Tag Archives: undertaker

The Noble Revenge: 1868

child pine coffin

The Noble Revenge

The coffin was a plain one—a poor miserable pine coffin. No flowers on its top, no lining of the rose-white satin for the pale brow; no smooth ribbons about the coarse shroud. The brown hair was laid decently back, but there was no crimped cap, with its neat tie beneath the chin. The sufferer from cruel poverty smiled in her sleep; she had found bread, rest, and health.

“I want to see my mother,” sobbed a poor child, as the city undertaker screwed down the top.

“You can’t—get out of the way, boy, why don’t somebody take the brat?”

“Only let me see her one minute;” cried the hopeless, helpless orphan, clutching the side of the charity box, and as he gazed into the rough face anguishing tears streamed rapidly down the cheek, on which no childish bloom ever lingered. Oh! It was pitiful to hear him cry “Only once, only once, let me see my mother.”

Quickly and brutally the hard-hearted monster struck the boy away, so that he reeled from the blow. For a moment the boy stood panting with grief and rage, his blue eyes distended, his lips sprang apart, a fire glittering through his tears as he raised his puny arm, and with a most unchildish accent screamed, “When I’m a man I’ll kill you for that.”
There was a coffin and a heap of earth between the mother and the poor, forsaken child—a monument stronger than granite, built in his boy heart to the memory of the heartless deed.

* * *

The Court House was crowded to suffocation.

“Does any one appear as this man’s counsel? Asked the judge.

There was silence when he finished, until, with lips tightly pressed together, a look of strange intelligence blended with haughty reserve upon his features, a young man stepped forward with a firm tread and kindly eye, to plead of the erring and friendless. He was a stranger but from his first sentence there was a silence. The splendor of his genius entranced—convinced.

The man who could not find a friend was acquitted.

“May God bless you, I cannot.”

“I want no thanks,” replied the stranger with ice coldness.

“I—I believe you are unknown to me.”

“Man! I will refresh your memory. Twenty years ago you struck a broken-hearted boy away from his mother’s coffin. I was that poor boy.”

The man turned livid.

“Have you rescued me, then, to take away my life?”

“No. I have a sweeter revenge; I have saved the life of a man whose brutal deed has rankled in my breast for twenty years. Go! And remember the tears of a friendless child.”

The man bowed his head in shame and went from the presence of a magnanimity as grand to him as incomprehensible, and the noble young lawyer felt God’s smile in his soul forever after.

The Olathe [KS] Mirror 5 March 1868: p. 1

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: A pauper’s funeral was the final insult to the poor, who often went into debt–foolishly, said social reformers–to provide a decent burial for their loved ones. While undertakers were sometimes accused of exploiting the poor–quoting them a price for a funeral that was precisely the amount that the burial club had just paid out–they also waited years for payment that sometimes did not come.

One wonders what crime the city undertaker had committed to bring him within the shadow of the gallows. Mrs Daffodil suspects that he had a lucrative contract to provide subjects to the local medical school and, needing to fill his quota, he helped some clients  to join the Choir Invisible prematurely.


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 Undertaker’s Revenge: c. 1930s

The Lowry Mausoleum in Ironton, Ohio.

The Lowry Mausoleum in Ironton, Ohio.

Today’s guest-narrator tells the bizarre and gruesome story of an undertaker’s revenge.

The story began innocently enough in Ironton, Ohio in 1933, when Dr. Joseph Lowry was found dead in his bed. He was thought to have had a stroke and was laid to rest next to his late wife in his $40,000 mausoleum in Woodland Cemetery. His estate amounted to around $300,000.

Official suspicions were first aroused when a key to a safe deposit box was found in the Lowry house, but the box could not be located. It was whispered that several of Lowry’s strong boxes had been emptied by his sister Alice Barger and nephew Clark, who were said to have borrowed money from Lowry in the past. An autopsy was ordered, but on the exhumation morning when the authorities needed a key to the mausoleum, the Bargers were nowhere to be found. Eventually the authorities burned a hole through the heavy metal doors with a welding torch.

Dr. Lowry’s body was autopsied at a local funeral home. There was no sign of a stroke. In addition to previously unnoticed marks of asphyxiation, a surprise awaited. …

But Mrs Daffodil will let the author tell the story in her own discursive way:

Many years ago I ran across a story called “The Coffin with the Plate Glass Front or The Undertaker’s Revenge” by Jean Dolan, which was part of the Ohio Valley Folk Research Project, a collection of locally-collected folk-tales. Part of the story concerned a doctor disemboweled by an undertaker, which, as I am a lover of the grim and gruesome, I filed away for future reference, assuming it was just a folktale.

