Tag Archives: smallpox

The Adventure of the Little Wax Figure: 1895

wax headed baby doll

The Adventure of the Little Lay Figure.

Amongst the many strange things which have befallen me in my career as Court dressmaker, I do not think any experience is more peculiar and out of the way than the one which I am about to relate. I allude now to the “Adventure of the Little Lay Figure.”

By degrees, the difficulties which had beset me in the outset of my career were one by one overcome. I was obliged to take new premises. My show-rooms were wonders of beauty and elegance. I engaged many apprentices, and was, in short, busy from morning till night, and perhaps I ought to add, from night to morning again.

The story which I am going to tell began at a late hour one evening. I was busy helping to arrange the skirt of a very splendid Court train, and was giving eager directions to one of the most experienced of my work women, when a message was brought to me to the effect that a gentleman wished to see me on urgent business in my show-room.

“He begs of you to go to him at once, madam,” said the girl who brought me the message.

My mouth was full of pins, and I held a pair of sharp scissors in my hand as I listened to her.

“Whoever the gentleman is, he looks in an awful taking,” she continued.

“Well, I’ll go to him,” I replied. I ran downstairs and entered my showroom. A tall man in an overcoat, and holding his hat in one hand, was pacing up and down in front of some of my daintiest dresses. A pretty pale blue frock for a little girl of ten, which was to be sent home that evening, seemed in especial to rivet his attention.

As I entered the room, he stooped and took a portion of the fabric between his finger and thumb. “You are Miss Ross?” he interrogated.

“Yes,” I answered. “You have made this?’’ he continued.

“Yes,” I replied again.

“It is in the height of the fashion, I hope?’’

“It is,” I said. “I have copied it from last week’s fashions in the __.” I mentioned the name of our leading journal of fashion.

The gentleman bowed slightly. “It appears to be the correct sort of thing,” he said, “not that I know anything really about such matters. My name is Forrester. I live about eight miles out of town. I require the services of a competent dressmaker without a moment’s delay. My carriage is waiting at the door. Can you come with me at once?’’

“Not to-night,” I began.

Mr. Forrester interrupted with an impatient wave of his hand. “Money is not of the slightest object to me,” he said. “I will pay you any sum you like to ask. Let your work go. This is an affair of life or death. I require your immediate services, and feel sure that you cannot refuse them to me. You will reach my house in an hour and a half. With the assistance that will be given you, you will probably do what is required in a few hours, and I will undertake to send you home as soon as ever your task is done.”

“I can send an able assistant,” I began.

“Pardon me, I must have someone I can trust. I like your face, and am willing to employ you in this most delicate matter. Will you come immediately or not? If you say no, I must seek instant assistance in another quarter. Now, is it yes or no?”

As he spoke I looked straight up at my queer visitor. He was a man of about thirty-five, his eyes were dark, and his hair and sweeping moustache were raven black. He looked like a man who had gone through a great mental storm, but there was something frank and even pleasant about his expression which impelled me not only to sympathise with him, but to like him.

“It is very awkward for me to go,” I said, “but the call of trouble cannot be refused. You must give me five minutes to get ready and to give a few directions to my workwomen, then I will be with you.”

“I am exceedingly obliged to you, Miss Ross,” he answered; he sank down on the nearest chair and uttered a heavy sigh of relief. I rushed away, and at the end of the appointed five minutes was again by his side.

“I am ready now,” I said, “but before we start it may be well for me to know something of  the sort of services which are required of me. I presume I am expected to assist in the making of an important dress. Is it for an old, a middle-aged, or a young lady?”

He gulped down a sort of choking sensation in his throat before he replied.

“The dress is for a child,” he said, “for quite a young child. It must be very soft and pretty, and above all things, fashionable.”

“Is the child dark or fair?” I asked.

His face grew whiter than before.

“The child is fair as an angel,” he said, bringing out the words with difficulty.

“Then perhaps it would be well for me to take some suitable stuffs with me,” I said.

I opened some drawers as I spoke, made a hasty selection from a lovely assortment of soft silks and crêpons, wrapped them up in brown paper, put them into a bag which I carried in my hand, and then followed Mr. Forrester to his carriage.

A footman in livery and powder opened the door for us.

