Category Archives: Widows

A Sewing Machine for Christmas: 1898

 1877-sewing-machine

I very well remember the day before Christmas in Boston some years ago, when the mail carrier brought the morning letters, and one of them had in it a check for $50 from a well-to-do friend, inclosed in a letter which said: “I have more money than time. I would like to do something to make Christmas a little more cheerful and happy to somebody, but I have no time to look up a case. You must, in your work, know of some family where this money will make the Christmas time seem a time of good will. Use it in your own way to bring the most happiness.”

While I held the letter in my hand, grateful in my heart to my friend for choosing me as the messenger of his good cheer, and wondering where I could best use it, to make it meet his requirement, I was called from my study to see a little girl from one of the worst alleys of the South Boston slums of that day. She was about eleven years of age, but though she was not large for her years, there was in her face an acquaintance with care, and a knowledge of suffering, that made her look like a little old woman.

It was a sad little tale of woe she had to tell me. Her father had been killed a few months before by falling from a building. The mother and the four children, of whom this was the eldest, were left without anything but their own resources to get a living. The mother was not strong enough to go out to wash or scrub, and so she had tried to keep the wolf from the door by sewing while the little elven-year-old was housekeeper and caretaker of the other children.

The mother had bought a sewing machine some months before, and had been trying to pay for it by installments, but had had a hard time to meet the weekly payments. She did it for a while, but when the cold weather came on in November, and they had to have coal and a little extra clothing she had fallen behind, and now, on this day before Christmas, the agent had been around, and threatened to take away the sewing machine, and then what was to become of them they could not tell.

If you could have looked in that little girl’s eyes, and heard her tale, you would have had a new conception of what a great thing a sewing machine may be, under certain circumstances. If it had been a title to heaven she was talking about, the little thing could not have been more tearfully in earnest.

I clutched my friend’s check in my hand with a sudden consciousness of what I was going to do and told the little girl to tell her mother not to worry, and that I would look the matter up and see what I could do for her.

I went at once to the sewing machine company and found that there was still owing $28 on the machine. I paid off the contract and put the receipted paper in my pocket. Then along toward evening I had a grocer load up his wagon with a barrel of flour, a barrel of potatoes, some sugar, and tea, and a whole host of goodies, including a good fat chicken for the Christmas dinner, and with some soft blankets and some warm clothing and toys for the children. I paid a Christmas eve visit to that little tenement house suite in the slum alley.

I called just ahead of the wagon, and told her I hoped she would be willing to accept a little Christmas remembrance, which a good hearted friend of mine had asked me to bring for him; and then before the astonished eyes of the mother and children the flour and potatoes, and all the good things came in, borne on the shoulders or rolled in by the big bluff grocer boys.

The woman was overcome with gratitude and the tears ran down her cheeks, while the little children danced for joy. The woman tried to thank me, and then she said what seemed to me at the time, the most pathetic thing I had ever heard.

“Do you think this good friend of yours, who has been so kind, would be willing to take back part of these things and pay the amount on my sewing machine lease?”

Poor soul, how could she be happy so long as the mortgage on her sewing machine was unappeased, and her one permanent stay in self-support threatened to be taken from her?

You can imagine the joy with which I thrust my hand into my pocket and took out the canceled lease and handed it to her, saying: “My friend wanted me to hand you this paper, too, and tell you that nobody would ever trouble your sewing machine again.”

Then there seemed nothing left to wish for. The mother grabbed both my hands, and in spite of all I could do, wet them with her kisses and tears. The children were finally speechless at such munificence, and I went out from them with my heart singing, if it were in my throat, and the tears blinding my eyes.

My only regret was that my generous friend could not see with his own eyes the joy his gift had brought, and thus be able to realize more clearly than would otherwise be possible the truth of Christ’s words, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

LOUIS ALBERT BANKS

Plain Dealer [Cleveland OH] 11 December 1898: p. 30

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mr Banks was the author of White Slaves: or, The Oppression of the Worthy Poor, The Saloon-keeper’s Ledger, and many works on temperance and religion. He was well-positioned to seek out those in need of assistance, although Mrs Daffodil has always found the sorting of the poor into “deserving” and “undeserving” to be a trifle unjust.  Surely the Unworthy Poor are similarly oppressed and may starve just as efficiently. And, speaking frankly, where should we be if we were all given exactly what we deserved? Mrs Daffodil does not normally make a habit of it, but who can quarrel with the notion of being kind?

Mrs Daffodil wishes her readers the joys of the season and all good things in the New Year. She will return on 4 January, 2017, with more jottings on fads, fashions, and follies.

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.

