The Heartless Wife: 1850

Black silk plaid mourning gown (possibly another gown dyed and with the trimmings removed) c. 1850 https://www.augusta-auction.com/component/auctions/?view=lot&id=4676&auction_file_id=8
Black silk plaid mourning gown (possibly a previously-made gown dyed and with the trimmings removed) c. 1850 https://www.augusta-auction.com/component/auctions/?view=lot&id=4676&auction_file_id=8

Going Into Mourning

A few weeks ago, our friend Clark was lying sick with the bilious fever. The attack was severe, and he believed death was near. One morning he awoke from a short sleep, to hear a hurried and smothered conversation in the adjoining room, in which his wife took part. The first words that Clark caught were uttered by his better-half.

“On that ground,” said she, “I object to mourning!”

“Yes,” replied another, “but the world looks for it—it is fashionable, and one might as well be out of the world as out of the fashion.”

“Here,” thought Clark, “is a nice wife. She thinks I am about to die—to be planted, if I may use the expression, in the cold earth, and yet she refuses to go in mourning for me. Ah, me!”

“Now that I am here, perhaps I had better take your measure.”

“The unfeeling wretch!” exclaimed Clark, “to think of sending for a dressmaker before I am dead! But I’ll cheat her yet! I’ll live in spite!”

“Well,” mused the wife, “I believe you may measure me. I will let you buy the trimming, and let it be as gay as possible.”

“What heartlessness,” groaned Clark. “Woman-like, though. One husband is no sooner dead than they set about entrapping another. I can scarcely credit it.”

“Of course you will have a flounce?”

“Two of them; and as the body is to be plain, I wish you to get wide gimp to trim it.”

“How will you have the sleeves trimmed?”

“With buttons and fringe.”

“Well—well—this beats all,” sighed poor Clark.

“When do you want the dress?” inquired the mantua-maker.

“I must have it in three days. My husband will then be off my hands, and I shall be able to get out!”

“Oh, horrible—horrible!” ejaculated the sick man; “I am only half dead, but this blow will kill me.”

His wife heard him speak, and ran quickly to his bedside. “Did you speak, my dear?” said she, with the voice of an angel.

“I heard it all, madam,” replied Clark.

“All what, my dear?”

“The mourning—gay dresses—fringe—every thing. Oh! Maria—Maria!”

“You rave!”

“Do you take me for a fool?”

“Certainly not, my dear.”

“You expect me to be out of the way in three days, do you?”

“Yes, love; the doctor said you would be well in that time.”

“What means the dress?”

“It is the one you bought me before you were taken sick.”

“But you were speaking of mourning!”

“We were talking of Mrs. Taperly.”

“Oh, is that it?”

“Yes, love. You know she is poor, and her family is large, and it must inconvenience her very much to find mourning for them all. On this ground alone, I oppose it.”

“So—so—that’s it, is it? I thought you were speaking of me, and it distressed me. Let me beg of you to be more careful for the future.”

Clark was out in three days, and he now laughs at the matter, which then appeared so horrible.

The Brooklyn [NY] Daily Eagle 7 May 1850: p. 4

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  One quite understands the gentleman’s distress. Taken in the context of a dying husband, the lady’s remarks would have seemed the height of social depravity, although, to judge from the many jocularities surrounding “Merry Widows” in the papers, such things were not uncommon. And fringe, although popular on early 1850s gowns, was certainly not approved for mourning.

Of course, there was also merit to Mrs Clark’s opposition to the wearing of mourning, although she seems to regard it as the purview of those fortunate enough to be able to afford it. It is true that the practice weighed most heavily on the poor as this Spiritualist publication wrote:

 How sadly out of place, then, are the milliner and the dressmaker, the trying on of dresses and the trimming of bonnets. There is something profane in exciting the vanity of a young girl by fitting a waist, or trying on a hat, when the corpse of a father is lying in an adjoining room. It is a sacrilege to drag the widow forth from her grief to be fitted for a gown, or to select a veil. It is often terribly oppressive to the poor. The widow, left desolate with a half dozen little children, the family means already reduced by the long sickness of the father, must draw on her scanty purse to buy a new wardrobe throughout for herself and her children, throwing away the goodly stock of garments already prepared, when she most likely knows not where she is to get bread for those little ones. Truly may fashion be called a tyrant, when it robs a widow of her last dollar. Surely your sorrow will not be questioned, even if you should not call in the milliner to help display it. Do not in your affliction help uphold a custom which will turn the afflictions of your poorer neighbour to deeper poverty, as well as sorrow. The Spiritual Magazine, Vol. 5, January 1870: p. 28

Mrs Daffodil has previously posted about the sartorial excesses of enthusiastic widows in “The Mourner a la Mode,” “The Mourning Boudoir,” and a cutting dialogue between pieces of mourning stationary over their mistress’s grief or lack thereof.  The latter two pieces and similar stories of the happily bereaved, as well as widow jokes and discussions of funerary excess may be found 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.

 

The Mourner A-la-Mode: A Satirical Poem: 1871

mourning walking toilettes The Milliner and Dressmaker, Goubaud

THE MOURNER A-LA-MODE.