“Tell Jenkins to drive home as fast as ever he can,” said Mr. Forrester to the man. We started forward immediately at a rattling speed, and in an incredibly short space of time found ourselves outside London and on a high road, which I could see in the moonlight was smooth and flat, and commanded a level sweep of country. We drove on for three-quarters of an hour without my companion addressing a single word to me. At the end of that time he broke the silence abruptly.

“I have asked you to come with me,” he said, “to execute a most strange and unusual task. The fact is, my wife has just gone through a terrible illness. Her health in consequence is in a very precarious, I may say dangerous, condition. Her life hangs by a thread, and a very slight shock would kill her. The means which I am about to employ, and in which I seek your assistance, seem the only possible ones to prolong a most valuable and precious life. Dressmaking is not accompanied by such grave issues as a rule, but this case is altogether exceptional.”

“I wish you would tell me frankly what you want me to do,” I said, nettled and somewhat alarmed by his mysterious words.

“I find it difficult to tell you,” he replied; “have a little patience, and you will soon know.”

There was such despair in his voice that I forbore to question him further, and soon afterwards we reached some gates, which were immediately flung open, and the horses plunged down a long avenue overshadowed by trees.

“Remember,” said Mr. Forrester, as we approached the hall door, “that money is no object—no object whatever. The mission I ask you to undertake for me is of so delicate a character that there are few women to whom I could entrust it. I feel sure, when you know all, that you will regard it as a secret. Here we are at last, thank heaven. Now, Miss Ross, have the goodness to follow me.”

We had drawn up at the entrance to a large mansion. A footman ran down a tall flight of steps to open the carriage door, and Mr. Forrester helped me to alight.

“Is Austin in the nurseries, James?” asked the master of the house.

“Yes, sir; Mrs. Austin told me to tell you that she was in attendance and was waiting for your arrival,” answered the footman.

“Very well. Please follow me, Miss Ross.”

We found ourselves in the stately entrance hall, but my host did not give me a moment to look around me. He hurried me down some long corridors and up some richly carpeted stairs, then down other passages and up other stairs, until we drew up at last outside a red baize door.

Here he paused for a second.

“Mrs. Austin can explain better than I can the peculiar services which are required of you,” he said. He opened the door as he spoke, and ushered me in. I found myself in a cheerful and beautiful room. A bright fire burnt in the grate. Wax candles and lamps added to the pleasant effect. The walls were hung with lovely pictures of childhood in many forms. A rocking-horse stood in one corner. A doll sat dismally up in a little arm-chair and stared at me with two round black eyes. The expression on that doll’s face seemed immediately to get on my brain. I turned away from it with a sinking of heart which I could not account for. A middle-aged woman, whose eyes were red as if she had been weeping, came eagerly forward when we appeared.

“I have brought Miss Ross, Mrs. Austin,” said Mr. Forrester. “She is an excellent dressmaker, and will do exactly what is required. See that she gets what assistance is necessary for her work. Miss Ross will be occupied all night, but I should wish to see her before she leaves in the morning.” Here Mr. Forrester turned and bowed to me; the next moment he had vanished.

“Will you take off your bonnet and cloak, Miss Ross?” said Mrs. Austin. I did so without speaking, and with hands which trembled slightly. There was evidently much tragedy in the mysterious affair in which I was called to play a part, and steady as my nerves were, they began to be affected.

Mrs. Austin stood quietly before me. She looked at me earnestly. Her lips were firmly set, but the red rims round her eyes showed the strong control in which she was keeping her emotions.

“Now what am I to do?” I asked. “Your master says I am to make a dress in a great hurry for a child; where is the child?”

“In this room, my dear. Follow me immediately if you please. Oh, you needn’t be frightened; it is nothing infectious.”

I followed the woman with a beating heart. The next moment I found myself in a room where a shaded light was burning, and where another woman, who looked like a trained nurse, was seated by a cot. Even in the darkened light I could dimly notice the outline of a child’s form. She lay perfectly still; her breathing was fast and hurried. The room had that faint, intangible smell which generally accompanies severe illness.

“Why am I brought to see a sick child?” I asked of Mrs. Austin in a whisper.

“Hush, don’t speak; you will know all in a moment,” she replied; then she turned to the trained nurse.

“This is the dressmaker, nurse,” she said. “Will it do Miss Dorothea any harm for Miss Ross to take one good look at her face and figure?”

