The Devil in a Diving Suit – Scared to Death in Toledo

The Devil in a Diving Suit -Scared to Death in Toledo   Plague Doctor in protective suit
The Devil in a Diving Suit -Scared to Death in Toledo Plague Doctor in protective suit

The images of those brave souls working among the virus-stricken in their ghostly protective suits called to mind this bizarre story from 1903.


She Believed the Officer

Who Came To Investigate a Report of Smallpox

Poor Woman So Scared By the Hideous Apparition

That She Died in Terror—Her Toledo Relatives Now Threaten a Damage Suit.

Toledo, Ohio, February 4. Haunted to death by a hideous apparition was the fate which befell Mrs. Joseph Smolinski, of 1207 Nebraska avenue, according to the story told by her husband and other relatives.

Mrs. Smolinski was 33 years old, well educated, pretty and the wife of a well-to-do mechanic. Her death occurred last Saturday, and it was pitiable in the extreme.

About a month ago Mrs. Smolinski became ill with pneumonia, but by careful treatment rapidly recovered. Following her recovery the outer skin on her hands began to peel off, as is invariably the case following fever attacks.

Some of the neighbor women who visited her, noticing this condition of the woman’s hands, informed the penthouse authorities that the woman had smallpox. Then began the trouble that resulted in the woman’s pathetic death. Following the report of smallpox an agent of the Health Department, clad in the outlandish though necessary apparel of the physicians who daily visit the penthouse, entered the home of the Smolinskis.

The sudden appearance of a fierce-looking object, helmet topped, clad in an oil-cloth suit, with a sponge at the mouth hole and a pair of slits for the eyes, for all the world resembling a deep sea diver, suddenly appearing before the woman startled her. She had never heard or seen such an object in her life. The only thing she could imagine this peculiarly uniformed health officer resembled was the evil one, and that belief at once took possession of her mind, and all that medical skill could do failed to remove the impression first formed.

The next day it was found that the woman had no smallpox, and the Health Department did everything possible to correct the blunder, but too late to save the woman’s life. The vision of that strangely garbed health officer haunted the poor woman night and day for two weeks, until death mercifully relieved her from her awful sufferings from fear and terror. The most powerful opiate failed to have any effect on the woman.

She either sat up or laid in bed wildly staring about the room, and at intervals trying to shrink back, as if fearful of the too near approach of the awful apparition that constantly haunted her. Friends tried to explain to her that the awful thing was harmless or had vanished, but all their efforts could not influence the mind which seemed possessed of only that one impression.

At time the woman would become so terror stricken at what seemed to be before her that she would shriek out in pain and beg those around her to protect her from the awful monster. Nature’s strength finally gave way and the woman collapsed, but even in death her last struggles were used to save herself from the apparition. The woman’s relatives, who are wealthy, have secured counsel, and say they will bring an action for heavy damages against the city of Toledo on the ground that Mrs. Smolinski’s death was caused by the blundering conduct of an agent of the Health Department. Besides a husband, the deceased leaves five small children.

Bay City [MI] Times 6 February 1903: p. 1

Certainly I’d seen the beaked Plague-doctor costumes of the Renaissance, like the illustration at the head of the post, but for some reason I didn’t think that protective clothing was being worn by public health officials in 1903. I was unable to find a 19th or early-20th century illustration of a suit such as terrified the unfortunate Mrs. Smolinski.

Note the “well-educated” and “well-to-do” in practically the first paragraph. An Eastern European name usually led to an assumption of ignorance and superstition. There had been a flood of Russian and Eastern European immigration to the United States after 1870 and fears were rife about anarchists and foreigners with unpronounceable names, odd customs, and smelly foods overrunning decent peoples’ neighborhoods. It is no accident that the “Devil Baby” legend grew up about this time.

In the 1910 census Joseph Smolinski was listed as age 46, widowed, living with seven children: five daughters and two sons in Toledo in. I have not found any record of a lawsuit filed against the Health Department.

Previously I wrote about people who were supposedly scared to death. Any other examples? Send to Chriswoodyard8 AT, being careful not to sneak up on her and tap her on the shoulder unexpectedly.


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. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

The Plague Shawl: 1878

Did the gift of a shawl bring the plague to Russia?
Did the gift of a shawl bring the plague to Russia?

