Tag Archives: resurrectionists

The French Doctor’s Bride: 1830s

lighter shrouded corpse Rowlandson 1775

Grave-robbers interrupted by Death, Thomas Rowlandson, 1775 https://wellcomecollection.org/works/j7twdvrd

THE FRENCH DOCTOR’S BRIDE.

BY VICTOR LECOMTE.

Twenty-five years ago I entered the medical college at F__ as a student. I was then quite young, inexperienced, and inclined to be timid and sentimental; and well do I remember the horror I experienced, when one of the senior students, under pretence of showing me the beauties of the institution, suddenly thrust me into the dissecting room, among several dead bodies, and closed the door upon me; nor do I forget how my screeches of terror, and prayers for release from that awful place, made me the laughing-stock of my older companions.

Ridicule is a hard thing to bear: the coward becomes brave to escape it, and the brave man fears it more than he would a belching cannon. I suffered from it till I could stand no more; and wrought up to a pitch of desperation, I demanded to know what I might do to redeem my character, and gain an honourable footing among my fellowstudents.

“I will tell you,” said one, his eyes sparkling with mischief; “if you will go, at the midnight hour, and dig up a subject, and take it to your room, and remain alone with it till morning, we will let you off, and never say another word about your womanly fright.”

I shuddered. It was a fearful alternative; but it seemed less terrible to suffer all the horrors that might be concentrated into a single night, than to bear, day after day, the jeers of my companions.

“Where shall I go and when?” was my timid inquiry; and the very thought of such an adventure made my blood run cold.

“To the Eastern Cemetery, to night, at twelve o’clock,” replied my tormentor, fixing his keen, black eyes upon me, and allowing his thin lips to curl with a smile of contempt. “But what is the use of asking such a coward as you to perform such a manly feat?” he added, deridingly

His words stung me to the quick; and without further reflection, and scarcely aware of what I was saying, I rejoined, boldly, “I am no coward, sir, as I will prove to you, by performing what you call a manly feat.”

“You will go?'” he asked quickly.

“I will,” was my response.

“Bravely said, my lad!” he rejoined, in a tone of approval, and exchanging his expression of contempt for one of surprise and admiration. “Do this, Morel, and the first man that insults you afterwards makes an enemy of me.”

Again I felt a cold shudder pass through my frame, at the thought of what was before me; but I had accepted his challenge in the presence of many witnesses—for this conversation occurred as we were leaving the hall, after listening to an evening lecture—and I was resolved to make my word good, should it even cost me my life: in fact, I knew I could not do otherwise now, without the risk of being driven in disgrace from the college.

I should here observe, that in those days there were few professional resurrectionists; and as it was absolutely necessary to have subjects for dissection, the unpleasant business of procuring them devolved upon the students, who, in consequence, watched every funeral eagerly, and calculated the chances of cheating the sexton of his charge, and the grave of its victim.

There had been a funeral, that day, of a poor orphan girl, who had been followed to the grave by very few friends; and this was considered a favorable chance for the party whose turn it was to procure the next subject, as the graves of the poor and friendless were never watched with the same keen vigilance as those of the rich and influential. Still, it was no trifling risk to attempt to exhume the bodies of the poorest and humblest—for not unfrequently persons were found on the watch even over these; and only the year before, one student, while at his midnight work, had been mortally wounded by a rifle-ball; and another, a month or two subsequently, had been rendered a cripple for life by the same means.

All this was explained to me by a party of six or eight, who accompanied me to my room—which was in a building belonging to the college, and let out in apartments to some of the students; and they took care to add several terrifying stories of ghosts and hobgoblins, by way of calming my excited nerves, just as I have before now observed old women stand around a weak, feverish patient, and croak out their experience in seeing awful sufferings and fatal terminations of just such maladies as the one with which their helpless victim was then afflicted.

“Is it expected that I shall go alone?” I inquired, in a tone that trembled in spite of me, while my knees almost knocked together, and I felt as if my very lips were white.

“Well, no,” replied Belmont, my most dreaded tormentor; “it would be hardly fair to send you alone, for one individual could not succeed in getting the body from the grave quick enough; and you, a mere youth, without experience, would be sure to fail altogether. No, we will go with you, some three or four of us, and help to dig up the corpse; but then you must take it on your back, bring it up to your room here, and spend the night alone with it!”

It was some relief to me to find I was to have company during the first part of my awful undertaking; but still I felt far from agreeable, I assure you; and chancing to look into a mirror, as the time drew near for setting out, I fairly started at beholding the ghastly object I saw reflected therein.

