The Corpse Stiffed the Barber: 1892

Antique straight razor from http://antiquescientifica.com/catalog14.htm
Antique straight razor from http://antiquescientifica.com/catalog14.htm

HE DIED IN THE CHAIR

And Got Very Much the Best of the Barber.

Wanted a Funeral Shave, and Went For It Himself.

An Arizona Story, Which Need Have No Doubts Cast Upon Its Entire Authenticity.

[San Francisco Call.]

“Yes, I’ve shaved more than one corpse in my time,” said a Geary-street barber as the reporter sank into the luxury of the big velvet-cushioned chair and said, “shave.”

“Yes, and I’ve shaved more dead men than I ever got pay for,” said the barber, as he tucked in the towels about the reporter’s neck. “You know the price is $5 for scraping a ‘stiff.’ Well, I never got a cent for one ‘stiff’ that I handled once.

“Tell you about it? Well, if you really want to hear it, though it ain’t a pleasant story.

“It happened down in Arizona, where I had a shop. A tall, lean fellow, looking as pale as milk, came in one day and climbed up into the chair.

“I fixed the towels around him and put on the first dash of lather when in walks an old friend who wanted to pay a bill.

“’Are you in a hurry, sir?’ I asked the big man in the chair. He said he was not in a tone that sounded like a funeral bell. So I talked with my friend who came in to pay the bill and went out to take a drink with him.

“When I came back something else happened that kept me from shaving the big fellow in the chair for fully fifteen or twenty minutes. But some other customers came in and I began to get a move on me. I only ran one chair in Arizona.

“I thought the stranger’s face was awfully cold and damp to the touch as I went about shaving him, now in dead earnest, for there were two waiting.

“I was feeling in a good humor and tried to be pleasant to the big fellow, talking about this and that and the other thing. But he never let on he heard a word I said.

‘Razor hurt, mister?’ I asked him as I always ask everybody, for sometimes, you know, the razor may be a little dull and me not know it.

“Well, the stranger never answered a word.

“Shampoo, sir?’ I says.

“He never let on he heard me.

“I tried him again: ‘Hair trimmed a little?’

“No answer.

“’Bad weather we’re having,’ I said after a pause, but he never said a word.

“Thinks I, ‘he’s a mute, I guess,’ but I didn’t think twice about it, for when a man wants a quiet shave and he’ll only say so, I never bother him. So I went to shaving and talking to the other customers who were waiting their turns and never said ‘beans’ to the tall stranger under me.

“Well, I got the job done, and bay-rummed, washed and dried him and had put the powder on his face. Then I waited for him to get up so I could comb his hair.

“But he never budged.

“I knew he hadn’t gone to sleep, for his eyes were wide open and he was staring at the ceiling. I thought he must be an awful jay not to know enough to raise his head up to get his hair combed.

“’Rise up, please,’ I said.

“But he didn’t rise for a cent.

“Then I got frightened and remembered how cold his face was. ‘Hello,’ I said, ‘he’s’ fainted!’

“I dashed a cup of water in his face, but it didn’t bring him round.

“Then I sent after the doctor, who had his office right across the street, meanwhile leaving him, just as he was in the chair.

“”Why,’ said the doctor when he got out there, ‘that’s my patient. Not more than an hour ago I told him I couldn’t save him and he’d be liable to die any moment. It’s that fellow Rocks who struck the big lead last week and got a ball in him for trying to jump “Fatty’s” claim. I couldn’t get the bullet out, and I told him so.’

“Maybe you can imagine how I felt when I heard that I had been shaving a dead man. I was young in the business then and had never struck that kind of a job before.

“’Yes,’ said the doctor, ‘Rocks has been dead for the last half hour. He must have  given up the ghost right after he got into the chair, for he’s getting stiff now.’

“And what do you suppose brought that living-dead man into my shop. He came over to get shaved while he was alive so it would only cost him two bits. He knew he was going to kick right off, and the idea of his heirs paying $5 for a shave went against his grain. And you’d believe this if you knew old Rocks. He was the closest and tightest man in Arizona.

“No, I never got a cent for that job. I wouldn’t take the two bits the heirs offered me and they kicked about paying the regular fee.”

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 24 September 1892: p. 10

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The barber who shaved the dead was a mortuary service-person little remembered today. The subject seemed to titillate journalists of the nineteenth century, as stories about “Dead Man’s Razor,” involving secret journeys to shave the faces of dead ladies and odd requests from relatives about facial hair stylings, were commonplace in Victorian papers. Some barbers had custom razors made with a skull-and-crossbones moulded into the handle so they would not use that razor on a living man. All of the barbers interviewed in the press emphasised the lucrative aspects of the funerary trade: $5 for a corpse as opposed to 50 cents for the living, hence the barber’s chagrin at being “stiffed.”

There is more on “dead men’s razors” as well as undertakers, grave-diggers, and shroud-makers in The Victorian Book 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.

Fiends for a Funeral: The Amateur Mourners

mourning print widow by grave 1846
Mourning Print, 1846, complete with swooning mourner.

In the 19th-century press there was a slight, but revealing collection of stories about funeral fanciers. These were mourners without portfolio, who attended funerals merely for the fun of the thing. As this fashionable undertaker reports, they do not seem to be ghouls, but are generally sympathetic souls.

FASCINATED BY FUNERALS

People Who Are Mourners Regularly, and Find Comfort in so Being.

[New York Sun.]

“Do you see that nice-looking little old lady over by the stained window?” asked a fashionable undertaker of the reporter. “I mean the quaint, respectable-looking little personage, with the black satin dress and the black crape shawl.”

The reporter saw her.

“Well,” continued the undertaker, with an appreciative smile, “she’s as fine a regular attendant as any establishment in this city can produce. I send her an invitation to all my nice funerals, and I have sometimes sent a carriage for her when I knew mourners would be scarce. She is never really happy unless she is at a funeral. She won’t touch weddings, as most women will; her sole amusement, so to speak, is a first-class funeral;” and the undertaker looked over to the old lady with a tender professional interest.

