A Peculiar but Profitable Mode of Gaining a Livelihood.
A reporter met a crape-chaser the other day for the first time to know who and what he was. It was in a local florist’s shop. A rather seedy and lugubrious individual entered. In his hand he carried a small wire frame with wire lettering. It was apparent that it was one of those frames used by florists in preparing wreaths and the like on the occasion of funerals.
The florist seemed to know the newcomer, and he saluted him familiarly.
“Well, Jim, what is it?” he asked.
“Just a few scraps,” said the melancholy one, “funeral’s this afternoon.”
“Well. I can’t do much for you to day, Jim,” said the florist Then he rummaged among his flowers for a few minutes and finally handed Jim a few bunches of withered flowers and fern. “It’s the best I can do,” he said.
“’Never mind,” said the melancholy one, “I reckon I can make ‘em do!” Then he went away as lugubrious as he was when he came.
“Lost some of his family?” the reporter asked.
“Gracious, no, answered the florist with a laugh. “Jim never had any family that I’ve heard of. Jim is a crape chaser, you know.” The reporter didn’t know, and then he was enlightened as to crape chasers. These gentlemen seem to have shown a very considerable degree of originality in their selection of a calling.
They form a portion of that army of persons who in one wav or another make a living out of the fact that men must die. Some of the original members of the army have dropped out of the ranks for good and for all. The professional mourner, for instance, is no longer to be seen. He is no longer an institution respected even by the small boys in the streets.
The crape chaser is another sort of a tradesman. If he was vain-glorious he might call himself a florist, although that would be rather stretching the matter, since he bears about the same relation to a florist proper that a penny cake stand bears to a full-fledged bakery.
The crape chaser’s mode of procedure is simple. He reads the death columns of the daily papers every morning, hangs about undertaker’s establishments in the tenement districts waiting for accounts of deaths. He pays no attention save to those that occur in poor families. He is at the scene of death as soon as or before the crape is hung on the door. He goes armed with frames that are appropriate for floral pieces.
By the exercise of any wile that may seem to fit the occasion he manages to secure interviews with some member of the bereaved family. The crape-chaser displays his frames. He argues that he can supply floral pieces much cheaper than any florist will, and this is true, although he does not tell why he can.
Sometimes he fails to obtain orders, but many more times he succeeds, and in his way does a more or less profitable business, for although he sells so much cheaper than a florist with the flowers he uses for wreaths and the like are the odds, ends and outcastings of the florist’s stock. So his profits are fully in proportion to his outlay.
The trade has its ramifications too. Near one of the local cemeteries there is a man who makes a business of buying up the rusty old frames when the graves are cleaned from time to time and the wrecks of floral pieces taken from them. He cleans and repaints the frames, and then sells them for a song. The crape chasers are his best customers. And so this queer business is carried on. N. Y. Mail and Express.
“Man and boy, I’ve been in the business nearly fifty years, and if I had to begin over again, I don’t know that I would choose any other.” He was a retired undertaker who spoke. The writer was his companion in a coach on a mourning mission to a Long Island cemetery lately, and he ventured the suggestion that there must be a dreadfully depressing uniformity in the business which would be calculated to deaden the finer sensibilities and to induce a hardened callousness in those engaged in it for so long a time.
“There is as much variety among the dead as among the living,” said the undertaker, “and one’s interest is awakened and one’s sympathies excited by the changes of expression so frequently noticeable on the faces of the dead. Dead faces blush and smile and sometimes look sad and inexpressibly mournful.” Becoming reminiscent, the undertaker related some incidents in his long experience, illustrating the peculiar changes of expression that sometimes came over the faces of the dead and which have for the living such thrilling and ghastly interest.
Probably thirty years ago I was called to a house in Bond street. The corpse was a beautiful young woman of thirty or so, of fine, clear blonde complexion and finely formed. She had died suddenly under peculiar circumstances, and her husband, who appeared to be an excitable and jealous man, much older than his wife, was rushing around tearing his hair and cursing and threatening when I was admitted to the chamber of death. I told him that his grief was unseemly and shocking and begged him to restrain himself. He bade me send my assistant to look after the wagon outside, closed the door of the room connected with that in which the body lay, and sitting down in a chair with his knees close to mine, told me that his wife had been unfaithful to him; that he had suspected her for years, and that her death was a judgment of God, not only to punish but to expose her. He said her sister’s husband, who was a doctor, had been her paramour, and while visiting him she had been suddenly stricken with hemorrhage of the lungs and had died in a few minutes. It was a dreadful story. I said that probably he was mistaken, and I urged him to keep calm.
Before leaving the room to listen to the husband’s story I had noticed what a peculiarly wretched and suffering look the corpse had. When I returned and summoned my assistant I felt confident that this sad and disconsolate expression became gradually intensified as our melancholy work proceeded. Even my assistant noticed and commented on the anguished look of the departed, and the thought of it dwelt so much on my mind that I dreamt about the deceased that night, and I told my wife in the morning what the husband had told me, winding up by saying that I felt she was wrongfully accused.
When I called again with the coffin the husband was absent, but the look was frozen and settled in the face. It was impossible to so dispose of the features as to banish that purgatorial look of martyrdom. I was nearly through when the husband entered the room. He presented the greatest possible contrast to the man I had seen two days previously. He was meek, tearful, broken up, and could scarcely speak for sobbing. In a few words he told me that he was a monster unfit to live. He had wrongfully accused the best and most innocent women that ever lived. Her own sister had been present at the whole interview with the doctor, and up to the moment she was stricken with death; and, moreover, had adduced the most convincing evidence to prove that his own ungovernably jealous suspicions had all along been unfounded. I had been standing at the door with my back to the corpse, as he sobbed and spoke.
When I turned again there was a distinct smile playing over the dead features, like moonlight on rippling waters. His eyes followed mine, and he rushed to the coffin, crying: ‘Mary! Mary! Speak to me! Speak to me! She lives! She is not dead!’ He told me to run for Dr. ___, who lived a few doors away, and inside of ten minutes he was present. But he found her to be quite dead, although the smile remained, and with that sweet, serene and happy smile she was laid away to her long repose.
Another case has haunted me for a still longer period. The lady was a widow of fifty or thereabouts, and her only son was a sailor, employed on one of those clipper ships that traded with China, and he would sometimes be away from home two years at a time. He had been away a year when she was taken with her last sickness, which, I think, was rapid consumption. She was a deeply religious and emotional woman, and her son—Theodore, I remember the name was—was a good, affectionate lad of three or four and twenty. Before the end it became painfully probable to the doctor, the attending minister and the nurse that the mother’s life voyage and the boy’s sea voyage, were running a close and uncertain race. He was expected home in November. It was the beginning of that month, and the hope was ever present to the dying mother’s mind that she would be spared long enough alive to see him—to see him if only for a single fleeting moment. Her prayers to that end were touchingly earnest and incessant.
But it was not to be. Just as the ship that bore the boy was sighting the Sandy Hook highlands, the mother’s spirit was passing yearningly away. When I was called upon to perform the last offices for the deceased I was deeply impressed with the look of perplexed suffering that the face wore. Canker sorrow seemed to have eaten away the placid, sweet look that was natural to her wasted but benign face. The day of the funeral came. There were not many present in the modest little home away down on the Hook, but all who were present were acquainted with the family circumstances and the conversation in low tones turned on the poor dead lady’s disappointment in not being permitted to see her son once again before she went on the last long dark journey.
