Tag Archives: Victorian 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 Story: A Gothic Narrative: 1886


Artwork by Jessica Wiesel

Mrs Daffodil was interested to read that 22 May was denominated “World Goth Day,” celebrating “Goth Music and Culture. It was pleasing to think that these plucky opponents of the Roman Empire were at last going to get their own gala day. Alas! On further investigation, Mrs Daffodil’s hopes were dashed to find not Visigoths, but vampires celebrating a festival of kohl, black tulle,  and misery. Not quite the sacking of Rome for which one had longed… But never mind. It furnishes Mrs Daffodil an excuse to share this gripping Gothic tale of terror.


Perhaps I am more sensitive to the horrible than most of my fellow-men—am, in fact, more easily wrought upon. At all events, I have fancied that at times, when I have been telling this experience of mine, I could detect certain indications that some of my hearers were of that opinion; but I have not yet so far failed in charity as to wish any of these scoffers put to a similar test.

I had run over to Paris, had spent a couple of weeks in that bright city, and was on my way home again. I took a night train from Dover to London, and in the compartment which I occupied there was but one other passenger—a sharp, intelligent-looking man, with a very grave face. We got into conversation after traveling more than half the distance in that silence which is invariably adopted by Englishmen when they meet. After discussing general subjects, a remark of my companion’s led me to say that he seemed to have had a very wide experience and among nearly all classes of society.

“Yes,” he answered, slowly, and with a marked hesitation. “Yes, I am an undertaker. I have had a good deal of experience, and I have had my share, I think, of remarkable adventures. I never take this ride from Dover to London without a very painful recollection of one such.”

We had still nearly a half-hour’s ride before us, and his manner, as much as his words, roused my interest. “Do you care to tell it?” I asked. A quick, involuntary shudder gave to his voice a slight tremor, as he answered:

“I wish I could keep from thinking of it, but I might as well tell it as sit here quaking in silence over the awful memory of it.” He paused a moment, drew a long, shuddering breath, and then he commenced:

“A little over a year ago what I am about to relate happened to me. I had established a very good business, chiefly among the upper class of tradespeople—though, of course, I did not decline any call upon me that promised a reasonable profit. I received one day a telegraphic dispatch from Paris, asking me to take charge of a dead body that was to be sent from Paris to London for burial. I was to meet it at Dover on the arrival of the night-boat from Calais, and make all the arrangements for its further transportation by rail, and I was referred to a well-known banker as security for my expenses.

“This looked like good business, so I lost no time in getting the necessary permits, and went to Dover in the evening. I had some details to attend to there, in order that everything might be in readiness and no time lost after the boat arrived. Then I had nothing to do but wait. I sat up reading to keep myself awake.

“It was a beautiful, still night in the late fall, with an almost full moon, I remember; and the boat got in to time. I received the box containing the body, and saw it placed in one of the luggage-vans of the train, and in due course arrived with it at Victoria Station. One of my wagons was there, waiting to take the body to my place, where I was instructed to keep it until the next morning, when the proper parties would call to make arrangements about the burial.

“So far, of course, there was nothing specially remarkable about the affair. It is a little unusual in such cases not to find some one connected with the deceased accompanying the body; but I hardly gave that matter a second thought. I had no doubt but that the right persons would appear later in the day.

“When I got to my shop it still lacked about two hours of daylight, and, as I felt no slight responsibility, I didn’t think of going home, but made myself as comfortable as possible in my office for the rest of the night. You must bear in mind that all the sleep I had secured was a broken, uneasy slumber on the journey from Dover to London, and when I went to sleep in my chair, after stirring the fire into a blaze, I slept very soundly—very soundly, that is, for awhile, for it was still dark when I woke up in a sudden and startling way.

“Have you ever wondered,” the undertaker asked, turning his eyes full upon mine for the first time since he had begun his story, “what mysterious influence that is which makes you feel another presence in the same room as yourself, though you hear no one and see no one? It’s a queer feeling at any time, but I don’t know of any occasion when it can seem more queer and awful than when it comes to a man locked up in the dead of night, with nothing but black plumes and grave-clothes and palls and coffins about him.”