“Come, boys,” said Belmont, who was always, by general consent, the leader of whatever frolic, expedition, or undertaking, he was to have a hand in; “Come, boys! it is time to be on the move. A glorious night for us!” he added, throwing up the window, and letting in a fierce gust of wind and rain: “the very d__l himself would hardly venture out in such a storm!’” He lit a dark-lantern, threw on his long, heavy cloak, took up a spade, and led the way down stairs; and the rest of us, three besides my timid self, threw on our cloaks also, took each a spade, and followed him.

We took a roundabout course, to avoid being seen by any citizen that might by chance to be stirring; and in something less than half-an-hour we reached the cemetery, scaled the wall without difficulty, and stealthily searched for the grave, till we found it, in the pitchy darkness—the wind and rain sweeping past us with dismal howls and moans, that to me, trembling with terror, seemed to be the unearthly wailings of the spirits of the damned.

“Here we are,” whispered Belmont to me, as we at length stopped at a mound of fresh earth, over which one of our party had stumbled. “Come, feel round, Morel, and strike in your spade; and let us see if you will make as good a hand at exhuming a dead body as you will some day at killing a living one with physic.”

I did as directed, trembling in every limb; but the first spade-full I threw up, I started back with a yell of horror, that, on any other but a howling, stormy night, would have betrayed us. It appeared to me as if I had thrust my spade into a buried lake of fire—for the soft dirt was all aglow like living coals; and as I had fancied the moanings of the storm the wailings of tormented spirits, I now fancied I had uncovered a small portion of the Bottomless Pit itself.

“Fool!” hissed Belmont, grasping my arm with the gripe of a vice, as I stood leaning on my spade for support, my very teeth chattering with terror; “another yell like that, and I’ll make a subject of you! Are you not ashamed of yourself to be scared out of your wits, if you ever had any, by a little phosphorescent earth? Don’t you know it is often found in graveyards?”

His explanation re-assured me; though I was now too weak, from my late fright, to be of any assistance to the party; who all fell too with a will, secretly laughing at me, and soon reached the coffin. Splitting the lid with a hatchet, which had been brought for the purpose, they quickly lifted out the corpse; and then Belmont and another of the party taking hold of it, one at the head and the other at the feet, they hurried it away, bidding me follow, and leaving the others to fill up the grave, that it might not be suspected the body had been exhumed.

Having got the corpse safely over the wall of the cemetery, Belmont now called upon me to perform my part of the horrible business. “Here, you quaking simpleton,” he said, “I want you to take this on your back, and make the best of your way to your room, and remain alone with it all night. If you do this bravely, we will claim you as one of us to-morrow, and the first man that dares to say a word against your courage after that, shall.find a foe in me. But hark you! if you make any blunder on the way, and lose our prize, it will be better for you to quit this town before I set eyes on you again! Do you understand me?”

“Y—ye-ye—yes!” I stammered, with chattering teeth.

“Are you ready?” Y-ye-ye—yes,” I gasped.

“Well, come here! where are you?” All this time it was so dark that I could see nothing but a faint line of white, which I knew to be the shroud of the corpse; but I felt carefully round till I got hold of Belmont, who told me to take off my cloak; and then rearing the cold dead body up against my back, he began fixing its cold arms about my neck-bidding me take hold of them, and draw them well over, and keep them concealed, and be sure and not let go of them, on any consideration whatsoever, as I valued my life. Oh! the torturing horror I experienced, as I mechanically followed his directions! Tongue could not describe it!

At length, having adjusted the corpse so that I might bear it off with comparative ease, he threw my long black cloak over it, and over my arms, and fastened it with a cord about my neck, and then inquired, “Now, Morel, do you think you can find the way to your room?”

“I—I—do-do—don’t know,” I gasped, feeling as if I should sink to the earth at the first step.

“Well, you cannot lose your way if you go straight ahead,” he replied. “Keep in the middle of this street or road, and it will take you to College Green, and then you are all right. Come, push on, before your burden grows too heavy; the distance is only a good half-mile!”

I set forward with trembling nerves, expecting to sink to the ground at every step; but gradually my terror, instead of weakening, gave me strength; and I was soon on the run—splashing through mud and water—with the storm howling about me in fury, and the cold corpse, as I fancied, clinging to me like a hideous vampire.

How I reached my room, I do not know—but probably by a sort of instinct; for I only remember of my brain being in a wild, feverish whirl, with ghostly phantoms all about me, as one sometimes sees them in a dyspeptic dream. But reach my room I did, with my dead burden on my back; and I was afterwards told that I made wonderful time; for Belmont and his fellow student, fearing the loss of their subject—which, on account of the difficulty of getting bodies, was very valuable— followed close behind me, and were obliged to run at the top of their speed to keep me within hailing distance.

