William Hill and His Dog Footstone

William Hill’s ornate monument at Wilmington’s Oakdale Cemetery was not unlike many others on the grounds, boasting that rural cemetery flair that I love so much.

What was unique about this grave; however, was the dog-shaped footstone which my trusty canine sidekick Esther noticed before I did and reacted as though it was a real animal.

Intrigued, I read the inscription on the main marker and found nothing on the footstone but there was nothing indicating why this particular piece was present unless I overlooked something or the inscription had weathered away.

If you recall, on this same trip I encountered the grave of a man and his dog who were buried together after perishing in a fire and wondered if this was a similar circumstance.

Continue reading “William Hill and His Dog Footstone”

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An Account of the Titanic’s Morgue Ship

The Dead Bell

Normally I reserve transcribing news articles for Misc. Tidings of Yore, but because of the nature of this piece about the “morgue ship” that recovered bodies from the Titanic disaster, I decided to include it here. Reading the words from the newspaper about the bodies just after they were pulled from the sea and embalmed on board (or buried at sea) gave me a different feeling than from reading or watching more modern accounts. I don’t think I’ve ever seen or read anything that described the “morgue ship” or the anxious behavior of embalmers waiting on the pier for the ship to dock either, but if you can recommend something feel free to comment.

This feature is from The Washington Times of Washington, D.C. on April 30, 1912.

MORGUE SHIP IN HALIFAX; CAPTAIN GIVES DRAMATIC STORY OF FINDING BODIES
Says Drowned Victims of Titanic Wreck, Buoyed Up by…

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Chris Baker: The Ghoul of Richmond

courtesy of Special Collections and Archives Tompkins-McCaw Library, VCU

It wasn’t until 1884 that Virginia’s General Assembly established a state anatomical board and addressed the issue of body snatching as related to medical schools’ procurement of dead bodies. The anatomy act allowed medical colleges to legally take possession of certain unclaimed bodies, such as those of paupers and prisoners. Even though medical schools had access to executed criminals’ bodies before the anatomy act, the demand for corpses far surpassed the supply. The aspiring physician relied largely on “resurrection men” to provide labs with a fresh and steady supply of cadavers to quench his thirst for anatomical knowledge. Resurrection men (also known as ghouls, body snatchers, grave robbers, and anatomical men) frequently toiled under the cover of night when they could disinter and deliver a fresh corpse with little chance of detection. The gruesome nature of the trade was offensive to the general public, but body-snatching was considered a necessary evil to those in the medical profession. Newspaper accounts of body snatching suggest that the majority of the bodies stolen were from African-American cemeteries.

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Bees: Funerals Interrupted and Death Superstitions

This entry is divided into two parts: the first being accounts of funerals disturbed by agitated bees and the second part about “telling the bees,” a superstition observed in order to protect or preserve a hive following a death in its owner’s household.

The Sun [NY] 19 Apr. 1894

During an 1894 funeral people noticed a number of bees at the windows and along the walls of the church, finally making their way into the room where the service was taking place. The mourners’ anxiety grew as they fanned away the bees, contemplating walking out of the service to avoid being stung. A pall bearer was stung on his neck and an undertaker “was attacked in a vicious manner.” When the procession headed for the graveyard, the bees followed. Later they discovered a large quantity of honey in the church’s rafters and walls, which explained the bees’ presence.

Continue reading “Bees: Funerals Interrupted and Death Superstitions”

Supposed Corpses: Almost Buried Alive

In a previous post I introduced you to several cases of people accidentally buried alive here in the United States and the fear generated by such burials. For the sad souls who were accidentally buried before they were really dead, by the time the mistake was discovered it was too late to save them. There were quite a few fortunate ones who had near-misses with being buried alive, particularly before the widespread use of embalming techniques. Such cases involve someone being declared dead and prepared for burial when they “came to life” just in time to avoid waking up in a coffin underneath six feet of soil, dead to the world. Newspapers often referred to such people as “supposed corpses” and used terms like “suspended animation” and “trance” to describe the condition of the person at the time he or she was declared dead. There are numerous accounts of people who have almost gone to the grave while still alive, here are just a few.