By John G. Saxe

I saw her last night at a party

(The elegant party at Mead’s),

And looking remarkably hearty

For a widow so young in her weeds;

 

Yet I know she was suffering sorrow

Too deep for the tongue to express.

Or why had she chosen to borrow

So much from the language of dress?

 

Her shawl was as sable as night;

And her gloves were as dark as her shawl;

And her jewels that flashed in the light,

Were black as a funeral pall;

 

Her robe had the hue of the rest

(How nicely it fitted her shape!)

And the grief that was heaving her breast,

Boiled over in billows of crape.

 

What tears of vicarious woe,

That else might have sullied her face,

Were kindly permitted to flow

In ripples of ebony lace!

 

While even her fan, in its play,

Had quite a lugubrious scope,

And seemed to be waving away,

The ghost of the angel of Hope!

 

Yet rich as the robes of a queen

Was the sombre apparel she wore;

I’m certain I never had seen

Such a sumptuous sorrow before;

 

And I couldn’t help thinking the beauty,

In mourning the loved and the lost,

Was doing her conjugal duty

Altogether regardless of cost!

 

One surely would say a devotion

Performed at so vast an expense,

Betray’d an excess of emotion

That was really something immense;

 

And yet as I viewed, at my leisure,

Those tokens of tender regard,

I thought:—It is scarce without measure

The sorrow that goes by the yard.

 

Ah! grief is a curious passion,

And yours—I am sorely afraid—

The very next phase of the fashion

Will find it beginning to fade.

 

Though dark are the shadows of grief,

The morning will follow the night,

Half-tints will betoken relief,

Till joy shall be symbol’d in white!

 

Ah, well! It were idle to quarrel

With Fashion, or aught she may do;

And so I conclude with a moral

And metaphor—warranted new.

 

When measles come handsomely out,

The patient is safest, they say;

And the sorrow is mildest, no doubt,

That works in a similar way!

The Spiritual Magazine 1 August 1871

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Widows were often, alas, fair game for the Victorian press. Many marriages were not love-matches and many women were widowed quite young. In addition, there might be economic incentive to remarry. These circumstances led to the cliche of the “merry widow,” a woman who delighted in mourning finery and thought of nothing except bagging another husband. Tragically, the author, John G. Saxe [1816-1887] poet, wit, and satirist, knew too much about mourning. Only three years after this light-hearted poem was published, he began to suffer a series of losses: his youngest daughter Laura died of consumption aged 17 in 1874. His daughter Sarah died in 1879; his mother in 1880; another daughter, Harriet, his eldest son, John, and John’s wife also died of the disease in quick succession in 1881. In 1880, his wife collapsed with an apoplexy and died, worn out from nursing her sick children and husband. Saxe himself suffered head injuries in a train accident in 1875, sank into a reclusive melancholy and died in 1887.

Mead’s is “Paul Mead’s” a chop house in Brooklyn popular with lawyers and sporting men. The last stanza refers to the belief that if the rash of measles was somehow supressed or turned inward, it would go ill with the patient.

You may read more about mourning in The Victorian Book of the Dead, now available. A recent post satirizing the fashionable widow was this one.

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 Inconsolable Grief Department – Shopping for Mourning Goods

 

mourning for families Jay's warehouse 1880s
1888 advertisement for Jay’s General Mourning Warehouse, London

FASHIONABLE MOURNING. THE HABILIMENTS OF GRIEF,

FROM A COMMERCIAL POINT OF VIEW.

On the occasion of a recent visit to London, whilst I was debating with myself over the breakfast things as to how I should spend the day, I received by the post a letter deeply bordered with black, evidently a messenger of affliction. I tore the white weeping willow upon a black background which formed the device upon the seal, and read the contents. It proved to be an intimation from a relative of the sudden death of her brother-in-law, and a request that, under the circumstances of the sudden bereavement of the widow, I should undertake certain sad commissions relative to the articles of mourning required by the family. I at once set out upon my sad errand.

I had no difficulty in finding the maison de deuil to which I had been referred. It met me in the sad habiliments of woe; no vulgar colors glared from the shop windows, no gildings amazed with its festive brightness. The name of the firm scarce presumed to make itself seen in letters of the saddest gray upon a black ground. Here and there heads of white set off the general gloom of the house-front, like the crape piping of a widow’s cap. The very metal window frames and plates had gone into a decorous morning–zinc having taken the place of what we feel, under the circumstances, would have been quite out of the character: brass.

On pushing the plate glass door, it gave way with a hushed and muffled sound, and I was met by a gentlemen of sad expression, who, in the most sympathetic voice, inquired the nature of my want, and, on my explaining myself, directed me to the Inconsolable Grief Department. The interior of the establishment answered exactly to the appearance without. The long passage I had to traverse was paneled in white and black borderings, like so many mourning cards placed on end; and I was rapidly becoming impressed with the deep solemnity of the place, when I caught sight of a neat little figure rolling up some ribbon, who on my inquiring if I had arrived at the Inconsolable Grief Department, replied almost in a tone of gaiety, that that was the half-mourning counter, and that I must proceed further on until I had passed the repository for widowsilk.

