctor’s assistant; and Mrs. Manders tramped up to the next landing as the door of the sick-room took him in.

For five minutes the stairs were darker than ever. Then the assistant, a very young man, came out again, followed by the old woman with a candle. Mrs. Manders listened in the upper dark. “He’s sinking fast,” said the assistant. “He must have a stimulant. Doctor Mansell ordered port wine. Where is it?” Mrs. Curtis mumbled dolorously. “I tell you he must have it,” he averred with unprofessional emphasis (his qualification was only a month old). “The man can’t take solid food, and his strength must be kept up somehow. Another day may make all the difference. It is because you can’t afford it?”

“It’s a expense–sich a expense, doctor,” the old woman pleaded. “An’ wot with ‘arf-pints o’ milk an’–” She grew inarticulate, and mumbled dismally.

“But he must have it, Mrs. Curtis, if it’s your last shilling; it’s the only way. If you mean you absolutely haven’t the money–” And he paused a little awkwardly. He was not a wealthy young man–wealthy young men do not devil for East End doctors—but he was conscious of a certain haul of sixpences at nap the night before; and, being inexperienced, he did not foresee the career of persecution whereon he was entering at his own expense and of his own motion. He produced five shillings: “If you absolutely haven’t the money, why–take this and get a bottle–good. Not at a public-house. But mind, at once. He should have had it before.”

It would have interested him, as a matter of coincidence, to know that his principal had been guilty of the self-same indiscretion–even the amount was identical—on that landing the day before. But, as Mrs. Curtis said nothing of this, he floundered down the stair and out into the wetter mud, pondering whether or not the beloved son of a Congregational minister might take full credit for a deed of charity on the proceeds of sixpenny nap. But Mrs. Curtis puffed her wrinkles, and shook her head sagaciously as she carried in her candle. From the room came a clink as of money falling into a teapot. And Mrs. Manders went about her business.

The door was shut, and the stair a pit of blackness. Twice a lodger passed down, and up and down, and still it did not open. Men and women walked on the lower flights, and out at the door, and in again. From the street a shout or a snatch of laughter floated up the pit. On the pavement footsteps rang crisper and fewer, and from the bottom passage there were sounds of stagger and sprawl. A demented old clock buzzed divers hours at random, and was rebuked every twenty minutes by the regular tread of a policeman on his beat. Finally, somebody shut the street-door with a great bang, and the street was muffled. A key turned inside the door on the landing, but that was all. A feeble light shone for hours along the crack below, and then went out. The crazy old clock went buzzing on, but nothing left that room all night. Nothing that opened the door….

When next the key turned, it was to Mrs. Manders’s knock, in the full morning; and soon the two women came out on the landing together, Mrs. Curtis with a shapeless clump of bonnet. “Ah, ‘e’s a lovely corpse,” said Mrs. Manders. “Like wax. So was my ‘usband.”

“I must be stirrin’,” croaked the old woman, “an’ go about the insurance and the measurin’ an’ that. There’s lot to do.”

“Ah, there is. ‘Oo are you goin’ to ‘ave–Wilkins? I ‘ad Wilkins. Better than Kedge, I think; Kedge’s mutes dresses rusty, an’ their trousis is frayed. If you was thinkin’ of ‘avin’ mutes–“

“Yus, yus”—with a palsied nodding–“I’m a-goin’ to ‘ave mutes; I can do it respectable, thank Gawd!”

“And the plooms?”

“Ay, yus, and the plooms too. They ain’t sich a great expense, after all.”

Tales of Mean Streets, Arthur Morrison, 1921: pp. 154-162

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

A Grave Man: The Sexton of Spring Grove: 1866

Mind meal at en.wikipedia, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A GRAVE MAN.

The Old Sexton at Spring Grove.

Strange, Weird Experiences in a Grave-Digger’s Life.

Various Ways of Expressing Grief at the Last Scene.

Queer Actions of Superstitious People in Arranging Mounds.

Guards Armed to the Teeth—Only One Attempt at Grave-Robbery in Seven Years—Professional Mourners.