 

Coals of Fire: 1860s

woman-at-fireplace

COALS OF FIRE.

BY LUCY H. HOOPER.

The Countess de Castro was dying. People— that is to say, her relatives and immediate heirs— were so hard-hearted as to say it was time; for the Countess had passed her seventy-fifth birthday by some months, and had been a hopeless paralytic for over ten years past.

She was dying in the odor of sanctity. Her enemies, and even the Countess de Castro had a few, said that people who can stir neither hand nor foot, can very well earn a reputation, even for exemplary piety. Others said, more charitably, that there was no cause for anybody to grieve over her approaching demise, for that it was rare that any one was so well prepared to take her departure. They talked of the money she had given in charity, of her holy conversation, of her resignation, of her Christian example.

The Countess inhabited an antique hotel in Paris. It was her own by right of inheritance, for she had been, in her youth, a great heiress— Madamoiselle de St. Yvon, of Keriodec, in Brittany. She had been celebrated for her intellect and strength of character, and in her youth she had refused to marry, with a persistency rare in a French damsel of rank. It was reported that Louis XVIII. had sued to her in person, on behalf of one of the greatest of the Legitimist nobles of France, but in vain. She was over fifty years of age, when Parisian society was startled by the announcement of her marriage with the young Count de Castro, who numbered scarce half her own age, and who was notorious for his extravagance and his profligacy. But he was handsome as a picture, and possessed a winning tongue and a graceful address. And so the ill-matched pair were wedded, and took up their residence in the grand old hotel, in the Faubourg St. Germain. There the Countess gave stately balls, whereat all the gentlemen wore white lilies in their button-holes, and the ladies looped their tresses and their draperies with the same flower, and where a giddy young marquise was pitilessly snubbed by the hostess, because she came to the festival in question, wearing a dress trimmed with bouquets of the obnoxious Bonaparte violets. There were state dinner-parties given, also, whereat the guests were all old and dried up, and the ladies wore garments of antique fashion, scorning the mode that followed the lead of a parvenu Empress. But these formal festivities soon ceased, and it was whispered abroad that the Count de Castro was rapidly winning high favor at the Court of Napoleon III.

Of course, such a rumor meant that he had quarreled with his elderly wife; and that portion, at least, of the report, was true. They led but a cat-and-dog’s life of it, in that grand old hotel beyond the Seine. The Count was fast and frivolous, the Countess jealous and severe. He wanted money beyond the income secured to him by the terms of the marriage contract, and she refused to comply with his demands. Stories got abroad of fearful scenes between the pair. Their daily lives had long been as widely parted as possible, Madame going continually to church, while Monsieur frequented balls, and operas, and theatres. This kind of thing went on for some years. At last matters reached a crisis. The Count lost heavily at cards, at the Jockey Club, one evening, and confided to a friend that other claims were weighing upon him. There was a house at Burgival for which he owed, and the furniture, also, had never been paid for. And so the fashionable world was not much surprised when the Count de Castro disappeared, one fine morning, leaving all his debts, whether of honor or dishonor, unpaid behind him.

Madame de Castro behaved remarkably well at this conjuncture, as everybody remarked. She paid the Count’s debts, to the uttermost farthing, and was seen in her usual places of resort a trifle paler, sterner, and stiffer-looking than before, but otherwise wearing an unchanged and placid aspect. One only circumstance revealed how deeply she mourned for her vanished spouse. She caused the suite of apartments wherein she had dwelt with the Count to be closed up, and transferred her abode to the other wing of the hotel. But the servants averred, that after nightfall their mistress would occasionally enter the locked-up rooms, and remain there for a space, as if to mourn for her husband’s absence in solitude and secrecy. Few who knew the grave, stern Countess, would have fancied her capable of any such romantic action; but the story got noised abroad, nevertheless, and spread a sentimental halo about the deserted wife, prosaic and severe as her age and aspect might be.

The Count never returned. Occasionally, vague rumors were current of his appearance in far-distant lands. One story declared that he had gone to America with a certain celebrated dancer, and that he had been seen driving out with her, on the Shell Road, New Orleans. Another report averred that he was holding a high official position under the Governor of Java. Some said he had gone to Algiers; others, that he was in the employ of the French Legation at Hong-Kong. Some of these stories were traced to their source, and were found to be utterly groundless; others remained unquestioned and uncontradicted, till time proved their falsity. At all events, the Count never returned to Paris.