Then, as I was writing Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Haunted Ohio, I spoke with a genealogy librarian from Briggs-Lawrence County Public Library in Ironton, Ohio. She told me about some of the hauntings at the library and mentioned something about a disemboweled doctor who had formerly lived on the site.

Alarm bells went off. I had assumed the story was just a story, but the librarian graciously sent me newspaper clippings about the sensational story to prove that it wasn’t a fake.

Was he murdered? Why were his insides removed? Here we enter into the realm of conjecture. What follows is entirely speculative, based on local hearsay, gossip, and innuendo, sometimes a more reliable source of truth than the most carefully sworn testimony:

The story goes that when Dr. Lowry’s wife Sarah died in 1931, he ordered a very expensive, custom-made polished wood coffin. When it arrived, it had a slight scratch. Dr. Lowry noticed it at once. The undertaker murmured that it could easily be repaired. The French polisher could be on the job within the hour….

Dr. Lowry cut him short. It wouldn’t do. He wouldn’t be imposed upon with shoddy, second-rate goods. He insisted on being shown the coffins in stock and selected one, a top-of-the-line model, to be sure, with the genuine imitation mahogany veneer but a good deal less costly than the custom-made coffin. Dr. Lowry knew perfectly well that the custom coffin could be fixed but perhaps he was having second thoughts about the Dear Departed, or it may have been one of those minor economies that keep the rich richer than you and me.

The undertaker had not insisted on payment when the order was placed. He went home with a splitting headache and his wife put cool cloths on his forehead while he railed against the miserly doctor. He was his usual unctuous professional self by the time he next saw the doctor at the funeral. But he had the coffin taken up into the loft of the carriage house and covered with a horse blanket. On sleepless nights he brooded over the unpaid coffin invoice.

So when the news came that Dr. Lowry was dead, the undertaker danced a little jig of delight. He had sworn that Lowry would go to go his eternal rest in that expensive casket but it had been made for the Doctor’s wispy little wife and the dead man’s bulging midsection made it impossible to close the lid. Piece of cake, said the undertaker, preening himself on his ingenuity.  He simply scooped out the internal organs, shoveled in a few handfuls of excelsior, stitched up the now much‑diminished belly, and voila! Not only was the coffin a perfect fit but the old man looked trimmer than he had ever looked in life. The heirs congratulated him on how well the old man looked. Only a few people seemed puzzled by the corpse’s diminished height. Oh well, they went away thinking, the dead always look smaller… It had been a simple matter to take up the old man’s legs a bit so the undertaker could cram him into the coffin crafted for the five-foot Sarah.

Soon, however, rumors began to fly around the town that the old man’s death wasn’t altogether a natural one. There was some suspicion that someone had helped the old boy along—either by poison or a pillow over the face.

Dr. Lowry was removed from his $40,000 mausoleum in his plate-glass-fronted coffin. The autopsy revealed a startling secret, but not the one expected. When questioned, the undertaker admitted that he’d taken a few liberties with the old man’s innards. Motivated entirely by spite, he said cheerfully. The undertaker led the authorities to the place he’d buried the remains of the Doc, but the parts in question were too far gone to be analyzed for poison.  Any possible case against the heirs was dismissed for lack of evidence.

It is said that Dr Lowry haunts the Briggs-Lawrence County Public Library in Ironton—the site of Dr Lowry’s former home where he was found dead….He has also been seen roaming the cemetery in search of his missing insides.

Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Haunted Ohio, Chris Woodyard

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil is grateful for her guest’s ghost story contribution. Another story involving a doctor, poison, a ghost, and entrails, may be found at the Haunted Ohio blog. One wonders if the disemboweled Dr Lowry’s ghost could have been placated by the substitution of ersatz entrails: trimmings from a local slaughterhouse perhaps or bits of an opossum run over by a motor-car?

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. 

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.


Was He Buried Alive? An Undertaker’s Obsession: 1907

A safety coffin to prevent burial alive.

A safety coffin to prevent burial alive.

Had Grewsome Experience

Stories Lead Undertaker to Believe He Has Buried Men Alive and He Investigates

[Glasgow (Ky.) Cor. Nashville American]

Recently a lady living here died, and the body was prepared for burial. Several hours after the lady moved and otherwise showed signs of life. She rallied and lived several days, but again died and was buried. The occurrence created much comment, and is still the subject of discussion at times, it being the second case of the kind in this county within a few years, the other happening at a village known as Hiseville.