The first I remember distinctly, after getting to my room, was the finding myself awake in bed, with a dim consciousness of something horrible having happened—although what, for some minutes, I could not for the life of me recollect. Gradually, however, the truth dawned upon me; and then I felt a cold perspiration start from every pore, at the thought that perhaps I was occupying a room alone with a corpse. The room was not dark; there were a few embers in the grate, which threw out a ruddy light; and fearfully raising my head, I glanced quickly and timidly around.

And there—there, on the floor, against the right hand wall, but a few feet from me—there, sure enough, lay the cold, still corpse, robed in its white shroud, with a gleam of firelight resting upon its ghastly face, which to my excited fancy seemed to move. Did it move? I was gazing upon it, thrilled and fascinated with an indescribable terror, when, as sure as I see you now, I saw the lids of its eyes unclose, and saw its breast heave, and heard a low, stifled moan.

“Great God!” I shrieked, and fell back in a swoon.

How long I lay unconscious I do not know; but when I came to myself again, it is a marvel to me, that, in my excited state, I did not lose my senses altogether, and become the tenant of a madhouse ; for there—right before me-standing up in its white shroud—with its eyes wide open and staring upon me, and its features thin, hollow and death-hued—was the corpse I had brought from the cemetery.

“In God’s name, avaunt! ” I gasped. “Go back to your grave, and rest in peace! I will never disturb you again!”

The large hollow eyes looked more wildly upon me—the head moved, the lips parted, and a voice, in a somewhat sepulchral tone, said, “Where am I? where am I? Who are you? Which world am I in? Am I living or dead?”

“You are dead,” I gasped, sitting up in bed, and feeling as if my brain would burst with a pressure of unspeakable horror; “you were dead and buried, and I was one of the guilty wretches who this night disturbed your peaceful rest. But go back, poor ghost, in heaven’s name! and no mortal power shall ever induce me to come nigh you again!”

“Oh! I feel faint!” said the corpse, gradually sinking down upon the floor, with a groan. “Where am I? Oh! where am I?”

“Great God!” I shouted, as the startling truth suddenly flashed upon me; “perhaps this poor girl was buried alive, and is now living!”

I bounded from the bed, and grasped a hand of the prostrate body. It was not warm—but it was not cold. I put my trembling fingers upon the pulse. Did it beat? or, was it the pulse in my fingers? I thrust my hand upon the heart. It was warm—there was life there. The breast heaved—she breathed—but the eyes were now closed, and the features had the look of death. Still it was a living body—or else I myself was insane. I sprung to the door, tore it open, and shouted for help. “Quick! quick!” cried I. “the dead is alive! The dead is alive!

Several of the students sleeping in adjoining rooms came hurrying to mine, thinking I had gone mad with terror, as some of them had heard my voice before, and all knew to what a fearful ordeal I had been subjected.

“Poor fellow!” exclaimed one, in a tone of sympathy; “I predicted this!”

“It is too bad,” said another; “it was too much for his nervous system!”

“I am not mad,” returned I—comprehending their suspicions; “but the corpse is alive!—hasten and see!”

Hey hurried into the room, one after another; and the foremost, stopping down to what he suppposed. was a corpse, put his hand upon it, and instantly exclaimed, “Quick a light and some brandy! She lives! she lives!”
All now was bustle, confusion, and excitement, one proposing one thing, and another something else, and all speaking together. They placed her on the bed, and gave her some brandy, when she again revived. I ran for a physician (one of the faculty), who came and tended upon her through the night; and by sunrise the next morning she was reported to be in a fair way of recovery.

And recover she did; and turned out to be a most beautiful creature, and only sweet seventeen. But that is not all: for she turned out an heiress, and married me!

Yes: that night of horror only preceded the dawn of my happiness; for that girl—sweet,
lovely Helene Leroy—in time became my wife, and the mother of my two boys.
She sleeps now in death, beneath the cold, cold sod, and no human resurrectionist shall ever raise her to life again!
 Frank Leslie’s New York Journal, 1857: p. 85-6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: A most grim and grewsome tale, in the florid French vein of the Gallic tabloids, but Mrs Daffodil does so like a happy ending, even one that sums up an entire lifetime of important events in a paragraph or two.

Mrs Daffodil will not quibble over how a friendless orphan girl was transmuted into a beautiful heiress, but perhaps on the dark and stormy night, the medical students mistook the grave.