As the years went on, the Countess dwelt more and more in solitude. She did not put on mourning, neither did she assume any of the privileges of a widow. But she never spoke of her husband, nor would she permit his name to be mentioned in her presence. It was ten years after his mysterious disappearance, that she was first stricken with paralysis. She then insisted upon again changing her quarters, and took up her abode anew in the rooms wherein the troubled years of her married life had been spent. At first she used to be drawn in a wheeled chair around the garden, or through the long corridors of the hotel; but years had passed since she had relinquished even that form of locomotion, and had refused to quit the room wherein she now lay.

It was a vast and cheerless apartment; the wood-work, black with age, even to the waxed and polished floor, whose boards, warped and loosened by time, creaked noisily beneath the unwary tread. Some antique tapestry, saved from the sack of the Chateau de Keriodec by the Republican troops, during the first Revolution, clothed the walls, its tints of dull and faded green and sickly yellow adding an unnecessary touch of gloom to the aspect of the room. The ceiling overhead, with massive cross-beams, was of the same dark wood as the wainscoting and the floor. The chairs were mostly huge, carved arm-chairs, with cushions of faded needle-work, the only exception being a patent invalid-chair, lately used by the Countess, which stretched itself out in one dusky corner like some shapeless and huge antediluvian lizard. The fireplace, vast and cavernous, with a chimney-piece that towered to the ceiling, was filled with blazing logs; for the month was November, and the weather was chill, even for the season. At the extreme end of the room stood the bed, a large, old-fashioned structure, with curtains that matched the hangings on the walls. These were drawn aside, and the figure of the Countess could plainly be seen there, stretched out, stark and straight, as though life had already departed, and looking, with her white draperies and bandaged brows, like some monumental effigy on an ancient tomb. She still lived, however, if the faint pulsation at heart and wrist, and the feeble flutter of breath upon her lips, could really be called life. And but for one point about her pallid, wrinkled face, one might readily have supposed that she had passed already beyond the reach of mortal aid. That point was her eyes. Wide open, keen, and glittering, they were turned with a fixed and steady gaze, not forward or upward, but toward the vast dim-lighted room, seeming to seek a particular point in the flooring, and to watch that with unwavering fixity.

Around the wide fire-place were clustered a number of individuals, who talked together in subdued whispers, and only stirred with due precaution and noiseless movements. These were the blood-relations and heirs of the aged Countess, summoned, by her direction, some days before, and now gathered together in the chamber of death, awaiting the event which the doctor, himself also present, declared to them might take place at any moment.

Prominent among these persons was the Count de St. Yvon, an elderly gentleman, with gray hair and most polished manners. Then there was the Demoiselle de Savarre, a hard-featured old maid, with the bluest blood in all Brittany flowing in her withered veins; a devout Legitimist, who passed her time between saying her prayers and embroidering fleurs de-lit upon banners and mantles, to be used at the future consecration of Henri Cinq, when the glad day of the restoration of the ancient monarchy should dawn for France. Then there was the Chevalier de Keriodec, a little older and more wrinkled than his cousin, the Count; and his daughter, a peachy-cheeked demoiselle, Anne Marie Antoinette de Keriodec by name, to whom the eldest son of Count de St. Yvon was whispering soft nonsense in the embrasure of one of the windows. These were all, the Countess having announced her intention of excluding from the succession such of her relatives as should be tinged either with Bonapartism or Republicanism; and as one or the other of these poisonous principles had crept even into Brittany, that sacred stronghold of Legitimism, she had been forced to restrict her bequests to a very few individuals. There was also present, as we have said before, her physician, Doctor Dumaresq, and her confidential maid. This last, a long, thin, stern-looking female, with a face like a German nut-cracker, was fast asleep in the large arm-chair, worn out with protracted vigils and constant toil in her lady’s service.

The silence in the room was very great, broken only by the subdued whispers of the waiting heirs, and by an occasional snore from Agathe, the maid. Outside, the wind went tearing down the Rue de Varennes, banging aristocratic shutters, and whistling around ducal chimney-pots, with no more reverence than it had shown to the shop-signs in the Marais, or the vanes on the Halles Centrales. Occasionally Doctor Dumaresq would rise and go to the bed to lay a finger on the pulse of the patient, and would then, with a sigh and a shake of the head, return to his seat. And so the night went on. The wind howled, and Agathe slept, and the heirs whispered together, and the Countess lay and watched the floor. Thus the hours wore away without change or incident.