Mrs Daffodil must once again beg the indulgence of her readers. Something has gone wrong with the pneumatic tubes that deliver Mrs Daffodil’s work to the public, so she has asked that scribbling person over at the Haunted Ohio blog for the loan of a post to fill the gap. Here, then, without further ado, is “The Plague Shawl.”

Today’s post returns to one of my favorite themes: deadly clothing. We have covered the perils of poisoned stockings and noxious hairpieces. The history of disease is filled with cases of contagion spread by textiles:

In 1665 at Eyam, in Derbyshire, a tailor received a flea-infested shipment of cloth from London. He was dead of the plague within a week. Heroically, the villagers voluntarily quarantined themselves to keep the disease from spreading—at a fearful cost: at least half of Eyam’s inhabitants died.

At Fort Pitt, in 1763, two Native American chiefs were given blankets and a handkerchief from smallpox victims, possibly causing an outbreak of the disease and extensive casualties among the Indians.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1838 story, “Lady Eleanore’s Mantle” tells of a richly embroidered cloak believed to have brought the smallpox to Boston. The story is fiction, but Hawthorne’s readers’ belief in an infected cloak causing an epidemic was not.

In 1872, Ipswich was hit by an outbreak of smallpox, blamed again on textile infection:

During Christmas week two imported cases occurred…a young man brought a bundle of infected linen with him from London, and had it washed in Ipswich. Twelve days after, the servant who washed the linen showed symptoms of small-pox. In another case, a woman, who had been at Highgate Hospital, brought with her a shawl which she had worn during convalescence, but had not been disinfected; and in fourteen days her sister, who washed the shawl, was attacked, and a boy also in a house to which the sister went before the rash appeared upon her. This case might also have been caused by the infected shawl. The disease shortly afterwards broke out in Harwich and was very fatal, as 24 per cent. of the cases admitted died in the hospital. The Sanitary Record, Vol. 8, 1878

In a very recent case, in September of 2012, a young girl contracted the plague from her sweatshirt which had been laid by a decomposing (and flea-ridden) squirrel.

Then there is this story from 1895 illustrating the improbably long shelf-life of smallpox:


How an Old Lady and Her Little Shawl Carried Death With Them.

The tenacity and virility of smallpox germs are to the medical fraternity one of the wonders of contagion, and were never made apparent so startlingly as a few years ago in the little village of Hector, this state, says the New York Sun. This is an isolated place, being at the time of the smallpox epidemic there twenty miles from any railroad, and its people rarely traveled far from home, and few strangers were visitors there. Early in the fall smallpox broke out in the village. The disease was not known to be anywhere in the vicinity. How it happened to appear there was a mystery that remained unsolved for months, but was at last cleared up through the investigation and inquiry of Dr. Purdy of Elmira.

Dr. Purdy learned that one day in the winter preceding the breaking out of smallpox in Hector a passenger on an Erie railway train was taken violently ill just after leaving Salamanca, and a physician who was on board the train discovered that the passenger had the smallpox. When this became known the other passengers in the car hurriedly left it for another one. The car containing the smallpox victim was placed on a siding when the train reached Hornellsville, where it was quarantined.

Among the passengers who left the car when the case was made known was an old lady who had a ticket for Elmira. Her seat had been the one behind the one where the man with the small-pox sat. She had with her a small shoulder shawl, which had hung on the back of the seat ahead of her. When she left the train at Elmira she placed the shawl in her hand satchel. At Elmira she took a Northern Central train for Watkins, the nearest station to Hector, to which place she was going on a visit to her son’s family. She remained there until the following fall when she was driven by her son to visit another son some miles distant. The day was extremely cold, and her son’s ears being in danger of freezing she took the shoulder shawl from her satchel, where it had been ever since she put it away on leaving the Erie train at Elmira the previous winter, and wrapped it about his head.

A few days after the son returned home to Hector he became violently ill. Before it was known what his ailment was he was visited by various neighbors. Then his disease was pronounced smallpox, and it was such a malignant case that he died within a few days. The disease became epidemic and was not eradicated until the following summer. Every family in the village and immediate vicinity lost at least one member by the disease. That the first case originated from the germs collected by the shawl in the railroad car near Salamanca months before there can be no doubt. Idaho Register [Idaho Falls, ID] 15 February 1895: p. 6

I say “improbably long shelf-life” of smallpox, but the virus is capable of prolonged survival. Excavators in the crypt of Christ Church, Spitalfields, 1984-86, for example, took special precautions, not only against the lead dust from the coffins, but against potentially viable smallpox from dead victims of the disease buried there. And in 2011, an 1860s smallpox scab was seized by the CDC from an exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society.