By and by the old clergyman came, and one of his first acts was to look with tear-filled eyes at the sad face of the corpse. He began the exercises in a low tone, but intensely earnest, speaking of the wishes of the deceased and the inscrutable higher Will that had denied their fulfillment. He had got thus far when the young man himself, with a big parcel in his hand for his mother, staggered into the room, and, as he reached the coffin, burst into a torrent to weeping as if his heart would have burst from his bosom. Everybody was plunged into involuntary tears and some minutes elapsed before the minister could recover his composure. The young sailor, who had been gazing with agonizing fervor upon the dear dead face, here put his hand on the cold, pale brow and said: “Oh, mother, speak to me—speak just once!”
And I thought, and the minister said that he thought, that a flickering faint smile played across the features. But whether the smile was there transiently or not, every body saw that the dead face had cast aside suddenly its anxious and despairing look, and that it now looked blissful and happy. It was a great and notable change, and formed the talk among that little earnest circle for many weeks afterward.
The undertaker was asked if within his experience he had seen a dead face blush. He said that he had. It was not by any means a common phenomenon, yet physicians attempted to explain it by physical reasons, which I am not learned enough to enunciate.
A case in which an apparent suffusion of the blush of modesty came under my notice was peculiarly pathetic. During the summer the young lady was staying in the country, and was killed by being thrown from the carriage in which she was riding. She was to have been married to a young lawyer in this city in a week. I was summoned to professionally attend to the corpse and bring it home to her parents in this city. The face of the beautiful girl wore a sweet, reposeful expression as if she had entered into perfect beatitude. Before the funeral ceremonies began in the house the young lawyer, accompanied by the mother, father and sister of the deceased, paid the corpse a sad parting visit. It was quite manifest to me and to all of them that the dead young lady blushed when her lover kissed her lips. So vividly distinct was the blush that the sister started and placed her hand on the cold brow and addressed the deceased by name.
“After all, though,” he said in conclusion, “the saddest and most common look of the dead is that Phoenix-like, marble rigidity—so inscrutable, awe-inspiring. Nothing can so stun the senses or chill the heart-blood of the beholder as that. I have met the dreadful expression in all its forms, and I never could become quite indifferent to it if I were to practice the undertaking business a hundred years.
The Enquirer [Cincinnati OH] 6 November 1886: p. 13
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.
“Yes, Miss, I’m glad the Society can send me and Baby to the ‘Ome for a bit; but won’t you walk upstairs?”
So spoke Mrs Hunt, a sad-looking young woman with a quiet voice, to the girl standing beside her, and they began to toil up the many stairs of a model lodging-house. At last Mrs Hunt stopped at one of the doors, but before turning the handle she hesitated a moment and said, “You know I lost my Jacky yesterday. You won’t mind, will you?” And then she led the way into the dingy little top back room.
The girl glanced around almost nervously, for this was one of life’s realities that she had never met before; but there was nothing alarming in the sight of the little coffin resting on two chairs. Yet, somehow it made her feel strange, perhaps because it was such a very little coffin. Mrs. Hunt, however, did not seem to notice the addition to her furniture, for she asked abruptly, “Will they want me to take slippers to the “Ome, for I ‘aven’t got none,” and her voice was quite composed, though a trifle dull and hard. So the girl pulled herself together and a serious discussion followed as to the advisability of buying cheap shoes in the Edgware Road, or of getting a second-hand pair “off a friend.”
But all the while that she was speaking, the girl could not keep her eyes from wandering every now and then towards that other corner of the room, and suddenly she began to realise with astonishment that the coffin, though small, was made of polished oak with silver-plated fittings, and it rested on small black draperies. And then the girl remembered that she had seen a baby downstairs decked out in crape and black ribbons, and she knew that this must be Jacky’s baby sister. How could this mother be so very foolish? For Mrs Hunt was a widow, who supported herself and her little ones by doing mangling. If she worked all day and the greater part of the night she could not hope to earn more than eight or nine shillings a week. And yet she could afford to indulge in high-class funerals.
And as the girl thought on these things her heart hardened, and she deemed it her duty to give the woman a few words of advice on the subject of her extravagance. But the words would not come. For somehow that inconvenient little lump in her throat would return when she thought of this woman’s desire to honour her dead even at the cost of starving. She could almost hear her say, “Has my little boy had so many luxuries that you grudge him a decent burial?” And the girl could not speak.
Now, when she had turned to go, and had even laid her hand on the door, Mrs Hunt said suddenly, almost harshly, “Perhaps you’d like to see ’im.” And before the girl could reply, the lid of the coffin was drawn back.
What! Was that still little form that white face, almost terrible in its loveliness—was that the noisy, dirty imp she had seen not many days before? I seemed incredible. She remembered in wonder that she had tried to bring herself to kiss the face that had been almost repulsive in its filth and ugliness; and had tried and had failed. And now she would fain have knelt and have pressed her lips to the little white hand, humbly, reverently, as to something sacred. She would not dare now to touch the face that she had turned from in disgust; it looked so white, so pure, he would have feared to defile it. “Defile!” Yes, that was the word that kept beating itself on the girl’s brain as she stood there looking down. “Undefiled, undefiled, a little child undefiled.”
And where were now her sapient remarks as to the desirability of cheap funerals for the poor? Gone, utterly gone. She was indeed stricken dumb and stood there silently gazing, her eyes wet with tears. And at last, as many before her have done when the feelings of their littleness is borne home to them, she unconsciously used the words of another: words, old indeed, but true for all time, for all men—
“For of such is the kingdom of Heaven.”
But some one heard her. There was a sudden sob, a sound as of the breaking of an ice of distrust and despair, and the mother turned away, her shoulders heaving, her face buried in her apron; and a cry rang out, an exceedingly bitter cry:
“Oh, I wants ‘im! ‘E weren’t much to nobody but me, but I loved ‘im an’ I wants ‘im!”
And this is how it came to pass that the inquiry officer of a certain society failed in her important duty of advocating thrift and economy among the London poor.
Star, 26 January 1901: p. 1
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: One likely possibility that the young inquiry officer did not consider is that many of London’s poor subscribed to Burial Societies. In the 1840s there were over one hundred Burial Societies in London alone. A small sum paid weekly–from a half-penny to a penny and three half-pence and twopence in 1844–ensured that the all-important decent funeral would be within reach. The pauper funeral held as much horror for the Victorian poor as the Workhouse and was to be avoided at all cost.
It was found in 1907 that eighty-three per cent of all English decedents carried insurance. The authors of that study added severely, “It would seem that the insurance policy lure prompts to funeral extravagance, and that the pitiless extortions consequently exacted from the poor by a certain class of undertakers aggravates needlessly the anguish of the bereaved, and calls for indignant protest from the public upon whom, in some instances, the victims immediately thereafter become a charge.” Preventable Death in Cotton Manufacturing Industry, Arthur Reed Perry, 1919
For more information on the popular culture of Victorian mourning and death, Mrs Daffodil recommends The Victorian Book of the Dead, by Chris Woodyard, also available for something called a Kindle. Mrs Daffodil understands the principle of paper-making using wood-pulp, but fails to see where kindling comes into it.
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.
If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I do not mince words when writing about the perils of 19th-century corpse disposal. You may have read about the grim German waiting mortuaries, the dark side of those popular Fisk cast-iron burial caskets, people who asked to be stabbed to the heart after death to make sure they were really most sincerely dead, and about the Victorian fear—actually more like an obsession—with being buried alive. It was sometimes difficult for 19th-century physicians to tell when a body was a lifeless corpse, given diseases like cholera that mimicked death and an apparent epidemic of catalepsy. Yet beyond dubious diagnoses of death leading to premature burial, there was another, lesser-known mortuary danger: the undertaker’s ice-box.