“I have some other nice people on my list,” he went on. “One of my most graceful mourners live in Forty-eight street, and seldom gets down this way, but she hardly ever passes a day without a funeral, and I never saw her at one when she couldn’t’ shed tears with the best of them. She’s one of the heart-brokenest ladies I ever had for a ‘regular.’ Does she really feel badly? Well, I should say she did, most decidedly. She always has a word to say to the family, if she thinks they need comforting, and is very careful to learn all the particulars. Why, she can tell me all the details about some of my own funerals that I had forgotten years ago. She’s as good as a set of books.

“Oh, no, there’s nothing hysterical about these cases at all. I’ve got some men that do just the same thing. There is one now. He’s a curious customer. I sometimes lose sight of him for six month, and then all of a sudden he’ll turn up and not miss a funeral. Of course, I couldn’t ask the women folks why they came, but I asked him one day. He said he couldn’t describe exactly the kind of feeling it gave him, but he thought it sort of quieted his mind and soothed his feelings like. He made one remark about it that I never could quite get the hang of, though I dare say it had a certain sort of meaning for him. He said, ‘ I haven’t got any friends at all myself, and so I like to go to funerals.’ A lady volunteered almost the same kind of remark to me once after she had been to four or five of my best funerals. She said, ‘It makes me feel kind of friendly, you know, and then they are kind to me, and, besides, I feel afraid and solemn, and it always does me good.’

“I think it would be unjust to call it mere curiosity that brings them here, though I have noticed that some of these people watch every detail with the most intense curiosity. They seem fascinated by the presence of death, and their sympathies are moved by the grief of the living. You might think they were very solemn people but the contrary is the case. Some of them are remarkably cheerful, in fact. That little old lady is always very pleasant and vivacious after the ceremony is over. She always comes up and shakes hands with me and is as agreeable a person as one would wish to meet.

“There’s an unusually lively and pleasant gentleman living in the Ninth Ward who occasionally drops in at my funerals. He does not make it a point to go to them, but, as he says himself, he can never get past them. He told me he was obliged to go in; no matter how important business might be, he would forget all about it as soon as he saw the hearse and carriages. The first time I saw him at a funeral I thought he was certainly one of the nearest relatives. He is a very large, round-faced, benevolent-looking gentleman, that would be observed in any crowed. On this occasion, after he had looked at the deceased person for a few moments, he became greatly overcome with emotion, and someone led him to a chair. Each one of the mourners supposed, of course, that he was known to the others. He wept throughout the discourse, and after it was over shook hands all around with the mourners, and showed a good deal of fervent, and, I have no doubt, genuine sympathy. I did not know until some time after that he was a dummy—that’s the name we sometimes call them by. This man is really as jolly a fellow as you ever met, and they say he has been requested to leave theaters more than once, in case he would not subdue a particularly substantial laugh which he possessed. In fact, most of these people who love to go to funerals are good-hearted people. It is not true, as has sometime been said, that they are touched a little in the head. The fact seems to be that they are emotional and sympathetic, and are strongly affected by any awe-inspiring scene. Even young girls and boys have now and then a fancy for funerals, though none of them can say why. Most of them say it makes them feel better, but if you ask where or how, they cannot say. They all watch everything as though in a sort of a dream.

One of my best hearse drivers used, as a boy, to be a regular attendant at funerals. One day he came around to my stable and asked if he might help us. I let him do so, and after a while he used to take a hand regularly in keeping the hearse in order. When he got old enough to go to work his father had to bring him to me—he wouldn’t work any-where else. If you ask him why he likes this business, he’ll tell you he don’t know.”

A slim, middle-aged man here addressed the undertaker, and was received by that personage in a most friendly manner. The slim man suggested that there might be some way he could be of use before the services were done.

“Now, there’s a man,” said the undertaker, “who is interested only in the mechanical part of the business. He goes to almost all my funerals, but seems to feel no special sorrow or sympathy. His whole mind is taken up with the conduct of the funeral. To suit him, the business must be done with the most solemn exactitude. He said to me the other day that if he could only once have complete charge of a large funeral he would be happy for the rest of his life.”

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 25 August 1883: p. 11

Mrs Daffodil has also posted about “Fiends for a Funeral.”

Moving beyond the amateurs de deuil, there were also hired professional mourners (some cities had mourners’ unions!) and, of course, con-men–and con-women, who followed the coffin.

AT MANY FUNERALS

When Arrested She Wails Some More and Borrows From Judge.

LIVED OFF HER TEARS

Wore Reversible Coat With Gray Inside to Turn When Work Was Done.

It will be some time before Clara Howell, professional mourner and weeper at funerals, will be back at her vocation again. She has been arrested by Policeman Burdette and was released by Justice Gavin on her promise to go to Littleton, where she has relatives, and remain there. Incidentally she “touched” the justice for 25 cents to pay her fare out of the city.

Clara Howell continually wears a black scarf, which extends over her head and under her chin. She never has been seen on the street or at funerals without it.

She was arrested at Miller’s undertaking establishment, Seventeenth and Curtis streets, by Burdette, who had been watching her.

She has been in the habit of begging, says the policeman, and never overlooks a chance to ask for money. But it in the role of professional mourner that she shines.

Slipping quietly into an undertaking chapel or even a private home where funeral services are being conducted she would take a seat and begin to weep. Naturally some of the relatives of the deceased person would be anxious to learn the identity of the mourner and in many cases would address her, whereupon the disconsolate one invariably would say that she was acquainted with the departed one and incidentally call attention to her own poverty.

On such occasions it was easy to beg or borrow and, in this manner, Clara Howell succeeded in “getting the coin.”

The woman wears a reversible coat, one side being black, for mourning purposes, and the other gray, for street wear.

Policeman Burdette received many complaints concerning the woman from undertakers and finally decided to arrest her on a charge of vagrancy.

The Denver [CO] Post 8 March 1910: p. 6

Shirley Jackson has written about 1960s funeral fanciers who were in it for the food following the obsequies.  I have heard from a woman who lives in Manhattan, that there is an entire class of women who scan the obituaries for women’s funerals. Then they attend and condole with the bereaved husband, pretending to be a good friend of the deceased wife. Object: matrimony with the hapless widower.  Apparently these women recognize that there is a limited window of opportunity in which to snap up the grieving male before he is captured by some casserole-toting neighbor.