Suddenly the blast, that had been sweeping and shrieking along the street, took a sudden turn, and came careering down the great, wide chimney, sending a volley of sparks and smoke into the room. It could do but little more than that. The heavy logs, of which the fire was built, scoffed at the puny efforts of a puff of wind. One glowing coal, however, was dislodged, and flew into the room, alighting on the very plank on which the eyes of the Countess were so pertinaciously fixed. Nobody noticed the coal. The Count was lost in thought; the Chevalier and Mademoiselle de Savarre were conferring together respecting the possible amount of the estate, in an undertone; the two young people were absorbed in each other; and the doctor was half asleep. And so it glowed, and scorched, and sparkled, gnawing its way into the dry oak of the ancient flooring, surrounded by an ever-widening ring of red and charring fire.

Suddenly the dying Countess, she who had been paralyzed for years, arose from her bed, walked straight to the fire-place, picked up the tongs, took up the coal, and threw it back into the fire, and then returned to her bed. Stiff and stark, and stretched out straight as before, she lay, only the wide-open eyes were closed, and her face was, if possible, a shade paler than before.

This strange incident, this sudden revival of vitality in that seemingly lifeless frame, and the apparition in the midst of that listless group, of the white-shrouded, spectral form of the Countess, startled every one present. The heirs ceased musing or whispering, and gathered together, amazed and startled. The doctor, aroused from his doze, sprang to his feet. Only Agathe slept on in peaceful unconsciousness.

Doctor Dumaresq approached the bed, and once more laid his finger on the patient’s wrist. Then he touched her breast gently, and bent his ear to her parted lips. After a brief pause, he turned to the bystanders.

“Pray for the soul of your noble relative,” he said, solemnly. “The Countess is no more!”

The funeral took place two days later. It was a grand affair, with much display of nodding plumes and silver-spotted draperies, of mourning carriages, and of mighty candles, and of all the other accessories of funereal pomp, as imagined by the great Burial Company of Paris. It was a first-class affair in every respect. The cords of the hearse were held by two dukes, a marquis, and three counts, all of the bluest blood in the Faubourg St Germain. The funeral sermon was preached by a bishop, who was himself of princely extraction. Nobody shed any tears, it is true. The only sincere mourner that followed the widowed and childless Countess to her grave, was probably her faithful old servant, Agathe. And she, serene in the knowledge of a snug little annuity, secured to her by the will of her late mistress, was far from feeling wholly broken-hearted.

On the evening of the following day, a mysterious meeting was held in the bed-room of the departed lady. The heavy tapestry curtains were closely drawn across the windows, so that no intrusive outside gaze could penetrate the chamber wherein sat the three principal heirs of the deceased, the Count, the Chevalier, and Mademoiselle de Savarre, in solemn conclave. Three flickering candles threw a pallid light upon the group, and vainly strove to dissipate the darkness that filled the farthest corners of the spacious room.

The Count was the first to break silence.

“We have decided, I believe,” he said, “that it is our duty to examine that point in the flooring which our departed relative watched so constantly.”

“And whose peril roused her to such strange and sudden exertions,” added the Chevalier.

“Who knows what may not lie concealed beneath the scorched plank?” said Mademoiselle de Savarre.

“Family papers, political secrets,” suggested the Chevalier.

“Coin or jewels,” remarked the Count. “Aged people are often like magpies, in their propensity for hiding things.”

“Let us look at once!” cried the old maid, fired to activity by the suggestion.

Each had brought a chisel, or some other tool, and they set to work with a will. The solid oaken plank was soon removed, revealing a cavity between the floor and the beams of the ceiling beneath, large enough to have contained the crown-jewels of an empire, or the archives of a republic. Within there appeared something, neither papers, nor jewels, nor gold, but a long, irregularly-shaped bundle, that rattled strangely when dragged forth to the light. A cry of horror broke from the lips of the three searchers, as the dim rays of their candles fell upon the thing that they had found—a human skeleton, clothed in remnants of what had once been superfine broadcloth and delicate linen; a jeweled pin, gleaming on the discolored shirt-front; a massive seal-ring, hanging loose upon the long hand, and great stains and streaks of rusty-brown upon the linen, which was revealed by the rents in the decaying cloth, splotches; that had once been of a ghastly red.

As if turned to stone, the three seekers after wealth stood speechless, in the presence of Death and Crime.

The Chevalier was the first to recover his presence of mind.

“It is the Count de Castro!” he said, in a horror-stricken whisper. “See, these are his arms!” And he picked up the seal-ring, which had dropped from the fleshless finger and rolled upon the floor.

“And who could have killed him? It must have been the Countess!” cried Mademoiselle de Savarre, trembling from head to foot.

“Hush—sh—sh!” whispered the Count, looking fearfully around. “No doubt it was she.”

“We had better hush this matter up,” remarked the Chevalier, with chattering teeth. And it was hushed up, accordingly. A roaring fire in the mighty chimney soon consumed every vestige of the poor, dried remains of what had once been the gay and gallant Count de Castro.