While arterial embalming had been popular since the Civil War, some undertakers, either conservative or cautious about the toxic chemicals involved, shunned embalming, feeling that they got more satisfactory outcomes using the tried-and-true method of icing the corpse. For example, this undertaker was delighted with a tub of ice so effective there was doubt about the death:
“Before the patent ice boxes were in use,” continued Mr. William, “I was called on to bury a young man whose death was caused by drowning. It was in warm weather, and the family desired that the funeral should be put off a few days. The bath tub was used, and he was laid in it, covered with ice, and kept splendidly. In fact, he looked so much better in death than he did in life that his mother could not be made to believe that life was extinct, and for this reason the hour of the funeral services was twice postponed until her family physician arrived and made an examination. Arkansas City [KS] Daily Traveler 12 July 1888: p. 6
I’d always imagined that Victorian undertakers iced their corpses by putting them on beds of ice like fish in the seafood case. But, in fact, the goal was to freeze the corpse solid, letting it thaw gradually before burial would be necessary. The illustration at the head of this post shows one such device, with a handy hose to hang out the window. The sound and smell of the water running off the corpse is one of the lost sensory landscapes of the 19th-century…. There are numerous 19th-century patents for “corpse coolers” and improvements thereof. Some were essentially immense ice-chests; several were meant to fit only over the abdomen and breast of the corpse. And, according to some physicians, these devices were a menace to the public wheal.
Dangers Of Prematurely Placing Corpses On Ice.
Dr. E. Vanderpoel, of this city is strongly opposed, and for very good reasons, to the practice of hastening to place a body on ice almost as soon as the patient appears to be dead. Some of his experiences in his own professional life have made so deep an impression on him, that he has more than once, publicly and privately, protested against the modern custom introduced by the undertakers, of putting bodies on ice before there were official proof of death. He considers it a scandal to the undertaking profession, an outrage to society, and an insult to the patient’s family that for the sake of collecting exorbitant fees, undertakers do not await the arrival of a doctor’s certificate of death before they freeze the remains.
The case lately reported from Canada, of a smallpox patient who had apparently died and was about to be buried when he came to life again, suggests to Dr. Vanderpoel the following reflections: “If that Canadian had been taken ill in this city his life would never have returned at the cemetery, for it would have been frozen out of him long before he reached the grave. In reading about this case I thought of a certain Brooklyn patient of mine who died in 1872. She was forty-five years old, and the widow of a well-known reverend doctor of divinity. She had an attack of dysentery, and had been lying ill for four or five days with a low fever but her condition was not dangerous, although it was assuming a typhoid form. I called in to see her one day at one o’clock, and returned again at five o’clock on the same day, when, to my profound surprise and indignation, she was lying in an icebox down stairs partially frozen. The undertaker had committed this atrocity without any medical certificate of her death, and he had no official knowledge that she had died at all I found that after I had left she arose from her bed and fainted while walking across the floor from sheer weakness, and because she lay there motionless the children thought she was dead; so, instead of sending for me to come and make an examination, they ran for the undertaker. He responded with like promptitude, bringing in his mortuary box full of pounded ice, and in a short time she was frozen stiff. Every part of her body, except her face was covered with the ice. I believed then and I always shall believe, that she might have revived had proper means been employed for her resuscitation.”
The following is still more tragic: In 1874 I attended a wealthy lady about fifty years old, and her house was but five doors from my own. She was perfectly well at six o’clock in the evening. She went to bed as usual. In the night she was taken ill, and I was called over to the house by another doctor, for consultation, at six o’clock in the morning. After doing what we could I left at seven to finish my toilet and to get some breakfast. The other doctor also retired soon afterward, as he found he could not be of any immediate service. I returned at half-past nine o’clock and found her, not in bed, but in the back parlor enclosed in an undertaker’s ice chest. From what I knew of the character of her case, it was one in which returning consciousness would be almost certain to follow a period of apparent sinking away of life. If there ever was a case of restoration after suspended animation that should have been one. The undertaker’s excuse was that mortification might set in when he ought to have known that it takes twelve hours for animal life to leave the body after death and before decomposition can set in.
“After death there are three stages in the processes of decomposition. On the first day the features and the flesh are sunken in and the pallid shade of death is very ghastly. On the second day there is an improved look in every respect and the remains lose a part of the pallor of the first day. On the third day the flesh becomes full again, the skin clears up, and the natural hue of life returns to a degree that in some cases is almost startling. At the end of this period discoloration sets in and decomposition does its work with great rapidity if the weather be warm. But these changes can be postponed without difficulty by the proper use of a very little ice on the stomach, and some diluted carbolic acid sprayed into the nostrils. In 1848, when the modern iceboxes were unknown, I kept the body of my mother four days in the hottest summer weather of July. My son dropped dead in the street from kidney disease. He was in full health, and I kept the remains in fine condition for five days with a simple pan of ice. I was attending on a poor little girl in Thompson street. Her mother was so poor that I did not charge her anything. When the little sufferer passed away I told the mother that an undertaker would come and order the remains to be put on ice, but I would show her how to keep the body until time for burial. It would keep without trouble, for there was no flesh to decay. I left the mother to go to my office for a certificate of death. When I returned the body was on ice as usual, and the mother told me that the undertaker had come and told her that she must have the remains put into an icebox without delay. She thought it must be some kind of an official utterance, so she borrowed $10 and gave it to the undertaker before I could return.”
In conclusion, Dr. Vanderpoel thinks that physicians, the Board of Health, and the law, should take measures to put a stop to such indecencies. There is no necessity for the practice, no excuse for it, except the sordid anxiety of the undertaker to make an exorbitant fee. He strongly favors the Neurological Society, which, he understands, is making efforts to have a medical expert especially detailed to investigate each case of reported death, and to make a scientific examination as to whether the doctors themselves might not have erred and issued certificates before the vital spark of life had really fled. The Medical Advance, Volumes 9-10 1881
Dr. S. Oakley Vanderpoel, had been Health Officer of the Port of New York and also Surgeon General of that state.
This next article’s headline is even more candid.
SENT TO UNTIMELY GRAVES
The Perils of Undertakers’ Ice-Boxes
Inanimate People Frozen to Death
[New York News.]
The medical profession and embalmers are soon to wage war against the undertakers on the subject of preparing the dead for burial. The physicians nearly all claim that persons still alive are frequently taken by undertakers and placed on ice, thereby making death certain, whereas, if the body was kept until the first signs of decomposition set in, all uncertainty would be dispelled. The late occurrence in this city, where a prominent physician attending a lady left the patient after prescribing for her, and returned the following morning only to find her body packed up in an undertaker’s ice-box has given rise to severe indignation among medical men. The doctor who attended the lady expressed the belief that the patient’s blood could not have been cold in so short a space of time, and he considered that the undertaker iced her while she was yet alive, lest in delaying he might lose the job.
The embalmers charge that many bodies are rapidly hustled into the grave through the undertaker and his ice-box, and they are endeavoring to get the physicians to cooperate with them, so that in a short time the use of ice will be entirely put out of practice. It is claimed that the process of embalming will not cost any more than icing, and through its use, nobody can be placed in a coffin before life is undoubtedly known to be extinct. One of the embalmers, when spoken to on the subject, said: “I have been in the business for at least twenty-five years, and can say I never knew bodies to be packed and placed completely in ice until I came to this city. Of course I have seen ice used a little, but not to such an extent as to entirely envelope every portion of the form. In my opinion, bodies are certainly put on ice too soon after death; they should be kept for some time, so that signs of positive death would make their appearance. If the breath ceases, or the pulse stops beating, and the lips become blue, while the face is livid, you have no positive indications of death, for there have been cases where all these symptoms were perceptible and yet life returned.”
“What would be the result if a person so attacked would be seized and crowded into a box of ice?” “Why, they would have been frozen to death, and their morbid or temporarily-stilled blood-vessels made dead forever. No body should ever be placed on ice unless it is rigid in the extreme….