For twenty years Mr. Trotter, who is known as the old Sexton, has had charge of the digging and filling up of the graves at Spring Grove Cemetery. [Cincinnati, Ohio]

Yesterday an Enquirer reporter had an interview with Mr. Trotter.

He has seen nearly thirty thousand graves dug, and, of course, the same number filled after the body had been deposited.

He always makes it a point to be present, if there is a possibility of doing so, on both occasions.

For the first few years of his service at the Grove, Mr. Trotter often lent a hand in making the long, narrow and deep excavations, but of late he has devoted his whole time to overseeing the work, and the condition in which the mounds are to be found is sufficient proof that he is the right man in the right place.

Of this gentleman it can be truly said that he “sat by the new-made grave,” and that he is always prepared to “gather them in.”

A STRANGE FACT.

“You may think it strange,” said the sexton, “but it is nevertheless a fact that not more than twenty-five out of every one hundred persons who die in Cincinnati and its suburbs are buried in Spring Grove.” On being asked the reason for this, Mr. Trotter said, “Simply because there are so many other grave-yards. In the first place, there is a very large Roman Catholic population, both Irish and German, in Cincinnati, and they have burying-grounds of their own. Then, the Methodists have a couple, the German Protestants two or three, and our Jewish and colored citizens, one each. Combine these and it will be found that nearly three-fourths of Cincinnati’s dead are put to rest in grounds other than Spring Grove.”

The persons employed about any cemetery from the Superintendent down to the humblest sweeper, have some

VERY PECULIAR PEOPLE

To deal with, and Spring Grove is no exception to the general rule. Some people, with an order for the digging of a grave in their pocket, will go out and insist on seeing not only the first spadeful of earth removed, but that they be allowed to remain until the work is completed. They will suggest this thing and that thing, and if told that it can not be done will want to know the reason why. As a rule the workmen endeavor to be as obliging as possible, but there is not one case in ten where a person who has watched the digging through goes away entirely satisfied. The graves are of a uniform depth of six feet, but their width and length depend altogether upon the size of the coffin that is to be received.

Then again, there is almost more trouble about the

FILLING OF THE GRAVE

Than there is about its digging. Of course, there is rarely much said at the immediate time, but a day or two afterward, yes, in fact, perhaps early the next morning, some friend or relative of the deceased goes to the grounds and complains that the filling was not done properly; that the earth was thrown in too loosely; that I ought to have been packed and hammered down with the backs of the spades or a rammer. The good-natured sexton takes all this, and oftentimes more, too, and tries to convince the one making the complaint that is would hardly have looked proper to have beaten the ground down over the coffin of the departed, and in the very sight of mourning friends and relatives. Then, if the complaining one is not too obdurate, he or she is taken to the new grave, and is convinced that after the funeral party had left the ground, the earth had been packed and hammered, and that it was almost as intact as it was before the digging had commenced at all.

SUPERSTITIOUS PEOPLE.

Then there is another class of people know among the cemetery people as “cranks,” but generally referred to as superstitious. If a flower or a twig put on a grave is moved a quarter of an inch from where it was placed by them they will run to the superintendent or whatever official can be found, and assert that the grave has been disturbed, and they know that the body has been spirited away. Then there are others who, for the next four or five months after the interment of some dear one, will be at the grounds the moment the gate is opened in the morning and, having gained admittance, they will almost run to the lot to see if the mound is still there. Finding every thing in order, they will leave, but, in many instances, another member of the family or some friend will visit the spot again before closing up time in the evening.

Then there are other people who will measure the length and breadth of the grave every time they go out. When there at one time they will drive little bits of wood into the earth at the head and foot and at the sides of the grave, and with a tape-line carefully measure the distance. Then, after the lapse of a week or two, they return and find that perchance one of these little pieces of wood can not be found, or that it has been moved a few inches, they are sure that the tomb has been opened and the body stolen.

Many times acquaintances, knowing the peculiarities of these people, will change the markers on purpose to deceive and worry them. When this is found out it is promptly put a stop to by the authorities.