Continue reading “Supposed Corpses: Almost Buried Alive”

Premature Burial and The Bizarre Ways Some Sought to Prevent It

The Premature Burial, Wiertz (courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

While many people today experience taphophobia, or the fear of being buried alive, the threat of premature burial was more real for people during the darker days of medicine. Throughout the 18th-19th centuries and into the 20th century the preoccupation with being buried while still living pervaded the minds of the still-living, leading to interesting directives to be carried out upon death written in last wills and testaments. In those days either doctors or non-medically trained people responsible for declaring someone dead often lacked the expertise to determine the difference between a corpse and a person suffering from catalepsy or a similar paralysis or someone who had lapsed into a coma.8

During the summer months when temperatures were high it was common practice to bury the body within twenty-four to seventy-two hours. This speedy burial prior to the introduction of modern embalming methods was to prevent the body from decomposing in the home where the funeral was usually held, which would no doubt create an unpleasant environment for mourners. During epidemics it was even more likely for someone to be buried accidentally because of the rush to dispose of diseased corpses. Some diseases, such as cholera, left the victim with an emaciated,  wasted-away appearance which could be mistaken for death.

The actual number of people buried alive between the 1800s-1900s remains a mystery, but there are a number of cases that were well-publicized and the gruesome details relayed about them in newspapers and via word-of-mouth were enough to fuel the trepidations of the masses. Here are a few accounts that took place in the United States.

On January 10, 1884, Anna Hockwalt of Dayton, Ohio went downstairs to the kitchen after dressing on the day of her brother’s wedding just after 6:00. She was found “dead” shortly afterwards, sitting in a chair with her head leaning against the wall. The wedding went on and her death was determined to be the result of a sympathetic heart palpitation combined with Anna’s naturally nervous disposition. Anna was buried in Woodland, but her friends feared that she’d been buried alive because her ears lacked the ghastly pallor of death. They shared their suspicions with Anna’s parents, who finally had her disinterred. When her coffin was opened, it was a horrific sight. She was on her right side, her fingers chewed to the bone, and her hair pulled from her head. Attempts were made to conceal the news of Anna’s living burial, but by early February the secret was out.9

J. Jenkins of Asheville, North Carolina, who had been ill for several weeks and finally showed the signs of death in January 1885. No pulse could be detected, he stopped speaking, he was unable to be awakened, and his skin became cold. He was buried even though people noticed that his body never became stiff. In February his family wanted to move the body to a different cemetery and when they opened the casket to see if a metallic burial case was needed for the move, they were met with a scene similar to the one of Anna Hockwalt. Jenkins’ body was turned over, his hair had been pulled out, and the inside of the wooden casket were scarred with the scratch marks where he’d tried to claw his way out. 3

Chicago’s John Burke was buried in 1890 even though noises were heard from his coffin as it was being lowered into the grave. Several days later his grave was opened to check if he had actually been dead when buried. John’s “body twisted, features distorted; tongue bitten nearly in two; finger nails imbedded in the flesh, and every indication that a struggle had taken place.” 6

Catherine Boger from the village of Morrison’s in Pennsylvania fell ill in 1893. It was believed that she had died and Dr. Willard determined that she had expired based on her no longer showing any signs of life and the “diaphanous test” in which he held an intense light to her hand to observe if there was a scarlet line. Sometime after her burial someone approached Catherine’s husband, suggesting that she had been prone to hysteria and could have been buried alive. Mr. Boger became a “raving maniac” and finally convinced his friends to dig up the grave. Upon opening her coffin they found that Catherine’s glass lid was broken, her body turned over, her hair mussed, and her skin and clothing were ripped during her struggle to free herself from the grave.2

Wealthy New Yorker James Rigely was buried at Pendleton in February 1899 after being in a “trance state” for three days.  He had taken out several life insurance policies, which prompted an autopsy request to ascertain his cause of death. “The glass covering the casket was broken and the distorted features of the corpse, the position of his hands and feet, together with a number of blood spots on his face, showed that he was buried alive.” 10