“Another occurrence like this took place over on Seventh avenue not long ago. A woman lived with her husband and two grown children in a tenement house. The husband, son and daughter all worked in a theater. One evening the woman, while walking about the room, was seized with apoplexy, and dropped powerless upon the floor. Some of the neighbors in the house heard the fall and went to the room, and, finding the woman speechless, immediately sent to the theater for her son. The young fellow immediately went for a physician, who pronounced the woman dead. The body was then lifted into bed and left there until the return of the husband and daughter and when they came an undertaker was sent for. He was assisted by two old women, neighbors of the deceased, in laying out of the dead body preparatory to placing it on ice. While the body was being disrobed one of the women suddenly cried, ‘Oh, my God! She’s warm! She’s not dead yet!’
”At this the husband rushed to the corpse, and sure enough it was warm, but the undertaker hastened the body to the ice-box, saying that the body was made warm by being left in bed so long without being undressed. This was received as probable, and the body was put on the ice without further comment. But two old women sent the story all over the neighborhood that the woman was buried alive. This created no little excitement at the time, and a crowd gathered around the house to see the funeral, while the poor husband and son and daughter were nearly distracted with shame. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 16 February 1881: p. 2
I can see how the embalmers might go to war over corpse coolers. Obviously icing cut into their profits. Yet, it seems a bit disingenuous. Though I’ve collected a few anecdotes on the subject, I have not yet investigated in any detail how many of the dead awoke during embalming before it was too late. Dead men tell no tales…
On the bright side, you will be relieved to know that being packed in ice had one important benefit to recommend it:
The morbid dread of being buried alive that is entertained by some nervous people, is entirely groundless. Such a thing is practically impossible, for the simple reason that a person supposed to be a corpse, but not really such, would inevitably be frozen to death in the ice box long before the funeral. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 21 June 1896: p. 25
Other stories of corpses on ice? Check carefully for signs of life before sending to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
I have always been interested in what the well-dressed corpse is wearing: a netted beadwork shroud, as worn by an Egyptian mummy; the beautiful brocades found in the royal tombs at Las Huelgas; a plain wool shroud tied at the head and foot, as modeled by John Donne in his funerary monument; or the frilled-front white shrouds worn by some Victorian ladies, accessorized with a ruffled cap.
But who made dresses for the dead? We have records of commercial shipments of shrouds from 1770s America. I remember reading, but cannot find a firm source for the assertion that ladies from the 16th through the 19th century would sew their own burial clothes when making their wedding trousseaux because women were so likely to die in childbirth. (Anyone have a reference?) And there are many news articles about elderly ladies buried in a shroud made by their own hands decades earlier. There is no doubt that the home-made shroud was a significant part of 19th-century burial customs in the United States. People also buried their dead in their own garments or nightwear. See this link for an excellent article on the subject. I have also seen notices for meetings of “Shroud Committees” or “Ladies’ Shroud Sewing Societies,” where charitable ladies made shrouds for the poor.
In my search for information on 19th-century burial garments, I ran across the following articles, which discuss the labor issues, the materials, and costs of manufacturing commercial shrouds and burial robes. They are a frank look at the undertaking industry over the course of three decades.
SEWING FOR THE DEAD
Girls Who make Good Wages and Are Contented in an Undertaker’s Shop.
“Isn’t it lovely?” asked a young sewing girl, holding up for inspection something of white satin and lace.
“We are crowded with work just now, so I brought this home to finish it to-night.”
‘You have a trousseau on hand, then? I suppose that fancy garment, whatever it may be, is for a bride.”
The sewing girl opened wide her eyes. “We don’t make no trousseau,” said she. “Did you think I worked at a dressmaker’s?”
“Yes? Aren’t you with Mme. X.?”
“Not much! I left there a month ago. The madame gave me too much sass and too little pay. I’m in Y___’s undertaking establishment and am earning half as much again as I did at Mme. X___’s, who is the most awful crew in this city. The season is longer, too, though of course there ain’t half the number of girls employed where I know that there were at madame’s. When I worked there I was laid off reg’lar three months in the year, while four weeks is the longest that the girls at the undertaker’s are idle. When there is a full supply of robes in stock they are put to making coffin linings, which most of ‘em like because it isn’t fussy work, though, for that matter, none of their work is half so fussy as what I had to bother with when I sewed for live people. Miss B___ (she is our forewoman) used to have the same place at a dressmaker’s, and she says she has grown ten years younger since she went into the robe making business, because she has so much less worry of mind. She sometimes used to have to keep her girls up till 12 o’clock Saturday night to finish a dress for some rich customer, and early Monday morning here would come the dress back again to be altered, and a sassy message long with it about its want of fit. Now, there aren’t any particular fit about a burial robe as you can see by this; it is made only to go over the corpse. Miss B___ says it is a great comfort to her to know that them as wears ‘em don’t make no complaint , and in the main they are becoming, which can’t be said of live dresses—I mean the dresses live people wear.
“To see them in their coffins you would think they were completely dressed, but really all their finery is on top. Even the men’s solid looking black coats and smooth shirt fronts can go on and off without removing the corpse. What I am making is for a young girl who died yesterday, and will be buried to-morrow. She was to have been married next month, and her trousseau was begun at Mme. X___’s before I left there. She will look just as sweet in this robe I am making for her as she would have done in her wedding dress.
“Afraid of the coffins? Not after the first day. It would be a pity if we were, as our sewing room is at the end of the loft where piles upon piles of them are stowed away. We talk and laugh and sing, just as we did at Mme. X___, and Miss B___ is an awful lot nicer than the freewoman we had there, because, as I have already said, she isn’t being constantly worried out of her life by fussy ladies; and, as it is piecework, she never has to scold the girls for loafing. She says that what she can’t get used to is to have to go downstairs and take orders for robes for folks that still have breath in their bodies. Some people seem to be in an awful hurry to get their dead put underground.
When Miss B____ was downstairs today at noontime and the rest of us were eating lunch, one of the girls had her chair break down under her, and, as there was no other to be had, what did she do but go out and drag in a coffin to sit on! When we had finished our lunch we took and laid her out in it and covered her with a robe, and then we began to cry, and talk about the virtues of the deceased, and were having a real jolly wake, considering there was no candles, when in come the boss. We didn’t’ know but we’d all be fired out for meddling with the coffins, but all he said was that it would be money in his pocket if we lazy loafers were all of us in our coffins, as our custom would pay him better than our work. The girl in the coffin—she’s awfully cheeky—jumped up and told him it was playtime, as it was not yet half past 12, and then he said what as fun to us would be considered death by most folks and with that he went out. One of the girls said he was in a good humor because there was talk of the yellow fever coming here this summer, but that wasn’t so. Undertakers ain’t no more heartless than other men, and when it comes to paying their girls they ain’t half such skins as some women.” New York Tribune. Huron Daily Huronite [Huron, SD] 16 January 1890: p. 3
This next article may be one of the the earliest mentions in the press of machine embroidery—the shroud seamstresses ingeniously created patterns with their regular sewing machines.
FASHION STOPS NOWHERE
Costumes for the Grave
“Sweet Things” in Shrouds, and Trimmings—“Ladies’ Fine Lawn Robes”—“Ladies’ Cashmere Habit”—“Style No. 37”—The “Forelady’s” Role.
Every dress intended expressly for the dead may be styled, generically, a shroud. Modern usage, however, makes a distinction according to the color of the dresses, applying the term “Shroud” to those which are black or white and “habit” to those of brown material. Only black, white or brown material is used. There are large shops for the manufacture of dresses for the dead, as for clothing for the living. The manufacturer sells to the undertaker. He usually makes coffins and coffin trimmings, and everything he sells to the undertaker is, as a rule, sold for just half of the retail price and often for less than half. A lawn shroud that is retailed to the mourner for $2.25 costs the undertaker, usually 90 cents. The undertaker often waits for his pay, and frequently he doesn’t survive the waiting time. So he makes his sales on a basis of large margins of losses. In that way he manages to counteract the effect upon him of the grief that he sees, and he doesn’t die of sorrow accumulating within him.