 

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 Ghastly Traffic in Grave-Clothes: 1862, 1878

The Ghastly Traffic

A great many horrible things have come out concerning the crime of body snatching since the recent sensations in that line. The miserable ghouls who do the stealing by no means confine their traffic to the dead bodies. While engaged in the nefarious calling, everything is fish that comes to their nets. The clothing of the corpse, and all articles of value in the coffin, are bartered away. Sometimes the Janitor of a medical college will come into possession of quite a stock of “second hand clothing,” obtained from the Resurrectionists; and not infrequently impecunious students are found attired from head to foot in garments that have done duty underground as the raiment of corpses. Undertakers provide a coat-front to cover the breast of a corpse, extending sufficiently below the opening of the coffin to give the effect of an entire garment. When this comes into the hands of the thrifty Janitor, he simply inserts another piece in the back, to match, and is ready for a customer. The false teeth of corpses, especially when set in gold, have been known to be sold to unsuspecting parties, who have used them in the mastication of their food! It was once customary to deck the bodies of the dead in expensive stuffs—silk, broadcloth, satin and velvet; and the knowing ones of the fraternity can, if they will, tell startling stories of the extent to which these stuffs find their way into the market again, after having lain a season in the grave. We believe the custom does not prevail to the length it formerly did; the popular cognizance of the extent of grave robbery as a regular business has quickened common sense in the management of funerals.

It is hard to conceive of anything more horrible than these facts. We might hope that the grave and its accessories were free from any lodgment for humor; yet there is something grotesque beyond expression in the sight of a poor medical student dissection a body while arrayed in the very clothes the “subject” wore when it descended into its “last resting place!”

There is one imperative duty resting upon the legislators of Ohio, and every other state whose statute book is not properly equipped in this respect; and that is the framing of a law for the adequate punishment of this crime. The most that can be done to a grave robber in Ohio is to fine him a thousand dollars and send him to prison for six months! This is ridiculously short of the mark. If the infernal fiends who desecrated the tomb of A.T. Stewart are caught, it is a question whether they can be punished in a manner approaching their deserts. We cannot doubt that the subject will receive the attention it deserves. The dearest ties known to humanity connect us with the last resting places of our dead; and the demand of society that those places be made inviolate must be respected.

Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 20 November 1878: p. 2

The theft of burial clothing seems to have been a crime of opportunity. The Sexton, sometimes in the pay of the Resurrection Men, was in a particularly advantageous position to profit:

A Thievish Sexton.

For two days past our usually quiet city has been thrown into the wildest state of excitement, consequent upon the discovery of the most sickening and revolting facts that were ever brought to light in a civilised country. Last week Moroni Clawson and his confreres, in attempting to “slip by justice,” were fired upon and killed by the officers in charge. Their bodies were buried in the city cemetery at the city expense. Two or three days afterwards, a brother of Clawson obtained permission from the city sexton to disinter the body and remove it to Drapersville, the residence of the Clawson family. At the request of some friends, the coffin was opened, and the body was found to be in a perfect state of nudity. The. brother was in a great rage, supposing that the city authorities, had purposely treated the body of the dead highwayman with this shameful neglect; but on inquiry it was ascertained that he was decently interred, and dressed, in the ordinary habiliments of the grave, Suspicion at once fell upon the grave-digger, a, native of Venice, named John Baptiste. His residence was searched by the police, and a large quantity of burial clothes were found and taken possession of by the officers. After many threats, the inhuman wretch confessed that he had carried on this nefarious practice for nine years, three of which he has been engaged as gravedigger in this city. He is now lodged in the city jail, and the clothing which he has stripped from the dead during the last three years is spread out in the main hall, of the Courthouse, where hundreds of persons are now thronging, seeking for articles of grave dresses rifled from the bodies of friends, fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, and children. A more heartrending spectacle can hardly be imagined. Hundreds of shrouds, winding sheets for old and young, male and female, some whole and some torn, in removing them from stiffened corpses, were strewn about the room. It was a sad sight to see anxious mothers seeking for, yet dreading to find, some little garment, torn with rude, inhuman hands from their infant darlings, whom they had laid away in the tomb, never dreaming they would be disturbed until their sleeping dust should be quickened by resurrecting angels. Now and then a deep sigh, an audible sob, or a violent scream of anguish, indicated that some article of grave apparel had been recognised. Here, a widow pale and sad examining the shrouds of the full-grown, and there was the bereaved mother pressing to her heart, now made to bleed afresh, some tiny stocking, little shirt, cap, or dress. ‘Twas a sad, sad scene; from which we were glad to turn away. The whole people are moved; a heavy gloom like a dark pall hangs over the city; sorrow has entered anew into nearly every household. The cemetery is being visited by crowds, although the weather is cold and stormy. The rich man in his carriage, the poor man on foot, the young widow, the staid matron, the old and infirm, all who have lost friends by death, seem to have an ardent desire to visit the graves that have been so ruthlessly desecrated. The prisoner does not seem to realise the enormity of the crime committed. He seems rather to be possessed of dull and blunted sensibilities, than a corrupt and depraved heart. The populace are much excited, and many are urging the Lynch code, but the more sober-thinking portion of the people counsel moderation and law and order. —Salt Lake City correspondent of the Detroit Tribune.