And when, a few years later, a grand new street was run right over the site of the demolished hotel, the few who remembered anything at all about the deceased Countess, spoke of her with bated breath, and called her “a saint upon earth.”

The Peterson Magazine, 1876: pp. 395-8

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: A dark and gothic tale, is it not? While Mrs Daffodil enjoys the odd spot of fiction but rarely, she reads such narratives as the above with a professionally critical eye. Poisoned wine was the obvious solution to the Countess’s wayward husband, yet a more bloody method was selected, perhaps in the heat of the moment. One understands the reluctance to involve others in a private domestic murder, but to leave the corpse under the floor-boards for future discovery argues a carelessness quite out of keeping with that lady’s prudent character.

Surely she and Agathe, whose annuity must have been the result of her discretion, could have managed to do what the Count, the Chevalier, and Mademoiselle de Savarre did: cremate the mummified Count de Castro in the immense fireplace. But perhaps paralysis overtook her before this could be done or it was a case such as we have seen at the courts of Versailles and of Spain, where certain members of the nobility feel that certain tasks are beneath them. Mrs Daffodil seems to remember a King of Spain who died because no person of lowly-enough rank could be found to move a red-hot brazier. Perhaps the Countess did not deign to soil her blue-blooded fingers with the dishonourable corpse of a—one shudders to think of it—Bonapartist.

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.

 

She Wanted to Be a Widow: 1889

 

She Made a Pretty Widow, c. 1890

She Made a Pretty Widow, c. 1890

Perhaps the queerest of tales is that of a young lady who had just attained her majority, and with it the unrestricted control of 100,000 dollars. This young lady’s sole desire was to become a widow. Weeds are so becoming. What is so interesting as a young bewitching widow, with a handsome fortune? Accordingly, to obtain the desirable result, she engaged the services of the real estate agent who managed her property to procure an accommodating moribund husband. The agent set to work, and, with the aid of a friendly physician (every apothecary and sawbones is a physician here), a suitable subject was found in the person of a destitute printer, who was supposed to be dying of whisky and consumption.

After a little inducement the dying man consented, knowing that he was on the verge of the grave, the prospect of being decently buried overcoming any repugnance he might have felt at such an unnatural wooing, and by his orders the fair would-be widow was asked to name the day. Thereupon the next day there was presented at the bed of the bridegroom the bride and a widowed friend, the dying man’s mother, the real estate agent, the doctor, and a Justice of the Peace. The blushing bride having satisfied herself that the man she was about to take for better or worse “would soon be where the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest,” shyly consented to be united according to the Statute in such cases made and provided by the accommodating Justice, and without bestowing another look on her newly-acquired husband, the fair bride left the room, having left sufficient coin of the Republic to pay the present living expenses and the future funeral charges, which she fondly hoped would be at early date.

Time passed, however, and still the bride remained a wife, and not a widow, and days merged into weeks and weeks into months, and the lady was reminded of the existence of a husband by the frequent demands on her purse. At last, her patience being exhausted, she determined to visit her husband to ask him why he persisted in living, and when he intended to be ready to be measured for his coffin. With that intent she proceeded to take the train for ‘Frisco, her residence being Oakland, and just as she was stepping into the carriage, someone stepped in front of her with outstretched arms, and said, “Frankie, my darling, I have found you at last.” Frankie (the lady) took a good look at the speaker; it was her husband. She was too cool to faint that, of course, goes without saving, but her voice, husky with emotion, trembled as she said, “What, not dead yet”

“No,” replied her husband, “I have quite recovered. They told me they did not know your address.”

You can imagine the fair one’s feelings. After a stormy interview and a refusal by the husband of a substantial sum to permit a divorce, a compromise was affected, whereby the lady was to furnish so much a month to the husband for his needs, —meaning whisky, of course—and after two or three months of unlimited quantities of the aforesaid needs, death claimed the victim who had so nearly escaped him. And the fair widow furnished with unbecoming cheerfulness the necessary funds to inter her dear departed and now, the object of her life being attained, she is turning the heads of all young eligible men with her ravishing widow’s weeds. But enough of this. I know your readers will say I have been romancing, but I can assure them that the lady is now residing in Oakland, and has taken no steps whatever to contradict the story on the contrary, she is quite proud of her exploit. Funny taste, is it not?

Waikato Times, 14 September 1889: p. 6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It is rare to find a young woman (particularly one in possession of such a large fortune) who knows her own mind so well. Not for her the siren-song of young and handsome. It is not entirely dissimilar to those young persons, poor in worldly goods, but bountifully equipped with feminine charms, who calculatingly marry elderly millionaires, although in those cases, the young persons crave the money rather than the weeds.  One must admire the young lady’s coolness, if not her kindly heart.