Following her directions, I at last reached my destination–a large room draped in black with a hushed atmosphere about it as though somebody was lying invisible there in state. An attendant in sable habiliments, picked out with the inevitable white tie, and with an undertakerish eye and manner, awaited my commands, I produced my written directions. Scanning it critically, he said: “Permit me to inquire, sir, if it is a deceased partner?” I nodded assent. “We take the liberty of asking this distressing question,” he continued, “as we are extremely anxious to keep up the character of our establishment by matching, as it were, the exact shade of affliction. Our paramatta and crapes give satisfaction to the deepest woe. Permit me to show you a new texture of surprising beauty and elegance manufactured specially for this house, and which we call the inconsolable. Quite a novelty in the trade, I do assure you, sir.”

With this he placed a pasteboard box before me full of mourning fabrics.

“Is this it?” I inquired, lifting a lugubrious piece of draping.

“Oh, no!” he replied, “the one you have in your hand was manufactured for last year’s affliction, and was termed, ‘The Stunning Blow Shade.’ It makes up well, however, with our sudden bereavement silk- a leading article–and our distraction trimmings.”

“I fear,” said I, “my commission says nothing about these novelties.”

“Ladies in the country,” he blandly replied, “don’t know of the perfection to which the art of mourning genteelly has been brought! But I will see that your commission is attended to to the letter.”

Giving another glance over the list, he observed; “Oh! I perceive a widow’s cap is mentioned here, I must trouble you, sir, to proceed to the Weeds Department for that article–the first turning to the left.”

Proceeding, as directed, I came to a recess fitted up with a solid phalanx of widow’s caps. I perceived at a glance that they exhausted the whole gamut of grief, from the deepest shade to that tone which is expressive of a pleasing melancholy. The foremost row confronted me with the sad liveries of crapen folds, whilst those behind gradually faded off into light, ethereal tarleton, and one or two of the outsiders were even breaking out into worldly features and flaunting weepers. Forgetting the proprieties of the moment, I inquired of the grave attendant if one of the latter would be suitable.

“Oh! no, sir,” she replied with a slight shade of severity in the tone of her voice; “You may gradually work up to that in a year or two. But any of these,” pointing to the first row of widows’ weeds- -are suitable for the first burst of grief.”

Acquiescing in the propriety of this sliding scale of sorrow, I selected some weeds expressive of the deepest dejections I could find, and having completed my commission, inquired where I could procure for myself some lavender gloves.

“Oh! for those things, sir,” she said, in the voice of Tragedy speaking to Comedy, “you must turn to your right, and you will come to the Complimentary Mourning counter.”

Turning to the right, accordingly, I was surprised, and not a little shocked, to find myself amongst worldly colors. Tender lavender, I had expected; but violet, mauve, and even absolute red, stared me in the face. Thinking I had made a mistake, I was about to retire, when a young lady, in a cheerful tone of voice, inquired if I wanted anything in her department.

“I was looking for the Complimentary Mourning counter,” I replied, “for some gloves; but I fear I am wrong.”

“You are quite right, sir,” she observed. “This is it.”

She saw my eye glance at the cheerful colored silks, and with the instinctive tact of a woman guessed my thoughts in a moment. “Mauve, sir, is very appropriate for the lighter sorrows.”

“But absolute red!” I retorted, pointing to some velvet of that color.

“Is quite admissible when you mourn the departure of a distant relative. But allow me to show you some gloves?” and, suiting the action to the word, she lifted the cover from a tasteful glove box, and displayed a perfect picture of delicate half-tones, indicative of a struggle between the cheerful and the sad. “There is a pleasing melancholy in this shade of gray,” she remarked, indenting slightly each outer knuckle with the soft elastic kid as she measured my hand.

“Can you find lavender?”

“Oh, yes! but the sorrow tint is very slight in that; however, it wears admirably.”

Thus, by degrees, the grief of the establishment died out in tenderest lavender, and I took my departure deeply impressed with the charming improvements which Parisian taste has effected in the plain, old-fashioned style of English mourning.

The Christian Recorder 19 September 1863

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: For more about the Byzantine conventions of Victorian mourning see Mourning Becomes Elective. For a look at a strange garden party at the London home of the Duke of Sutherland, promoting funeral reform and wicker-work coffins, see Wicker Man. The story “Crape” in the neo-Edwardian collection A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales , tells of the revenge exacted from beyond the grave by an aunt determined to be “mourned relentlessly.” For further reading, see Mourning Dress: A Costume and Social History, by Lou Taylor.

The piece above appears in The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition.

See this link for an introduction to The Victorian Book of the Dead, a collection about the popular culture of Victorian mourning, featuring primary-source materials about corpses, crypts, and crape.