Are you a fiend for a funeral? Did you meet your spouse at a wake? Put on an expression of genuine sympathy and send to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Similar (and more bizarre) stories are found in my book: The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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.

Hearse Verses: Valentines for Undertakers: 19th century

vinegar valentine coffin maker

Books of valentine sentiments were quite popular in the nineteenth century; one could find saccharine stanzas to pass off as one’s own poesy or vile verses for a vinegar valentine. A peculiar feature of these collections were the “occupational” verses to woo the practitioners of various trades—such as the undertaker….

Valentine

To an Undertaker

I am a mantua-maker,

You are an undertaker

Whom much I do regard

Because you are a grave one,

And I’m sure won’t leave one

‘Til laid in the churchyard.

Miami [FL] Herald 13 February 1927: p. 4 [reported in 1927, but from a Victorian valentine.]

 

From an Undertaker to his Valentine.

Be to thine Undertaker kind,

And have him always in your mind;

Hid undertakings are profound,

And plumes have rendered him renown’d.

The Trades People’s Valentine Writer: Consisting of Appropriate Valentines Entirely Original, For People of all Trades or Professions, Alphabetically Arranged, 1830

 

TO AN UNDERTAKER.

To mournful strains I tune my lute,

Because to me the subject’s grave,

Too long ador’d thee, love, I have,

I can no longer be a mute.

 

If towards the ocean of my love

Rolleth thy fond Affection’s billow,

Send me a sprig of weeping willow,

Or cypress-wreath, thy truth to prove.

 

Reject me—and my fate is this:

Off life the fragile twig I hop,

And off, instanter, neck and crop,

I go to the neck-crop-olis!

 

In the serenest of snug corners,

I prithee, love, inter me then—

Plain walking funeral—(two-pound ten)

With return tickets for the mourners.

 

To Kensal Green I most incline—

There spend a half-a-crown a year,

In keeping turf’d the early bier

Of thy departed Valentine.

A collection of new and original valentines, 1858, pp. 104-5

 

“Let Chloe smile upon her lover,

Who will ne’er forsake her;

Each day new charms she will discover,

In her faithful undertaker.”

Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 8 February 1969: p. 65 [reported in 1969, but Victorian in date.]

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil must apologise. She made the mistake of commissioning that grave person over at Haunted Ohio to undertake a compilation of “occupational” Valentine verses.  Mrs Daffodil might have known that the author of a book on the lore of Victorian death and mourning would veer into “vinegar valentines” with a mortuary flavour.

Mrs Daffodil has written before on such seductive stanzas and, while the poesy might be tortuously rhymed, at least the principals were upright tradesmen such as wheelwrights and corset makers. Mrs Daffodil hopes that this will not spoil her readers’ Valentine’s Day and, in fact, may prove useful if one is being courted by or courting an undertaker. She will try to post something in a more romantic vein on the day.

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.

Dressing the Hair of the Dead: 1888

dressing the hair The manual on Barbering 1906

DRESSING THE HAIR OF THE DEAD.

A Professional Talks About Her Uncanny Occupation.

‘I was only 12 years old,’ said a prominent lady hair-dresser of this city, ‘when I was called on by the friends of an old lady who had died to come and dress her hair.’

‘And did you go?’

‘No; I ran and hid myself under a bed and stayed there a whole afternoon. Although I loved her and had often dressed her hair when she was alive, I could not bear the idea of doing it after death. But I have done many heads since for dead persons, and, while I do not like it, I have a professional pride in making them look well for the last time.’

‘It must be very distasteful to you.’ ‘

‘Not always. It comes in the way of my business, and naturally my employees shrink from going. Sometimes we have a call through the telephone to come to such a number and dress a lady’s hair. One of the young ladies will be sent with curling irons, pomades, hair-pins and other things, only to find that the lady is a corpse. The girl will not nor cannot undertake it, and I go myself. There is only the front hair to crimp and arrange becomingly. One day last week I dressed Mrs __’s hair for the last time. She was young and very pretty, and looked as if asleep. The hair does not die, so that it is easily arranged. When it is a wig or crimped I have it sent to the store, and when it is dressed, take it to the house and put it on. Let me tell you something that happened lately. A lady died in this city who wore a grey wig. I dressed it and put it on. You can just think how surprised I was when, a couple of weeks later, a member of the family came in here and tried to sell it to me. She said they had taken it off just before the casket was closed for the last time.’

‘And did you buy it?’

‘Buy it? Certainly not. It is not very long since a man came in and offered me a number of switches of different shades and colour. I would not buy them, and sent for a policeman, as I thought he had probably stolen them. But as it turned out, they came from an undertaker’s and were the unclaimed property of strangers who had been given pauper burial.’

‘Is it customary to dress the hair of the dead?’

‘It is. I have some customers who have exacted a solemn promise from me that I will dress their hair when they die and make it look natural and becoming. I have even been sent for by those who had only a few hours to live and taken my instructions from their dying lips.’

‘Is the process the same as with the living?’

‘Just the same, except that I do not arrange the back hair in all cases. But sometimes the hair is dressed entirely, just as it would be for an evening party. And I frequently furnish new switches, crimps, or bangs, at the request of relatives who want no pains spared.’

‘And are you not afraid?’

Madame shrugged her handsome shoulders.

‘It is a lonesome task,’ she said, ‘and it certainly does make me nervous. Once the corpse opened her eyes and looked at me as a lady who was holding a lamp went out of the room in a moment, leaving me with a lock of hair in the crimping-pins. A gust of wind blew the door after her, and I was in the dark alone with the dead women. I think if she had not opened the door just at the moment she did I should have fallen insensible,’—

Detroit [MI] Free Press 1 January 1888: p. 4

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil does not have a high opinion of either the intelligence or the moral scruples of the repellent relatives who offered to sell the dead lady’s wig to the hairdresser. They might at least have dyed it so that it was less recognizable, or, more sensibly, taken it to a different coiffeuse, if they needed to offset funeral expenses.