The bewitching widow was something of a cliché in popular mortuary literature:

We could hardly conceive how it was possible the head could think of the fashion of a bonnet if the heart were breaking, We for a long time supposed that the matter lay entirely with the milliner, but we were undeceived once by having to carry a mourning bonnet back, intended for a young and pretty widow, because it was not becoming, and another, as the funeral did not occur for two days thereafter, was forthwith made that suited to a charm. The Spirit Messenger, R.P. Ambler, Editor, 14 June 1851: p 361

and

It is in questionable taste for a young and pretty widow to wear her mourning after she has become reconciled to the death of her first husband and is quite willing to marry a second. A widow still wearing her weeds, and at the same time carrying on an animated flirtation with some new admirer, is a sight to make the gods weep…To angle for a second husband with the weeds worn for the first, because they are becoming, is a thing that should be forbidden by law. Social Customs, Florence Howe Hall, (Boston: Dana Estes & Co., 1911)

For more on mourning customs and bewitching widows, see The Victorian Book of the Dead, as well as this story, “The Widow’s Baby,” and “The Mourner a la mode,” a satirical poem about a fashionable widow.

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.

 

 

“Mother lived without the Parish; she’ll be buried without the Parish:” 1842

The Potters Field

The Potters Field

It was a fine summer Sabbath evening in June, and we were knocking about among the tombstones as usual, making our observations upon life and character, when our attention was arrested by a plain coffin, borne upon the shoulders of four men in black, and followed by eight chief mourners, all in decent but humble suits of sables. The chief mourners were eight children—four boys and four girls: or, to speak more correctly, three boys and three girls, with two little ‘ toddles,’ mere infants, straggling in the rear. The eldest boy and girl might have been about fifteen and fourteen years respectively; the next, twelve and eleven; the third pair between seven and eight; the youngest, as we have said, between infancy and childhood. The eyes of all spectators were upon the bereaved ones as they stood around the grave, yawning to receive their only parent and provider; and few were the dry eyes of those that behold the melancholy group— the eldest boy looking fierce and manlike, the rest weeping bitterly, save the youngest pair, looking wonderingly around, as if marvelling what all the ceremony might mean.

“Cutting funeral, that, sir;” observed a little pursy man in black who stood near us; “werry cutting funeral, indeed,” repeated the little man, blowing his nose violently.

“Who are they?” we enquired, not without anticipating something like the little domestic history we were favoured with by the nose-blowing little man in black.

“Horphans, sir—every one on ’em horphans; that’s their mother as is a bein’ buried, sir.”

“Indeed.”

“Yes, sir; she was a ‘spectable woman—highly ‘spectable, indeed— werry wirtuous, poor woman, sir—paid rates and taxes in the parish for twenty year. I ought to know it; for I’m one of the overseers—I am.”

“I should like to hear something of the family.”

“Should you, sir? Well, you shall hear; but it’s a melancholy story— wery melancholy, indeed. You must know, sir, there wasn‘t a more decenter couple in this parish than Thomas Mason and his wife, Jane; they were well to do, and doing well; every body respected them, for they paid their way and was civil to their customers. Well, Thomas fell in a decline, sir, and died; but he didn’t die soon enough— for his sickness wasted all their substance, and the business was neglected, so the family fell into poverty: but the poor widow struggled on, and the exertions she made to maintain them little ones was really the wonder of the neighbourhood. ‘Mr Smith,’ says she to me, when I offered some relief, ‘I won’t trouble this world long, and parish money shall never cross my palm; but when I’m gone, you won’t see my desolate orphans want a morsel of bread.‘ So, poor woman, she was right; for she soon sickened, and was bed-ridden for thirteen months; and them children, as you see a standin’ ’round their mother‘s grave, worked themselves to an oil to keep her from the hospital–much more the workus. The girls worked all day; and boys and girls sat up all night, turn and turn about, with their poor mother–she was sorely afflicted, poor woman. Well, sir; when she died at last, our vicar went and offered his assistance, and told the children, of course, the parish would bury their mother ; but that there hobstinate boy, him that’s a givin’ his orders, wouldn’t hear of it, and blowed up the vicar for mentioning such a thing. So the vicar comes to me, and says be, Mr Smith, these here young Mason’s is the oddest babies as ever I see, for they’ve sold their bed and all their things to bury their mother; let‘s make up a purse for them, and there’s my sovereign to begin with. Says I, sir, never mind, I‘ll bring them right; and the parish shall bury the poor woman, so that’ll be so much saved: and with that I goes off to Poppin’s court, and into the fust floor; there was the poor woman dead, and the room stripped of all the furniture and things. Says that there youth, ‘ Mr Smith,‘ says he, ‘ I’d be wery glad to see you another time, but we’re in great grief for our mother bein’ dead, and we hope you‘ll excuse us not askin’ you to sit down.’ Lord love you, sir, there wasn’t the sign of a chair or a table in the room, nothing but the corpse, and a bit of a plank. Says I, ‘my boy, I’m sorry for your grief, but I hope you won’t have any objection to let the parish manage your poor mother’s funeral.’ With that, sir, the boy flares up like any think, whips up a poker, and swears if he catches the parish a-comin‘ to touch his mother, he’ll brain the lot of ’em: ‘Mother lived without the parish,’ says he, ‘died without the parish, and she’ll be buried without the parish!’ With that he opens the door, and shews me down stairs as if he was a suckin’ markis: that‘s the story on ’em, sir; and they’re a riggler hindependent lot as ever I see. God help them, poor things!”