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 Woman in Black – Victorian Mourning as Criminal Disguise

 The Woman in Black – Victorian Mourning as Criminal Disguise A classic mourning ensemble c. 1870-2. http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/159185?rpp=30&pg=1&ft=mourning+ensemble&pos=1
The Woman in Black – Victorian Mourning as Criminal Disguise A classic mourning ensemble c. 1870-2. http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/159185?rpp=30&pg=1&ft=mourning+ensemble&pos=1

 

The Victorian widow, swathed in her “habiliments of woe,” was a familiar figure on the streets of the nineteenth century. The dull fabrics, the crape, the veil: all marked the wearer as one touched by Death and entitled to special consideration. Mourning garb both protected the wearer from the public gaze and elevated societal expectations for the widow. This made it all the more shocking when mourning dress was used as a criminal disguise.

Let us look at the rogues’ gallery of crimes committed in the United States from about 1860 to 1929 under the cover of crape. The list is a long and distressing one: Assault, inducing panic, menacing threats, armed robbery and pickpocketing, burglary, kidnapping, arson, murder, and most heinous of all to a 19th century audience: transvestism.

Why was mourning  such a useful disguise for criminals?

The phrase the “Woman in Black” was in common use by the 1870s, referring to a series of mysterious black-clad apparitions who stalked and startled people in the dark. They usually wore the veil of the Victorian widow and melted uncannily into darkness when challenged. There was ambiguity as to whether “The Woman in Black” was some flesh-and-blood woman in mourning clothing, a man in disguise, or a supernatural omen of death. Inexplicably—since widows were scarcely an uncommon sight—these appearances often escalated into full-scale panics, and, as the New York Times of 7 January 1887 wrote, afforded “unscrupulous and criminally disposed persons an opportunity to do their wicked work under the mask of the Woman in Black.”

These veiled supernatural horrors apparently provided inspiration for copy-cat wearers of crape because it is apparent from newspaper reports that, far from being ghostly, the Women in Black were corporeal enough to commit assault.

For example, a veiled Woman in Black attacked citizens of an Illinois town in 1898. A man and his wife were confronted by the woman and, “without making the slightest sound, except the rustling of skirts,” the creature “struck the wife a sharp blow on her cheek.” …The assailant was described by multiple witnesses as nearly 6 feet tall, wearing a solid black gown with a heavy veil reaching almost to the bottom of her skirts. Her step was noiseless, and, said the papers, “she invariably strikes a blow with her hand as she peers into the face of any one she meets.” Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 29 December 1898: p. 4

Not something you would want to meet in a dark alley…

“Menacing threats” was another crime associated with The Woman in Black. I have collected many examples of the lost art of the “crape threat.” This is the practice of hanging mourning crape streamers on the door of an enemy as a threat, rather like sending funeral flowers to a rival mobster.  In one classic case, for nearly five years a veiled woman in black stalked Mrs. Amy Thornley of Brooklyn, lurking around her house, hanging crape on the door and throwing threatening letters into her yard. One of the letters read: “Murder for you. Crape is for Amy T. May you soon be sleeping with your dead son.” Mystifyingly, despite several witnesses who also saw the Woman in Black, the case was never solved. Evening News [San Jose, CA] 20 January 1906: p. 3

Moving from menacing threats to felonies, we find a woman at the peak of her disreputable profession: In 1887 a woman nicknamed ‘The Widow’ used to attend the funerals of the rich wearing a long black veil drawn over her face. When the time came for the friends to take their last look at the departed she contrived to be among the last in line. “When she came opposite the head of the coffin she would sob passionately, and fling herself on the bier so that her veil covered it.” Under the cover of the mourning veil, she would loot the corpse of jewelry and valuables. Lawrence [KS] Daily Journal 15 December 1887: p. 2

Pick pocketing was another fertile field for widow impersonators. In 1875 a besotted reporter on a New York street car described how he could not take his eyes off “the most saintly looking widow that I ever set eyes on,” wearing “the sweetest little widow’s cap imaginable.” When another widow boarded the car, the saintly widow kindly made room for her to sit down. “The car stopped, and widow No. 1 got out; she was hardly out of the car when widow No. 2 discovered that her pocket had been picked by that saintly widow who had been sitting by her side. Bruce [NZ] Herald, 12 January 1875: p. 3

The Women in Black were not afraid to use firearms as this story from 1911 shows.

A woman, or a man in female attire, armed with a small revolver and with a heavy black veil covering the face, entered the store of the Sanitary Grocery this morning about 7:40 o’clock, held up two woman clerks and the porter, and robbed the cash register of about $10.

So quietly was the robbery perpetrated and so slowly did the robber walk away from the store after getting the money that neighbors and passers-by knew nothing of the occurrence until the clerks gave the alarm. Evening Star [Washington, DC] 3 April 1911: p. 1

 

Ellen Gibbons, a burglarious Woman in Black
Ellen Gibbons, a burglarious Woman in Black

One of the most adroit American burglars was a lady who wore widow’s weeds. Her name was Ellen Gibbons; she was described as one of the “most notorious female house-breakers” in the country. She went by many aliases, but was best known as “the woman in black,” because often she “dressed in the deepest of black, and was closely veiled when she committed her depredations.”   Wherever she went, her neighbors would be startled by a sudden surge in robberies and burglaries. Although the police initially thought the thefts were the work of a well-organized gang, it was quickly realized that a veiled woman dressed in mourning was frequently seen near houses that were robbed.  Gibbons’ house was found full of plunder that she had spirited out of homes under cover of crape. She was repeatedly arrested, sent to prison, then repeatedly pardoned.  I’m not sure why, except she claimed to be a kleptomaniac and she was said to be the wife of a police officer in Brooklyn. In 1877 The Chicago Daily Tribune paid her a well-earned tribute: “Her long-continued life of crime ranks her with the most daring and skilful of male robbers and burglars.” Chicago [IL] Daily Tribune 14 October 1877: p. 11