Otago Daily Times 16 June 1862: p. 5

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil is generally inured to Horrors, but the detail about the false teeth was just that little bit above the odds…  In a curious legal loophole, the bodies of the dead were no one’s property, while the theft of shrouds, coffin-furniture, or trinkets from the body could send a man to prison. Still, given the tight time constraints  under which they operated, it seems doubtful that Resurrectionists would be so scrupulous as to conscientiously strip a body and lay the clothing back in the coffin to be reinterred. Unprincipled undertakers were often happy to resell used burial robes, while shrouds in less presentable condition could be sold to paper-makers, no doubt to end up as black-bordered envelopes.

While Mrs Daffodil is shuddering at the laundry problems posed by garments stolen from the dead, one ingenious Kansas lady, delighted by the attractive shrouds on display at her local undertaker, decided to pre-empt the grave, and steal from the living:

STOLE A SHROUD TO WEAR

An Atchison Woman Trimmed a Burial Robe and Used It.

Burial robes for street dresses is the latest fad, as introduced by an Atchison woman. J.A. Harouff, a local undertaker, missed a woman’s burial robe the other day. Yesterday afternoon he saw a woman on Commercial street wearing the robe. She had adorned with a few fancy frills and trimmings, but there was no doubt as to the identity of the robe, and Mr. Harouff says the dress was a “mighty stylish looking gown.” The undertaker was so astonished that he has decided not to ask for the return of his property. “A woman with that much nerve and ingenuity deserves a reward, not punishment,” he said today.

The Washington Post 17 August 1914: p. 6

For more on Victorian mourning practices and burial clothes, see The Victorian Book of the Dead. For the girl shroud makers of New York and other makers of burial clothing, see Sewing Shrouds and Dead Men’s Shoes.

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.

 

Encore: The Ghost of a Doll: 1862

Mrs Daffodil is hard at work preparing for the upcoming charity fête to be held on the Hall grounds this week-end. Fending off rhythmic dance performers and well-meant jumble-sale donations from aged Colonels (an assortment of edged weaponry and books of French erotica)  has taken its toll, hence this encore post of a macabre story of body-snatching:

 

Has anyone ever yet heard of the ghost of a doll? Such an alleged phenomenon was the cause of much excitement and uneasiness in a fashionable German watering-place, only a few months since; and these were the singular circumstances.

A pretty little girl (daughter of one of the residents) well known in the neighbourhood from being constantly seen playing in the public gardens at W__, died last year, after a few weeks’ illness, having been much soothed and solaced during that painful interval by the companionship of a favourite doll. The latter, who had received the name of ‘Flore’ was scarcely less familiar to the juvenile community than her poor little mistress. It seemed painful to separate the two. At all events, it is a feeling perfectly intelligible that induced the friends of the deceased child to place the doll in the coffin, in the position it had been used to occupy on the bosom of the little sleeper, and thus they were interred in the neighbouring cemetery of B___.

Some weeks elapsed, and then a strange mysterious whisper went abroad that Eulalie (the little girl) and Flore had reappeared in the public walks and gardens. The rumour quickly narrowed down to the apparition of Flore alone; but here it made so determined a stand, as to awaken the attention of the older and wiser members of the community. Not a day passed without one or other of the juvenile playmates bringing home an eager story of Flore’s having been distinctly seen, sometimes sitting under a rosebush, sometimes reclining at full length on a garden seat, sometimes carried in the arms of a certain dark-looking child, whose demeanour had discouraged any close advances, who disdained skipping-rope, and had proved impervious to the seductive influence of hoop.

With some difficulty, the story was traced back to this circumstance, that, about three weeks after the funeral, an intimate playfellow of Eulalie was walking in the gardens, when her attention was attracted by two other children quarrelling. With the curiosity of her years, the little girl hurried up to ascertain the cause of the dispute. It was a doll. No sooner had her eyes lit upon it, than she uttered a scream, flew back to her nurse, and, pulling her towards the spot, bade her look at the ghost of  ‘Flore’ who had been buried with Eulalie.

The nurse complied, but, less familiar with Flore’s specialities than her charge, declined to offer any decided opinion on the subject, excepting that it was certainly no ghost, and had a different cap and bonnet from that in which Flore made her last terrestrial appearance.

The little girl, however, positively maintained that it was Flore, and no other; or, if not Flore, then her ghost, and this opinion she repeated to every acquaintance they encountered during the remainder of the walk. It became, in fact, the child’s fixed idea, and as the alleged frequent sight of the mysterious doll began seriously to affect her health and spirits, the parents, as the readiest means of tranquillizing her, resolved to make a complete inquiry into the matter.