In the larger manufactories from which the undertaker gets his supplies, from seventy-five to one hundred different styles of shrouds for dead women are shown, and fifteen or more for dead men. The materials chiefly used are merino and lawn. The trimmings are satin, plain, stamped, or quilted; gimp, in folds, puffings, bows, edgings, box plaits, ruches or crepe lisse and of other material, embroidery and raised flosswork representing flowers, vines, tendrils, and in mottoes. The styles of cut and making follow to a considerable extent the prevailing modes of dress for the living. The morning dress pattern is largely used for women, and the dressing gown for men, invariably with a bosom piece. For men it is the usual shirt bosom and collar of starched linen, often with studs; for women the bosom piece is made according to fancy, regulated largely by the material of the robe. The frequent use of the patterns above mentioned may be due largely to the fact that they are easily put on, because of their large sleeves and loose fit. They are open at the back from top to bottom and, when put on, are fastened at the neck. The sides are simply tucked underneath the body.
Garments worn in life are frequently used as grave clothes—a custom more prevalent in New York than anywhere else in this country, with the possible exception of Deadwood and some other places, where sudden deaths and unceremonious burials are rather the rule. Boston uses twice as many shrouds proportionately as New York, which does not require more than could be furnished by one or two manufacturers. The greater number of the shrouds made by New York manufacturers are sold in other cities….
The least costly shroud is of black lawn, and it sells at retail, ready made, for $2.25. It is trimmed with the same material, in puffings, bows and tulles. Lawn burial robes are little used compared with those of other materials. Prices of shrouds vary from that of the simple robe, already mentioned, to $40 or more. The more usual prices are $10, $12 and $15. Manufacturers of shrouds, coffins and trimmings do not sell at retail….
In a long, narrow room—nearly 200 feet long—in the second story of a manufactory of undertakers’ supplies, were shown shrouds for men and for women, in great numbers and various styles. A shroud of new design, was of black merino, with “cross-crease center” of black satin folds, trimmed at the side with box plaits and milliners’ folds, alternately of satin and Merino. Folds of the same kind around the neck inclosed a satin-threaded crepe lisse ruche. It was finished at the throat with a black satin bow. The end of the sleeve was trimmed to correspond, and was softened with crepe lisse. In an open box on the counter was a brown habit. The bosom piece was of white satin, with finger puffs up and down. There were gimp and edging at the sides, and box plaits, with edging; around the neck, white satin bows, finished with trimming. A man’s shroud was in another box. It was trimmed with quilted satin and raised floss work in the shape of a cross and a leafy vine. There were a linen bosom and collar, and a black cravat and bosom studs. TA fold of satin answered for the vest, and the shroud had the appearance of an elaborate dressing gown for a gentleman. Another shroud for a man had a matelassé front, a shirt bosom of another pattern, and folds to represent a vest showing two buttons. The shelves behind the counter were filled with boxes of burial robes and “head linings.” They were labeled “Ladies’ fine lawn robe;” “Ladies’ cashmere habit, No. 25 front, color brown,” Cashmere robe, No. 35 front, color white;” the number designating the style of the robe. An “old lady’s shroud” was in one of the open boxes. It was of black cashmere, with folds crossing over the breast, the second fold narrow and of black satin; pointed sleeve cuffs, bound with black satin; folds of white lawn crossing diagonally to the left, across the breast; a lawn bow at the throat and at the wrists and around the neck a widow’s ruche. “Style No. 37” was somewhat costly. The material was fine brown merino. Double puffings were edged with white satin and edged again with a ruche of rule. The plain white satin breast piece had “daisy buttons”—buttons with white satin center and loops of white silk thread around it—down the middle. At the throat was a white satin bow, edged, and around the neck a tulle ruche. The robe retails for $30. Quilted to the bottom it would cost $40, and a cord and tassel would come with it. Quilting is a more expensive trimming than puffing, for more time is required to make it. Ordinarily, a shroud has about two feet of trimming, and the cost is about one third as much as when trimmed to the bottom.
The women employed in the manufactures work by the piece. They make two shrouds a day of the more elaborate patterns and four of the simpler. The girls who stitch the seams on sewing machines earn $8 a week. Generally the same hand makes the entire shroud, doing the machine and the hand work and earning $12 a week. The “forelady” does cutting. Her salary is, on the average, $15 a week. The cutting is not a delicate task, for shrouds are nearly all the same size. When too large they are tucked under at the back and care is taken to have them all large enough for a person of ordinary size. The women work in the manufactory, and choose their own hours, generally going to work at about nine in the morning and quitting at five in the afternoon. They bring their luncheons and take about twenty-five minutes’ intermission for eating it. Some of the girls work only on “Headlines,” which extend from the head of the coffin to the break on the shoulder. These girls learn to work mottoes and ingenious figures, stitching them entirely with sewing machines. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 9 December 1879 p: 1
This next article is interesting in that it states that there is a particular apprenticeship period to be served because dressmakers don’t necessarily know how to make shrouds.
IN A SHROUD FACTORY
A THOUSAND GIRLS HAPPY IN A STRANGE OCCUPATION.
The Shroudmakers of New York a Distinct Class of Needle Plyers—Clothing for the Dead—Various Designs, Grades, and Fashions.
There are over one thousand well fed, well dressed, well paid young women in New York city who earn their living making shrouds for the dead. The “Song of the Shirt” was not written for them. They sing no songs with voices of dolorous pitch, and indeed they have very little reason for doing so. Their songs are as merry as the day is long, and are sung to the busy hum of sewing machines. Less doleful melodies it would be hard to find.
The shroudmakers of New York form a distinct class of bread winners. They differ from other needle plyers as essentially as silversmiths differ from locksmiths. An experienced shroudmaker may know how to make a dress, but a dressmaker has little or no knowledge of how a shroud should be constructed. This part is emphasized whenever a dressmaker secures employment in a shroud factory. Before she is able to earn the regular wages of her craft she must serve an apprenticeship, the length of which depends solely upon her aptitude to learn the peculiar knack of this strange trade. There are twelve well known firms in this city engage id in the manufacture of shrouds, and it is in their factories that all the work is done. The wages are well maintained, although fixed by no union, and employment is guaranteed the year through, for the sale of shrouds is not marked by any of the fluctuations which are noted in some other branches of manufacture.
New York is the recognized headquarters of the clothing of the dead as well as of the living. There is mothering about a shroud factory to indicate the character of its product. Even the rows of coffins and enticing varieties of caskets in the ware room below seem to belong to another business altogether. The showcases that are visible from the head of the stairs, with their display of the latest styles in shrouds, appear to have been left there, perhaps by some pervious tenant, and bear no possible relation to the use the rooms are now being put. It is very difficult to imagine that these light hearted girls who chat so merrily over their machines are turning out burial robes by the dozen, but such is the case and to them the work is no more dolorous than the making of shirts.
CLATTER AND CHATTER.
If you are curious come with me to one of the largest factories in the city, within a few blocks of Cooper Union, in the Bowery, and see for yourself. As the door of the shop opens the noise is almost deafening. Between the clatter of the machines on the one hand and the chatter of the girls on the other, one can hardly hear himself speak. It is 10 o’clock—early for us, perhaps, but not for the girls. They have been at work since 8, and one-quarter of their day has already been spent. In the center of the room is a double row of sewing machines, varying in size and power, and all fastened to two long and narrow tables with little round places cut in the sides into which the operators snugly fit. At the other end of the room are several counters forming a quadrangle. Within this square sit a dozen young women chatting and sewing, while a tall, middle aged, motherly woman snips out of yards upon yards of black, white, and brown cloth patterns of shrouds. Shrouds with long skirts, shrouds with short skirts, shrouds with no skirts at all. Shrouds for the rich and shrouds for the poor. And such patterns they are.