In Russia, the Plague of 1878-79 was reported to have had its origins in a lethal sweetheart’s souvenir.

A COSSACK FROM THE WAR Brings to His Lady Love

A Costly Shawl Which She Wore Two Days,

Then Sickened and Died, and in this

Lies the Origin of the Present Russian Plague.

London, Feb. 3. The origin of the plague in Russia is thus given: A Cossack, returning from the war to Wetlisuka, brought his lady love a shawl which she wore two days and then sickened with all the symptoms of the plague and died. The following four days other members of her family died. The disease spread rapidly, the local authorities not paying any attention to it till half the inhabitants had died and the remainder were unable to bury them. Then, when the epidemic had assumed serious dimensions energetic means were taken for preventing its spreading, and strict quarantines were established: firstly in towns and villages, shutting off streets where the plague reigns from the rest of the place and secondly by surrounding the villages with troops, so that nobody is allowed to pass in or out.

The panic in Russia is almost incredible. Every class and station in life have petitioned for the entire cessation of all intercourse even postal communication between the rest of Russia and the Volga. Letters from Astrachan and Zaritzin are not received by persons to whom they are addressed. Some people even refuse to take money, fearing the germ of infection might be communicated through it. It is almost impossible to describe the terror which has taken possession of the people.

The Russian Sanitary Commission has proposed to shut off the Volga line from all intercourse with Western Russia and permit communication only under quarantine. Russian railway cars are not admitted to German territory. The export of grain from Poland will suffered severely from this restriction. The Roumanian government are discussing the expediency of prohibiting the transit of Russian provisions sent to victual the Balkan army.

(This appears to be a paraphrase of a New York Times article of 2 February 1879. It appeared in the Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 3 February 1879: p. 1)

The Russian plague caused panic throughout Europe, which feared the spread of an epidemic on the scale of the Black Death. The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica observed that the Russian wave of the disease killed about 362 victims out of a population of about 1700.

It is, of course, impossible to tell if the story of the deadly shawl is more than a fanciful legend, although the story is repeated in a scholarly article: “The Russian Plague of 1878-79,” Hans Heilbronner, Slavic Review, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Mar., 1962), pp. 89-112 in the note on pp. 91-92.

A story was bandied about in 1879 that a Cossack, returning to Vetlianka from Turkish Armenia, brought a scarf to his fiancée as a present. She supposedly wore it for a few days, then developed fearful symptoms of an undiagnosed nature, and died within a few days. The members of her family contracted the same disease and so did some neighbors. Refugees from the village reportedly carried the affliction to other Volga towns and villages.

Strangely, the story is also the subject of a poem by Ohio poet Sarah Piatt



My child, is it so strange, indeed,

This tale of the Plague in the East, you read?

This tale of how a soldier found

A gleaming shawl of silk, close-wound,

(And stained, perhaps, with two-fold red)

About a dead man’s careless head

He took the treasure on his breast

To one he loved. We know the rest.

If Russia shudders near and far,

From peasant’s hut to throne of Czar

If Germany bids an armed guard

By sun and moon keep watch and ward

Along her line, that they who fly

From death, ah me ! shall surely die.

This trouble for the world was all

Wrapped in that soldier’s sweetheart’s shawl.

Pray God no other lovers bring

Some gift as dread in rose or ring.

Poems, Vol. II, Sarah Piatt (London: Longmans, Green and Co.) 1894

If you have an interest in the historical aspects of Russian shawl production, please see for “Luxury Textiles from Feudal Workshops: 19th Century Russian Tapestry-Woven Shawls” by Arlene C. Cooper of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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.

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.

Kiss the Corpse and Then You Die

edvard munch kiss of death 1899
Kiss of Death / Todeskuss, Edvard Munch, 1899


“The Unquiet Grave”

[The corpse speaks to her mourning lover]

‘You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips;

But my breath smells earthy strong;

If you have one kiss of my clay-cold lips,

Your time will not be long.

(Child 78A)

Yesterday was, among other things, “National Kissing Day.” I hope you all came through unscathed. I’ve written before about the dangers of kissing:  poisons lurking in the mouth, nasty microbes, and the possibility of sepsis—and that’s just while canoodling with the corporeal. But what about kissing the sick and the dead? Beware! There’s death in the pout….