A far more dire crime was that of kidnapping. A widow’s garb is frequently mentioned in high-profile stories of child enticement. For example, the terrifying “Black Ghost” of Toledo was reported by the Cincinnati Enquirer:

A “woman in black” has put in an appearance on the East Side… and is causing a reign of terror. The mysterious stranger is believed to be a man. ..This morning while Johnny Barror, aged 12, was hurrying on his bicycle for a doctor, he was seized by the “black ghost” and pulled from his wheel and told that he would be instantly killed. The black-robed figure tried to carry the lad away, but the little fellow fought like a tiger and broke away, and after a chase of several blocks met two policemen, who hurried to the place… but the “black ghost” was gone….  Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 26 November, 1902: p. 1

Mourning costume was particularly alluring to murderesses. In 1896 a St. Louis family was nearly poisoned by a veiled woman in black who gave their little boy a pie to give to his family. When his mother cut the pie, she found green powder under the upper crust, indicating Paris Green. A chemist examined the food and found that it was laced with arsenic. No one was ever charged with the crime. St. Louis [MO] Republic 29 February 1896: p. 6

In 1914, in Newark, New Jersey, 20-year-old Hazel Herdman donned a mourning veil to hide her face, and shot dead the wife of the man with whom she was infatuated. The veil effectively confused the police, who spent a day rounding up other suspects before Herdman, who had swallowed poison, confessed. Seattle [WA] Daily Times 7 February 1914: p. 1

One of the most startling murderous crimes by a veiled woman in black was an attempt in 1892 to blow up the residence of Charles D. Irwin, a wealthy speculator in Chicago. The woman was interrupted at her fiendish work by passers-by and ran toward the lake, leaving behind a container filled with 10 pounds of high explosive, more than enough to have blown the building to atoms. The description given to the police was that she was attired in deep mourning and wore a heavy black veil that fell below her waist.”  Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 5 August 1892: p. 5

Once again, there was no capture of the black-clad bomber.

You will have noticed that none of the veiled criminals in the preceding cases were conclusively identified as a man disguised in mourning. While some male criminals wore women’s clothing, usually to avoid detection after a crime had been committed, only rarely are they described as wearing widow’s weeds. The criminal Women in Black I’ve studied are sharply divided between women criminals and male transvestites.

The newspapers are full of stories of plucky girls who tucked their hair up under a cap and put on boy’s clothing to escape an unhappy home life. Boys who put on girl’s clothes, however, never do so except with evil intent. And donning widow’s weeds was an unmistakable signal that the men so dressed were up to no good. A common theme of the Women in Black panics I mentioned earlier is the ambiguity of the sex of the veiled spectres. While never explicit, the coded language used in reporting these panics reflects this:

1866 It was a terrible creature, shrouded in black, the garments of a female and the stature of a man, moving awfully about the streets o’nights, and creating panic…   Freeport North West July 19, 1866: p. 2

1911 A man disguised as a woman and out for a sinister purpose…Greencastle [KN] Herald 29 November 1911: p. 2

1912 A man is masquerading in women’s clothing and is either crazy or is trying to perpetuate a huge joke on the community. New Castle [PA] News September 26, 1912: p. 1

1886 There are yet others who suppose that the “woman in black is some evil-minded man who is masquerading in female attire for the purpose of frightening timid persons.Columbus [GA] Daily Enquirer 12 November 1886: p. 5

1903 One of the current theories in the village is that the masquerader in mourning is a man, who is either bent on mischief or is mentally unbalanced Boston [MA] Herald 15 October 1903: p. 8

“Mentally unbalanced” may have been a euphemism for “transvestite.” Cross-dressers were considered mentally aberrant and were sometimes sent to lunatic asylums. In 1848 Columbus, Ohio, was one of the first cities to pass anti cross-dressing laws;  some 40 other cities soon followed their example, making it illegal to wear clothes contrary to one’s sex.  Penalties became increasingly severe. In San Francisco, for example, Revised Orders 1863 said that cross-dressers would be guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction, would pay a fine not exceeding five hundred dollars. In 1866, the penalty increased to a $500 fine or six months in jail; in 1875, it went to a $1000 fine, six months in jail or both (General Orders 1875)

Of course none of these laws stopped men from dressing as women. Few were criminals trying to escape detection, but the act of wearing women’s clothes made them criminals. As Clare Sears writes in “Electric Brilliancy: Cross-Dressing Law and Freak Show Displays in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco,” public, but not private cross-dressing was against the law and, she notes, “As such, cross-dressing was marked as a deviant and secretive practice, rather than a public activity and identification.”