The nurse shook her head in reply.

“Nothing will harm the child now,” she said; “she is dying fast. Dr. Norton was here not an hour ago, and he does not think she will live to see the morning.”

The woman spoke in a matter-of-fact tone. She took up a candle as she spoke, and motioned to me to approach the little bed. I did so, and looked down at the most beautiful child’s face I had ever seen. Already, however, it looked like a face cut out in wax, so deadly white were the cheeks and lips, so sunken the eyelids which sheltered the closed eyes. The child lay absolutely motionless, her feeble and hurried breath being the only signs that she lived. Her quantities of magnificent golden hair were flung high over the pillow. I gazed at her in pained astonishment. What was the mysterious mission which I was called upon to perform for this dying child?

“You have seen her,” said Mrs. Austin; “you notice that she is fair; observe her figure too; she is slender, very slender. Now, nurse, here are a pair of scissors; if you will cut off the hair, I think we can go immediately to work.”

“I will bring you the child’s hair in a few moments,” replied the nurse. “Miss Ross had better begin her task directly. I will follow you in a few moments into the day nursery.”

We left the room. I sank down on the nearest chair in the outer apartment.

“This frightens me,” I said. “I cannot imagine what task I am expected to perform.”

“Oh, you’ll be brave enough,” said Mrs. Austin; “it isn’t for you to flinch when we have to go through with it. Now listen to me. I’ll tell you the tragedy of this house in a few words. The dying child we have just come from is the heiress to all this splendid old place—not that that matters—what am I talking of? Wealth is of little matter in a supreme moment of this kind. Now listen to me, Miss Ross. My master, Mr. Forrester, is the most devoted husband and father in the world. A month ago there were no happier people on earth than Mr. and Mrs. Forrester and the dear child whom God is taking away from us.

Six weeks ago Mrs. Forrester became very ill. How she took the infection no one knows, but she suddenly developed the most awful form of smallpox.”

I could not help starting; the terrible words pressed like ice against my heart.

“You needn’t be frightened,” said Mrs. Austin. “Precautions of so perfect a nature have been taken that there is not the faintest risk of infection for any one in the house. For days my poor lady lay truly at death’s door; then her disease took an extraordinary turn—she became possessed with an almost insane longing to see her child. She had always been the most unselfish of mothers, and I can only conclude that the illness slightly turned her brain. No persuasions, no arguments had the least effect upon her; she moaned and cried for the child day and night; she said she did not want to touch her, but see her by some means or other she must and would. The doctors at last became quite alarmed, and said that her recovery depended on indulging this craving. After thinking matters over, they devised a plan by which the mother could see the child without risk to the little one. An air-tight window was introduced into Mrs. Forrester’s dressing: room; this dressing-room communicated with another room which was hastily fitted up as a sort of study for the child, and through this window day after day during her convalescence the mother has gazed at the child without the child seeing her, or knowing that she was there. As soon as the window was made, and Mrs. Forrester’s wish could be gratified, she began rapidly to get better; but on Monday last Miss Dorothea developed acute pneumonia, and, as you have just heard, her recovery is hopeless. To tell Mrs. Forrester the truth at this juncture would, the doctors say, bring on such a relapse that either her life or her reason must be the forfeit. She is anxiously counting the hours when she can again clasp the child to her heart, and knows nothing whatever of the terrible illness which is going to take the little one from her. The doctors are nearly distracted, and as to Mr. Forrester, you may imagine the state of his feelings. An idea, however, has occurred to the medical men, which they think may possibly be successful. What they want is time—time to allow Mrs. Forrester to get up her strength sufficiently to bear the blow of her child’s death. She is already fearfully anxious and suspicious at not having seen the child since Monday morning, when the illness first began. The nurses and doctors have put off her questions, and have tried to avert her suspicions in all kinds of ways, but I am told that to-night the poor lady is in a frantic state of unrest and misery—in short, Miss Ross, we have not a moment to lose.”

“I will do all in my power,” I said. “I don’t know in the least what I am to do, but you may be sure when you tell me I will do my very best.”