I have not yet discovered all the origins and meanings of the nineteenth-century custom of kissing the corpse. [another day, another post.] Making contact with the corpse meant different things in different cultures and at different times: it might mean respect, love, farewell, good luck, bad luck, a charm against hauntings, or, sometimes, accusations of murder.

Whether the body was viewed at a wake where it lay in as much state as a kitchen table could supply, or at a church, where friends were invited to file by the coffin to take a final look before the lid was screwed down, the face of the corpse was within lip-smacking distance of the mourners. Yet while the custom of kissing the corpse was exceptionally pervasive, the medical profession recoiled in horror.

Let us hear from some medical men who denounced “carelessly conducted funerals” and thundered, “to allow a ‘last kiss’ is morally criminal.”

The public character of funerals to the extent of exposing the body of a child dead from diphtheria to public visitation of friends and neighbors, they not only viewing the body themselves but permitting their children to come in immediate contact and even kiss the dead child’s face; nor was this all, but the bodies of children who had died from malignant diphtheria have been taken into churches for public services, and their little playmates have acted as pallbearers without the least effort to even cleanse or protect the mouth or nostrils of the corpse. The Medical News, Volume 68, 22 February 1896: p. 217

To those who have seen a tenement-house “wake,” there is no mystery about the spread of contagious diseases; and the difficulties in the way of enforcing the law requiring private funerals in such cases can be easily imagined. The health inspectors have met with violent opposition in endeavoring to perform this duty; and he would, indeed, be rash who would venture, single-handed and unprotected, upon such a mission. Some of your readers may remember the experience of a poor man who, in his anxiety to avoid carrying diphtheria to his own home, dared to refuse “to kiss the corpse.” He was seized by the excited people at the “wake,” and but for timely aid would have been thrown out of a window. Medical News, Volume 56, 19 April 1890: p. 433

Killing Children.

“I want to set the seal of my condemnation on a practice that is much in vogue,” said a physician recently. “A few days ago I attended a funeral. The deceased was an estimable woman, well known and had lots of friends present. The services were held in the church, and after the sermon the people passed the coffin to take a final look at the corpse. About one in every ten and perhaps more, stooped over and kissed the lips of the dead. It was a mark of affection, and a common custom, but much more appropriately honored in the breach than in the observance. That woman died of contagious malady, and every woman who kissed the corpse assisted in scattering the germs of disease and death. They may not have known it, but they should. Some of those people went home to little children, and the kiss of greeting as they entered was the seal of death for some of them. A child’s system is receptive and amenable to any sickness that comes in its way, and if any of these children thus poisoned, should die, it would all be charged to Providence, when it was their own criminal carelessness that wrought the mischief.” The Columbian [Bloomsburg PA] 3 July 1885: p. 4

And, finally, this physician did not mince words:

The Death Kiss.

This means, for the purpose for which we wish to use it, “Kissing the dead.” This revolting custom, to which too many yield in their affectionate devotion to the deceased loved one, possesses danger to which every physician should called the attention of the public. The body of a person who has died of disease—whether of a distinctly contagious disease or not—is not a wholesome object. How often have we seen an entire family lingering around the coffin and repeatedly kissing the beloved features still in death and already beginning nature’s process of slow dissolution; and how many subsequent cases of sickness have we thought might be traced to that as, at least, a contributory cause. On this subject the London correspondent of the American Lancet gives the following information:

“It is reported that the Servians have a curious custom of giving a parting kiss to their deceased friends before final burial, and the observance of it has caused a serious epidemic of diphtheria. The Police Prefect of Belgrade has accordingly issued stringent orders against the custom; prohibiting it for the present, however, only in the cases of those persons who have died from that malady.”

A special request of each person in serious illness should be “Let no one kiss me after I am dead.” This need not require that a corpse be regarded with a sense of horror, with which many seem to regard it, but merely as a tenement which the former occupant has left and which no longer represents him.

The custom of kissing sick people is also very dangerous and should be discountenanced as strongly as possible. The Medical World, Volume 10, 1892: p. 42

The linked themes of corpse-kissing and diphtheria run like a pocket of infection through the newspapers and medical journals of the nineteenth century.


Carelessness of Relatives and Physician Causes an Epidemic.

A short time ago a child belonging to a family named Jungfirman, in Neola [Iowa], was taken sick and died. It was attended by a physician of that place who, although the disease had the symptoms of diphtheria, declared that it was not in fact that disease and permitted the funeral to be public. The funeral was largely attended, and a number of the comrades of the dead child, as well as its relatives, viewed the body and many of them kissed the lips of the corpse.