The fear of being buried alive was so intense for some that they made provisions in their wills to prevent such a burial. Author Harriet Martineau originally wanted her head removed, but later changed that directive to instead sever her jugular vein. Actress Ava Cavendish and Edmund Yates also wanted their jugular veins cut before burial.5 Hans Christian Andersen carried a card that he placed in hotel rooms while traveling which read, “I am not really dead”. Shortly before his death Andersen asked a friend to sever his arteries if he was ever declared dead, just to be on the safe side. Bishop Berkeley wanted his corpse to remain unburied for five days until it was “offensive by the cadaverous smell.” excursions Lady Burton, the spouse of the explorer Sir Richard Burton, wanted a needle stuck through her heart upon her death. 4

These special provisions to guard against being buried alive weren’t limited to public figures. One account of a private citizen with a similar request involves George Fay of New Jersey who was so troubled by nightmares about being buried alive that he asked his family to hold off on burying him until he was obviously beginning to decompose and then a dagger should be thrust through his heart and then left in his chest. His family carried out his wishes, keeping his corpse above ground for two weeks before stabbing him through the heart and burying him.1 Former Boston attorney Alfred Giles believed that death was gradual and took place over a long period of time. He created a mortuary room behind a closet in his home where he wanted his body to remain until it had decomposed, which he claimed could be forty or more days. During that time, friends and family (not just an undertaker) would tend to the corpse. 7 To read the complete article about Mr. Giles’ fear of being buried alive, visit Misc. Tidings of Yore.

This post is by no means an exhaustive study of premature burial. I plan on writing more in the future on the topic to include coffin innovations, burial reform, and steps taken by government officials and societies to prevent live burials from occurring. In the meantime, look alive!



1 “A Dreadful Doom.” The Salt Lake Herald. 22 Jan. 1891. Chronicling America. Web. 4 Mar. 2013.
2 “Alive in Her Coffin.” The Roanoke Times. 4 July 1893. Chronicling America. Web. 4 Mar. 2013.
3 “A Man Buried Alive.” The New York Times. 21 Feb. 1885. Chronicling America. Web. 4 Mar. 2013.
4 Bondeson, Jan. Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear. New York: W.W.
Norton & Co., 2002.
5 Marvin, Frederic. The Excursions of a Book-Lover: Being Papers on Literary Themes. Boston:
Sherman, French, & Co., 1910.
6 “Premature Burial.” The Globe-Republican. 31 Dec. 1890. Chronicling America. Web. 4 Mar. 2013.
7 “Retired Boston Lawyer Fears Premature Burial.” The St. Louis Republic. 17 Mar. 1901. Chronicling 
     America. Web. 4 Mar. 2013.
8 Tebb, William and Edward Vollum. Premature Burial and How it May be Prevented With Special       
     Reference to Trance, Catalepsy, and Other Forms of Suspended Animation. London: Swan
     Sonnenschein & Co., 1905. 
9 “The Terrible Discovery Made by the Friends of an Entombed Maiden.” The Hickman Courier. 15
Feb. 1884. Chronicling America. Web. 4 Mar. 2013.
10 “Wealthy New Yorker is Buried Alive.” The Independent. [Honolulu, HI] 18 Feb. 1899. Chronicling 
     America. Web. 4 Mar. 2013.

Continue reading “Premature Burial and The Bizarre Ways Some Sought to Prevent It”

An Account of the Titanic’s Morgue Ship

Normally I reserve transcribing news articles for Misc. Tidings of Yore, but because of the nature of this piece about the “morgue ship” that recovered bodies from the Titanic disaster, I decided to include it here. Reading the words from the newspaper about the bodies just after they were pulled from the sea and embalmed on board (or buried at sea) gave me a different feeling than from reading or watching more modern accounts. I don’t think I’ve ever seen or read anything that described the “morgue ship” or the anxious behavior of embalmers waiting on the pier for the ship to dock either, but if you can recommend something feel free to comment.

Continue reading “An Account of the Titanic’s Morgue Ship”

1886 Undertaker Talks Money, Professional Mourners, & Scruples

 This is one of those times when I find myself torn between whether or not something should find a home here or over at Misc. Tidings of Yore, where I post and/or transcribe information from historic newspapers. I decided to put this article from The Wichita Eagle, out of Wichita, Kansas, December 7, 1886 on The Dead Bell because of its relevance to funeral history. The article was most likely originally printed in The Brooklyn Eagle & picked up by The Wichita Eagle

UNDERTAKERS’ WAYS
WHAT ONE OF THEM SAYS ABOUT HIS BUSINESS AND ITS PROFITS
People Who are Fascinated by Funerals. 
The Fondness for “Mortuary Respectability” and Display-Growing  Moderation-Atrocious Practice.