WATCHING GRAVES.

Then there is another class of people who, after a relative or friend has been buried, will ask permission to employ a private watchman for night duty for a month or two. They are told that this request can not be granted, because it would be against one of the most important rules of the cemetery, and are assured that there is no necessity for any action of the kind, as the association employs all the help necessary in guarding the place. Still, they are not satisfied, and will beg and persist in the hope that the desired permission will be granted. But it never is.

There is really no occasion for any worriment on the part of any one, because there are five night watchmen

ARMED TO THE TEETH

On constant duty, and no person is allowed inside the grounds after sundown save themselves. They each carry a revolver and a musket loaded with “slugs,” and their instructions are not to parley with any intruder, if, perchance, one should be found, but to shoot him down in his tracks.

This the policemen would be sure to do, and, as they have never had occasion to use their weapons, it must be considered that body-snatchers and other desperadoes give Spring Grove a wide berth.

During the life of Superintendent Adolph Strauch he had his residence inside the grounds, but he also had a countersign which all the men on guard understood. Mr. Salway, the present excellent superintendent, who succeeded Mr. Strauch, lives on Winton road, outside the grounds, and so from dark to daylight there is absolutely no one inside the inclosure save the watchmen.

So far as the present officers of the cemetery can see, and some of them have been on constant duty for nearly a quarter of a century, but one attempt was ever made to

ROB A GRAVE

And this, as might have been supposed, proved a fruitless undertaking. This occurred about seven years ago, and the body sought to be stolen was that of a young man named Boyd who had been shot and killed b his drunken father at South Cumminsville.

The would-be robbers had gained entrance to the cemetery by climbing the Winton-road fence, but they were discovered in their nefarious work before they had proceeded very far, and were fired upon by the guard. Whether they were injured or not was never ascertained, as they managed to make good their escape.

HOW GRIEF IS SHOWN.

“How do relatives and friends and others who are present act when the last sad rites at the grave are about to be performed?” echoed one of the old officers of the place in reply to a question of that import asked by the reporter. “Well, I’ll tell you that is an easy and at the same time a hard question to answer,” and then he went on to explain a truism, viz.: that all persons do not show grief alike.

Some, when they reach the open pit and see the coffin about to be lowered, give way completely and fill the air with their lamentations. Others will stand perfectly mute, not moving a muscle until they hear the clods of earth falling upon the case containing the coffin, and then they will break down. Still others will show no signs of emotion till the grave has been filled and they have returned to their carriages. Then there are still others who go as they came, apparently indifferent to all that is passing around them. Perhaps they, too, have aching hearts—hearts perhaps too full of sorrow to allow the shedding of a tear. They are the ones who feel the loss probably to a greater extent than those who are more demonstrative, but they nurse and husband their grief until the home from which a darling one has been snatched is reached.

PROFESSIONAL MOURNERS.

“Do you have here in Cincinnati what it is said they have in other cities—people who are known as professional mourners?” was asked of still another official.

“Oh, yes,” was the laughing reply: “we have a number of them, but not as many as some of the large Eastern places can boast of. There are perhaps a dozen or so of both men and women who will attend a funeral whenever an opportunity offers, no matter whether they may have been acquainted with the deceased in life or not. They go, it is presumed, for the ride, and can show as much feeling at the side of a grave as any one else. This is one reason why you see attached to death notices the words ‘burial private’ so often.”

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 5 March 1889: p. 4

Grave-yard Philosophy.

They have a grave-digger at Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, who is a fair match for the grave-digger in Hamlet. Here is an account of him:

One gets some grim views of living, as Well as of dead humanity by visiting a show grave-yard such as this. There is a simple-minded, good-hearted attache, by the name of ___, I am very fond of talking to. He has given me many lessons not soon forgotten.

“It’s a little grief and a good deal of pride that makes ’em do it, sir. I don’t mean to say that it ain’t natural; it is nateral. Nater can be found in a cemetery as well as anywhere. One afflicted family puts up a monument, and another afflicted family wants to outdo it. And they generally does, ef it’s done at once. Ef it’s put off a little, they gets more reasonable.”