The result is an epidemic of diphtheria. Twelve persons belonging to five families have been taken with the disease and two deaths have occurred. When the epidemic began other physicians were called in, and they pronounced the disease diphtheria and since then the precautions prescribed by law have been observed to prevent the spread of the scourge, and it is believed that it is now under control. Omaha [NE] World-Herald 8 August 1896: p. 3

Even royalty was not exempt from the terrible scourge.


The Princess Alice, of England, Grand Duchess of Hesse, died September I4, I878, on the anniversary of her father’s death, and also on that of the recovery of her brother, the Prince of Wales, from a dangerous illness, 1871. The Prime Minister, in the House of Lords, said: “The physician enjoined her not to kiss her children, she obeyed; but it became her lot to break to her son, quite a youth, the news of the death of his youngest sister, and the boy was so overcome with misery, that the agitated mother clasped him in her arms and received the kiss of death.” [It was also suggested that she had kissed her dead daughter.]

The Curiosities of Kissing: Wit and Humor, Story and Anecdote on Kisses, edited by Alfred Fowler 1905: p. 39

In 1905 some local health officials responded furiously when a boy died of meningitis in Breslau, Hanover Township, Pennsylvania.


Sixty School Children Were Allowed to Kiss Remains of One of the Recent Victims.

School Board Knew of the Disease, But Took No Action in the Premises.

Condition such as would bring the blush of shame to even the most heathenish race, exist at Breslau in Hanover township where at the present time there are five cases of cerebro-spinal meningitis. Mrs. Wincinski Dyobszinsky and four children all in the same family are now afflicted the other infant having died and was buried yesterday.

The funeral of the little boy who died was held yesterday and was public, everybody, including the school children, being admitted. Out of ninety school children attending the public schools of that town a fair estimate made from a canvass of the pupils shows that about sixty-five of them entered the home of the dead boy, viewed the body and then planted a kiss upon the cold lips of the victim.

Entering a room in which the atmosphere was permeated with the germs of this terrible malady was bad enough in itself, but to permit a large number of little children just starting to school to go in and kiss the victim was something that demands the most urgent investigation on the part of the health authorities of Pennsylvania.


The funeral was one of the most largely attended in many months and it seemed that everybody in the town was anxious to get a view of the dead form of the little one. The disease appears to be something new to the populace of that village and they do not realize for a moment the danger about them. The people outside of the English speaking classes go into the house at the present time as though nothing out of the ordinary had taken place.

Dr. Whitney, of Plymouth, as soon as he discovered that the children were suffering from the awful disease immediately notified the school board of the township, but nothing was done on the question. Everything has been left go by default, and if something is not done at once one of the worst epidemics in the history of Pennsylvania may be recorded in that township.

Cerebro spinal meningitis, a disease from which only about one out of a hundred recover is the worst malady known to medical science. On the house where the people are afflicted in Breslau, there is not even a sign to indicate that it is unsafe to enter. A Leader representative visited the scene this morning and saw fully one dozen young people enter the house and leave again. How long this state of affairs will exist remains to be seen but some action must be taken at once.


At the Breslau school this morning many of the pupils openly stated to the teachers that they had kissed the corpse. These were sent home at once and even then the parents of those dismissed appeared at the school house and objected to the dismissal. One woman said that there was no danger of her children catching it and added that even if they did it was not such a terrible thing.

When a Leader representative visited the scene and inquired about the condition, the people did not seem to think there was anything unusual about a person passing away from the disease and appeared to be under the impression that it was a minor ailment. Ignorance on their part has led to carelessness on the part of everybody whose duty it is to remedy the existing evil. The Union Leader [Wilkes-Barre PA] 28 April 1905: p. 1

Kissing the corpse was also believed to be behind cases of blood-poisoning:


Blood Poisoning Sets in and She Dies in Most Terrible Agony.

Vienna, August 27. Passionately devoted to her father, who died recently at Budapest, a girl of 17, named Anna Boros, threw herself upon his body and kissed him on the mouth, forehead and cheeks. Next day her lips became painful, her face swelled, and she died soon after in terrible agony from blood poisoning.