One night recently a crowd of business men were discussing matters in general and the strange death of the woman was commented on. A well-known business man, whom we will call Clark, his real name being withheld, and who had had a considerable experience as an undertaker, related the following incident, he claimed for the benefit of his undertaker friends, there being present several who had been or were interested in such matters:

“While I was in business at M___, a small village in this county, I was called on to make a burial. When I reached the home of the decedent, I found the corpse still warm and the muscles relaxed, though death was supposed to have occurred several hours before. After the burial I returned home and after a few days forgot the incident.

“Some three months after this I happened to pick up a daily paper, and in scanning the headlines I read, ‘Almost Buried Alive.’ Carefully reading the article, I found a parallel case to the one I had three months before, and as I slowly read how the man had gone into a trance and the burial was about to take place, the corpse was found to be not only warm but perspiring freely, the fact dawned upon me that I had actually buried a man alive. Dropping the paper I sprang up and started for a pick and shovel. The impression seemed to linger with me that the man was still alive, and was at that moment crying for aid. After securing the necessary tools, I began to reason with myself that if I had buried the man alive it was purely an accident, and that if such was the case he had long since died from suffocation, lack of food, &c., so I put the tools back in their place and went about my duties. Try as I would I could not throw off the feeling that I had committed an awful crime and one that I would have to answer for at the judgment day. In my mind’s eye I could see his widow and orphans at judgment, as I had seen them hover about the casket just before consigning it to its last resting place, each with an accusing finger pointing at me. At times I would go for several days without the matter giving me much worry, my duties so completely occupying all of my time, until a chance meeting of relatives of the deceased, or some remark by some one would bring the whole panorama before my mind, becoming more vivid each time.

“Several weeks elapsed and matters were in no better shape than at first. I had grown thin, nervous, irritable, and friends remarked on the change and advised me to seek medical advice, which I steadfastly refused to do, knowing that all the drugs in the world would not reach my case.

“What I wanted most was to share the secret with some one, yet I dared not do so, even to my wife, who was much concerned about me.

“One blustery night while I lay tossing on my bed unable to sleep and going over the horrible details for the ten thousandth time and wondering how long the whole thing would last, like a flash it occurred to me that I might forever settle whether the man had really been dead or not by opening the grave. I wondered why I had not thought of this before. The thought made me sit up in bed. It seemed to me the only way I could at last settle the question as to whether I was really a murderer or not.

“Outside the wind was howling with an occasional dash of rain, and an inky darkness prevailed—just the kind of a night for ghosts to be out. The thought set the cold chills chasing down my spine.

“After an hour spent in weighing the matter, I finally yielded to the strange influence which I could not shake off, and arising and dressing, I got a shovel and started for the graveyard, a mile away, determined to settle all doubts. I reasoned that on such a night no one was likely to be out after midnight and as there were no houses close by, I had very little chance of being detected.

“After trudging the distance I reached the graveyard, where a new problem presented itself. How was I to locate the grave without a light? And I dared not produce a light. The work must be done in the dark until the coffin was reached, when I expected to light a candle and view the body.

“For an hour I walked about among the graves, locating a grave and then deciding it was not the right one, realizing that if my plans were carried out. I must find the grave and begin work. I decided to take chances on lighting a candle until I could be certain of the spot I sought. So with the light I went from grave to grave until I came to the one sought, and after I had got “the lay of the land,” so to speak, I began. When I had been working something like half an hour as noiseless as possible, when I heard some one, not very far away, say in a distinct voice, Do you suppose we could have been mistaken about that light?’

“My heart ceased beating, for to be caught in this act not only meant disgrace to me and my family, but a term in the penitentiary. How could I explain my presence there? Who would believe my story? All this flashed through my mind in an instant and I was completely at my wits’ end. To run meant the abandoning of my purpose and to stay meant detection. What must I do? The nights of torture that I had spent arose before me and rather than a repetition I decided the State Prison preferable, so getting down in the place I had dug out, I waited.

“The men who had been attracted to the cemetery by the light flitting from grave to grave, walked past me discussing what might have caused it. When near me they paused and said, ‘Here is where W___ is buried. I don’t suppose any of his family would be out on such a night, do you?’ The answer was lost as they moved on and to my supreme joy departed.

“After a short time I resumed my work, and my efforts were rewarded. After carefully scraping the dirt off the box, with a small bit I bored a hole and with a keyhole saw soon cut a large section of the box ready to move. After this it was only necessary to remove two screws and the object of my search was in view.

“Then the question of how I would find it arose in my mind. Would the features be distorted and fearful as if from intense suffering, a conviction of my error, or would they be as they were when last I gazed on them, calm and serene? For one short moment I faltered, but summoning all my fast shrinking courage I struck a match and attempted to light the candle, but the anxiety and strain which I had undergone, made me extremely nervous and the first attempt was a failure.