“Your work is straightforward enough,” replied Mrs. Austin. “Mr. Forrester has had a little wax figure made to resemble the child in all particulars. The child’s own hair is to be put upon the little figure, and you are to dress it. There are some peculiarities about Miss Dorothea which I will specially point out to you; all these you will carefully copy in the little effigy which is to represent her. The little figure is to wear a perfectly new and fashionable dress, which Miss Dorothea was to put on the next time her mother saw her, and which, of course, was never made when the child became so dangerously ill. Mrs. Forrester has always been most particular with regard to the child’s wardrobe, and knew that she was to wear a specially charming and fashionable frock when next she saw her. Now you know what you have got to do —you are to make a beautiful and becoming frock, and you are to give such a life-like air to the little figure, that when my poor lady sees it through the window, she will never guess that it is not Miss Dorothea herself. The figure can be seated with its back slightly turned to the window, and we hope that my poor mistress will never notice the terrible deception practised upon her.”

When I clearly understood what my work was to be, I sat perfectly still. My feelings of astonishment almost stunned me.

“Why don’t you speak?” said Mrs. Austin, giving me an anxious, dissatisfied glance.

“I have been thinking,” I replied, brisking up and rising to my feet as I spoke. “What you have told me has amazed—yes, and terrified me. I promise to do my best; oh yes, you may be sure of that, but  forgive me for saying I think your scheme has little chance of success.”

“It shall succeed,” interrupted Mrs. Austin.

“God grant that it may, if by it your poor lady’s life is saved; but have you not thought of the frightful risk? Remember you are playing with edged tools —you are going to practise this deception on a mother. I remember my own mother; I do not think the most perfect wax representation of one of her children could for a moment have deceived her. You say that Mrs. Forrester is to gaze at the little figure through a window.”

“Yes, yes; she has often since her illness looked at Miss Dorothea in the same way.”

“But the real Miss Dorothea has moved,” I said; “children are never still. The mother has watched each familiar gesture; she has seen the little face wearing many expressions. Now the wax figure—”

“We have thought of all that,” interrupted Mrs. Austin. “The little wax effigy is supplied with wires which will cause certain involuntary movements; the figure will wear the child’s own hair, and will be placed with its back to the mother. She will not dare to call to it, for she would not for worlds let the child see her poor scarred face until it is better. She has promised faithfully never to speak to the child when she looks at it through the window, and I do not for a moment believe she will break her word. In a few days now she will be free from infection, but until then nothing would induce her in her saner moments to risk frightening the child in any way. Oh, I know it is a terrible, terrible risk, but we are forced to run it. God grant that it may succeed.”

“I can fervently echo that prayer,” I responded; “and now let me set to work. I have brought some beautiful materials for children’s frocks with me, and will do my very best to dress the little figure so that the mother may be pleased.”

“We have a workroom all ready for you just beyond this nursery,” said Mrs. Austin. “My mistress’s maid and I will assist you all night. A hairdresser will also be in the room busily converting the child’s own hair into a little wig. Now come; we have not too much time.”

I followed Mrs. Austin, and a few moments later had begun my task. All night long I worked, directing my assistants and manufacturing with their aid one of the most lovely children’s dresses I had ever made. As the dress grew under my fingers I thought of the dying child who would never wear it. There was an ethereal quality about her little face which haunted me. As I worked I seemed to see her with her white wings, in the dress which the angels would give her to wear. I cannot tell why, but the whole tragedy of this most pathetic and terrible story seemed to get into the tips of my fingers, and to help me to fashion the white which I was making. It is impossible for me to describe exactly its particular cut and design. I only know that it looked like no other dress I had ever made. Even now, when I think of it, a lump gets into my throat and a dimness comes before my eyes. As the night wore on, I began to feel a tender affection for the poor little lifeless figure I was clothing. I had only seen the child in illness. When I looked at her sweet face, she was lying under the grey and awful shadow of death, but the little representation of her had been cunningly contrived to resemble the child in health. The colouring on its face was very faint, but the large eyes were blue and rich in their depths, the lips were slightly parted, there was the faint dawning of a happy smile in the expression. The hairdresser worked hard and without a moment’s intermission at the wig of golden hair. When it crowned the little head of the figure, I could not help exclaiming at the lifelike appearance it gave it.

As the hours flew on, my queer work fascinated me. I forgot that I was due in London at an early hour in the morning; my own affairs, my many orders, sank into insignificance. I thought of nothing but the dying child, and the mother who would surely die or become mad if she knew the truth.