Wigs and chignons for the living were, however, often made of what was termed “dead hair,” or hair cut from corpses. These corpses might be unfortunates from the Workhouse or paupers destined for Potter’s Field; working girls of the streets, murderers or their victims.  If not a black market, it was certainly sub-fusc.  Medical men issued stern warnings about the diseases and insects that might be found in “dead hair,” and argued for prohibiting any hair except that from the living in hair-pieces. These warnings were widely ignored. In 1911, for example, hair from Chinese who died in the Manchurian plague, was being imported by Germany and England without so much as a murmur from the trade authorities.

For more mortuary professions for ladies, please see this link, and this, about a lady undertaker. You will find more information on the popular and material culture of Victorian mourning in The Victorian Book of the Dead, by Chris Woodyard and under the “Mourning” tab on this blog.

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.

The Seven Babies in No. 77

death as baby nurse Death's Doings 1827
The Seven Babies in No. 77, Death as the Baby’s Nurse. 1827

Appalled by the recent discovery of 11 infant corpses hidden in the ceiling of a defunct Detroit funeral home and more than 60 infant bodies found in the same week at another Detroit mortuary, I bring you a grim and grewsome story about a Victorian London undertaker similarly neglectful of his duties. While meant for savage satire, the mock-jocular tone may grate on modern sensibilities.

THE SEVEN BABIES IN No. 77

It is our rule not to puff tradesmen. But to every rule there is an exception, and, therefore, if there be any baby-farmers in want of an undertaker we venture respectfully to recommend to them Mr. Henney, of No. 77, Regent’s-park-road. This gentleman’s speciality is babies. He, of course, does not refuse to “undertake” adults. But he prefers infants, and, indeed, so attached does he become to the little bodies which are committed to his charge that he cannot bring himself to part with them, till at last they melt away in obedience to those inexorable laws of nature which even undertakers cannot long withstand. Six such infants were the other day found in his stable, and one in a tin-box in his house. They were all (see how he clings to them) “in an advanced stage of decomposition.” He said they were “stillborn,” and no doubt he knows; but this is clear, they were “still unburied.”

He had, we presume, been paid to bury them, because, however fond a man may be of children, he does not like even “stillborn” ones for nothing. But he did not bury them. He could not bring himself to do it. He kept the babes, and he did not return the money. Perhaps in keeping them he may have been influenced by another motive besides that which we have suggested. He may have said to himself: “Possibly doubts may arise in some one‘s mind as to whether these children really were stillborn. So, as I am not a medical man myself, I’ll keep them by me in case inquiries should be made.” Anyway he did keep them, until one day last week a young man going into the stable was “nearly overpowered with the stench,” and searching for the cause found a partially-decomposed “stillborn” infant, and went away and told the police, who came and found six others, “stillborn,” too—all “ stillborn.” We do not know whether Mr. Henney is an admirer of Tennyson, but we daresay he is, and we can fancy him handing over to the police the last child, the one that was found in the tin box, and saying, with tears in his eyes, “ ‘He was dead before he was born,’ Mr. Policeman.” This is why we say that he is the very undertaker for baby-farmers. In baby-farms, when a child is born on the premises, it is usually stillborn, we believe.

We suppose there is something in the genius loci which occasions this, for of course the baby-farmer has nothing to do with it. Her business is with the living, not with the dead, and so when a child is “stillborn” she looks out for a good-natured undertaker like Mr. Henney to take it off her hand. Mind, we do not say, because we do not know, that Mr. Henney has any connection with baby-farmers. We are merely pointing out what an admirable baby-farmer’s undertaker he would be, if the baby-farmers would employ him. His peculiar mode of doing business enables him to “undertake” at a cheaper rate than other tradesmen; he can afford to do it at an almost nominal price, because he does not pay any burial-fees. Consequently, he ought to do a great trade, if the law would only let him alone, as, no doubt, he, up to last week, believed it would, for the law is very indulgent to the undertakers. It requires no qualification from them. It does not register them. It does not inspect their premises. It is the easiest thing in the world to become an undertaker; a man has merely got to call himself one, and there he is, duly qualified to bury. He takes a window somewhere, he puts up in it a little coat-of-arms, with a pious motto, such as “In coelo quies,” or “Resurgam,” underneath which he writes “Funerals furnished,” and then he goes out about the real business of his life,—the business to which he has been brought up, chimney sweeping, or scavenging, or stealing, or whatever it may be—and leaves his wife to attend to the corpses if any come in. Thus as we pass along the streets we see the business of undertaker combined with almost every other business under the sun, “Carpenter and Undertaker,” “Upholsterer and Undertaker,” “Coal and Com Merchant and Undertaker,” “Greengrocer and Undertaker,” and so on. We do not remember ever having seen “Confectioner and Undertaker.” But we should not be in the least degree surprised to see it, for undertaking, like oysters, is one of those things which goes well with everything else. It is the pleasantest and easiest of avocations. Anybody can follow it who has sufficient strength to walk round the corner and order a horse of the job-master, and sufficient knowledge of arithmetic to add a percentage to the price he charges.

Whether in the interests of a community which, as a rule, desires that Christian burial should follow upon death, the undertaking business ought to be so very easy, is another question. We are disposed to think it should not. We can conceive that there may be considerable danger in leaving undertakers so completely alone as they are left at present. It may be quite true that the seven infants found upon Mr. Henney’s premises were “stillborn,” and we feel sure that if any lady had offered to him a quick-born and full-grown corpse he would have buried it in the ordinary way. But can the same be said of all undertakers? This is what we do not feel so sure of. We fear that there are men in the undertaking business who would be quite capable of leaving the body of a person who had been born alive, but had subsequently died, to rot in an out-house, like Mr. Henney’s seven still-born infants If there are such men, there is, as things are at present, nothing to prevent them from so dealing with the corpses committed to their charge, provided they live in secluded neighbourhoods away from other habitations.