And with this the little man blew his nose once more, as the group of motherless children, reformed in their sad order of procession, and with streaming eyes, and many repeated last looks at their mother‘s grave, departed to their naked home.

Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Volume 52, 1842

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Just as going to the “work-house” or, in the United States, the “poor farm,” was a disgrace—the last humiliation of the desperate— being on the parish dole was seen as a mark of shame. A “pauper’s funeral” was considered equally degrading: the coffin, if there was one, was of the cheapest wood, nothing more than a coarse shroud was provided, and burial was in the Potters Field where one would lie cheek-by-jowl with the stranger, the unchristened, and the immoral. Shuddering at the prospect, many persons went into debt to pay for a respectable funeral.

If anyone could have used financial assistance, it would have been the bereaved Mrs Mason and her brood of eight, but her pride would not allow it. One hopes that Mrs Mason’s children saw happier days and, when they had families of their own, purchased extensive life-insurance coverage to protect their loved ones from a similar, sad fate.

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.

 

A Baby in Mourning: 1889

Baby with mourning bows. http://collections.slsa.sa.gov.au/resource/B+47559

Baby with mourning bows and a black petticoat http://collections.slsa.sa.gov.au/resource/B+47559

A BABY IN MOURNING

TRAPPINGS OF WOE WHICH WERE DECIDEDLY OVERDONE

The wearing of black fabrics, especially of that particularly somber black fabric known as crape, as emblematic of mourning has long been a much-mooted question. Even those who have taken a decided stand against such as would abolish the custom, on the ground that in too many cases it savored of mawkish sentiment, have agreed that its excessive use is revolting. Perhaps a more aggravated case of revolting excess in this direction was never witnessed than that which was necessarily endured by a carful of passengers on a Sixth-avenue L train yesterday.

A woman, whose face was lit up with more than ordinary intelligence, got on the car at Fifty-ninth-street with two children, a girl about four years old and a babe in arms. Under different circumstances the hearts of those who saw this mother must have gone out in kindly sympathy, for she was young and a widow, as was evidenced by the fact that her dress was of the deepest black and her headgear a long crape veil, reaching far below her waist. The three should have formed a most attractive group, for the children were unusually bright and pretty, but it is doubtful if the passengers, judging from the expressions on their faces, ever looked upon a picture that filled them with greater disgust. The mother’s “weeds” should and would have commanded respect, in spite of their superabundance, had it not been for the fact that she advertised her bereavement by arraying her little ones in costumes which, because of the contrast, were even more somber than her own.

The little girl, whose hair was so golden that it seemed as though the sun was streaming through it, had not a touch of color about her, except that which came from her hair and bright blue eyes. Her dress was of black cashmere, with a heavy drapery of crape, and she wore a black hat, also trimmed with crape. Even the little pin that fastened her somber dress at the throat was of jet, and she carried a black-bordered handkerchief. The climax was reached, however, in the clothing of the babe in arms, a swaddling robe of unrelieved black crape, the little head covered with a baby’s cap of the same material. The effect was positively ghastly, and there was a sign of relief when the widow and her two little ones left the car.

New York [NY] Times 5 August 1889: p. 5

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: How very unkind of the passengers to be “disgusted” by a bereaved lady with two very small children!  To be fair, there was much controversy over whether it was healthy to put children into full mourning. Crape was considered depressing to health and spirits in adults and it was feared that the effects would be magnified in vulnerable, impressionable children and infants. Despite this, it is possible that the widow was pressured by an officious mother-in-law or well-meaning friends to clothe her little ones in black as a mark of respect for their departed father. There was much anxiety among the bereaved about “correct” mourning, Common sense was sometimes sacrificed on the altar of propriety.