This elaborate design in white satin, with soft ruching around the neck and fleecy ruffles around the wristbands, is modeled after a wedding gown as nearly as is possible considering the different use it is to be put to. It will grace the funeral of some rich patron of a fashionable undertaker. This plain black garment, with a false shirt bosom and a collar which ties behind with a cord, is patterned after an evening suit. It is quiet and eminently respectable. It is intended for a man of middle age and costs quite as much as a suit worn in life. Besides these there are robes of brown and combinations of brown and black, some faced with satin, some with silk, and others plain even to severity. These form the cheaper grade of goods and are worn by men or women of advanced years. The white robes are all intended for the young. Some of these are marvelous pieces of work, and if embroidered by hand would cost a small fortune. This little gown would hardly reach from your hand to your elbow. The tiny neckband is ruffled and tied together in front with a white satin bow. The little sleeves are covered with embroidery and the skirt is elaborately trimmed with lace. It is a baby shroud and is the smallest size that is made.
The styles in shrouds are continually changing. Every fashion used by the living contributes to the robing of the dead. Each large factory has its ‘special designer,’ and not even death can still the competition between them. Benjamin Northrup in St. Louis Republican. Daily Journal and Journal and Tribune [Knoxville, TN] 14 July 1888: p. 6
Let’s finish with this tongue-in-cheek look at the practical reasons behind “sham burial suits.” The reporter mentions suits displayed in glass-topped boxes. You can see an example of a child’s burial dress in a box here.
SHAM BURIAL SUITS
Robbing the Grave of Valuable Raiment—Another Step Toward Economy in Funerals—How a Body May be Arrayed Without Waste of Wardrobe—A Real Masquerade of Death
Of late years the fashion in funeral wardrobes has materially changed. Where our ancestors used to be put to their last quiet bed in a plain shroud, their descendants make the same journey in full dress. In the case of a gentleman, a black coat and pantaloons, with a white vest, shirt and tie have been defined as the last tribute of decency he can pay to the social system from which he has departed. A lady is required to be attired in attire whose quality is generally decided by her dressers, but which is of a sober hue.
There are few men who would through choice wear a dickey over their breasts instead of a suit on their bodies. Yet the sham burial suits are nothing but dickeys. A Sunday News reporter saw one in an undertaker’s window the other day, or rather he saw two. One was intended for a gentleman, and the other for a lady. They were inclosed in neat boxes with glass covers, and would have been quite pleasant to look at if it hadn’t been for the coffins which formed a background to them, and the photograph alongside of an embalmer inspecting the corpse of a man who, if looks go for anything, must have been hanged for slaughtering three or four infant schools from a tub of chemicals through a garden house. At first sight they seemed to be what they were evidently intended to represent. The reporter was examining them, when a rosy man, who had been telling a story to several cheerful gentlemen, who laughed heartily at it, called form his arm-chair in the doorway, “What do you think of them, eh?”
“They seem to be real nice,” The reporter responded.
“Nice!” repeated the rosy man; “Why, they’re just bang up. Look at ‘em in here close to. How is that for high, eh? Only take that in.”
‘And yanking what had seemed to be a black coat, vest, shirt, collar and tie complement from its case, he waved a fluttering rag over the reporter’s head. The arrangement was simply a front, no longer than a waiter’s jacket, and with tapes behind to tie it to the body. “Nobody ever sees the back of ‘em,” said the rosy man, “and half of the lid covers ‘em up to the waist. So what’s the use of buying a forty-dollar rig or so when you can get one of these for ten dollars, I want to know? Ain’t the deceased loss enough without chucking his clothes in too, eh?”
The reporter admitted that, taking this view of the subject, the idea was certainly an admirable one. Encouraged by this indorsement, the rosy man sent a rosy boy, who was cracking peanuts and throwing the shells into an open casket, for a pint of beer and went into details. He had long noticed with pain that the poorest of people buried the best suits of clothes they could obtain with their dead. According to a computation he had made with great care, something over $3,000,000 was squandered annually in this way, literally thrown to the worms. This was very wrong. It was an outrage on the whole system of social economy. Somebody could wear those garments, and get more good out of them than the man or woman who had them on. Then why didn’t they wear them?
They didn’t wear them because they were “down on” shrouds, and couldn’t bury the “diseased” with nothing at all on.
But the present improvement supplied a happy medium. It arrayed the body in a stylish garb wherever the body was seen. In the hidden recesses of the casket, where no eyes had access, it didn’t matter in the last how it was dressed. One of these suits only cost from $5 to $15, according to its quality. Ladies’ dresses, constructed on the same plan, rated according to the same schedule. The idea was a new one, but it had made a hit, and the sham suits were selling, to use the narrator’s own picturesque figure of speech, “like hot cakes.” The illusive garments were made in all styles to suit all tastes. One dress had lately been made for a young lady who desired to be buried in pink. Her family were going to sacrifice her best dress when this substitute was suggested to them.
‘And her sister wore that dress to a ball last week,” said the rosy man, triumphantly. “Simmy seen her in it, didn’t you?”
“Simmy set down the beer and responded in the affirmative. As the reporter prepared to depart he asked:
“Are they patented?”
“You bet,” replied the rosy man. “When you need one, let your folks give us a call, will you? Simmy, hand the young man a card.” Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 23 October 1880: p. 12
It is the week-end of the Royal Windsor Horse-show and Mrs Daffodil has been persuaded by a box of really excellent chocolate cremes to allow Chris Woodyard, the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, to post a guest article on the theme of “hearse horses,” a class which Mrs Daffodil can confidently assert will not be on the programme at Windsor. In view of Prince Phillip’s impending retirement, a Hearse Four-in-Hand event might be seen as lacking in tact.
But enough persiflage. Chris Woodyard is champing at the bit….
In the United States, until the advent of the automobile hearse, hearse horses were a cherished commodity, well-known and sometimes beloved by the communities they served. The acquisition of a new pair of hearse horses was, like the purchase of a new hearse, an important event—something to be puffed in the papers. A smart team of plumed hearse horses was a selling point for any undertaker.
As late as 1911, E.F. Parks, an undertaker in Bryan, Texas, announced the arrival of “our fine team of hearse horses” rhapsodizing: “They are simply beautiful. White with a touch of red about the ears, back and hip. They are full brothers 5 and 6 years old.” Undertaker Parks even ran a contest for several weeks in the local newspaper to name the horses, selecting “Prince” and “Pilot” as the winning names. The Bryan [TX] Eagle 16 March 1911: p. 1
Articles about the acquisition of hearse horses often stressed the animals’ training (which seems to have been primarily about gait and speed), yet there were hundreds of accounts in contemporary newspapers of hearse horses running away or colliding with trees, trains, or telegraph poles, often with grave consequences.
FUNERAL HORROR FRIGHTENED HORSES
The Corpse of a Man Pulled After the Demolished Hearse in a Runaway
Rochester, N.Y., Feb. 24. A ghastly accident occurred at the double funeral of Mr. and Mrs. John Hackett, held near Lyons yesterday afternoon that has deeply shocked that community.