“The next effort was more successful and glancing down I experienced the first genuine pleasure I had felt in months. There calm, peacefully and beautifully to me, at least, lay my friend, and no one can imagine the joy and pleasure of the moment unless they have had a similar experience.

“I replaced the covers, climbed out of the grave and soon had it filled and went on my way home. I simply walked on air, all of my imaginary troubles which had come so near wrecking my health had vanished. I reached home at 3 o’clock in the morning, and, throwing myself on the bed, experienced the first refreshing sleep that had visited me in weeks.

“Shortly after opening my place of business the next day two of my closest neighbors came in and after a while one of them said:

“Tom and myself sat up with old Brother C__ last night until 1 o’clock and as we came home we had to cross the graveyard. Just before we reached the place we thought we saw a light going from grave to grave. We came through the graveyard, but did not see anything, and we concluded that we were mistaken.’ How I could have ever overlooked the fact that Mr. __, who lived near the cemetery, was seriously ill and that neighbors were continually going to and from the house, is more than I have ever been able to explain, except that in my trouble and intense suffering I forgot it.

“However the matter was settled, and I was not even suspected, and I determined never to tell the secret to anyone, but the matter was brought to my mind so forcibly to-night, that I decided to tell it that some of you young undertakers may not make the same mistake I did, which came so near causing the loss of my life, or, worse, my reason.”

The Wichita [KS] Daily Eagle 1 June 1907: p. 4

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil has written before of premature burial. It was a subject that obsessed many people of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. There was no simple way to tell if someone was actually dead. Physicians might use the mirror; they might prick, burn, or whip the skin, or apply a galvanic battery, yet the only certain test was to wait several days for signs of decomposition. Hygienic concerns often encouraged hasty burials, yet there are also stories of corpses left unburied for weeks because they showed no signs of bodily dissolution, even when unembalmed. Some persons made death-bed requests or wrote in their wills that they wished to have their throats cut or hearts pierced, just to make sure they were really, truly dead. Mrs Daffodil will undoubtedly have a story or two on this subject in the near future.

One appreciates that this undertaker was conscientious about whether he had buried a living man or a corpse, but three months is rather a long time period over which to develop scruples.

There will be many stories about death, funerals, mourning, and other grewsome subjects in The Victorian Book of the Dead, which is nearly ready for distribution.

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.

The Man with the Shrouds: 1903

The monument for John Donne, showing him in his shroud.

The monument for John Donne, showing him in his shroud.


Chattanooga [TN] Times

”I have always maintained that every man ought to go to his own funeral dressed like a gentleman,” said the undertaker with artistic tastes. ”No matter how many hard knocks he has had to stand all through life; no matter if he has had to shift along with only one suit to his back, and that a hand-me down; when the struggle is all over and done with, he ought, I say, to make his last appearance dressed in the fashion. The world owes every man at least one good suit of clothes, and if it doesn’t pay its debt before his death it ought to see to it that the account is squared afterward.

“Women are more given to freak burial clothes than are men. Sentiment is largely responsible for their fantastic ideas. They have a special predilection for wedding gowns. I have known women who have been married thirty or forty years to cherish that one precious dress through all the ups and downs of life that they might wear it again on the last great occasion. These gowns look awfully old-fashioned and have a musty odor appropriately suggestive of the grave, after having been done up in lavender and tissue paper for so many years, but vanity no longer plays a part in the scheme of the old ladies’ existence, and style to them is a small matter compared with the gratification of sentiment.

‘”It brings good luck to be buried in wedding clothes,’ one woman told me shortly before she died.

“‘Good luck to whom?’ I asked. ‘How can that possibly benefit anybody? It certainly cannot be much of a mascot for the mourners, and the deceased is done with luck, both good and bad.’

“My answer puzzled her a good deal. ‘I don’t know for whom,’ she said, ‘but I do know that it brings good luck.’

“She evidently believed it, too, for when her time came she was laid away in a wedding outfit that was complete even to the slippers and bonnet. The incongruity of the headgear as an accessory to a burial toilet was enough to make an angel weep. It was an enormous, high crowned, white silk affair, fully fifty years old, and was fearfully unbecoming to her emaciated face, but her relatives had promised that she should wear it, and they were courageous enough to keep their word.

“I buried another woman not long ago dressed in a complete set of furs. Spite, not sentiment, was at the bottom of that exhibition of bad taste. The furs were very costly, and there had long been a bitter dispute among the female members of the old lady’s family as to who should wear them after she was done with them. As the time of her departure drew near the quarrel over the prospective ownership waxed hotter. The old lady herself was sorely perplexed over the merits of the various claimants. Now she inclined toward this one, now toward that. Finally she concluded that since the coveted furs were bound to create discord so long as they were above ground, nobody should have them, but that she should settle the rivalry and spite the whole brood of scheming nieces and cousins by wearing the furs herself to the end of the chapter.