     “The undertaking business isn’t so profitable as many imagine,” said a local undertaker to a reporter. “People in moderate circumstances can’t pay over $200 for a funeral, which sum usually includes a dozen carriages. Many funerals cost much less. For $200 the undertaker must put the body on ice, attend to the digging of the grave, furnish camp stools, the coffin and a dozen other things, all of which cost money. Carriages are worth from $1 to $7 apiece, according to the distance.”
    “Don’t undertakers receive commissions from livery men?”
    “Yes, but the commission is less than most people suppose. On a basis of a $200 funeral, with twelve carriages at $5 a piece, the undertaker would realize less than $50 for his time and troubles. Surely, such compensation is not exorbitant.”
     “Do Brooklyn undertakers ever send circulars to bereaved families, members of which are dead?”
AN ATROCIOUS PRACTICE.
     “Not that I know of. That practice flourishes to a greater or less extent in New York. An undertaker who would intrude on a deceased man’s family for the purpose of plying his calling would, I think, commit murder. The thought of a man sending circulars explaining the nature of his business and giving prices is to a refined mind atrocious. Possibly some Brooklyn undertakers carry on such practices in the districts inhabited by the poor, but if so I’m not in a possession of their names. Taken as a class, the undertakers of Brooklyn are better than those of New York. Certainly, they are less grasping and mercenary. Not so many years ago undertakers were considered in the same light with hangmen. Many people have a horror of the profession, and would go blocks out of their way to avoid passing undertakers’ shops. Of late years such antipathies have ceases, and the hightoned members of the profession now call themselves funeral directors.”
     “Did you ever know of a doctor aiding an undertaker in securing a ‘case’?” was asked.
     “Not exactly. While I know of no instance in which a physician willfully killed a patient so as to furnish an undertaker with a case, I could name many Brooklyn doctors who recommend certain undertakers to bereaved families. Possibly the physicians who I have reference to don’t receive commissions, but the chances are that they are reimbursed for their trouble. Do you know that certain individuals are fascinated by funerals? For three or four years I noticed that an old lady, attired in a somewhat shabby dress, was often present at funerals of which I had charge. At first I thought she might be a relative or friend, but finally I became curious and questioned her. I learned that she had a mania for attending funerals. She keeps a record of the funerals attended, and the list when I last saw her numbered 150.”
CRYING ON SHORT NOTICE
     “The old lady tells me that she has attended as many as three funerals in one day. She can cry at a moment’s notice and usually sheds tears when at the funeral of a young girl. The queer individual under notice  comes very near what the professional mourner is supposed to be. The mania for attending funerals is not confined to women. One man, with a round, chubby, good-natured face, is a frequent visitor to many of the funerals of which I have charge. It has a somewhat demoralizing effect on most men to attend a funeral and is liable to make them sad and thoughtful.”
     “What feeling prompts people to attend funerals of persons with whom they were not acquainted in life?”
     Curiosity. Many have a morbid curiosity in regard to the dead and are at all times haunting morgues and hospitals. Such men find comfort and pleasure in attending funerals.”
     “Are the poor so lavish as formerly in their expenditures in burying their dead?”
     “I can hardly think so. In former years it was the custom of poor people, and more especially in Catholics, to bury their dead in the most extravagant manner. I have had charge of funerals in which there were no less than 200 carriages. Widows have often sold the beds out from under them to give their husbands respectable burials. The custom of having costly funerals is dying out, thanks to the efforts of the Catholic clergy, who have for years denounced the practice as an injustice to the living. Many families, so poor as to be hardly able to keep body and soul together, labor night and day to pay undertaker’s bills for services rendered to some deceased relative. Among certain classes of the poor it is considered a disgrace not to give one’s relative a respectable burial. When I say a respectable burial I mean a funeral costing upward of $200.”-Brooklyn Eagle.