“Time cures all ills.”

“Well, it does I’se seen a party put in that, vault to stay til a lot could be bought and a monument put up, and the grief was deep. You’d ‘spose there was no end to that grief, and no bottom either. Well, at the end of three months the company has had trouble to get them to take out the party and give it a Christian burial.”

“There are exceptions to that.”

“In course–any number of ‘em. I can show you graves here ten years old, and every summer you’ll find fresh flowers strewed on ’em.”

“More flowers than ornaments.”

“Can’t say that. Real deep feelin’ grief belongs as much to the rich as to the poor. Leastwise I find it so. But dying is as nateral as livin’, and in course people gets over it. Therefore it is that monuments come up with the first burst. Them graves that have flowers over ’em for more than a year isn’t healthy graves.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I mean that the mourners ain’t in their nateral health, or they’d find their feelings directed to the care of livin.”  

The Daily Phoenix [Columbia SC] 12 December 1866: p. 4

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.

Mortuary Professions for Ladies: 1889-1910

Josephine Smith, age 84, digging a grave at Drouin Cemetery, Victoria, c. 1944 https://www.flickr.com/photos/national_library_of_australia_commons/6174073756

To-day Mrs Daffodil has invited that crepuscular person from the Haunted Ohio blog to discuss mortuary career choices for women. She frequently writes on the popular and material culture of Victorian mourning and is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead. One presumes she is au courant on these dismal trades of the past.

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While Mrs Daffodil has previously remarked on a lady undertaker, and, we know, of course, that women were often the washers and layers-out of the dead, today I present some less usual mortuary professions for the ladies. We begin with the funeral stenographer. From the late nineteenth century onward, it was considered bad form to read a funeral sermon from notes; hence the need for someone to take down the more-or-less extemporized eulogy.

A QUEER JOB

There is a quiet young woman in a quiet, unobtrusive gown who has become quite a familiar figure at funerals. She is well known to the undertakers, at least. She always sits in the background with notebook and pencil, and her nimble fingers jot down verbatim the addresses and prayers that are uttered at the coffin’s side.

This young woman, it is said, up to a year ago, was a stenographer in a big mercantile house down town. She lost her place on account of the hard times and the consequent curtailing of the office force. She haunted the employment agencies at the various typewriter concerns for a time, but there were thousands of others doing the same thing—looking for a job. Her money was running low and she grew discouraged. Like many women she had a penchant for going to funerals, but she had not been able to indulge in this morbid fancy while regularly employed. She went to a big church affair one day, and took along her notebook and pencil, thinking she would take down the addresses just for the sake of practice. As the people were filing out a man asked her what she had been doing, and she falteringly admitted that she had been taking down what was said, so as to keep from forgetting her stenography. The man in question proved to be a friend of the family of the deceased, and said that if she would write out the prayers and addresses, putting in the hymns in their proper place, that he would pay her well for the transcript. She got $15 for this. It then occurred to her that here was a way of earning a living better and more profitable than anything else in her line.

She began to watch closely the obituary columns of the daily papers and to make calls on the undertakers in the neighborhood where she lived. It was not long beer she got another job, through going after the business in this way. Now she has about all she and her assistant can do. She charges from $15 to $50 for her services.

So far as is known she has little if any competition, and sometimes her earnings run as high as $125 a week. Strangely enough, however, she has been cured of her morbid fondness for funerals, and feels like giving up her curious way of earning a living for something less profitable, but more prosaic. She fears chronic melancholia. Daily People [New York, NY] 16 January 1910: p. 7

The young lady could have assuaged her fondness for funerals by becoming a professional mourner, as these funeral fans were jocularly called:

PROFESSIONAL MOURNERS

Get No More Free Rides, Says an Akron Undertaker.

“The professional mourner will get no more free rides at funerals conducted by us,” said an Akron undertaker, the other day, to a Democrat representative, with satisfaction beaming from every line of his countenance.