While the first hearse, drawn by a spirited team of blacks, was passing through a deep snow drift the horses became frightened, and, unseating the driver, ran away. The hearse containing the coffin and the remains of Mr. Hackett tipped over and the casket was demolished, throwing out the corpse, which, becoming entangled in the wrecked hearse, was dragged a considerable distance over the bare road and through deep snow drifts. When the terrified team finally broke loose from the wrecked vehicle and its ghastly occupant, the corpse was so badly mangled as to be almost unrecognizable. A driver was sent to look up another casket, which was procured several hours later, after which the funeral procession proceeded to the cemetery, where both bodies were interred in one grave. Tucson [AZ] Daily Citizen 24 February 1902: p. 4
One undertaker, when he discovered that the hearse horse he had trained could not keep to the required solemn gait, made the best of a bad job and released the horse to a racing career:
There is a son of Del Sur in California that they call “The Los Angeles Del Sur Wonder,” but known, for short, as the “hearse horse.” He was bred by an undertaker, and used for a while hauling the hearse. He was found to be rather faster than was needed to keep at the head of the procession, and being trained, trotted a 2.20 gait and paced in 2.18. Otago Witness, 28 April 1892: p. 27
An essential part of funeral pageantry, black horses were used for many adult funerals; white horses—or sometimes white ponies—drew the white hearse of the maiden, the child, or the infant. White horses were also used at state funerals:
Last of the Lincoln Hearse Horses.
A local celebrity recently died after a kind, useful life of thirty-eight years, says the Indianapolis Journal. His name was Jesse, and the one act which entitled him to mention was participation in the funeral cortege of the martyred Lincoln. He was the last of the six white horses which drew the hearse containing the honored body along the streets of Indianapolis. His mate in the proud but sorrowful lead of the team died eight years ago. The McCook [NE] Tribune 3 July 1891: p. 8
Since they were so much in the public eye, certain traits made for the most desirable hearse horses. In the United States, this was a suggested standard:
A more popular hearse-horse is coal-black with no white markings, and he must also have a long, flowing tail. Occasionally they are accepted when slightly marked with white, which is less objectionable on the hind feet than in the face or on the front feet….A hearse requires a horse from 15-3 to 16-1 hands high and weighing 1200 to 1250 pounds. Quarterly Report of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture, Volume 21, 1909 p. 490 and 512
In England, a matched set of black Drenthe horses from Hanover were employed at royal funerals. For the fashionable society funeral, black Belgian stallions were the ne plus ultra. Some of the cheaper imported stallions lacked the all-important tail-weepers and were provided with false tails:
A queer English custom is that of decorating the black hearse horses with long false black tails. They attract no more notice on a street in Liverpool than do the black nets used in this country to cover the horses. Pierre [SD] Weekly Free Press 16 November 1905: p. 1
The use of nets, as seen in several of the illustrations, seem to have been confined to the Americas. If draped, a European funeral horse would wear a blanket, as we see in these pictures of Russian and Roumanian hearse horses.
Rich in detail is this account of the “Black Brigade” of funeral horses in London. I’m particularly amused by the horses being named for current celebrities. It is also fascinating that an influenza epidemic put pressure on the supply of desirable hearse horses.
THE BLACK BRIGADE
A good many of the coal horses are blacks and dark bays, and by some people they are known as ‘the black brigade ‘; but the real black brigade of London’s trade are the horses used for funerals. This funeral business is a strange one in many respects, but, just as the jobmaster is in the background of the every-day working world, so the jobmaster is at the back of the burying world. The ‘funeral furnisher’ is equal to all emergencies on account of the facilities he possesses for hiring to an almost unlimited extent, so long as the death rate is normal. The [funeral] wholesale men, the ‘black masters,’ are always ready to cope with a rate of twenty per thousand —London’s normal is seventeen—but when it rises above that, as it did in the influenza time, the pressure is so great that the ‘blacks’ have to get help from the ‘coloured,’ and the ‘horse of pleasure’ becomes familiar with the cemetery roads.
A hundred years ago there was but one black master in London. He owned all the horses; and there are wonderful stories of the funerals in those days when railways were unknown. The burying of a duke or even a country squire, in the family vault, was then a serious matter, for the body had to be taken the whole distance by road, and the horses were sometimes away for a week or more, and were often worked in relays, much on the same plan as the coach-horses, only that rapid progress through the towns and villages was impossible, for the same reason that no living undertaker dare trot with a tradesman within the limits of the district in which the deceased happens to have been known and respected….
Altogether there are about 700 of these black horses in London. They are all Flemish, and come to us from the flats of Holland and Belgium by way of Rotterdam and Harwich. They are the youngest horses we import, for they reach us when they are rising three years old, and take a year or so before they get into full swing; in fact, they begin work as what we may call the ‘half-timers’ of the London horse-world. When young they cost rather under than over a hundred guineas a pair, but sometimes they get astray among the carriage folk, who pay for them, by mistake of course, about double the money. In about a year or more, when they have got over their sea-sickness and other ailments, and have been trained and acclimatised, they fetch 65£. each; if they do not turn out quite good enough for first-class -work they are cleared out to the second-class men at about twenty-five guineas; if they go to the repository they average 10£; if they go to the knacker’s they average thirty-five shillings, and they generally go there after six years’ work. Most of them are stallions, for Flemish geldings go shabby and brown. They are cheaper now than they were a year or two back, for the ubiquitous American took to buying them in their native land for importation to the States, and thereby sent up the price; but the law of supply and demand came in to check the rise, and some enterprising individual actually took to importing black horses here from the States, and so spoilt the corner.
Here, in the East Road, are about eighty genuine Flemings, housed in capital stables, well built, lofty, light, and well ventilated, all on the ground floor. Over every horse is his name, every horse being named from the celebrity, ancient or modern, most talked about at the time of his purchase, a system which has a somewhat comical side when the horses come to be worked together. Some curious traits of character are revealed among these celebrities as we pay our call at their several stalls. General Booth [founder of the Salvation Army], for instance, is ‘most amiable, and will work with any horse in the stud’; all the Salvationists ‘are doing well,’ except [George Scott] Railton, ‘who is showing too much blood and fire. Last week he had a plume put on his head for the first time, and that upset him.’ [Journalist W.T.]Stead, according to his keeper, is ‘a good horse, a capital horse—showy perhaps, but some people like the showy; he does a lot of work, and fancies he does more than he does. We are trying him with General Booth, but he will soon tire him out, as he has done others. He wouldn’t work with [biologist Thomas Henry] Huxley at any price!’ Curiously enough, Huxley ‘will not work with [physicist John] Tyndall, but gets on capitally with Dr. [philanthropist Thomas John] Barnardo.’ Tyndall, on the other hand, goes well with Dickens,’ but has a decided aversion to Henry Ward Beecher. [Liberal statesman John] Morley works ‘comfortably’ with [Conservative politician & PM Arthur] Balfour, but [Liberal statesman William Vernon] Harcourt and [Irish political leader Michael] Davitt ‘won’t do as a pair anyhow.’ An ideal team seems to consist of [political activist and atheist Charles] Bradlaugh, John Knox, Dr. [Alfred] Adler, and Cardinal [Henry Edward] Manning. But the practice of naming horses after church and chapel dignitaries is being dropped owing to a superstition of the stable. ‘All the horses,’ the horsekeeper says, ‘named after that kind of person go wrong somehow!’ And so we leave Canon [Frederic] Farrar, and Canon [Henry] Liddon, and Dr.[William Morley] Punshon, and John Wesley and other lesser lights, to glance at the empty stalls of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, now ‘out on a job,’ and meet in turn with [celebrity quack doctor] Sequah and [Louis] Pasteur, [hypnotist Franz Anton] Mesmer and [Electrohomeopathy inventor Cesare] Mattei. Then we find ourselves amid a bewildering mixture of poets, politicians, artists, actors, and musicians.
‘Why don’t you sort them out into stables, and have a poet stable, an artist stable, and so on?’