As they knew something of the family (that of a gentleman from the Cape of Good Hope), with whom the doll was associated, there was not much difficulty in getting the toy in question handed over to their scrutiny. It appeared that the little girl was able to mention some certain peculiarities either in the dress or structure of the doll, which were not visible without close examination. These were found to correspond minutely with her description. There was no longer room for question. It was Flore herself.

The ghost was thus laid. But it became necessary to ascertain the cause of the singular resuscitation of Flore’s body, and it presently appeared that the doll had been purchased at a toy shop frequently supplied by a travelling dealer whose habitat was unknown. The authorities at B___ were next applied to, and an order obtained to examine the coffin of the deceased child. It was found empty!

The investigation that followed resulted in the detection of a miscreant who had more than once used his means of access at all hours to the cemetery for the purpose of stripping the bodies of the recently dead, and even, it was darkly hinted, sometimes devoting them to the nutriment of the tenants of his sty. The wretch was condemned to the light penalty of a year’s imprisonment.

 Strange Things Among Us, Henry Spicer, 1863 

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Children were not the usual prey of those human hyenas known as body-snatchers or Resurrectionists, although, as we saw previously, dead foundlings were the perquisite of the dissecting physician in France. The fiend who stole little Eulalie and her doll took a great risk if he was “stripping the bodies of the recently dead,” but seems to have gotten off remarkably lightly. Perhaps he bribed the Judge with some succulent production of his sty.  

Mrs Daffodil is unfamiliar with the legal status of corpses in Germany at the time of this story. However, in England, a corpse was not property and thus could not be stolen. Resurrectionists were careful to strip the bodies they turned over to the physicians. Removing a shroud, a coffin plate–or a doll–would leave the miscreants open to charges of theft with penalties of transportation or even execution. In France, a stiff fine was levied for those who violated graves.

Henry Spicer, who died in 1891, was a writer of novels, short stories, and plays. He was frequently published in Mr.Dickens’s weekly literary magazine All the Year Round. He was also a student of the occult and wrote several books on Spiritualism and like phenomena.

The Kindle edition of The Headless Horror: Strange and Ghostly Ohio Tales contains a bonus chapter about body-snatching in Ohio, including the saga of “Old Man Dead,” and a horrific story of a family murdered so their bodies could be sold to the Medical College of Ohio.

The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition. contains much material about post-mortem hi-jinks.

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 Child Buried Alive and Saved on the Dissecting Table: c. 1830s

A Victorian child's coffin

A Victorian child’s coffin

Even grave-robbers may once in a while be the unconscious means by which a human life is saved. Mr. Hayward, who lives in Missouri, is the man who went through this strange experience. The Kansas City Journal, which I quote, contained the following: “To be buried alive while sorrowing friends stand about the open grave, and then come to life in a dissecting room, is the actual experience of George Hayward, an Independence jeweler. Although years have elapsed since he was lowered gently into his grave, the memory of the moment when the undertaker screwed down the lid of his coffin, shutting out the sunlight, and the sensations he felt as he was lowered into the grave, while a funeral dirge was being chanted by the village choir, still remains to him as a horrible dream. He was conscious from the time he was pronounced dead until he was snatched from the grave by the medical fraternity and laid on the dissecting table in the ‘interest of science.’ Mr. Hayward still retains the grim recollection of hearing the damp earth falling on the coffin lid, a mournful accompaniment to the sobs of relatives. He was unable to help himself or make a sign, and, knowing this, his agony was at times intense. His greatest agony of mind occurred when the sexton rounded up his grave on top and the sound of receding footsteps smote his ears. Mr. Hayward says that at this moment he fell into a dreamy sensation peculiar to a drowning man. How long he remained in this condition he does not know, but his sense of living again came over him when he heard a scraping on his coffin lid some little time after he had been buried.