For the purposes of the business which he pursues, Mr. Henney’s establishment is unfortunately situated, being near an infants’ school, with the inmates of which the “stench” of the seven “stillborn” but nevertheless decomposing children in Mr. Henney’s stable, appears not to have agreed. It is, indeed, stated that “serious illness” has been produced in the school by the disagreeable odour. Owing to this cause Mr. Henney’s peculiar mode of conducting funerals would probably, sooner or later, have been discovered, even if the young man of whom we have spoken had not gone into the stable at all. But supposing this Mr. Henney to have lived a little way out in the country, or near an extensive piggery or soap-boiling establishment, or other place where a “stench” would naturally be expected, it is manifest that he might have persisted in his present course of allowing the “dead to bury their dead,” for almost any length of time without being discovered. But whether it is safe to act upon this injunction in all cases, whether it is right to leave the dead to bury themselves when somebody else has been found to bury them, are questions which we venture to propose, and which we hope some one will answer. We do not like to reiterate an assertion or an argument more than is absolutely necessary to ensure its being understood, but we cannot refrain from saying plainly what we have already implied, that since sauce for the gosling is sauce for the goose, and since seven still-born infants have been found rotting in one undertaker’s stables, it may possibly be our own destiny to be resolved into our original elements in a bed of quicklime beneath the flags of some of other undertaker’s kitchen, and that we do not at all relish the prospect.

In Cuba, as we read somewhere the other day, the bones of Chinese Coolies are sometimes used for the purpose of refining sugar. We are not aware whether human bones are so used in this country. Perhaps Mr. Henney can inform us. Will he be so kind as to tell us what he and his friends in the trade are in the habit of doing with any bones which they may chance to have over? We are very curious to know, because it seems to us that if an undertaker is paid to bury a body, and he not merely does not bury it, but sells the bones to anybody else, and pockets the price as well as the burial-fee, he is guilty of conduct which, whether he may think so or not, is in theory distinctly dishonest. Of course, we know that every business has a morality of its own; and we are quite prepared to learn that Mr. Henney is, according to his own light, as honourable a man as Brutus. But if Brutus had lived in these days, and in London, he would have been tried at the Old Bailey.

So we trust that in like manner there may be a searching inquiry into Mr. Henney’s conduct and mode of carrying on business, and that it may be clearly ascertained, if possible, whether all these seven infants really were still-born, and whether he has any more. We will also venture to express a hope that, one of these days when there is time, and the Eastern and other burning questions are settled, Parliament will take up undertakers, and examine them before Select Committees or Royal Commissions, or some way or other (we do not in the least care what) ascertain whether what is called Christian burial is the rule or the exception in this country, and then legislate accordingly.

Truth, Volume 1, 8 February 1877

In case you wish to read more about the lucrative profession of baby-farmer, see this well-researched link and this, with some dreadful details and photographs. And this, about Amelia Dyer, who stood at the peak of her loathsome profession.

The reference to Tennyson is from “The Grandmother,” where an elderly woman bewails her many losses: “But the first that ever I bare was dead before he was born.”

The additional frisson caused by the note about Chinese bones used in sugar refineries in Cuba is a reference to the use of bone-black (charcoal made from bones, usually animal) filters to remove impurities and make the finished product white sugar. While it is true that the Cubans imported Chinese laborers by the thousands when slavery was outlawed, I sincerely hope that this was an urban legend. And now I’m wondering if the bone collectors of the “rag and bone” profession got some of their supplies from the undertakers…

An undertaker in New York state got into similar trouble, but had a reasonable explanation:

For keeping dead babies in his cellar on ice for days or even weeks, a Greenpoint, N.Y., undertaker is in trouble with the authorities. His explanation is that he keeps the corpses until there enough of them to make a paying load, when he takes them to the cemetery. Macon [GA] Telegraph 22 July 1885: p. 2

And at least he kept them on ice. It was a common practice to bury still-born children into the gap at the foot of an adult grave.

IN CIGAR BOXES

Many Little Bodies Find Nameless Graves.

  “We have many people bring us little babes in boxes, ranging in size from a cigar box to a coffin a foot or so long,” said a sexton. “They hardly ever leave instructions, so we just put the boxes at the bottom of some grave we dig for a grown person.” Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 31 January 1892: p. 9

The practice of “filling in” a gap at the foot of an adult grave with a child’s coffin, was a source of much pain to bereaved pauper parents. They much preferred that their babies be buried in a plot with other children.

Does anyone have access to any of the stories of the original discovery of the bodies in Mr Henney’s stable? Or of the illnesses at the adjoining infants’ school? Ice well and send to ChrisWoodyard8 AT gmail.com.

For other stories of corpse collectors and the undertaking trade, see The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition.

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.

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.

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 https://www.ebay.com/itm/Old-Croak-Vintage-Whiskey-Bottle-Kentucky-Straight-Embalming-Fluid-Empty/112958042818?hash=item1a4cd2f2c2:g:txgAAOSwfQxaoGpg

While researching my recent post on the young woman labelled “embalmed alive” by the tabloids, I was stunned to discover a large corpus, as it were, of stories of people poisoned, not by having formalin or formaldehyde injected into their veins, but by ingesting embalming fluid in various ways, either by chance or by choice.

As we saw in the previous post on this subject, embalming fluid was frequently mistaken for something drinkable like whiskey or beer, or even plain water. I find this a bit baffling.  I admit I do not know how vintage embalming fluid smelled, but I would assume that there was enough of a smell to alert the drinker that it wasn’t whiskey.  But given the copious amounts of alcohol served to mourners at wakes, were there any alert drinkers? The overflowing cup of cheer (along with an apparent shortage of cups) lies behind many of these tales. “Dead drunk” was no mere figure of speech.

EMBALMING FLUID IN THEIR BEER.

Mourners at a “Wake” Poisoned, One of Them Fatally.

Racine, Wis. Oc. 5. Special Telegram.

While attending an Irish wake last night James Payton, James Callahan and Mrs. George Diven were poisoned by drinking embalming fluid. During the night refreshments were served, and beer was poured into a tumbler which contained embalming fluid left by the undertaker. Payton is not expected to recover. Daily Inter Ocean [Chicago IL] 6 October 1888: p. 9

FUNERAL DRUNK FATAL

Centralia, Wash., April. 2. William Maginniss’ wife died a few days ago. The undertaker neglected to remove from the house a bottle of embalming fluid. Last night Maginniss came home drunk. He mistook the fluid for liquor and drank it. Then he died. The Spokane [WA] Press 2 April 1908: p. 4

This story of a practical joke is both horrifying and puzzling.