‘They never would stand quiet. The poets would never agree; and as to the politicians—well, you know what politicians are, and these namesakes of theirs are as like them as two peas!’ And so the horses after they are named have to be changed about until they find fit companions, and then everything goes harmoniously. The stud is worked in sections of four; every man has four horses which he looks after and drives; under him being another man, who drives when the horses go out in pairs instead of in the team.
One would think these horses were big, black retriever dogs, to judge by the liking and understanding which spring up between them and their masters. It is astonishing what a lovable, intelligent animal a horse is when he finds he is understood. According to popular report these Flemish stallions are the most vicious and ill-tempered of brutes; but those who keep them and know them are of the very opposite opinion….
There is an old joke about the costermonger’s donkey who looked so miserable because he had been standing for a week between two hearse horses, and had not got over the depression. The reply to this is that the depression is mutual. The ‘black family’ has always to be alone; if a coloured horse is stood in one of the stalls, the rest of the horses in the stable will at once become miserable and fretful. The experiment has been tried over and over again, and always with the same result; and thus it has come – about that in the black master’s yards, the coloured horses used for ordinary draught work are always in a stable by themselves.
The funeral horse hardly needs description. The breed has been the same for centuries. He stands about sixteen hands, and weighs between 12 and 13 cwt. The weight behind him is not excessive, for the car does not weigh over 17 cwt., and even with a lead coffin he has the lightest load of any of our draught horses. The worst roads he travels are the hilly ones to Highgate, Finchley, and Norwood. These he knows well and does not appreciate. In a few months he gets to recognise all the cemetery roads ‘like a book,’ and after he is out of the bye streets he wants practically no driving, as he goes by himself, taking all the proper corners and making all the proper pauses. This knowledge of the road has its inconveniences, as it is often difficult to get him past the familiar corner when he is out at exercise. But of late he has had exercise enough at work, and during the influenza epidemic was doing his three and four trips a day, and the funerals had to take place not to suit the convenience of the relatives, but the available horse-power of the undertaker. Six days a week he works, for after a long agitation there are now no London funerals on Sundays, except perhaps those of the Jews, for which the horses have their day’s rest in the week.
To feed such a horse costs perhaps two shillings a day—-it is a trifle under that, over the 700—and his food differs from that of any other London horse. In his native Flanders he is fed a good deal upon slops, soups, mashes, and so forth; and as a Scotsman does best on his oatmeal, so the funeral horse, to keep in condition, must have the rye-bread of his youth. Rye-bread, oats, and hay form his mixture, with perhaps a little clover, but not much, for it would not do to heat him, and beans and such things are absolutely forbidden. Every Saturday he has a mash like other horses, but unlike them his mash consists, not of bran alone, but of bran and linseed in equal quantities. What the linseed is for we know not; it may be, as a Life Guardsman suggested to us, to make his hair glossy, that beautiful silky hair which is at once his pride and the reason of his special employment, and the sign of his delicate, sensitive constitution.
The Horse-world of London, William John Gordon, 1893, pp 139-147
We find equally telling detail in this section from an article on unusual professions. Painting over inconvenient white portions of a funeral horse was widely practiced. An 1875 article tells of undertakers “not stinting with paint or black lead.” A lady observer in 1912 wrote about “dyed horses” in Paris funeral processions.
The last curious industry deals with funeral horses. Mr. Robert Roe, of Kennington Park Road, has imported these stately animals for upwards of twenty-five years. It seems they come from Friesland and Zeeland, and cost from £40 to £70. There must be about nine hundred funeral horses in London. The average undertaker, however, keeps neither horses nor coaches, but hires these from people like Seaward, of Islington. Mr. Seaward keeps a hundred funeral horses, so that a visit to his stables is an interesting experience.
“It is dangerous,” said one of my informants, “to leave a pair of these black stallions outside public-houses, when returning from a funeral; for these animals fight with great ferocity.” Once, at a very small funeral, the coachman lent a hand with the coffin; but, in his absence, the horses ran amuck among the tombstones, which went down like ninepins in all directions.
A white spot takes a large sum off the value of a funeral horse. In the photo one of Mr. Seaward’s men is painting a horse’s white fetlock with a mixture of lampblack and oil. A white star on the forehead may be covered by the animal’s own foretop.
On the right-hand side in the photo. will be seen hanging a horse’s tail. This is sent to the country with a “composite” horse— a Dutch black, not used for the best funeral work, owing to his lack of tail. He is sold to a country jobmaster, with a separate flowing tail, bought in Holland for a shilling or two. In the daytime, the “composite” horse conducts funerals, the tail fastened on with a strap; but at night he discards it, and gaily takes people to and from the theatres.
Worn-out funeral horses, one is horrified to learn, are shipped back to Holland and Belgium, where they are eaten.
The Strand Magazine, Vol. 13, 1897: p. 202
At least, that was the practice in England; Belgian horses were prized in their native country for their tender meat. In the United States, a hearse horse often retired to green pastures, after a long and useful career. This clever hearse horse had a well-deserved tribute paid to him on his retirement.
KEPT UNDERTAKERS BUSY
Horse Always Stopped at Houses Where Crape Hung on Door.
From the New York Press.
Having reached such a degree of zealousness in behalf of his owner’s business interests that he would stop in front of any house on the front of which symbols of mourning were displayed, Dan, for twenty years a faithful horse for Thomas M. O’Brien, an undertaker of Bayonne, N.J., has been retired on a pension. The undertaker made arrangements with a farmer in Orange county to take good care of Dan for the rest of his life, and to give him decent burial when he dies. Dan was shipped away yesterday. Twice when on the way to the railroad station the horse balked, and it was noticed that each time he balked it was in front of a house with crape hanging on the door. It was not until the driver whispered in Dan’s ear that his boss already had the jobs that the intelligent animal consented to move on.
Dan knows the way to and from every cemetery within 20 miles of Bayonne. Some persons even assert that he knows most of the family plots in those cemeteries. More than once the horse placed O’Brien in an exceedingly embarrassing position by stopping with a hearse in front of houses on which mourning was displayed regardless of whether O’Brien had been retained to have charge of the burial.
One of the stipulations entered into between O’Brien and the Orange county farmer is that Dan must not be compelled to do any work. He must have good oats and timothy hay in winter and, added to that, all the grass he can eat in spring, summer, and fall.
“He’s earned his retirement by twenty years of faithful work,” O’Brien said. “If he were a man instead of a horse, he would have been a partner long before this. He was simply indefatigable in hunting for new business.” The Washington [DC] Post 17 January 1909: p. M10
The hearse horse might also serve as an equine memento mori as in this elegiac New England article:
THE OLD HEARSE HORSE
Among the long-standing fixtures of our day are the Hearse-man, the venerable Robert Bell, and his scarcely less venerable old Black Horse, which will be twenty years old next months. For fourteen years the same man and the same horse have been in attendance at almost every funeral that has taken place in our city. For nearly two thousand times have they borne to their resting places the old and the young—the rich and the poor, the learned and the unlettered. There can be seen scarcely a more grave sight than these funereal accompaniments. The old horse though lively and active on other occasions, knows the moment a corpse is put into the hearse, and he will scarcely mind the admonition of a whip to change his speed from walking. His master is growing infirm and the horse is nearly blind—a premonition that all must ere long return to the dust. Portsmouth [NH] Journal of Literature and Politics 12 May 1860: p. 2
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil is sure that we are all very grateful to the subfusc author for being so relentlessly informative and are pleased to have learned something new to-day about this department of the Victorian funeral industry.
Mrs Daffodil has noticed an unlikely resemblance between the plume-adorned hearse-horses with their dark burdens and beplumed circus horses drawing brilliantly carved and coloured circus wagons at a stately pace. One idly wonders if an aged circus horse ever retired to a career as a hearse-horse or if a black horse of too cheerful a disposition might run away with the circus.
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.