“Professional mourners! Free rides!” exclaimed the reporter in astonishment. “What do you mean? Tell us about it.” “Well, it’s this way,” said the undertaker. “At every funeral of which we have charge, we find three or four women, or maybe more, (professional mourners, we call them) who are in no way related to the family of the deceased, who had never perhaps even seen the person whose obsequies they are attending, and yet they are found occupying seats in the very front row, usually shedding tears copiously, and always dressed in black. When the time comes to go to the cemetery they are again found in the front rank and in spite of us, secure seats in the carriages provided by the relatives of the deceased for intimate friends, enjoy a free ride to the cemetery and back, and get all the choice morsels of news, which later is related to friends, all decked out with furbelows and embellishings with all the details of human grief and heartbreak which they have witnessed, worked in. To these people nothing is sacred, nothing too holy for them to gossip about.

“All this has been remedied, however, and the next time a professional mourner attempts to get a ride in one of our coaches a disagreeable surprise awaits her, for we have adopted a card system by which the names of the persons whom the bereaved relatives desire to have seats in the carriage is given to us. These persons are furnished with cards, and only those presenting cards to the driver will be allowed to ride.” Akron [OH] Daily Democrat 15 March 1902: p. 1

There were, in some cities in Europe and America, true professional mourners, both male and female, who were paid to look lugubrious. They had unions, went on strike, and there are records of some being arrested for pushing their services too aggressively at the graveside.

"The Tolling Bell," Source: http://artofmourning.com/2016/01/13/mourning-fashion-in-white/

Female pallbearers were not unknown, particularly in the case of young persons, whose friends were often asked to be pallbearers. To give just two examples: “The pallbearers will be six girls dressed in white.” [1902] “The coffin was being carried into the church by four young ladies, who according to the wish of the deceased, had been selected as bearers.” [1885] We can see one pallbearer dressed entirely in white and several others with white garments in Death of Her Firstborn, by Frank Holl.

A few women found work as grave diggers, something so rare that it called for comment in the newspapers. (Mrs Daffodil has written about Elizabeth Thorn, who dug graves under dire conditions after the Battle of Gettysburg.)

WOMAN GRAVE DIGGER

London, Oct. 2 Miss Janie Beeching, grave digger of Lewes, prefers to work at night instead of by daylight. She goes to the cemetery after dinner and digs graves by candlelight. Wilkes-Barre [PA] Times-Leader 2 October 1919: p. 12

WOMAN GRAVE DIGGER

A woman as a grave digger! The idea seems almost impossible, but in the town of Lewes, England, there is a lady who fills of the office of sexton. Everybody knows her, and until recently she dug all the graves in Lewes cemetery. Now, at the age of 60, she contents herself with filling them up and attending to the mounds and flowers. Mrs. Steele, the name of the sextoness, if one can use such a term—is a very healthy old lady, and she has been heard to say that she will never leave her post until it is her turn to have a grave dug for her. May the time be far distant. It is a wonderful sight to witness the old lady use the spade. Omaha [NE] World Herald 4 September 1898: p. 21

If one didn’t have the stamina for grave digging and had an artistic bent, there were work-at-home design schemes:

A NEW INDUSTRY

“Lady wanted to draw, at home, original designs for coffin furniture.” The above rather ghastly advertisement appears in one of the London dailies, so that those who happen to have artistic wives or daughters pining for an opening for their talents will probably now find their homes littered with suggestive sketches of “caskets,” specially and severally designed for railway directors, Primrose League dames, members of Parliament, and others. Whether the said sketches will be calculated to promote the cheerfulness of the domestic home is quite another matter. Press, 2 August 1889: p. 3

Many milliners specialized in widow’s hats and veils. Women were also employed to design and manufacture burial robes, which were often lovingly described in the same seductive terms as fashionable clothing for the living. The one difficulty was finding shoes for the dead, but an innovative Joliet dressmaker built a thriving business on funerary footwear:

SHOES FOR THE DEAD

A Novel Industry in Which Chicago Supplies the Whole World.

