The Corpse Counted the Coins: 1892

corpse sitting up

A GHASTLY FRAUD.

The story is just being told of a remarkable swindle which was perpetrated recently in Hawthorn (Vic), and it goes to show the extremes to which people will sometimes go in order to carry out imposition on the charitably disposed (says a Melbourne exchange). It appears that some little while back a leading official of the Hawthorn Ladies’ Benevolent Society was waited upon by a woman who was crying bitterly, and who was apparently in deep and genuine distress. Her appearance was that of one poverty-stricken and woebegone in the extreme. She told a pitiful tale to this lady, whose character for charitable deeds is well known.

For a long time, she said, they had had scarcely anything to eat, and, worst of all, her poor husband had just died, and there was no money in her possession to give him a decent burial. The recital of this terrible tale of alleged destitution was accompanied with much sobbing, and hypocritical blessings were called down upon the charitable lady, when a promise was given that the case would be attended to. No time was lost, for with an equally kind-hearted and generous lady friend a visit was at once paid to the house where this terrible family disaster had occurred.

The two ladies entered the house. It was found to have very little furniture in it, and what there was was of the poorest description. The place was dirty and ill-kept; but this was accounted for by the “widow” by the statement that want of food had deprived her of the requisite strength to do household work. The hearts of the ladies were indeed touched at the picture of poverty presented to them. They were assured there were no food in the house, while walking through the house was another woman mourning loudly, like the mourners of old, and tearing her hair at the decease of her brother.

Filled with pity for the poor creatures the two ladies entered what they supposed was the chamber of death. What a picture was here presented. On a stretcher lay the body of a splendidly-formed man, and even now it was in the poorest burial shroud which it had been possible to procure. Evening was coming on, and the corner of the room was wrapped in gloom.

“Look, at his dear dead face,” the woman said, wringing her hands the while and lifting the sheet at the same time. The ladies were rather frightened at the spectacle which presented itself during the few seconds the sheet was lifted, for beneath it was the face of a man of less than middle age. It bore the hue of death, and hastily turning aside the ladies proceeded to be practical.

In the first place they left an ample sum behind them for the funeral expenses, and informed the mourning relatives that they would order the necessaries, and even luxuries, of life to be forwarded from a local store. Then they departed, but after being gone a few minutes one of the ladies discovered that she had left her umbrella in the house. She ran back, and went straight into the room where the body had been.

She started back in affright, for there was the corpse sitting up in bed, coolly and collectively counting over the cash which had been left for his burial. The strange and startling discovery was at once reported, but before steps could be taken to award punishment the coterie of swindlers had flown. It was amply proved afterwards, however, that the face of the “corpse” had been liberally treated with coloured whitewash to give it the appearance of a dead person, and there is every reason to suppose that he has “died” in the same way many a time before.

Ohinemuri [NZ] Gazette 16 July 1892: p. 9

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  This was a popular “old chestnut” to judge by the many variants one finds in the popular press. In some the corpse is already coffined in a borrowed casket and clinks the coins to ascertain whether they are genuine; in others, the money is snatched back from the corpse by the charitable lady. It is certainly possible that the imposture actually was perpetrated on numerous occasions, but the tone and the changing locations to suit each newspaper (Melbourne, Baltimore, &c.) suggest an “urban legend.”  There were also many stories of corpses reviving from cataleptic trances, but one doubts that the first act of those resurrected persons was to count the charity cash or to check it for counterfeit coin.

Mrs Daffodil found it interesting that the “widow” in this story claimed she was too weak from hunger to clean house. Cleanliness in the face of dire poverty was one of the marks of the “deserving poor.” The charitable ladies apparently found this excuse a plausible one.

Of course the sub-text of this story is the importance of a “decent burial,” even to the very poorest. There were also religious committees where ladies gathered to sociably sew shrouds for the poor. For example, that funereal person who wrote The Victorian Book of the Dead found notices of the meetings of the “Ladies’ Shroud Sewing Society” in Denver, Colorado in 1904-1912, where the women of the synagogue made shrouds both to sell as a fund-raiser and for burying the poor.

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.

 

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