A widow’s garb was the perfect cover for a transvestite, who, given the usual domestic organization of a 19th-century working-class household, had little privacy or time for cross-dressing. It allowed him to walk abroad publicly, dressed as a woman; hiding in plain sight. The act of wearing widow’s weeds was, for transvestites, both a criminal act and the concealment of that criminal act.

In addition, mourning clothing was readily accessible. A man might borrow the weeds his wife had at home. Mourning goods could be purchased second-hand or through the mail. And security was guaranteed by the fact that few persons would have the courage or the impudence to walk up to a veiled widow in the dark and remove her veil. I found only a single case among hundreds of spectral Women in Black sightings, where a young Connecticut woman pulled the veil from the face of what turned out to be a well-known young man in widow’s weeds. His motive for doing so was elided by the newspaper.

how a burglar really looks burglar mask

 

What were the advantages to a criminal of donning widow’s weeds? Why not simply wear some other disguise or perhaps an automobile veil, a medical mask or a traditional burglar’s mask?

motoring veil

 

There are two primary advantages: First, of course, the physical concealment offered by the veil. Second, the social barrier created by the societal expectations and status of widows.

Let us look at the physical concealment advantage. While there was much discussion among physicians about the hygiene of mourning textiles, a widow in deep mourning generally wore a thick veil, of near opacity, made of or bordered with crape. We can see by the surviving fabrics—which in practice were often doubled–that the veil effectively obscured the face when lowered. This all-encompassing veil was the defining symbol of the widow.

mourning veil 1800-99

 

Unlike the ordinary fashionable veil, which was thin or semi-transparent, the mourning veil was meant to conceal the face, not for nefarious purposes, but for the protection of the widow.

In 1907 The Illustrated Milliner wrote: “The sorrowing when death comes, turn instinctively to the protection of the mourning veil.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer 1899 commented about mourners:

“the struggle to retain one’s composure is a cruel one. Against it crape is the only protection.” Philadelphia, [PA] Inquirer 30 December 1899: p. 11

The mourning veil protected the painfully sensitive widow from the prying eyes of the world. It conferred anonymity, even invisibility. It explained and it excused. The veil was psychologically impregnable, leaving the widow shrouded and shielded in grief and crape.

What made mourning clothing such a powerful social barrier? The answer lies in the communal expectations of widows. Leaving aside the “Merry Widow” jokes endemic in 19th-century popular culture, if we judge by what we read in newspapers, etiquette books, and popular fiction the average person, on encountering a widow in the street, might feel pity for one who was too often struggling to raise her family alone and in poverty.  A woman in mourning was essentially an invisible woman, yet one who had the instant sympathy of all right-thinking spectators.

Victorian literature is filled with quotes emphasizing that a widow was thought to be more spiritual, closer to heaven, than an ordinary woman. Mourning costume assumed the status of a religious garment:

Harriet B. McKeever wrote in 1867, in her novel Heavenward-Earthward, “now in her widowed state she was invested with a holy sanctity.” And McKeever described a widow “In her mourning-dress, an expression of holy resignation resting upon her face,”

“The Mourning Veil,” an 1857 short story by Harriet Beecher Stowe, makes the connection even more explicit. When a mourning veil is delivered by accident, a beloved dying child says to her mother: “Oh, mamma, that veil was for you; our Father sends it, and he knows best. Perhaps you will see heaven through that veil.” [Source: “The Mourning Veil,” by Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Atlantic Monthly, November, 1857]

There was an odd dichotomy between the wink-and-nudge widow jokes and the adjectives and phrases often used in literature to describe the widow, which emphasize her passivity and harmlessness: delicate, sad-faced, pale and careworn, weak, helpless, and unprotected, gentle, sanctifying.

Widows’ weeds sanctified the wearer, who was assumed to be patiently submitting to the will of Heaven. Few would dream of invading the privacy of one so dressed. And so it was the perfect criminal disguise.

A criminal might exploit these two facets of mourning garb and operate in perfect safety, knowing that while wearing mourning, she could not be identified and as a widow, she might be given the benefit of the doubt long enough to perpetrate the crime and escape. Who could possibly suspect a woman of “sanctified affliction” of any criminal act? And while the black mask of the penny-dreadful fiend or the kerchief of the desperado would be highly conspicuous if worn in the street, the veiled widow was a familiar and disarming sight.

While I have emphasized the female Women in Black, some male criminals, too, found crape a convenient disguise, although they tend to be less well-represented in the papers, except by inference. Of course, today we draw a sharp distinction between the “crime” of cross-dressing and criminals trying to escape detection; it is the difference between an enthusiast who enjoys passing as female in public and, for example, an embezzler wearing widow’s weeds, trying to evade capture, as was reported in the Macon Telegraph:

A Missouri railway express agent named William Page stole $8,000 in cash. He donned the full mourning his wife had been wearing for her father, and hopped a train. “In this costume he started on his travels, but his walk gave him away to the train men, and the conductor telegraphed to the chief of police here. Detectives met the train and took the charming young widow into custody, when she weakened and confessed.” Macon [GA] Telegraph 1 January 1886: p. 4

I finish with one final mourning costume disguise: that of grieving innocent. There are stories of an unsettling number of murderers taking their places in the witness box wearing mourning for their victims to give the illusion of innocence. In 1872, accused serial poisoner Mrs. Emily E. Lloyd, “The Leesburg Borgia,” on trial for giving arsenic to her husband, aunt, and four children, appeared in court dressed in deep mourning, weeping piteously.