That there is nothing small about Chicago has been so frequently demonstrated as to need no reiteration…But that Chicago supplies an article in the production of which it has no rival in the world may be news to many readers. It is an article for which there will be a ceaseless demand so long as people die and are buried in the prevailing style. To the present funeral, if it is carried out in the height of fashion, belongs a burial shoe. It is as necessary as any other part of the garments worn on the last journey by young or old of either sex.

The fact that the rigor mortis made the feet of dead persons so unwieldy as to necessitate a foot-gear several sizes too large for a long time painfully impressed a Joliet dressmaker, a Miss Loomis. She went to work and constructed a shoe which not only did away with clumsy leather encasements, but, in true feminine style, she brought her ingenuity to such a point that the corpse of a person may be buried in number 2s while the wearer in life required number 4s. Of course the invention was promptly patented, and in the course of time a company was incorporated which supplies two-thirds of all the manufacturers of and jobbers in funeral supplies throughout the United States, and sends the product of the Joliet dressmaker’s inventive genius even across the ocean.

The shoe consists of knitted pieces of wool or silk, which are inserted at the heels and at the insteps, making it possible ot cover the rigid “understanding” of dead persons not only with a snug fit but in becoming style. In a block on Dearborn street a dozen or fifteen girls are at work from morning till night of each working day to manufacture nothing but burial shoes of all sizes–from those for tiny babies to the ones for the oldest inhabitants…The firm turns out from fifty to a hundred pairs a day, and they are all taken rapidly, because burial shoes have, since the last year or two, become a necessary part of the outfit of the dead. Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 11 September 1888: p. 2

And finally, an ingenious lady in New York who found a gap in a very specialized market and set out to fill it:

Woman With a Business Head Rents Smelling Salts to Visitors at the New York Morgue.

[New York Sun:] The man in the doorway crooked his finger at the wiry little woman in black, who sat on the curbing just outside the morgue.

“See her?” he asked.

“The curiosity-seeker thus addressed said, “Yes. What about her?”

“She’s a genius, that’s what about her,” said the man. “She has hit upon a most peculiar calling, and I’ll bet she will make money out of it, too. She has laid in a supply of smelling salts and rents out the bottles at the rate of 10 cents an hour to people visiting this institution. There are five different parties in here now, and each person is provided with smelling salts rented from this enterprising old lady.

‘I am glad she hit upon the plan. I had been thinking for a good many months in a vague sort of way that some such preventive of fainting ought to be supplied to tenderfeet that come spying around down here, but I never even perfected the project in my own mind, much less put it into execution. But it was different with the old lady.

“What first suggested the scheme was her own experience, when she came down here to look for a friend who had disappeared. She got so weak and nervous that she declared she would surely die if she didn’t get a whiff of lavender salts. She didn’t get the salts, because we had none about the place, neither did she die, but when she recovered she started in business.

“The lady’s profits vary, of course, with the attendance at the morgue. Some days she earns quite a decent salary. Take Tuesdays, for instance. For some reason, which I have never been able to discover, Tuesday is the public’s favorite day for doing the morgue.” The curiosity-seeker looked doubtfully at the woman on the curbing. “I wonder, “ she said, “if I’d better rent a bottle, too?”

“Going in?” asked the man.

“Yes,” said she, “I think so.”

“Then get a bottle, by all means,” was the reply. “It will cost but a dime and will save you no end of nervous chills.” Los Angeles [CA] Times 13 July 1901: p. 15

While the article blames the necessity for smelling salts on the “weak and nervous,” the little woman in black knew what she was up against. A chapter in The Victorian Book of the Dead gives the gruesome particulars of the sights and horrific stenches of the New York Public Morgue, particularly in summer. Lavender would scarcely make a dent….

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.

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil applauds those ladies who make a living in the mortuary professions. She herself has had frequent occasion for contact with the dead, albeit normally without remuneration or public notice, working quietly behind the scenes, as it were. Despite taking pride in her work, Mrs Daffodil shuns undue notice as she feels that assisting the police with their inquiries would take entirely too much time away from her duties at the Hall.

See also posts on Lady Embalmers and Dressing the Hair of the Dead.

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.