He turned his eyes to the floor again, and a cold tremor crept through my own flesh in the brief and ominous pause he made before he went on, in a lower voice:

“That was the feeling I had when I suddenly woke from sound sleep to full consciousness with a chilling shudder of horror. I was sitting before the fireplace, with my back to the door that led from the office to the shop. I had purposely left the door ajar. The fire had died down to a dull glow, and it seemed to me that a breath from the Arctic Zone had penetrated the room. I cannot describe the kind of cold it was. My very bones seemed to be ice. And then I felt that presence!”

The undertaker seemed terribly affected even now by his recollections of that night. It was impossible to resist the infection, and my own flesh was creeping in a very uncomfortable way. He made a strong effort to recover himself and to steady his voice, but, in spite of all, it trembled with an ever-deepening terror as he went on, curdling my very blood in sympathy.

“I had turned the gas out when I sat down in my chair to sleep, so that the only light in the room came from the dying fire. I became aware of that presence the very instant I awoke. Mind, sir, this is not a dream. I was as fully awake as I am at this moment. The thing was there! It was at the back of me. It was between me and the door. I had got to turn my head to see it. But I knew it was there! Who it was, or what it was, I didn’t know; but I was sure that some living thing was standing behind me motionless in the dim, ghostly light, and was looking at me. My God, sir! it was awful to sit still and feel this thing, and try to make up my mind to turn my head toward it! I am pretty well accustomed to corpses, but I can tell you that I did not feel just then that the corpse out in the other room was any company for me.

“Well, there I sat—feeling that horrible gaze fixed upon me in the utter silence, and the deathlike cold creeping through my veins—striving, struggling to nerve myself to look around and to face the thing, whatever it was.

“Were you ever locked up in a tomb at night?” the undertaker suddenly asked me. I could only shake my head in response; I could not speak.

“I have been,” he said, ” but it was nothing— nothing to those few minutes, while I sat palsied with terror, with that thing behind me! At last, in a kind of nervous spasm, I sprang to my feet, and turned toward the door. The sight froze me! There is no other word for it—I was rigid. I could no more stir than I could arrest the motion of this train now and instantly. My very heart stopped its beating. I wonder I didn’t drop dead myself, for there—not six feet from me—with the livid pallor of death on its face, and its glassy eyes glued to mine, stood the corpse!

“Then it began to approach me. It did not seem to walk—it glided, and not till it reached me did it make a single apparent movement.

“Then—just stand up, will you? I can illustrate better what occurred.”

I did so, and he arose at the same time, and we stood facing each other in the compartment. I was dimly conscious at the moment that we were crossing Battersea Bridge. The undertaker, as he went on, repeated upon me the actions he described.

“Then this dead thing,” he said to me. “slowly lifted its arms and laid its icy lingers on my cheeks and moved them gently downward to my shoulders, pressing hard against me all the time on either side, as I do now on you, and wherever the hands lay they seemed to draw the very life out of the flesh beneath them. Slowly—oh! how slowly—they glided on downward from my shoulders to my breast, beneath my coat, like this. Try to conceive it —try, if you can. Wherever they touched they drew something away from me—some virtue seemed to go out of me. And then the frightful thought came to me that I was dying by piecemeal!—that I was parting with something dear to me as life—bit by bit I could feel it ebbing— ebbing, and at last the horror grew to a conviction. This ghoul was drawing my life’s blood into his own veins! was sucking my substance! What I lost he gained! He enriched himself by making me poor, and it would end—”

“Victoria!” shouted a guard, opening the carriage-door.

“Bless my soul!” exclaimed the undertaker, “are we in? I must hurry to catch my train out.” He seized his satchel, and was on the step before I could get my breath to say, “But the story! I want to hear the end of it.”

He was on the platform now. “Oh! there isn’t much more,” he called back. “The ghoul succeeded—that’s all!”—and he was gone before I could say another word.

As I followed a porter to a cab, and all the way home, I tried to conceive what the undertaker could mean. How could the dead man have succeeded? Here the undertaker was alive and well, and telling me the story. It was very annoying and disappointing to be so baulked, after being so wrought upon. The undertaker had left me no address, so that I was, apparently, doomed never to know the solution.

Only “apparently,” however. When I got out of the cab at my own door I could find no loose change to pay the driver—yet I had some when I took that train at Dover; my well-furnished pocket-book—though that, too, I had at Dover—was gone as well; and my watch and chain had followed suit.