Mr. Hayward is a man of sixty-nine years of age. For years he has been in the jewelry business at Independence, and at present conducts a shop on South Main street. He has the belief that many people are buried alive, and his own experience has a tendency to confirm this belief. To a Journal representative Mr. Hayward related this burial and resurrection experience with the unconcern of a man who does not fear death. ‘It was in Marshville, England, County Gloucestershire, where I was buried,’ said Mr. Hayward very grimly. ‘My father had a large family of boys, and he raised us all on the farm near the village. I was quite young, and it was my chief delight to go to the fields with my older brothers. In those days the farmhouses were surrounded with big yards filled with straw. This straw was allowed to rot, and in the fall of the year it was loaded on wagons and carted to the fields as a fertilizer. It was a bright morning when we started for the fields, and I ran ahead of the horses. The horses in England are not driven with reins, but they follow the command of the voice. After reaching the field the pitching of the straw commenced. The men used hop picks, which are fashioned somewhat after a heavy pitchfork. While standing near one of the hands, by accident I was struck on the head with one of the picks. It penetrated my scull, and at the time made me feel faint and dizzy. My injury was not considered serious. After returning to the house I was sent into the cellar, and, much to my surprise, I could see in the dark as well as in the light. After coming from the cellar my strength failed me, and I was soon bedfast. Two doctors were called. One of them insisted that my condition was due to the blow on the head, the other that I had pleurisy. At any rate two weeks elapsed, and my eyes closed in supposed death. It was death as far as my relatives were concerned, yet I was painfully conscious of every movement going on around me. My eyes were half closed, and as I was laid out I heard my elder brother, John, walk into the house. I saw him approach the cot with tears in his eyes, and sympathizing friends consoled him by asking him to dry his tears. “He is gone,” they said, and other similar expressions were used around the bier. Well-known faces would peer down at me as I lay with my eyes half closed. Tears rained on my face as the burial shroud was wrapped around my body. As soon as the undertaker arrived I knew I was to be buried alive. Try as I would, nothing could break the spell which bound me. Every action and every word spoken are as distinct to my mind now as then. Well, the time for the funeral arrived, and the service was preached over my living but rigid body. The undertaker approached and the lid of my little prison-house was fastened down. Life seemed all but gone when this took place; but, as I stated, no effort of mine could break the spell. The coffin was shoved into the wagon, and the trundling of the vehicle sounded in my ears. I was painfully conscious of the fact that I was soon to be lowered into my grave. Strange as it may seem, at times I did not feel fear at my impending fate. The coffin was taken out of the wagon and lowered into the grave. In those days boxes were not used as a receptacle for the coffin. The clods of earth fell heavy on the lid of the casket. There I was being entombed alive, unable to speak or stay the hands of my friends. My effort to move proved futile, and the close air of the coffin seemed stifling to me. Suddenly the shoveling ceased and the silence of the tomb was complete. I did not seem to have the fear then that a person would naturally expect under such circumstances. All I remember is that the grave is a lonely place, and the silence of the tomb was horribly oppressive. A dreamy sensation came over me, and a sense of suffocation became apparent. My whole system was paralyzed; were it otherwise my struggles would have been desperate. How long I remained in this condition I do not know. The first sense of returning life came over me when I heard the scraping of a spade on my coffin lid. I felt myself raised and borne away. I was taken out of my coffin, not to my home, but to a dissecting room. I beheld the doctors who had waited on me at my home, dressed in long white aprons. In their hands they had knives. Through my half-closed eyes I saw them engaged in a dispute. They were trying to decide how to cut me up. One argued one way, while the other doctor took another view of the matter. All this I witnessed through my half-open eyes. My sense of hearing was remarkably acute. Both approached the table and opened my mouth to take out my tongue, when, by superhuman effort, my eyelids were slightly raised. The next thing I heard was: “Look out, you fool, he is alive!” “He is dead,” rejoined the other doctor. “See, he opens his eyes!” continued the first doctor. The other physician let his knife drop, and a short time after that I commenced to recover rapidly. Instead of cutting me up they took me home. There was great rejoicing among my relatives. I owed my life to the doctors’ dispute as to what ailed me during my illness. I suppose I was kept alive for some purpose,” continued Mr. Hayward, as he finished his grewsome tale, “for I am the father of ten children.”

The Encyclopaedia of Death and Life in the Spirit-world, Vol. 3, John Reynolds Francis, 1900

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  There are a shocking number of actual first-person narratives from persons buried alive, only to be saved by thieves or Resurrectionists. One English doctor investigating premature burial estimated that 2,700 people a year in England and Wales were buried alive. To counteract this distressing trend, an Association for the Prevention of Premature Interment was founded in 1895 by Colonel Edward P. Vollum, a US Army surgeon, and Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson, eminent sanitary reformer and anaesthetic researcher. One of the suggestions made was to leave a flask of lightly stoppered chloroform in each coffin so that the person buried alive could drift painlessly off into a real death. When Dr. Richardson died in 1896, he was cremated–nonsensically, another method advocated for avoiding premature interment. One must question the logic that promotes being burned alive as a more desireable outcome than being trapped in an airless casket.

For more accounts of burial alive, please see this post.

The account above appears 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 Ghost of a Doll: 1862

A Victorian post-mortem daguerrotype of a child with her doll.

A Victorian post-mortem daguerrotype of a child with her doll.

Has anyone ever yet heard of the ghost of a doll? Such an alleged phenomenon was the cause of much excitement and uneasiness in a fashionable German watering-place, only a few months since; and these were the singular circumstances.