When the dawn broke in the winter sky, the hairdresser and I had completed our work. The little figure was clothed in exact representation of the living child. Mr. Forrester was hastily summoned to look at it. His visible start and the colour which rushed over his face, leaving it the next moment deadly pale, were proof sufficient how well we had succeeded.

“You have done splendidly,” he said, coming up to me and speaking in a hoarse voice; then he hastily left the room to hide his emotion.

I had done my task, and under other circumstances would have returned to town, but at this moment there came a knock at the door, and Mrs. Austin went hurriedly to open it. She was absent for some little time talking to someone in the passage, then she returned to me.

“What is to be done now?” she said. “Nobody could have performed their part better than you have done, Miss Ross, and it would be unreasonable, more than unreasonable, to expect anything further at your hands.”

“Not at all,” I said. “I am much, I am deeply interested. In short, if your master will permit me, I should like to stay here until after the experiment of showing the wax figure to your mistress has been tried. I cannot rest until I know if it has been successful.”

“It must be successful,” said Mrs. Austin. “I can’t look at the little figure sitting by that table so natural and life-like without the tears springing to my eyes. Somehow it seems as if she must turn round and speak to us, sweet lamb; but dear, dear, I’m forgetting the new worry.”

“What is that?”

“My poor mistress has been in a very fretful and queer state all night. I have just seen one of the nurses, and she says that she has had a terrible time with her. There is really little or no doubt that the smallpox has slightly affected my mistress’s brain, and now nothing will satisfy her but to have a dress, which was not finished when she took ill, tried on, in order that she may wear it to-day when she looks at the child. It is blue velvet, and Miss Dorothea had taken a fancy to it, so I conclude that is the reason why the wish to wear it has got upon the poor lady’s brain. The nurses know nothing about dressmaking, nothing will induce Simkins, the lady’s maid, to go near my mistress, and—“

“You want me to go?” I interrupted.

“Would you be dreadfully afraid? The doctors say there is little or no infection now from the disease, and you could fit her in a new room into which she is to be moved this morning.”

I hesitated. In this critical moment, was the slight risk to my own life of much value?

“I will go,” I said, “and be vaccinated when I go back to town to-night.”

“Miss Ross, may heaven reward you. You are the bravest woman I ever met.”

“Tell me one thing before I go,” I said; “for it may not be safe for me to see you again. How is the child this morning?”

“Alive, but sinking fast. Oh, God, help the poor mother; if through your assistance, Miss Ross, we keep the terrible truth from her for a week, she will probably have strength to bear the blow when it really falls.”

“Pray give me some breakfast,” I said. “I will go to Mrs. Forrester immediately afterwards.”

“Come this way; what a good woman you are! We can never forget what you are doing for us.”

I had something to eat, and immediately afterwards was conducted to a large bedroom, where Mrs. Forrester and the two nurses, who waited on her day and night, received me. The poor lady herself sat behind curtains, which partly concealed the ravages which the terrible complaint had made on her face. The nurses were very cheerful and practical women. The blue velvet dress lay on a large table in the middle of the room. The skirt was completely finished, but the body required to be taken in and altered, as Mrs. Forrester had shrunk much during her illness. I went about my task in a matter-of-fact spirit, very different from that with which I had worked at the little white dress in the night. Mrs. Forrester talked while I pinned and altered; her dark and beautiful eyes had a slightly vacant look, but she was interested in her dress, stroking down the soft folds of the velvet with her emaciated white fingers. One of the nurses assured me that she would not be permanently marked by the smallpox, and would be quite as beautiful as ever after a time. All her talk while I fitted and arranged the dress was about little Dorothea.

“Be as quick as you can, Miss Ross,” she said many times. “My little girl must be beginning her studies now, and I am quite pining to look at her. It is some days since I have seen her. The child begged for a holiday, and has not been near the study. You see, she does not know that I look at her through the air-tight window, but you cannot guess how I long to see her. My heart is quite starved for another sight of my precious little darling. Nurse, when did you say that I should be quite free of infection? When do the doctors think it will be safe for me to kiss the child? To-morrow, nurse? Do they think it will be safe for me to kiss her to-morrow? Oh, pray don’t think of my poor scarred face; she won’t mind that, my sweet one. I may see her to-morrow, may I not, nurse?”