It is painful to lose confidence in human nature in this way.

Arthur’s Home Magazine, 1886

For “The Countess Elga,” an authenticated vampire story, see this link over at the Haunted Ohio books blog.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.


The Corpse was Loose: 1875

After "A Respectable Funeral," cartoon by John Leech

After “A Respectable Funeral,” cartoon by John Leech

Shuckers Wouldn’t Take The Coffin

Over in Wilmington, the other day, a man named William D. Shuckers died. It seems that there was another man in the city bearing precisely the same name, and when the death was announced, a good many of his friends thought he was dead, and they resolved to go to the funeral.

On the day of the funeral the living Shukers also thought he would go, partly for the purpose of ascertaining how it felt to participate in the obsequies of a man named Wm. D. Shuckers. He took up a position in the vestibule, and just as the mourners were about to come out, a friend of his, named Jones, saw him. The first impulse of Jones was to rush through the kitchen, and climb suddenly over the back fence, but he controlled himself, and after poking Shuckers in the ribs with his umbrella to determine positively that he was not a ghost he remarked:

“Shuckers, what on earth are you doing here? Why ain’t you in your coffin?”

“Coffin!” exclaimed Shuckers; “whad’d you mean? What do I want with a coffin?”

“Mr. Shuckers, you know you are dead. Why they got up this gorgeous funeral for you, all these carriages and pall-bearers and things, and the clergy-man’s just been paying you splendid compliments that any dead man might be proud of.”
“But I tell you I am not dead. I’m as much alive as you are.”

“There is no use your arguing the point, Shuckers; the occasion is too solemn for controversy. But if you have any consideration for the feelings of your bereaved family, who are weeping like mad up stairs, and for the undertaker who is waiting inside there with the screw-driver, you will go and get into your coffin and behave. It’s indecent to carry on so at your own funeral.”

“Jones, my boy,” said Shuckers, “you have mistaken—“

“No, I’m not mistaken. You’re dead—technically dead—anyhow. It has been announced in all the papers, your relations have gone into mourning, the Board of Trade has passed resolutions of regret, the sepulcher has been dug up there in the cemetery, and the undertaker has gone to considerable expense to inter you comfortably. Now, go and lie down, won’t you?”
“Hang the undertaker!” said Shuckers. “No, I’ll not go and lie down. I’ll see you in Kansas first.”

“Now, see here, Shuckers, I came here to attend your funeral, and I’m not going to be baffled by any unseemly conduct on the part of the corpse. Oh! You needn’t look at me. Either you get back into that coffin, so’s the lid can be screwed on, and the procession can move on, or I’ll put you in there by force. If inanimate remains like you can go scooting ‘round in this incendiary manner, we’d soon have the cemeteries unloading, and the unnumbered dead crowding out and wanting to vote.”

Then Jones called the undertaker, who knocked Shuckers down with a cane, and held him until he explained, and until the scared undertaker recovered his equanimity, which left him at the bare suggestion that the corpse was loose. Then the funeral moved on to the cemetery, and Jones went home, while Shuckers proceeded to an alderman’s office to swear out a warrant against the undertaker for assault and battery. He intends to change his name to Duykinch.

North Star [Danville VT] 9 April 1875: p. 4

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Unseemly conduct on the part of a corpse, indeed! The newspapers were full of stories of persons reviving on the very brink of their own graves as well as dire mistakes being made over the identification of corpses and the startling return of people thought dead. Such reports were a kind of precursor to to-day’s popular “Zombie” and “Walking Dead” entertainments. It is no wonder the undertaker was shaken: a loose corpse would have cast aspersions on his professional abilities as an embalmer.

There is a barbed pleasantry about the American political process in that remark about “unnumbered dead crowding out and wanting to vote.” Voters’ rolls were often compiled by taking a stroll through a cemetery with paper and pencil and the votes of the dead were enlisted to put a favoured candidate in office. Naturally, such things never happen in England….

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.



She Paid the Bill: c. 1900

white hearse with ponies

She Paid the Bill.

“No, I haven’t any news of importance for you,” said M. J. Cullen, the undertaker, “but I can tell you a mighty nice little story, the truth of which my books will verify. It is about the noble action of a little girl who came to me about fifteen years ago. She was then about twelve years of age, and despite the fact that her outward appearance suggested parental negligence, she appeared to have a noble and honest heart. It was about seven o’clock of a cold July evening when she walked into my office almost frozen and crying bitterly. She asked to see me, and when I made myself known she stopped crying and told me a very pitiful story, that would soften the heart in the coldest of persons.