A pretty little girl (daughter of one of the residents) well known in the neighbourhood from being constantly seen playing in the public gardens at W__, died last year, after a few weeks’ illness, having been much soothed and solaced during that painful interval by the companionship of a favourite doll. The latter, who had received the name of ‘Flore’ was scarcely less familiar to the juvenile community than her poor little mistress. It seemed painful to separate the two. At all events, it is a feeling perfectly intelligible that induced the friends of the deceased child to place the doll in the coffin, in the position it had been used to occupy on the bosom of the little sleeper, and thus they were interred in the neighbouring cemetery of B___.

Some weeks elapsed, and then a strange mysterious whisper went abroad that Eulalie (the little girl) and Flore had reappeared in the public walks and gardens. The rumour quickly narrowed down to the apparition of Flore alone; but here it made so determined a stand, as to awaken the attention of the older and wiser members of the community. Not a day passed without one or other of the juvenile playmates bringing home an eager story of Flore’s having been distinctly seen, sometimes sitting under a rosebush, sometimes reclining at full length on a garden seat, sometimes carried in the arms of a certain dark-looking child, whose demeanour had discouraged any close advances, who disdained skipping-rope, and had proved impervious to the seductive influence of hoop.

With some difficulty, the story was traced back to this circumstance, that, about three weeks after the funeral, an intimate playfellow of Eulalie was walking in the gardens, when her attention was attracted by two other children quarrelling. With the curiosity of her years, the little girl hurried up to ascertain the cause of the dispute. It was a doll. No sooner had her eyes lit upon it, than she uttered a scream, flew back to her nurse, and, pulling her towards the spot, bade her look at the ghost of  ‘Flore’ who had been buried with Eulalie.

The nurse complied, but, less familiar with Flore’s specialities than her charge, declined to offer any decided opinion on the subject, excepting that it was certainly no ghost, and had a different cap and bonnet from that in which Flore made her last terrestrial appearance.

The little girl, however, positively maintained that it was Flore, and no other; or, if not Flore, then her ghost, and this opinion she repeated to every acquaintance they encountered during the remainder of the walk. It became, in fact, the child’s fixed idea, and as the alleged frequent sight of the mysterious doll began seriously to affect her health and spirits, the parents, as the readiest means of tranquillizing her, resolved to make a complete inquiry into the matter.

As they knew something of the family (that of a gentleman from the Cape of Good Hope), with whom the doll was associated, there was not much difficulty in getting the toy in question handed over to their scrutiny. It appeared that the little girl was able to mention some certain peculiarities either in the dress or structure of the doll, which were not visible without close examination. These were found to correspond minutely with her description. There was no longer room for question. It was Flore herself.

The ghost was thus laid. But it became necessary to ascertain the cause of the singular resuscitation of Flore’s body, and it presently appeared that the doll had been purchased at a toy shop frequently supplied by a travelling dealer whose habitat was unknown. The authorities at B___ were next applied to, and an order obtained to examine the coffin of the deceased child. It was found empty!

The investigation that followed resulted in the detection of a miscreant who had more than once used his means of access at all hours to the cemetery for the purpose of stripping the bodies of the recently dead, and even, it was darkly hinted, sometimes devoting them to the nutriment of the tenants of his sty. The wretch was condemned to the light penalty of a year’s imprisonment.

 Strange Things Among Us, Henry Spicer, 1863 

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Children were not the usual prey of those human hyenas known as body-snatchers or Resurrectionists, although, as we saw previously, dead foundlings were the perquisite of the dissecting physician in France. The fiend who stole little Eulalie and her doll took a great risk if he was “stripping the bodies of the recently dead,” but seems to have gotten off remarkably lightly. Perhaps he bribed the Judge with some succulent production of his sty.  

Mrs Daffodil is unfamiliar with the legal status of corpses in Germany at the time of this story. However, in England, a corpse was not property and thus could not be stolen. Resurrectionists were careful to strip the bodies they turned over to the physicians. Removing a shroud, a coffin plate–or a doll–would leave the miscreants open to charges of theft with penalties of transportation or even execution. In France, a stiff fine was levied for those who violated graves.

Henry Spicer, who died in 1891, was a writer of novels, short stories, and plays. He was frequently published in Mr.Dickens’s weekly literary magazine All the Year Round. He was also a student of the occult and wrote several books on Spiritualism and like phenomena.

The e-book edition of The Headless Horror: Strange and Ghostly Ohio Tales contains a bonus chapter about body-snatching in Ohio, including the saga of “Old Man Dead,” and a horrific story of a family murdered so their bodies could be sold to the Medical College of Ohio.

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.