“Perhaps by the end of the week, dear madam, scarcely to-morrow,” answered the nurse.

“Oh, I have not patience to wait; how cruelly long the time is. Miss Ross, I see that you are a very accomplished dressmaker. You are making this dress fit me most beautifully. How did it happen that you were in the house?”

I thought for a moment, then I said boldly:

“I was sent for to make a new dress for Miss Dorothea.”

“That is delightful; I am most particular about the child’s clothes. I hope it is a pretty dress.”

“It is beautiful.”

“Is it finished?”

“Yes; she will wear it when you see her.”

Soon afterwards, my task being finished, I left the room. The reports from the child’s nursery were just the same; she was alive, and that was all; no one had a shadow of hope about her. Mrs. Austin, whose cheeks were the colour of peonies in her excitement, whispered to me that the little wax figure was now in the study, and that the mother would soon go to the window of her dressing-room to look at it. She left me almost immediately after giving me this information, and I found myself alone. A burning curiosity suddenly seized me to gaze at my own handiwork. There was no one by. I felt sure that I could find my way to the study. I determined to go there to take one good look at the effigy of the child. I stole away on tip-toe, found the room, and went in. by a table. I must own that I had never seen before, either in wax or marble, so lifelike a representation. One arm was pressed on the table, the small dimpled hand was supporting the child’s cheek. From where I stood, the profile could be slightly seen; the rich golden hair fell partly over the little hand, and cast a life-like shadow on the fair face. The clockwork within the figure had been evidently wound up, and it stirred now and then in the most absolutely natural manner.

“That little figure would deceive me,” I said to myself, “but can it take in a mother? That is the question which is so soon to be decided.”

I was still gazing at my own work, when a faint sound caused me to hide quickly behind a screen which happened to be in a part of the room. From there I could see without being seen. I saw the lady in her blue velvet dress come up to the window and look in with a long, earnest, hungry gaze. For a moment she was absolutely motionless. I kept looking at her, too fascinated, too intent to move. Was she satisfied? Would she go away after a time without detecting the awful sham which was being played upon her? She gazed on; she stood as if rooted to the spot. Suddenly, to my terror, I saw a new look come into her eyes, a suspicious, watchful look; it grew and deepened, the eyes filled with fear; the next instant she had left the window; the next, she had rushed into the room.

“I am here, Dolly, my darling—I am here. I must kiss you—I can’t live without kissing you,” she exclaimed. She made a long stride towards the little figure, and clasped the lifeless wax image to her breast. The next terrible moment shriek after shriek filled the room. I can never forget that sound. I can never forget the look on that woman’s face. She had spurned the little figure, which lay prone on the ground, and incoherent, wild, and mad words began to pour in a torrent from her lips. Mrs. Austin and Mr. Forrester both rushed on the scene. They did not notice me; from the first no one had seen me. I don’t know what impulse came over me just then, but I have felt since that I was guided by a Power higher and greater than my own. As if there wings to my feet, I ran from the room. I burst open the door of the night nursery where the dying child lay.

“Give her to me,” I said to the nurse. “Wrap something warm round her, and give her to me at once. She lives; perhaps she will not die; perhaps she will recover. At any rate, give her to me, at once . . . this moment. . . . It is the only chance.”

The woman stared at me as if I were mad. I did not mind her; the strength of a dozen women seemed to have got into me. When the nurse tried to prevent me, I pushed her aside. Quick as thought, I wrapped a warm blanket round the child, and rushing down the passage, carried her into the room where the poor mother was raving madly.

“Here she is,” I said, “your own child, your very own. She lives; take her, save her —let your great love save her—oh, I believe it will.” I put the child into Mrs. Forrester’s arms. The moment she lifted it she stopped muttering. The little one opened her sleepy eyes and gazed full up at her mother. She saw no scars, no ugliness in the well-loved face. She put up her hot hand to stroke it. Mrs. Forrester turned and bore her quickly out of the room.

The mother herself nursed the child back to life and health. Little Dorothea never took the smallpox.

The Woman at Home, “Stories from the Diary of a Court Dressmaker,” L.T. Meade, 1895: pp.  434 -444

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil, who has something in her eye, can add nothing to this tale.