She said she lived near my stable; that her father was a drunkard and her mother was dead. She and a little brother seven years of age, of whom she thought the world, were cared for by the neighbours when the father was on a spree, and despite the father’s misconduct the little girl could not be induced to leave him. She kept the house and prepared the meals. She bore her lot philosophically and tried to be happy, but her whole peace of mind was almost wrecked when after about two weeks’ sickness her little brother died. He was her pet, and the two were much attached to one another.

She again burst into tears, and between heavy sobs she said that on account of her father’s evil ways there was no money in the house, and she did not know how her little brother could be buried. She had been told that the city would bury the remains, but when she looked into the manner in which such a burial would be performed—that the coffin would be a plain pine box and that instead of a hearse a waggon would take him to the cemetery she became almost frantic, and would not allow it. She then pleaded with me to bury her brother. She wanted him to have a white coffin, a white hearse, with white horses, and his remains to be taken to the cemetery. Crying bitterly, she said, ‘I will give you my word of honor to pay you as soon as I get the money.’

I was much touched by the story, and went to the home of the child and there learned the truth of her statement. The dead boy was laid on the bed, which was neatly made up by the little girl. I immediately took charge of the funeral, and complied with the every wish of the child; I never expected pay, and, although I thought of the story for some time after, I never expected to see the child again.

Not long since, while seated in my office, a handsome, well-dressed young lady entered, and, addressing me by name, called me aside. She asked me if I remembered her, and I was compelled to acknowledge my ignorance. Imagine my surprise when she told me of a little ragged child of fifteen years ago. ‘I am that little girl,’ she said, ‘and I have come, according to promise, on my word of honor to pay you the bill.’ ‘I looked over the books and found the account, and she paid it. She was married well, and her husband is a prominent and prosperous business man.”

Pauper burials and the interment of the dead in large cities, Frederick Ludwig Hoffman, 1919

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: For the poor, a pauper’s burial in Potter’s Field was as much to be shunned as going to the Workhouse. We have seen how unfortunates beggared themselves providing “decent” funerals for their loved ones and paid sums they could ill-afford into burial clubs, the resulting insurance money covering perhaps only part of the costs of a proper burial.

Here is what Mr. Wild, an undertaker, testifying about conditions in the London slums, says about the disbursement of those funds:

In benefit societies and burial clubs there is generally a certain sum set aside for the burial, which sum is, I consider, frequently most extravagantly expended. This arises from the secretary, or some other officer of the club being an undertaker. When a death takes place the club money is not paid directly: it is usually paid on the club or quarterly night following. The member dying seldom leaves any money beyond the provision in his club to bury him, consequently the widow or nominee makes application to the secretary, who tells her that he cannot give any money to purchase mourning for herself and family until the committee meets; this may be three months after the death; but, says the secretary, “give me the funeral, I will advance you a few pounds upon my own account;” so that the widow is obliged to submit to any charge he may think fit to make. I do not mean to be understood that this is always the case—I am sorry to say it is of frequent occurrence.

 Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Classes, Edwin Chadwick, 1843

Decades later, the fleecing of the bereaved poor continued:

The following is typical of what happens almost every day. A father of four children, who was insured for £7 died. The widow informed an undertaker who called at the house that she was unable to make the funeral arrangements until she had received the money. ‘Do not let that trouble you,’ said the man. You can pay when convenient.’

“The widow is still wondering how the cost of the funeral amounted to exactly £7. The secret is that the insurance agent communicated the news of the death and the amount of the policy to the undertaker, at the same time drawing the usual commission for his trouble.

“When the woman returned from the ceremony she had not a penny left in the world, and for long her children have been pinched with the want of food. How long shall these men be allowed to fleece the poor in life and rob them in death?”

Star 28 October 1905: p. 4

The young lady who found a kindly undertaker to trust her for his fees was fortunate indeed!

For other stories of undertakers and mortuary mishaps, Mrs Daffodil is pleased to recommend The Victorian Book of the Dead.  See also this previous post on the funeral arrangements for the son of a poor widow.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.