NOT EMBALMING FLUID.

Moran Drank Whiskey at the Wake and Was Not Poisoned.

Dr. A.J. Downey of 350 Union street, Brooklyn, this morning sent a certificate to Justice Tighe, in the Butler Street Police Court, stating that Patrick Moran, of 162 Walcott street, who, it was supposed, would die from the effects of drinking an embalming fluid for whiskey at a wake, was suffering from alcoholism.

Thomas Ryan and James White, who gave Moran a solution used to wash the face of the corpse as a joke, will now be released.

They had been held until the doctor could determine if Moran had been poisoned. The Evening World [New York NY] 5 October 1894: p. 1

Did the pranksters think they were actually giving Moran embalming fluid? Or did they just give him whiskey they claimed was the poisonous liquid?  If the former, what did they think was going to happen? If the latter, why the hell did he drink it?

Aside from mistaking it for whiskey and ingesting it from the lips of a corpse, there were a variety of ways to be poisoned by embalming fluid. Here are two of the more unusual:

Miss Emma Conrad, of Nevinsville, narrowly escaped death from poisoning. She is the daughter of the late Rev. Mr. Conrad. In preparing the body for burial the undertaker spilled embalming fluid on the carpet and bed clothing. When washing these articles Miss Conrad inhaled the poison in the steam arising from the tub. Estherville [IA] Daily News 2 May 1895: p. 2

Poisoned by Embalming Fluid

Iowa Falls, Oct. 10. Mrs. E.W. Stewart and Mrs. S.B. Couenhoven, two women living just west of this city, are suffering from a severe case of poisoning of the hands and they have been under medical care for several days in hopes of alleviating the suffering the poisoning entails. The accident occurred from the women washing their hands in some embalming fluid which the undertaker had left at the home of a neighbour where a death had just occurred and where the women were assisting at the time. Ottumwa [IA] Semi-weekly Courier 12 October 1899: p. 1

Even undertakers were not immune to its malign effects.

AN UNDERTAKER POISONED

Undertaker Tom Hendricks of Kellerville was poisoned while embalming a corpse last Thursday, by puncturing his finger with the embalming needle. Thirty minutes after the wound was received the fingers began to tingle and the whole arm soon became numb. The pain was intense. He came to town and had temporary medical assistance and went on the evening train to Dr. Prince at Springfield. The doctor told Tom that he had about one chance in a hundred for life and that if swelling continued within thirty-six hours he would not survive. Fortunately the swelling was arrested. Tom has a very sore hand, but the feeling is returning in his arm and it is believed the effects of the poison are counteracted. The Decatur [IL] Herald 12 October 1895: p. 1

One of the most startling categories of formalde-cide was that of food or drink from a recycled embalming fluid keg or cask. Some of these were clearly marked as toxic. Apparently some people took “Name yer poison!” for guidance.

Poisoned by Embalming Fluid.

Saco, Me., October 20. Frank Wilds, of Union Falls, yesterday sold a cask of new cider to Winfield S. Dennett, of Saco. The latter’s son James, aged nineteen years, drank a third of a glass of the cider, Dennett took a teaspoonful and his wife tasted it. All of them were taken sick and the son died early this morning. Mrs. Dennett is very sick, but the physicians think she will recover. On the head of the cask was branded the word “poison.” The cask was purchased from a Biddeford undertaker and originally contained embalming fluid. The Times [Philadelphia PA] 21 October 1886: p. 1

A suit brought against undertaker Dennis O’Connor by the elder Mr. Dennett for $20,000 damages in causing the death of his son ended in a hung jury; I have not been able to find a final verdict from the retrial.  O’Connor used to sell liquor casks to a local cider maker; somehow an embalming fluid cask was included with one lot and it was this that was filled with cider and sold to Mr. Dennett. The testimony transcript describes O’Connor’s handling of the casks and it is easy to see how the jury might have had reasonable doubt about the case.

Beverages were not the only foods tainted by embalming fluid:

Poisoned by Embalmed Kraut.

At Downs the families of Willis DeLay and Orrin McAfferty were seriously poisoned. At dinner they partook of some sauerkraut which had been “put down” in a keg originally filled with embalming fluid. The Miami Republican [Paola KS] 26 December 1902: p. 1

Nineteenth- and early-20th-century health authorities frequently railed against death-dealing rogue ice-cream vendors.

FIFTY COLORADO PEOPLE POISONED BY ICECREAM

Analysis by Health Officer Shows That Embalming Fluid Was Used as Preservative.

Colorado Springs, Colo., Aug. 18. More than fifty persons, the majority of whom are tourists in this city and Manitou, have been poisoned by eating ice-cream made by local dealers from a consignment of cream received on Sunday morning from one of the largest creameries and dairies in the State situated near Denver. Analysis by the health officers of Colorado Springs reveals the fact that the cream was charged with formaldehyde, better known as embalming fluid, to keep it from souring. No deaths have resulted, although several cases are critical.

The name of the company supplying this cream has not been made public. Health Officer Hanford of this city states that arrests will be made at once. The case promises to be sensational. The San Francisco [CA] Call 19 August 1903: p. 7

When the corpse was laid out at home, extra embalming fluid was sometimes left by the undertaker with directions to sponge the face or pour on exposed flesh. Undertakers and embalmers were often remarkably careless about retrieving or storing left-over supplies, to fatal effect.

EMBALMED ALIVE.

Kansas City, Mo. Feb. 26 A special from St. Joseph, Mo. Says: A.J. Smith was buried today. During the absence of the family at the funeral, the 2 year old child of the dead man, found a bottle of embalming fluid, which the undertaker had used in preparing her father’s body for burial and drank a portion of it. The child died in great agony. Arkansas City [KS] Daily Traveler 27 February 1891: p. 1

Sadly, this was not a unique case.

Poisoned With Embalming Fluid.