That grim and grewsome [sic] person over at Haunted Ohio shared a strange story one Halloween about a ghastly wax effigy of a child with a less happy ending.

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 Plague Shawl: 1878

Did the gift of a shawl bring the plague to Russia?

Did the gift of a shawl bring the plague to Russia?

Mrs Daffodil must once again beg the indulgence of her readers. Something has gone wrong with the pneumatic tubes that deliver Mrs Daffodil’s work to the public, so she has asked that scribbling person over at the Haunted Ohio blog for the loan of a post to fill the gap. Here, then, without further ado, is “The Plague Shawl.”

Today’s post returns to one of my favorite themes: deadly clothing. We have covered the perils of poisoned stockings and noxious hairpieces. The history of disease is filled with cases of contagion spread by textiles:

In 1665 at Eyam, in Derbyshire, a tailor received a flea-infested shipment of cloth from London. He was dead of the plague within a week. Heroically, the villagers voluntarily quarantined themselves to keep the disease from spreading—at a fearful cost: at least half of Eyam’s inhabitants died.

At Fort Pitt, in 1763, two Native American chiefs were given blankets and a handkerchief from smallpox victims, possibly causing an outbreak of the disease and extensive casualties among the Indians.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1838 story, “Lady Eleanore’s Mantle” tells of a richly embroidered cloak believed to have brought the smallpox to Boston. The story is fiction, but Hawthorne’s readers’ belief in an infected cloak causing an epidemic was not.

In 1872, Ipswich was hit by an outbreak of smallpox, blamed again on textile infection:

During Christmas week two imported cases occurred…a young man brought a bundle of infected linen with him from London, and had it washed in Ipswich. Twelve days after, the servant who washed the linen showed symptoms of small-pox. In another case, a woman, who had been at Highgate Hospital, brought with her a shawl which she had worn during convalescence, but had not been disinfected; and in fourteen days her sister, who washed the shawl, was attacked, and a boy also in a house to which the sister went before the rash appeared upon her. This case might also have been caused by the infected shawl. The disease shortly afterwards broke out in Harwich and was very fatal, as 24 per cent. of the cases admitted died in the hospital. The Sanitary Record, Vol. 8, 1878

In a very recent case, in September of 2012, a young girl contracted the plague from her sweatshirt which had been laid by a decomposing (and flea-ridden) squirrel.

Then there is this story from 1895 illustrating the improbably long shelf-life of smallpox:


How an Old Lady and Her Little Shawl Carried Death With Them.

The tenacity and virility of smallpox germs are to the medical fraternity one of the wonders of contagion, and were never made apparent so startlingly as a few years ago in the little village of Hector, this state, says the New York Sun. This is an isolated place, being at the time of the smallpox epidemic there twenty miles from any railroad, and its people rarely traveled far from home, and few strangers were visitors there. Early in the fall smallpox broke out in the village. The disease was not known to be anywhere in the vicinity. How it happened to appear there was a mystery that remained unsolved for months, but was at last cleared up through the investigation and inquiry of Dr. Purdy of Elmira.

Dr. Purdy learned that one day in the winter preceding the breaking out of smallpox in Hector a passenger on an Erie railway train was taken violently ill just after leaving Salamanca, and a physician who was on board the train discovered that the passenger had the smallpox. When this became known the other passengers in the car hurriedly left it for another one. The car containing the smallpox victim was placed on a siding when the train reached Hornellsville, where it was quarantined.

Among the passengers who left the car when the case was made known was an old lady who had a ticket for Elmira. Her seat had been the one behind the one where the man with the small-pox sat. She had with her a small shoulder shawl, which had hung on the back of the seat ahead of her. When she left the train at Elmira she placed the shawl in her hand satchel. At Elmira she took a Northern Central train for Watkins, the nearest station to Hector, to which place she was going on a visit to her son’s family. She remained there until the following fall when she was driven by her son to visit another son some miles distant. The day was extremely cold, and her son’s ears being in danger of freezing she took the shoulder shawl from her satchel, where it had been ever since she put it away on leaving the Erie train at Elmira the previous winter, and wrapped it about his head.