One man asked to wear his “Sunday Blacks” at his execution, as a mark of respect for the wife he had murdered.

In 1929 Jane Weyler, who killed her husband after an orgy was reported as wearing “deep mourning, with just a wee bit of white under the rim of her widow’s bonnet to match the pale cream of her face. Her eyes were delicately penciled to express black sorrow.” Auckland Star, 28 December 1929: p. 3

Sadly for our sense of mystery, the Women in Black no longer roam our dark back alleys. Rising hemlines and the First World War’s ban on deep mourning for considerations of morale meant that the veil went the way of the horse-drawn carriage. Female pickpockets and male transvestites clothed as “The Women in Black” had to find some other method of disguise. The very term “The Woman in Black” slipped to the level of a journalist’s catchphrase for any mysterious or seductive female and as an undertaker’s euphemism for “widow.”

What strikes me most in reflecting on the cases of criminal Women in Black I have studied is this: Mourning dress was an exceptionally effective method of concealment. I have searched for follow-up stories, but very few of the women in black were ever caught or brought to justice. Those mistresses of the dark had, under the shelter of their veils, discovered the perfect criminal disguise.

Other examples of Victorian criminals disguised as widows? Or of confirmed men in crape? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

This post is adapted from my presentation “The Woman in Black: Victorian Mourning Dress as Criminal Disguise,” given in 2015 at the fall symposium of the Southeastern Chapter of The Costume Society of America, a professional organization for historians of dress and costume/textiles curators. Parts are included in The Victorian Book of the Dead and The Ghost Wore Black.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe 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.

 

The Widow’s Wedding Dress: 1877-1916

widow's wedding dress
A widow’s wedding dress in the dreaded pearl grey, 1879 http://art.famsf.org/widows-wedding-dress-54076

The other bride wore black, being, as Virginie explained to us, a widow carrying the mourning for her defunct husband up to the last possible moment—a touching devotion to his memory, is it not? The New York Times 26 August 1877: p. 3

AT A WIDOW’S WEDDING

Etiquette Which Governs This Highly Momentous Event.

Etiquette governing the wedding of a widow has been recently reorganized and temporarily, at least, is finding high vogue among certain great ladies who are making second matrimonial ventures. The widow’s engagement ring is now a peridot, which in reality is an Indian chrysolite, and a deep leaf-green in color. The peridot ring is set about with diamonds, and when it arrives the lady gives her first engagement ring to her eldest daughter and her wedding ring to her eldest son.

One week before the wedding a stately luncheon is given to the nearest and dearest of the old friends of the bride to be. After the engagement’s announcement, she appears at no public functions. At the altar her dress may be of any subdued shade of satin. To make up for the absence of veil and orange blossoms, profusions of white lace trim the skirt and waist of the bridal gown en secondes noces. Even the bonnet is of white lace and the bouquet is preferably of white orchids. An up the aisle the lady goes, hand in hand with her youngest child, no matter whether it is a boy or girl. The little one wears an elaborate white costume, holds the bride’s bouquet, and precedes the newly married pair to the church door. Where there is a large family of children and a desire on the widow’s part for a trifle more display than is usually accorded on such occasions, all of her daughters, in light gowns and bearing big bouquets, support their mother to the altar.

An informal little breakfast now follows the ceremony. Such a breakfast is scarcely more than a light, simple luncheon, served from the buffet, wound up by a wedding cake, and a toasting posset, but the bride of a second marriage does not distribute cake nor her bouquet among her friends. Her carriage horses do not wear favors, either, though shoes and rice can be freely scattered in her wake, and, to the comfort and economy of her friends, she does not expect anything elaborate in the way of wedding gifts. N.Y. Sun.

Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 27 May 1896: p. 5

Subdued colours and muted joy seem to have been the order of the day for most second marriages. Travelling costumes covered a multitude of sins.

SECOND MARRIAGE

What Fashion Prescribes for a Widow’s Bridal Gown.

The Revolution in Etiquette Which Permits White Silk and Orange Blooms to a Widow Who Stands Before the Altar for the Second Time

A change comes o’er the spirit of our dreams. There’s nothing short of a revolution in progress in the etiquette of second marriages.

The color gray, it is against its deadly zinc tones that the arms of the rebels are directed.

Powerful has it been to avenge the spinster on the pretty widow who dared to lead a fresh captive in chains.