Albany, N.Y., Sept. 5 While an eleven-year-old daughter of Byron Welch was carrying in her arms her infant sister, eleven months old, today, the little one cried for a drink of water. The girl picked up a bowl containing embalming fluid, which stood beside the corpse of another child of the family and allowed the babe to drink of the poisonous mixture. A physician was summoned but the child died soon afterward. The Wichita [KS] Beacon 5 September 1889: p. 1

There was a criminal lack of communication in this next story:

Poisoned on Embalming Fluid

Sabina, Ohio, December 11. Mrs. Nathan Pike died Sunday  night at the ripe old age of eighty-six. Her husband, who is a cripple and about her age, and a son, an old bachelor, composed the household. Mrs. Dunham and Mrs. Hallady, two married daughters living here, were with their mother’s corpse. There had been another death in town a few weeks ago, where the undertaker had taken a jug of embalming fluid, which he had not brought back to his office. The undertaker last evening sent a messenger to the place where the fluid had been left, and had him take it to Mr. Pikes. He carried it there, and said that here was a jugful of something that he had got at Mr. Plymire’s. The undertaker not being there the parties concluded it was hard cider that Mr. Plymire had sent them, the messenger having made no explanation of its contents. Being worn out on account of their attention to the wife and mother, they thought they would drink a little hard cider. Mr. Pike and the daughters took small quantities, but the son Dan enlarged on the quantity. The son had not more than drunk his down till the others began to vomit, and he followed in close pursuit. Doctors were soon present, examined the jug and were satisfied the fluid contained arsenic and corrosive sublimate. So they at once used the antidote for such poisons. It had the desired effect upon those who partook of it sparingly, and although Dan is in a critical condition the doctors think he will recover. Druggists are compelled to label all poisons, why not others who use them in their business? The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 12 December 1883: p. 7

And a certain lack of common sense in this one:

HARD TO KILL.

A Sensational Incident at a Wake in New York.

New York, August 1. Last night Rebecca Davis, 67 years old, was assisting at the ceremonies of “waking” the remains of a friend and neighbour who had just died. The ceremonies began early in the evening and as Rebecca endeavoured to assuage her grief and her thirst in the liquid refreshments incidental to the occasion, she gradually became exhilarated. The body was being taken charge of by a friend, who enjoys some reputation as an undertaker, and had just finished embalming the corpse preparatory to removal for burial in a distant part of the country. He carelessly left a bottle containing part of the embalming fluid on the mantelpiece. About 10 o’clock Rebecca’s glass was empty, and to join in a toast to the health of the survivors, she filled it from the first bottle that came handy. That bottle happened to be the one containing the left-over embalming liquid.

In a very short time afterward Rebecca was seized with such pains that she began to think that she was undergoing the tortures of purgatory herself, and her wails persuaded her companions to investigate. When the truth became known a policeman was called for assistance. He rang an alarm for an ambulance, which caused consternation in the neighbourhood by dashing up to the house of mourning at full speed. A surgeon and a stomach pump soon brought Rebecca around, but if she had not been under the influence of liquor at the time she certainly would have been embalmed alive from the inside, for the liquor she drank was a very powerful and penetrating preparation with poisonous ingredients. San Francisco [CA] Chronicle 2 August 1888: p. 1

But embalming fluid in a champagne bottle takes the cake.

POISON FOR CHAMPAGNE

Thomas Karns Imbibed of Fluid Intended to Embalm His Father.

Ouray, Colo., Dec. 27. Closely following the sad death of Michael Karns, who was frozen to death, occurs the tragic death of his son, Thomas at 4 a.m. today.

The remains of the elder Karns arrived from Telluride for burial at this city and were at the house of his son, Thomas.

The undertaker had left some embalming fluid, composed of corrosive sublimate and arsenious acid in dilute alcohol at the house, and in the room with the corpse. The poison fluid was in a bottle labeled “Champagne,” and although the undertaker had warned the members of the household of the dangerous character of the fluid, Karns must have forgotten the warning or failed to have heard it.

The first the family and watchers knew that he had taken poison was the query from him as to “what that stuff was,” and then he said that he had taken two swallows of it and thought it was whisky.

That was 9 p.m. and both Drs. Rowan and Ashley were hurriedly summoned, but their efforts were without benefit to Karns, who died at 4 in the morning. The Topeka [KS] State Journal 27 December 1897: p. 1

This was a particularly egregious case with no appalling detail spared by the press:

POISONED CANDY MAY KILL FOUR

Three Generations of Family Ate Sweets Saturated With Embalming Fluid

Tongues and Tonsils of Victims Eaten Out by Virulent Stuff Given Them While Attending Funeral of Twin Babies.

Special to the Philadelphia Times.

Altoona, December 29. As the result of eating candy, poisoned by embalming fluid four women of Blue Knob, Freedom township, Blair county, had their tongues and tonsil practically eaten out and are now lying in a critical condition from having swallowed some of the poison. They are:

Mrs. George J. Noffsker, 85 years old, and her daughter, Mrs. John Allison, and her granddaughters, Miss Rose and Miss Viola Ickes.

Christmas night the 3-months-old twin sons of Mrs. John Allison died. A country undertaker embalmed the bodies, using an extra strong fluid to preserve the bodies until Saturday. His assistant accidentally overturned the bottle on the board adjoining the sink in the kitchen and, dripping through the cracks, it saturated a pan of soft candy that had been placed underneath to cool. The fluid was mopped up, but it was not noticed that any had reached the candy.

MOURNERS ATE CANDY.

Yesterday afternoon after the funeral the candy was passed among the mourners. Several noticed an odd taste and did not eat it. The four women each ate freely and shortly afterward were seized with terrible pains. Mrs. Noffsker and Viola Ickes were made unconscious.

When a physician arrived it was found the poison had burned great holes in the tongues and tonsil s of the victims until they were practically eaten away. Mrs. Noffsker’s false teeth plate was disintegrated, the teeth falling out.

To-night all are under the influence of narcotics, made necessary by their terrible sufferings. It is not believed they can recover. The Times [Philadelphia PA] 30 December 1901: p. 4

The only victims’ grave I could find was that of Mrs. Viola Ickes, who apparently lived until 1934, albeit perhaps not in the best of spirits.