A few days after the son returned home to Hector he became violently ill. Before it was known what his ailment was he was visited by various neighbors. Then his disease was pronounced smallpox, and it was such a malignant case that he died within a few days. The disease became epidemic and was not eradicated until the following summer. Every family in the village and immediate vicinity lost at least one member by the disease. That the first case originated from the germs collected by the shawl in the railroad car near Salamanca months before there can be no doubt. Idaho Register [Idaho Falls, ID] 15 February 1895: p. 6

I say “improbably long shelf-life” of smallpox, but the virus is capable of prolonged survival. Excavators in the crypt of Christ Church, Spitalfields, 1984-86, for example, took special precautions, not only against the lead dust from the coffins, but against potentially viable smallpox from dead victims of the disease buried there. And in 2011, an 1860s smallpox scab was seized by the CDC from an exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society.

In Russia, the Plague of 1878-79 was reported to have had its origins in a lethal sweetheart’s souvenir.

A COSSACK FROM THE WAR Brings to His Lady Love

A Costly Shawl Which She Wore Two Days,

Then Sickened and Died, and in this

Lies the Origin of the Present Russian Plague.

London, Feb. 3. The origin of the plague in Russia is thus given: A Cossack, returning from the war to Wetlisuka, brought his lady love a shawl which she wore two days and then sickened with all the symptoms of the plague and died. The following four days other members of her family died. The disease spread rapidly, the local authorities not paying any attention to it till half the inhabitants had died and the remainder were unable to bury them. Then, when the epidemic had assumed serious dimensions energetic means were taken for preventing its spreading, and strict quarantines were established: firstly in towns and villages, shutting off streets where the plague reigns from the rest of the place and secondly by surrounding the villages with troops, so that nobody is allowed to pass in or out.

The panic in Russia is almost incredible. Every class and station in life have petitioned for the entire cessation of all intercourse even postal communication between the rest of Russia and the Volga. Letters from Astrachan and Zaritzin are not received by persons to whom they are addressed. Some people even refuse to take money, fearing the germ of infection might be communicated through it. It is almost impossible to describe the terror which has taken possession of the people.

The Russian Sanitary Commission has proposed to shut off the Volga line from all intercourse with Western Russia and permit communication only under quarantine. Russian railway cars are not admitted to German territory. The export of grain from Poland will suffered severely from this restriction. The Roumanian government are discussing the expediency of prohibiting the transit of Russian provisions sent to victual the Balkan army.

(This appears to be a paraphrase of a New York Times article of 2 February 1879. It appeared in the Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 3 February 1879: p. 1)

The Russian plague caused panic throughout Europe, which feared the spread of an epidemic on the scale of the Black Death. The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica observed that the Russian wave of the disease killed about 362 victims out of a population of about 1700.

It is, of course, impossible to tell if the story of the deadly shawl is more than a fanciful legend, although the story is repeated in a scholarly article: “The Russian Plague of 1878-79,” Hans Heilbronner, Slavic Review, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Mar., 1962), pp. 89-112 in the note on pp. 91-92.

A story was bandied about in 1879 that a Cossack, returning to Vetlianka from Turkish Armenia, brought a scarf to his fiancée as a present. She supposedly wore it for a few days, then developed fearful symptoms of an undiagnosed nature, and died within a few days. The members of her family contracted the same disease and so did some neighbors. Refugees from the village reportedly carried the affliction to other Volga towns and villages.

Strangely, the story is also the subject of a poem by Ohio poet Sarah Piatt



My child, is it so strange, indeed,

This tale of the Plague in the East, you read?

This tale of how a soldier found

A gleaming shawl of silk, close-wound,

(And stained, perhaps, with two-fold red)

About a dead man’s careless head

He took the treasure on his breast

To one he loved. We know the rest.

If Russia shudders near and far,

From peasant’s hut to throne of Czar

If Germany bids an armed guard

By sun and moon keep watch and ward

Along her line, that they who fly

From death, ah me ! shall surely die.

This trouble for the world was all

Wrapped in that soldier’s sweetheart’s shawl.

Pray God no other lovers bring

Some gift as dread in rose or ring.

Poems, Vol. II, Sarah Piatt (London: Longmans, Green and Co.) 1894

If you have an interest in the historical aspects of Russian shawl production, please see http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1563&context=tsaconf for “Luxury Textiles from Feudal Workshops: 19th Century Russian Tapestry-Woven Shawls” by Arlene C. Cooper of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.