Her sweetheart was greatly affected at her death, and having bought some ground beside her grave, arranged that he should be buried there when his time came. Then, as he was about to visit the cemetery with his dead fiancé’s mother, he suddenly went into a neighboring room and shot himself dead. The Times Dispatch [Richmond VA] 28 August 1904: p. 27

Death in a Kiss

Marion, O., June 5. One week ago last Sunday Thomas Search was buried here. Before the funeral Tommie Porter, his grandson, was allowed to kiss the remains and shortly afterward was taken ill. Monday night he grew much worse, and the physicians state that he is suffering from a severe attack of blood poisoning. It is not believed that he can survive much longer. It is the general supposition that the blood poisoning was contracted at the time of the kiss. Akron [OH] Daily Democrat 5 June 1895: p. 2

Grandfathers could be deadly:

Death in a Kiss.

The sad death of little Georgie Cutter in Brooklyn a few days ago from the effects of a kiss given to a dying grandfather, who was suffering from blood poisoning, should call the public attention to the extreme peril of the practice of kissing the dying and dead. The little boy’s sister [Essie] had kissed her grandfather when his system was thoroughly impregnated with poison, and she was almost immediately stricken with diphtheria. She and her brother were constant companions in her illness, and she communicated her disease to him by kisses. He died and the girl now lies between life and death.

These facts are the most potent argument against the indulgence of the particular sentimentalism that sanctions as eminently proper kissing the pale lips of the dead and dying. When the life is departing out of its clay tenement is no time for this emotional display. And the above recorded case shows how a giving away to the feelings that dictate this line of action may bring in its train quick death to the living. Lancaster [PA] Daily Intelligencer 27 May 1886: p. 2

A more detailed version of the case is related in The Atlanta [GA] Constitution 29 May 1886: p. 2.

I am not sure whether Essie survived or not. Her parents, Dr. George Cutter and Esther Cutter, are buried at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn with Georgie, but she does not seem to be with them.

There are descriptions of infectious diseases leaving the corpse in such a revolting condition that it is hard to imagine anyone wanting to be in the same room with the cadaver, let alone kiss it.

There’s this:

In one instance, known in this city, and probably there are others, the friends of the deceased were found at a wake kissing the swollen lips of the corpse of a person who had died of confluent small-pox. Cyclopædia of the Practice of Medicine, Volume 19, Hugo Ziemssen, 1879: p. 520

Or this:

A lady of about forty-five years of age, of sound constitution, and in the enjoyment of excellent health, was suddenly called, about a year ago, to the death-bed of one who was very dear to her. That death-bed was fearfully sudden and unexpected, and that poor lady could not be persuaded, long after death had indubitably taken place, that the spirit of the beloved one had really fled. She would not leave the corpse; she threw herself on it, and kissed it over and over again, and could not be induced to leave it, even when the discoloration of the skin and the offensive smell of rapidly-advancing decomposition gave ample testimony of the reality of death. The burial was performed two days after death, owing to the rapid decomposition of the body; and, soon after the funeral, I was hastily summoned to the bedside of this lady, whom I found in the following condition. [description of what seems to be cholera omitted.] The Chicago Medical Examiner January 1865: p. 40-41

And this:

Case I.—On the evening of July 20th, 1829, I was requested to visit Miss P., a young lady about twenty-two years of age…

On Saturday, the 18th, the father of the patient died of a lingering consumption, accompanied, toward its close, with extensive disease of the intestinal canal, producing diarrhoea and bloody mucous discharges, alternating with a copious expectoration of a depraved purulent matter from the lungs. The daughter, as is common on such occasions, was observed to kiss the corpse, having at the time a sore lip deprived of its cuticle. On Sunday, the 19th, the lip became inflamed and painful, and commenced swelling. On the evening of the 20th, the swelling extended from the right corner of the mouth, involving one half of the upper lip. It was hard, painful, of a deep red color, and had on its most prominent part a small festered surface.

[I omit the detailed case report of treatments and symptoms until the patient’s death on the 28th.]

Is it not reasonable to suppose that, independent of the local affection, there had been absorbed into the system a poison from the dead body, with which the lips of the patient came in contact, and which was the cause of the obstinacy and malignancy of the symptoms? The mouth of the deceased father was filled with apthous ulcers, and the stumps of decayed teeth. It is a common thing for a quantity of frothy mucus to ooze from the mouth after death, which may have inoculated the lip of the patient; or, if this was not the case, the moisture on any part of the surface of a corpse as ill-conditioned as this was, coming in contact with a raw surface would, perhaps, be sufficient to produce the effect. This is more likely to be concluded, when, from the preceding history, we find that although at times there appeared to be a remission, evidently produced by the treatment, which, in ordinary circumstances, would have been sufficient to check the disease, yet, in this case, there appeared to exist an irritation which soon renewed the violence of the symptoms only to be mitigated by the measures resorted to. The New York Medical and Physical Journal, Volume 9, John Brodhead Beck, 1830: p. 42-44

Death from illness triggered by the stress of a bereavement is suggested by these two stories:

Kissed a Corpse and Died.