I’d wager three yards of pearl gray silk that more than one bridegroom has felt the love glamour fading into common light of every day before the subdued tones, the decorous reminiscent festivities of a second marriage…

I’d wager three yards again the Hamlet’s mother stood up with the wicked uncle in a pearl gray gown frightfully trying to her complexion and that bad as he was he repented the murder when he looked on her. She had no bridesmaids, of course. There were no orange blossoms, and she hid her blushes under no maiden veil. She still wore the ring of her first marriage, and when they came to the proper point in the second ceremony, his fingers touched it, reminding him of ghosts, as he slipped another just like it to be its mate on the same finger. She wore a bonnet probably and thoroughly correct cuffs and collar. It’s possible that she avoided comparisons with the gayeties of her first wedding by eschewing distinctly bridal robes altogether, and gowning herself from head to foot in travelling costume. Unless she had the genius to seek this refuge she was all in half tones, not sorrowful, but as if having emerged from grief, she was yet unable to again taste joy….A traveling dress as a costume for a second marriage saves too many embarrassments as to questions of toilet to fall out of favor these many years. A widow who remarries wears or does not wear, as she chooses, her first wedding ring at the second ceremony. Two or three years ago she usually retained it. Now she oftener takes it off.

[The balance of the article discusses wearing white and bridal flowers in defiance of Mrs Grundy as well as the toilettes of some recent widow-brides.]

Plain Dealer [Cleveland OH] 17 February 1889: p. 12

WIDOW’S WEDDING LORE.

It may not be well known, but there is a peculiar etiquette attaching to the ceremony of a woman’s second wedding.

It is possible for her, should circumstances permit, to marry as often as she chooses, but only once in her life is she allowed to carry orange blossoms. This is when she stands at the altar for the first time. On the same principle, it is not correct for a widow to wear white at her second marriage ceremony. Cream, grey, heliotrope—indeed, any color she prefers—is permissible.

The bride of experience also should never wear a long bridal veil with or without a bonnet. Neither is she allowed to wear a wreath on the short veil which etiquette permits her to don. She may, however, carry a bouquet, but this should not be composed of white flowers. It is considered better taste for her to match the colour of her wedding-gown with the floral decorations.

The “bridesmaid” of a widow also is not called a bridesmaid, but a “maid of honor.” Her duties, however, are exactly similar to those of the former, though her title is different.

Rodney and Otamatea Times, Waitemata and Kaipara Gazette 19 March 1913: p. 2

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:

There was a heated controversy over whether widows were ever entitled to wear white en secondes noces. Some said, “yes,” while banning the veil and the orange blossoms (1889); others said only heavy white fabrics such as velvets and brocades were acceptable (1889); while others delicately suggested pale, half-mourning colours (1916).  As we have read above, the “deadly zinc tones” were not universally pleasing. This gown, however, sounds quite lovely:

A widow’s bridal-gown, of palest violet satin trimmed with sable. An infinitesimal toque of silver passementerie and ivory satin is worn on the head. Demorest’s Family Magazine January 1895: p. 186

The most sensitive point of etiquette had been settled by the early 20th century:

Above all [a widow] should not wear the ring of her first husband. That should be taken off and locked away. The second happy man doesn’t want to be reminded of Number One more often than is necessary. Wanganui Chronicle 9 August 1913: p. 4

For more on etiquette for widows, see The Victorian Book of the Dead, which is also available in a Kindle edition.

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.

 

half mourning wedding gown purple and black2
A widow-bride might also wear half mourning, as in this purple and black gown, c. 1885-89 http://theclothingproject.tumblr.com/

WIDOW’S WEDDING LORE.

It may not be well known, but there is a peculiar etiquette attaching to the ceremony of a woman’s second wedding.

It is possible for her, should circumstances permit, to marry as often as she chooses, but only once in her life is she allowed to carry orange blossoms. This is when she stands at the altar for the first time. On the same principle, it is not correct for a widow to wear white at her second marriage ceremony. Cream, grey, heliotrope—indeed, any color she prefers—is permissible.

The bride of experience also should never wear a long bridal veil with or without a bonnet. Neither is she allowed to wear a wreath on the short veil which etiquette permits her to don. She may, however, carry a bouquet, but this should not be composed of white flowers. It is considered better taste for her to match the colour of her wedding-gown with the floral decorations.

The “bridesmaid” of a widow also is not called a bridesmaid, but a “maid of honor.” Her duties, however, are exactly similar to those of the former, though her title is different.

Rodney and Otamatea Times, Waitemata and Kaipara Gazette 19 March 1913: p. 2

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:

There was a heated controversy over whether widows were ever entitled to wear white en secondes noces. Some said, “yes,” while banning the veil and the orange blossoms (1889); others said only heavy white fabrics such as velvets and brocades were acceptable (1889); while others delicately suggested pale, half-mourning colours (1916).  As we have read above, the “deadly zinc tones” were not universally pleasing. This gown, however, sounds quite lovely:

A widow’s bridal-gown, of palest violet satin trimmed with sable. An infinitesimal toque of silver passementerie and ivory satin is worn on the head. Demorest’s Family Magazine January 1895: p. 186

The most sensitive point of etiquette had been settled by the early 20th century:

Above all [a widow] should not wear the ring of her first husband. That should be taken off and locked away. The second happy man doesn’t want to be reminded of Number One more often than is necessary. Wanganui Chronicle 9 August 1913: p. 4

For more on etiquette for widows, see The Victorian Book of the Dead, which is also available in a Kindle edition.

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.