ATE CANDY, NOW INSANE.

Sweetmeats Had Been Poisoned by Saturation With Embalming Fluid.

Altoona, Pa., Jan. 21. Mrs. Jacob Ickes, one of the women residing at Blue Knob, this county, who ate candy on Christmas day had had been saturated with emablming fluid thorugh the careless of an undertaker, has gone crazy.

It is thought she is now incurably deranged. The Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 22 January 1902: p. 1

Like Miss Aimée Thanatogenos,  the pretty cosmetician of The Loved One, some chose embalming fluid as the horrific agent of suicide.  These make for dire reading.

DENIED SUICIDE WITH LAST BREATH

But Coroner Krause Says Almedia Bretz Swallowed Embalming Fluid

PARTIALLY FILLED BOTTLE FOUND

Pretty Seventeen-Year Old Girl Ended Her Life in Awful Agony Yesterday Morning.

Actuated by some unknown motive, Almedia Bretz, a pretty 17-year-old girl, 1420 North Fourth street, yesterday morning committed suicide by drinking embalming fluid. Although she protested to the end that she had not swallowed the poisonous stuff all the evidence seemed to contradict her statement and Coroner George C. Krause, after an investigation, decided it was a pure case of suicide.

The girl lived with her mother, Mrs. Kate Bretz, and her father lives in Steelton. She was employed at the Harrisburg Cigar Factory where she was known as an intelligent and industrious worker. She was unusually cheerful upon her return from work on Tuesday and spent the evening with some of the girls of the neighbourhood who are entirely at a loss as to what could have led her to take her life.

Became Ill Early in the Morning.

It was at 5 o’clock yesterday morning when the girl awakened her mother by her violet vomiting. As this ceased shortly nothing unusual was thought of the matter until 8 o’clock when the girl became sick again.

About this time the bottle of embalming fluid which an undertaker had forgotten was found in the girl’s room and a glass showed that some of the fluid had been taken by the sick girl. A month before the death of an infant son of John Bretz, a brother of Almedia, had occurred at the house and the undertaker had neglected to carry away a half-filled pint bottle of the fluid used in embalming.

Declared She Had Taken Nothing.

The mother accused her daughter of having taken the poison, but the girl denied this. “I took nothing,” she said, and she repeated this time and again in her agony prior to death. She remained conscious to the end and the last words on her lips were: “Mother, I didn’t take any poison.”

When it was seen that the case was a most serious one neighbors were summoned and medical aid was telephoned for, but by the time a physician arrived the girl was dead. This was about 9 o’clock.

Coroner Krause was sent for and an hour later held an investigation. He determined that an inquest was unnecessary and that all the indications pointed to suicide.

No Post-Mortem Examination.

No post-mortem examination will be made and it was learned last night that the bottle of embalming fluid and its contents had been destroyed by the family.

The mother last evening went to Steelton to see her husband and arrangements for the funeral will be made this morning. Patriot [Harrisburg PA] 24 March 1904: p. 5

Perhaps I wrong the young woman, but judging from the lack of a post mortem examination, her denials in extremis, and the fact that the family destroyed the incriminating fluid, I wonder if she thought she was taking something herbal and harmless to “bring on a miscarriage”?

This unfortunate lady managed to drink an entire half pint of the noxious liquid, while her undertaker husband tried to hush things up. Where, I wonder, did he get that certificate of death?

SWALLOWED EMBALMING FLUID.

Mrs. Ann Benson, wife of James Benson, an undertaker whose place of business is at No. 850 Fulton street, Brooklyn, committed suicide yesterday morning by swallowing embalming fluid.
The case was first brought to the attention of the authorities in the afternoon, when Benson presented a certificate of her death and requested Deputy Health Commissioner Young to keep the matter quiet, as he did not desire publicity. Dr. Young, however, referred the undertaker to Coroner Rooney.

From the statement of the husband it appears that he was attending to his duties as sexton at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Tuesday night, when he first heard that his wife was ill. After seeing her he discovered that she had taken poison. Dr. Thompson, the family physician, tried in vain for several hours to save her life.

On the floor of the shop, where the woman was found, was a pint bottle containing embalming fluid, a deadly poison, composed of chloride of zinc. About one-half of the contents of the bottle had been swallowed by Mrs. Benson. She had been subject to fits of melancholy. New York [NY] Herald 30 January 1890: p. 8

This boy’s best friend was not his mother.

Drank Embalming Fluid.

Kansas City, Nov. 4. An unusual suicide occurred here yesterday when Allen M. Bishop, an undertaker, aged 29, poisoned himself by drinking embalming fluid. Bishop had been despondent for some time, owing to the fact that his mother, with whom he had quarreled on numerous occasions, followed him about the city from place to place demanding that he give her all of his wages. Suicides among undertakers are so uncommon that no Kansas City undertaker ever heard of one. Cassville [MS] Republican 11 November 1897: p. 6

And finally, this article’s biased language about a “nervous” woman undertaker is particularly heartless.

TOO MANY BURIALS FOR HER.

Nervous Woman Undertaker at Last Succeeds in Suicide.

Siegfried, Pa., May 25. Mrs. Katie Keck, an undertaker, 43 years old, succeeded in committing suicide, this being her third attempt. A week ago she took an overdose of carbolic acid and was saved, and on Saturday slashed her wrists with a knife.

This time, when her exhausted nurse was taking a nap, Mrs. Keck managed to get embalming fluid, of which she swallowed about a pint, and death ensued in four minutes.

Mrs. Keck succeeded to the undertaking business established by her husband, on his death two years ago. It was at first thought she had become melancholy over financial difficulties, but the examination of her accounts shows that the business was very prosperous. It is thought “the business got on her nerves.” Trenton [NJ] Evening Times 25 May 1910: p. 7

 

As recently as 1982 “moonshiners” were using embalming fluid in their product to give it “bite.” It runs in my mind that the stuff was/is sprinkled on tobacco (or was it marijuana?) to give an extra buzz. And, of course, we still tell the urban legend of the girl at the prom poisoned by a dress from a corpse. But have there been any recent embalming fluid poisonings?

Have the coroner seal the bottle and send to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

 

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