New York, Feb. 20. Mrs. Kate Hartney, a sister of Undertaker Edward Hope, died at her home, in Third street, Jersey City, Monday. Mrs. Isaac Kaylor, widow of Isaac Kaylor, a prominent Democratic politician, was in the house Monday night. She had been a life-long friend of Mrs. Hartney. At midnight Mrs. Kaylor told the relative that she was going home. “I will take a last look at my dear friend,” she said and she bowed over the casket and kissed the lips of the corpse. The next moment Mrs. Kaylor gasped and fell to the floor dead. A physician said death resulted from heart disease. Daily Illinois State Register [Springfield, IL] 21 February 1892: p. 2


The Brother of the Deceased Suddenly Stricken With an Epileptic Attack.

Millville, N.J., Jan. 21. The mourners who were gathered Saturday afternoon at the funeral of Mrs. Elizabeth White were thrown into consternation by the sudden attack of illness which overtook James Robinson, a brother of the dead woman. Just as he kissed the corpse, he was seen to reel and fall backward. He was attacked with epilepsy and lingered until 9:30 o’clock Sunday morning, when he died.

The utmost excitement prevailed among the mourners when Mr. Robinson was stricken, and the funeral was abruptly halted while a physician worked over the stricken man.

As he grew no better in an hour, the corpse was carried out and the funeral procession wended its way to the cemetery, where the interment took place. Cincinnati [OH] Post 21 January 1895: p. 3

But does that explain the death of this infant?

A Maine newspaper says that Mrs. Esther Potter of Long Ridge, who has just died after a long illness from consumption, was the mother of four children, the youngest a babe. She could not bear to think of leaving the little one, and constantly prayed that it might go with her when she died. A few days ago, when it was plain that she was about to die, she called her family around her and bade them good-bye, and then, clinging to the baby, prayed that it might die too. It had been perfectly well, apparently, but, after a kiss from its dying mother, closed its eyes, and in five minutes was dead.—Banner of Light. Religio-Philosophical Journal 5 May 1888: p. 5

Let us hope that it was simply a case of tubercular contagion between mother and child.

One can understand an illness caught from a putrefying and contagious corpse, but this death is completely beyond the pale.

A Victim to Her Love for the Dead.

Erie, Pa., Dec. 9. Mrs. William Savory, of Northeast, lies dying, a sacrifice to her love for a dead friend. Her dearest young lady friend, Miss Stella Stinson, had died of consumption, and when Mrs. Savory heard of her death she entered the room where the corpse lay and kissed the lifeless lips of her dead friend passionately. The undertaker, who was temporarily absent from the room, had just saturated the face and lips of the dead girl with a poisonous liquid. Mrs. Savory, having absorbed the deadly poison was stricken a few hours later, and her sufferings are excruciating. The Daily City News [New Castle PA] 10 December 1888: p. 1

In a story headed “The Peril of Kissing the Dead,” the liquid was described as “a poisonous compound for preserving a life-like color.” Miss Stinson’s name is given as “Lucy.” The Charlotte [NC] Democrat 14 December 1888.

I’ve seen other reports of jars of embalming fluid or preservative liquid being kept by the coffin; the undertaker either doused the corpse himself or, for the night vigil, directed the watchers to apply it at regular intervals.

To sum up, a final moral flourish from a story about Mrs. Savory’s shocking death:

While to kiss the lips of a dear one whose face has hardly lost the indescribable stamp of life is suggested by the tenderest feeling in the world, common sense asserts that it were better not to do so. The Erie lady is not the first person to suffer from an outpouring of affection for a departed one. Many diseases not generally regarded as particularly infectious, leave poison on the lips of those who have died from them, and yet, how hard it is to take a last farewell without bending down to touch the dear face that the undertaker is waiting to cover forever. Thus death imparts death, even without the assistance of embalming fluid. The Pittsburgh [PA] Press 10 December 1888: p. 4

Other stories of diseases communicated by kissing the dead? 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.