A child's mourning dress, c. 1882. It shows signs of being hastily made. http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/50734/

A child’s mourning dress, c. 1882. It shows signs of being hastily made. http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/

No Crape for Children

It is fortunately no longer the custom, as a general thing, to put little children into black, and even when it is done crape is no longer employed, even as trimming, and black cloth coats and hats and black ribbon sashes are the greatest concessions that are made. The St Paul [MO] Daily Globe 13 January 1895: p. 13

A child's black velvet dress. This was a mourning dress for a little boy, Travers Buxton, who wore it on the death of his mother in 1871. http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/658369

A child’s black velvet dress. This was a mourning dress for a little boy, Travers Buxton, who wore it on the death of his mother in 1871. http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/658369

Official Court Mourning: The children all wear black sashes on their white dresses; black gloves, black veils, and black ribbons on their straw or Leghorn hats. La Belle assemblée: or, Bell’s court and fashionable magazine, 1824

A child's half-mourning dress and bolero c. 1850-60 http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/1362562

A child’s mourning or half-mourning dress and bolero c. 1850-60 http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/1362562

Young persons, or those who are in mourning for young persons, frequently wear a good deal of white, as for instance, white ribbons, handkerchiefs, and white gloves sewed with black: very young children, only wear white frocks and black ribbons. The Workwoman’s Guide, by A Lady, 1838

Children are, as a rule, dressed in white when they are placed in mourning, as so many people feel that black is out of harmony with their tender years and bright feelings, which can happily be only temporarily damped. Bruce Herald 7 April 1899: p. 6

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?  Star 26 January 1901: p. 1

For more details on Victorian mourning see The Victorian Book of the Dead and posts on this blog labeled with the topic “mourning”.

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 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.

 

Somebody’s Father at Gettysburg: 1863

The Children of the Battlefield.

The Children of the Battlefield.

Somebody’s Father.

I think that one of the saddest incidents of the war which I witnessed was after the battle of Gettysburg. Off on the outskirts, seated on the ground with his back to a tree, was a dead soldier. His eyes were riveted on some object held tightly clasped in his hands. As we drew nearer we saw that it was an ambrotype of two small children. Man though I was, hardened through those long years to carnage and bloodshed, the sight of that man who looked on his children for the last time in this world, who, away off in a secluded spot, had rested himself against a tree that he might feast his eyes on his little loves brought tears to my eyes which I could not restrain had I wanted. There were six of us in the crowd, and we all found great lumps gathering in our throats and mist coming before our eyes which almost blinded us.

We stood looked at him for some time. I was thinking of the wife and baby I had left at home and wondering how soon, in the mercy of God, she would be left a widow and my baby boy fatherless. We looked at each other and instinctively seemed to understand one another’s thoughts. Not a word was spoken, but we dug a grave and laid the poor fellow to rest with his children’s picture clasped over his heart. Over his grave on the tree against which he was sitting I inscribed the words: “Somebody’s Father. July 8, 1863.”

Riverside [CA] Daily Press 9 September 1893: p. 3

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil trusts that her readers will excuse her for a moment; she has something in her eye.

Mrs Daffodil is unsure whether the soldier mentioned above is the same as in this story:

IDENTITY ASCERTAINED.— The identity of the dead soldier who was found on the bloody field of Gettysburg, with the picture of his three pretty little children tightly clasped in his hands, has been ascertained within a day or two. The wide publicity given to the touching circumstances through the medium of the press produced the desired result. The name of the deceased was Hummiston [Humiston], and his widow and three children reside at Portville, Cattaraugus County, New York. Large numbers of photographic copies of the picture upon which the dying eyes of the warrior-father closed have been sold, and the profits realized from their sale will be appropriated to the benefit of the children. It is hoped that a sufficient sum may be realized in this way, and by future sales, to aid materially in the education of the little ones who were made orphans at Gettysburg. Godey’s Lady’s Book [Philadelphia, PA] March 1864

Two vs. three children is a significant discrepancy, but may be due to inaccurate reporting. The three Humiston children are pictured at the head of this post, and here is an admirably detailed article about Sergeant Humiston. Since the soldier from the first story had his children’s picture buried with him, it must mean that this was, sadly, not a poignant and isolated incident.

See these other posts about Elizabeth Thorn: The Angel of Gettysburg, the man who decorated his own grave at Gettysburg, and a Quaker Prophetess who foresaw the Battle of Gettysburg.

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.