“One of the oddest whims I have ever been called upon to humor was that of the man who insisted on going to his grave wrapped in the traditional winding sheet. He sent for me several days before he died and explained his fancy. I misunderstood him at first. I thought he meant an ordinary white shroud. I could remember the time, away back in my childhood days, when it was the custom to clothe both men and women in those flowing white robes, and I took it that he was simply a little old-fashioned and wished a reversal to primitive customs. But he quickly corrected that impression.

“‘I don’t mean anything of the kind,’ he said. ‘I want to be buried in a sheet—a plain, everyday white sheet.’

”For once my curiosity got the better of my good manners.

“’I’ll do as you ask, of course,’ I said; ‘but will you kindly tell me why you want to be dressed in that peculiar style?’

“The old fellow’s answer fairly staggered me.

“‘Because I’m going to do a good deal of haunting when I’m through with the flesh,’ he said, ‘and I’m going to take the sheet along with me, so there will be no delay about getting down to business. I’m going to leave lots of people behind who have been playing me mean tricks all their lives. I’ve never been able to get back at them in my present state, but just you wait till I get clear of these fetters, and if I don’t haunt them good and hard and make them wish they’d done the square thing by me when they had a chance it won’t be my fault.’

“I couldn’t make out then, and I haven’t been able to make out since, whether the old chap was downright crazy or just eccentric.” concluded the undertaker. “Anyway, it was not my business to investigate his mental condition. My business was to bury him in a sheet so long as he asked me to and was willing to pay for it, and I performed my part of the transaction to the letter.”

Current Literature, Volume 34, edited by Edward Jewitt Wheeler, 1903

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The newspapers of the period often printed articles such as the following, about the prudent men and women who prepared their burial clothing in readiness for the Great Dissolution.  One supposes that dusting around a shroud stored beneath the bed was a kind of domestic memento mori.


Kept Beneath Her Bed

By Woman Who Dies in New York at the Age of One Hundred and Seventeen Years.

New York, December 23. Cheerful to the last moment of consciousness, Mrs. Hannah Kosokopp, the oldest woman in New York and perhaps in the country, died to-day at the Home of the Daughters of Israel, 32 East One Hundred and Nineteenth street. She was said to be 117 years old.

  Cheerfulness had been her secret of health and of long life. In the three and a half years she had been in the institution, Mrs. Kosokopp had not been ill, and had never made a complaint of any kind.

  Mrs. Kosokopp was the most petted person in the house. Only a few days ago, on December 8, she celebrated her 117th birthday. She was born at Kovno, Russia, and remembered shaking hands with the Czar, grandfather of the present rule or of Russia. She also saw Napoleon, she said, when he invaded her country.

Sixty years ago she came to this country and made her home on the east side of this city.

  “When I had been in New York a few years,” she said not long ago, “I became sick. I thought I should die. While I was in bed I made with my own hands a shroud in which I said my body should be wrapped when prepared for burial. I still have the shroud, and keep it beneath my bed. I always have eaten when hungry, sometimes as many as 10 times a day.”

  The shroud was still beneath her bed when she died, and she will be buried in it. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 24 December 1914: p. 1 


Will Be Homespun Dress, Made Seventy-Five Years Ago.

Findlay, Ohio. June 16. Dressed in a homespun dress which she wove more than 75 years ago, Mrs. Francis L. Founds, 93 years old, will be buried at Foutty’s Landing, W. Va., to-morrow. She died here last night. Mrs. Founds was married twice and she wore this dress on each occasion. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 17 June 1913: p. 9 

SHROUD OF DOESKIN Made For Him Nearly Sixty Years Ago Enfolds the Corpse.

Sandusky Ohio, February 10. When Edward Hodgkinson, a wealth Bloomingville man, died to-day his body was dressed in a doeskin suit he had made in London, England, 58 years ago. He had never worn it, having kept it all these years for a funeral garb. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 11 February 1907 p. 1 

Given the extreme length of the Afterlife, it is interesting that so many people choose sentimental garb that will mark them on the streets of Summerland as hopelessly out-of-date. Let us remember that a simple winding-sheet is always stylish and can be worn so many different ways.

 At these links you will find articles on the latest fashions in shrouds (including interviews with the cheerful girl shroud-makers of New York) and shrouds and the supernatural.

Portions of this post appear in The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition.