Buried Alive! A short history of premature burial and safety coffins

Taphophobia. The fear of being buried alive. The subject of nightmares since time immemorial. With today’s modern medicine, there’s little chance of these fears becoming reality, however, for many centuries, it was a very real threat.

There have been instances of premature burial for centuries; with apocryphal accounts of the presumed-dead clawing themselves out of their coffins. However, the fear of premature burial really reached its peak in the 18thand 19thcenturies.

Coffin-bell

In 1896, social reformer and bearded anti-vaxxer (those have existed for centuries too) William Tebb, co-founded the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial with fellow germ-denier Walter Hadwen. The association campaigned for burial reforms to ensure the dead were truly, irrevocably dead. Due to the catatonic side effects of diseases such as cholera and malaria, newspapers were filled with accounts of prematurely buried individuals, subsequently dying in unimaginably traumatic ways.

‘WeirdHistorian.com’ cites an instance from the July 22nd, 1890 edition of ‘The Undertaker’s Journal’ where a woman was buried alive –

The body of a woman, named Lavrinia Merli, a peasant, who was supposed to have died from hysterics, was placed in a vault on Thursday, 3rd July. On Saturday evening it was found that the woman had regained consciousness, had torn her grave-clothes in her struggles, had turned completely over in the coffin, and had given birth to a seven-month-old child. Both mother and child were dead when the coffin was opened for the last time.’

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Front Page of Tebb’s ‘Premature Burial’

Together with Edward Perry Vollum, who was nearly buried alive himself, the two men published a book titled ‘Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented’. The work consisted of suggestions of safety measures and several accounts of individuals later being discovered to have been buried alive. The association distributed this work alongside others of a similarity, such as ‘A Plan for Forming Associations for the Prevention of the Burial of Persons Alive, by an Army surgeon, and The Absolute Signs of Death, and the Prevention of Premature Burial, by the eminent British physician, Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson, F.R.S.’[1]

However, ‘Premature Burial’ is the most gripping of all the Association’s efforts. It remains in print to this day and is as frightening to the contemporary reader as it would have been to the Victorian taphophobe. The Paris Review recorded the lasting horror in these accounts of suffering. ‘There’s the man who sank into such a prolonged lethargy that he was thought dead until he “broke into a profuse sweat” in his coffin; the young woman whose corpse was exhumed for reburial only to be discovered “in the middle of the vault, with dishevelled hair and the linen torn to pieces … gnawed in her agony”[2]

If anything, the work concerns itself with exhumation as much as it does interment, suggested than many Victorian cemeteries were hives of questionable activity throughout their working day!

Considering that death and burial weren’t widely regulated industries, many accounts of premature burial occurred because of misdiagnosis of death by a non-medical individual. Subsequently, the association repeatedly campaigned for parliament to put new regulations in place, requiring a medical professional to confirm death before the body was handled by an undertaker. Previously, death certificates had been widely issued by doctors who had not examined the body, which seems utterly ludicrous to our modern sensibilities. After years of efforts, Tebb was still frequently dismissed by the wider medical community and remained a staunch campaigner for burial reform until his death in 1917. In Tebb’s will, he explicitly stated that his body could only be disposed of following ‘unmistakable evidence of decomposition’. He was cremated a week after his death.

 

Tebb’s death aside, premature burial required very real preventative inventions. In the 19thcentury, this commonly took the form of elaborate coffin mechanisms. The second version of ‘Premature Burial…’ included a handful of elaborate coffin mechanisms to assist the nearly-dead. The first, by Russian Count Michel de Karnice-Karnick, was presented in 1897 following his supposed experience of witnessing a Belgian girl be buried alive. Tebb and Vollum describe the invention as follows –

“…it consists of a long tube, about three and a half inches’ diameter, and a hermetically-sealed box.  The tube is fixed into an aperture in the coffin as soon as the latter is lowered into the grave.  No gases can escape from the tomb into the outer air, as the metallic box into which the upper end of the tube enters cannot be opened from the outside.

On the chest of the supposed dead body is placed a glass ball, several inches in diameter, attached to a spring which communicates through the tube with an iron box above ground.

On the slightest movement of the chest’s wall, as in the act of marked breathing, or movement of the body, the glass ball releases a spring which causes the lid of the iron box to fly open immediately, thus admitting both air and light to the coffin.  At the same time a flag rises perpendicularly about four feet above the ground, and a bell is set ringing which continues for about half an hour.  In front of the box, an electric lamp burns which gives light after sunset to the coffin below.  The tube acts as a speaking tube, and the voice of the inmate of the coffin, however feeble is intensified.”[3]

In short, Karnice-Karnicks invention is an elaborate jack-in-a-box system. However bizarre the mechanisms sound, the coffin system was tested and proven to be a great success when tested on the living. Yet while the dead do not breathe, they decompose. While the glass ball was supposed to be activated by breathing, it was equally as efficient at detecting the bloating and rotting of the dead. To avoid a run of unnecessary exhumations and cemetery flag-flying, the invention was not a success.

C. H. Eseinbrandt coffin

Before complicated coffin systems, earlier methods of prevention consisted of a simple cord attached to a bell, or similar method used to attract outside attention. Flags, ladders and minor explosions were all popularised, but most had foregone the inclusion of a breathing tube, making them all rather redundant.

In the 1820s, so-called ‘portable death chambers’ were popularised in Germany. These chambers were constructed over open graves and were furnished with a bell and viewing window. If the bell was rung, the body could be immediately exhumed, meanwhile ‘watchmen’ could peer into the chamber to search for signs of decomposition.

In 1829, fellow German Dr. Johann Gottfried Taberger invented a system of strings and bells attached to the body’s extremities. Yet, as with Karnice-Karnick’s later invention, natural decomposition and shifting of the body could frequently cause false positive results, rendering the bells, once again, inconsequential.

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Several other inventions, including one in 1995 that required an intercom system, were patented, but ultimately proved pointless. There appear to be no official records of anyone being saved from a safety coffin and the western popularisation of embalming rendered any chance of post- ‘death’ survival ultimately impossible.

However, the fear remains. Despite modern medicine and developments in burial reform, the terror of waking up in a coffin is perpetually repeated in popular culture. Most recently, the horror film ‘The Nun’ featured coffin bells as a questionable plot point, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer herself had to fight her way out of a coffin in the 2000s. As long as we fear the grave, our dead will never truly stay buried.

 

 

Sources:

http://www.weirdhistorian.com/proper-care-for-the-not-quite-dead-yet-the-london-association-for-the-prevention-of-premature-burial/

https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/01/06/im-not-dead-yet/

http://blog.wellcomelibrary.org/2013/02/item-of-the-month-february-2012-premature-burial/

https://www.amusingplanet.com/2017/02/the-grave-with-window.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Safety_coffin

Footnotes:

[1]http://www.weirdhistorian.com/proper-care-for-the-not-quite-dead-yet-the-london-association-for-the-prevention-of-premature-burial/

[2]https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/01/06/im-not-dead-yet/

[3]Premature Burial, 1905, pp321-322)

 

In Praise of Death Stationery

In western cultures, after a death, we are often informed by social media or through a text or phone call. For the common man, there’s no need for printed invites and those attending the service often know of time and place from similar means. As far as printed ephemera goes, most organised funerals present attendees with an order of service; hymns, poems, prayers and the like, alongside the name and photograph of the deceased. If you’re particularly unlucky, they might include a questionable poem written by a family member in dodgy rhyming couplets. But how many of us have retained these pamphlets throughout our grief?

Printed invites are for weddings and birthdays. They’re obtained in bulk from private printing companies that print twee family canvas pictures and promotional booklets alongside your booklet of grief. We use images and choose words carefully; most are desperately personal. And they end up left behind or in the bin.

But for our ancestors, funeral invitations and memorial cards were a keepsake in themselves. They were retained after the funeral, kept in books, boxes and between the pages of family bibles. However, to the contemporary death-historian or morbidly-minded hoarder, they’re a staple piece of a collection that snowballs.

The funeral itself is historically the most important part of western death rituals, and invitations and memorial keepsakes have been an extension of this.  While memorial or so-called ‘funeral cards’ are most associated with the 19thand early 20thcentury, there are beautifully elaborate examples dating back to the 17thand 18thcenturies. These cards were most commonly used as funeral invitations and are among the rarer and most attractive of death-associated collectables.

Many early examples were engraved in wood with a surround incorporating traditional reminders of mortality; skeletons, crossed bones, hour-glasses etc. Families with even greater wealth could choose to commission far larger invitations from copper.

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19th Century Memorial Card [Personal Collection]
By the Victorian age, fashions had changed from direct invitations to a funeral to small memorial cards which provided basic details as to the name of the deceased and the date of forthcoming funeral.

From the 1840s to approximately the 1870s, cards became hugely elaborate works of art in pierced paper and (still!) sometimes wood. In the world of Victorian death ephemera, it is through these that the Victorian obsession with funerary symbolism is easiest to recognise.

Memorial cards were often one of the first indicators of grief and one of the last reminders, subsequently, there were innumerable design options on offer. In early, costly cards, some might feature a plethora of symbols; broken columns, urns, weeping angels, and broken flowers – all of which carry their own symbolic meaning relating to death, grief and the afterlife.

By the turn of the century, and the advent of the industrial revolution (and subsequent development in printing methods), the public began to favour a smaller folding card that was lithographed with a singular simple image, such as lilies, crosses or a short bible verse, often with glimpses of silver and grey.

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19th Century Memorial Card with Undertaker’s Details [via The Cowkeeper’s Wish]
These more basic cards were easily obtained from several sources. Set designs could be ordered from a book, much like an Avon catalogue of misery. They could also be bought from the funeral directors themselves. In obtaining them from this source, they could be supplied for cut price or free, if the funeral director was able to advertise his services at the bottom of the card.

Funeral invitations for prominent and wealthy individuals often operated as tickets, as though the funeral was some exclusive concert. These often stated the requirement to ‘bring the ticket’ to the funeral to avoid overcrowding.

Public funerals of royalty or statesmen were obviously different affairs; funeral cards were specifically designed as keepsakes and backed for framing, but were also produced in several class tiers. For example, the Duke of Wellington’s funeral in 1852 had twelve levels of admission; officials, important statesmen and family had engraved tickets sealed in black wax, whereas, at the other end of the scale, the public – at least those who were able to afford a ticket to the event – found their card to be a plain printed affair.

Funeral ephemera relating to such big deaths was also mass produced as public souvenirs. Alongside official invitations to the event, handkerchiefs, pins and facsimile postcards were widely circulated as accessible keepsakes.

While decoration began to simplify towards the end of the century, the common thread in mourning stationery continued to be the feature of a black border framing a white background. This black border was carried throughout all mourning stationery, and is frequently used today.

While mourning cards and stationery may not appear to be the most exciting of mourning practises, it shows how much of an enormous business grieving was.

 

In sending a death notice through the post, the black edging would be prominent, meaning the nature of the letter that landed on your mat was very clear. Similarly, when writing any letters within the period of mourning, your situation was immediately visible through your usage of such a simplistic border. These borders, much like wider Victorian mourning regulations, changed in size and density depending on the immediacy of the death. In a letter to the Royal Academy from the son of pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais, a thick border is visible, showing that the death affecting him has been recent. Over time, these correspondences would sport a smaller border, until eventually, the family could return to their previous letterheads.

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As the 20thcentury thundered into the 21st, these smaller cards retained a sense of simplicity, but grew somewhat, leaving us with the pamphlets we’re so used to in contemporary grief. It could be tempting to assume that pamphlets will soon go the way of the mourning card, being replaced by some technological alternative. However, considering we live in an increasingly ‘emotionally open’ society, perhaps the draw of a delicate keepsake will return us to a world of pierced paper urns and black borders. Besides, who doesn’t love a bit of new stationery?

 

Elizabeth Siddal – The Exhumed Muse

The 11th February marks the 157th anniversary of Lizzie Siddal’s death. While not exactly a household name, she is an icon, a muse, an artist and a beautifully tragic figure of the Victorian art world. Similarly, while the 157thanniversary of anything isn’t cause for great celebration, it is a welcome chance to introduce Lizzie to a new audience.

Like most women with an over-dramatic bent, I have had an affinity for Pre-Raphaelite muses since my teens. Lizzie Siddal with her flame-red hair and tragic life, became an icon of my own. Her life was fraught with turmoil, betrayal and beautiful art; she was celebrated as a model and is immortalised in some of the world’s most famous artworks.

Ophelia 1851-2 by Sir John Everett Millais
Ophelia 1851-2 by Sir John Everett Millais

Elizabeth Siddal was ‘discovered’ in her youth by the artist Walter Deverell, who saw her working as a shop girl in a milliner’s. In 1850 Deverell went on to paint her as Viola in Twelfth Night, however she was quickly accosted by the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, with whom she sat for several seminal works. Through her association with the group, she is most commonly known because of her depiction of Ophelia by John Everett Millais. Famously, while sitting for Ophelia in an iron bath, the candles warming the water extinguished. While Millais was too engrossed in his work to notice, Lizzie was too dedicated to complain, and as a result of her silence, she developed pneumonia and lay close to death for several weeks.

 

Siddal has long been a tragic, romantic figure due to her association with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a pre-Raphaelite artist, poet, and philanderer. Their relationship was intense, dramatic and troubled; they were involved on and off for over a decade, before they finally married. Following the trauma and depression following a stillbirth, Lizzie’s addiction to the opiate Laudanum spiralled and she died in 1862, aged just 32.

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Lizzie was buried in Highgate Cemetery in the Rossetti family plot. She shares her resting place with Dante Rossetti’s parents, sister Christina and several other family members.

 

Dante, wracked with guilt and sadness, buried Lizzie alongside the only manuscript of his poems, tucked into her auburn hair. This was supposedly a last sign of devotion from her straying husband, an apology for what trauma he may have caused and that the finest of his works would lay with her, and her alone, for all eternity.

However, Lizzie’s undisturbed sleep only lasted for several years, before Rossetti’s ego came knocking. His unpublished works troubled him and, under cover of lamp light, Lizzie was exhumed. Rumour spread that when her coffin was opened, it was filled with her endless, flowing red hair that had continued to grow after her death.

While this is a biological impossibility, the image caught hold in the public imagination and only helped to increase her post-mortem longevity in popular culture.

 

Rossetti’s poems and sonnets were all later published. A large chunk of sonnets under the title ‘The House of Life’, which is often argued to be his greatest written work, if a little erotic for Victorian sensibilities.

When Rossetti himself died in 1882, he was buried in Birchington-on-Sea in Kent and Lizzie was free from any further disturbance.

2012 Photograph of Lizzie's Grave
2012 Photograph of Lizzie’s Grave

In 2012 I took a long-overdue trip to Lizzie’s final resting place at Highgate Cemetery where her grave, now off the beaten path, covered with dead leaves, was only accessible by special request of the tour guide. Nonetheless, to see her name in stone and to be able to pay tribute to a life cut short was worth the train fare alone.

 

Elizabeth Siddal’s life is so fascinating and varied that I implore you to read some of the following links to learn more about her. While a tragic figure, primarily defined by the male gaze, she was an artist and a writer in her own right and deserves to be more widely appreciated.

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[Should you wish to visit Elizabeth’s grave – Old Highgate is now too overgrown and brittle for visitors to enter unattended, but tours are frequent and many of Highgate’s highlights are offered. But the urge to run off unsupervised, like a naughty morbid toddler is almost crippling.]

 

LINKS:

 

http://lizziesiddal.com/portal/

 

https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/elizabeth-eleanor-siddal-494

 

http://fannycornforth.blogspot.com(Primarily concerning Fanny Cornforth, but is an excellent resource and Kirstie’s books are great reads.)

Introducing Immortelles

When considering grave decorations, we in western cultures generally think of framed photographs, plastic flowers and weather-worn teddy bears. Our ideas of remembrance and sentimentality are generally personalised and frequently mimic the gifts we’d leave the individual in life.

Passing through any contemporary burial site will bring you to piles of ribbons, laminated poems and unsmoked cigarettes. Alongside these personal effects nestle ornaments of cherubs, resin angels and plastic flowers. These mass-produced indicators of loss and grief are only a small step away from our forebears mourning efforts – while rising costs and health and safety may forbid the erection of a four-foot angel statue, a high street florist can sell you a small cherub and still leave you with change from £10.

While stone cherubs and angels last indefinitely, flowers are the most common decoration in mourning, retaining their place by the graveside for centuries. Flowers may well be a traditional necessity of sorts, but they have a limited lifespan. Plastic flowers may last longer, but discolour and weather over time and similarly must be replaced. However, Victorian ‘Immortelles’ (from the French word for ‘everlasting’) offered a more lasting floral graveside option.

The term ‘Immortelles’ generally refers to the huge beaded wreaths left at gravesides predominantly in western Europe, particularly France. These wire-wrapped, beaded creations could reach up to four feet in diameter and were generally displayed above a mausoleum or tomb. While not directly personalised for the interred person, these wreaths incorporated flower motifs, words, crosses and even preserved flowers in domes.

Over time, the fine wire securing the beads would weather and disintegrate, leaving the immortelle as a pile of black beads, ready to be reused for another project or simply lost and scattered to time.

‘Immortelle’ is also applied to ceramic and glass-domed wreaths that were particularly popular in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. These were mass-produced, brightly painted ceramic or plaster flowers that were left as a permanent memorial at the grave site and could survive far longer than their organic counterparts.

While not biodegradable, many of these ceramic wreaths have been lost to vandalism, theft and the rough hands of time. The few that survive in the UK have been taken into the care of museums and private collectors, so are difficult to track down.

Bristol’s Arnos Vale Cemetery has a beautiful Immortelle on display beneath their Spielman centre which was uncovered several years ago while clearing a grave site. Arnos employee and academic Janine Marriott reported that ‘The plaster wreath got covered in dirt and leaf debris during the years Arnos Vale was neglected which actually protected this delicate item from animals, vandalism and weather.  Once it was lifted from the grave, it was then cleaned and repaired before being returned to the archives in the cemetery.’

The wreath now sits pride of place in their cemetery where it may be enjoyed for generations to come. Similarly, Market Lavington museum in Devizes has two beautiful immortelles in their possession which were in situ until the 1930s. These differ from the Arnos wreath as they were protected from the elements by both glass domes and external cages.

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While wreaths are most common, much like contemporary mourners, many Victorian and Edwardian mourners chose to decorate graves with plaster motifs such as clasped hands, bibles, singular flowers and birds. These are far more commonplace in historical cemeteries as they generally lay lower and flatter to the grave, meaning that if vegetation takes hold, they are protected from the elements far better than a glass dome or brittle petal. It is these simplistic monuments that most mimic our modern cherubs and sentimental carved stones.

Are there any immortelles in cemeteries or museums near you?

 

 

https://kaionegal.typepad.com/the_art_of_nothing/2012/08/french-generals-chateau-getaway-day-1st-antonins-cemetery.html

 

https://arnosvale.org.uk/life-death-and-the-rest-logo/

 

https://marketlavingtonmuseum.wordpress.com/2011/11/12/an-immortelle/

 

https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/545865954/memento-mori-grave-funeral-victorian

 

https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/658389548/rare-victorian-cemetary-grave-immortelle?ref=landingpage_similar_listing_top-1

 

https://time4us2retire.wordpress.com/2015/01/30/our-treasures-immortelle/

The World of Victorian Grave Dolls

After experiencing the death of a loved one, especially those who pass away in the midst of infancy or youth, our mourning practises may include collecting mementos, old photographs, writing diaries. And of course, you might make a full-sized effigy of the deceased to place in their room.

 

In the 19thcentury, death played far a greater role in everyday life. Children and adults were frequently and openly exposed to death and deceased loved ones. As we know through examples of hair jewellery, post-mortem photography and death masks, methods of remembrance and memorialisation could be far more direct and graphic. Hair bracelets and wax heads aside, Victorian mourning dolls are one of the more overlooked element of the Victorian grief process.

1860s Wax Mourning Doll
1860s Wax Mourning Doll

By the tail end of the 19thcentury, it was customary for the family of a deceased child to leave a doll at the gravesite. Of course, leaving toys at the grave of a child remains familiar sight, but ‘mourning dolls’ were no shop-bought playthings.

 

The life of the Mourning Doll began at the funeral/wake of the infant, where a wax likeness was made and presented in the child’s own clothes. Often, the doll’s realism was enhanced by wearing cuttings of the child’s own hair. Frequently pictured lying with the deceased on their deathbed, they were also displayed in miniature coffins as an idealised image of peaceful death. Considering that many infant mortalities were caused by disfiguring and draining illnesses such as smallpox, scarlet fever, tuberculosis and diphtheria, the doll offered an idealised reality of their loss. While their child may have departed gaunt and bloody, the wax effigy would look as though it had simply closed its eyes and gone to sleep.

 

Subsequently, these peaceful dolls were often sculpted with flat backs and heads to ease placement in frames, coffins and at the graveside. As the years passed, tastes changes and weather and vandalism played their part, many of these dolls were left and scattered with the years.

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Grave decoration, aside from the obvious towering monuments, was commonplace in the Victorian era. Ceramic hands, books, flowers and wreaths were often placed on graves from the 19thcentury and beyond. These, like most Victorian methods of memorialisation, were rich with symbolism. Many French cemeteries popularised beaded ‘Immortelles’, which were beautifully beaded wreaths which slowly disintegrated into piles of glistening beads over time.

 

However, those that survive today had very different treatments; they were not left open to the elements, but were often kept at home, displayed in the bed of the deceased and cared for and re-dressed as though they were the deceased. To mimic the feel of a real child, these dolls were weighted with sand and heavy cloth. In some ways, these wax infants seem not unlike the popular ‘re-born’ dolls of today, where hyper-realistic silicon babies are collected by doll enthusiasts and grieving parents alike.

 

Those that remain today were preserved in large glass boxes and, typically, depict a child between 0-3 years. Older children tend to have been depicted merely from the shoulders up – Which is understandable from a cost and size perspective! A wax baby might be comforting; a six foot wax teenager is the stuff of nightmares.

little-girls-would-practice-mourning-with-funeral-dolls-photo-u1

Wax likenesses weren’t the only death-related dolls associated with Victorian children. In life, many little girls were presented with so-called ‘Death Kits’, which included a doll and miniature coffin. In play, the child would then ‘practice dressing the doll, laying it out for visitation, placing it in the coffin, and facilitating a funeral. She might also be expected to practise attending to the grief of the doll’s mourners.’ So says The Order of the Good Death’s Louise Hung.

 

These dolls were ideal primers for young women who, should they survive to adulthood, would almost certainly be called upon to care for their own dead.

 

As mortality rates decreased, tastes changed and wartime reduced the popularity of excessive or overly-materialistic mourning, wax dolls lost their popularity. Today, many of us find realistic likenesses unnerving or macabre, but feel compelled to decorate graves with cherubs and photographic likenesses. The days of the wax child may be over, but I’d keep an eye on the ceramic toddler…

 

 

 

Sources

https://victoriantraditions.blogspot.com/2016/04/wax-dolls-montanari-and-pierotti-dolls.html

 

http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/cabinet-curiosities-victorian-death-dolls

 

http://www.inherited-values.com/2016/10/the-lovely-disturbing-the-history-of-wax-dolls/

 

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4814519.kirsty_stonell_walker/blog?page=13

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorian_mourning_dolls

Cora L. V. Scott – Medium, Spiritualist, Icon.

Hello reader! My aim for this blog is to cover elements of all aspects of burials and ‘beyond’… While I have some rather exciting cemetery posts on the backburner, I’ve certainly slacked on starting my most exciting/obsessive series concerning mediumship, Victorian spiritualism and wonderfully (potentially morally questionable) entrepreneurial women avoiding gender boundaries like ghosts in televised ghost hunts.

CoraHatchSm-2

 

 

 

This week on Burials and Beyond, I’d like to introduce you to Cora L V Scott, one of the most influential mediums in the 19th century spiritualist movement and the most famous Victorian you’ve never heard of.

Probably…

 

 

 

 

Cora Lodencia Veronica Scott was born in 1840 near Cuba, New York. At birth, Cora’s face was covered with a caul; a piece of membrane that many cultures believe to give the wearer a ‘sixth sense’ or special abilities (Should you want to read more about beliefs surrounding the caul, read my previous blog post on the magical membranes HERE).

 

Her parents, who had been dedicated Presbyterians, turned to universalism and joined the Hopedale religious community in 1851. After a time, the Scotts found Hopedale too crowded for their likings and, with the blessings of Hopedale’s founder Adin Ballou, they moved to pastures new. The Scotts founded their own international religious community in Waterloo, Wisconsin in 1852. Sadly, due to the death of Cora’s father in 1853, she left Wisconsin a year later to return to New York. But here is where things get very interesting indeed.

Cora_L_V_Hatch_Engraving

In 1852, when the Waterloo community was in its infancy, Cora began to show the first signs of her (supposed) supernatural/spiritual abilities.  Aged 11, while dozing on her schoolwork in the family garden, Cora awoke to find that her writing slates were covered with unfamiliar handwriting. It is said that, excited and bewildered, Cora showed the slates to her mother who was alarmed by their contents and quickly hid the offending script. The writing Cora had presented was said to have been addressed to ‘My Dear Sister’, referring to a long-deceased sister of Cora’s mother. It is in these pubescent years that Cora’s abilities are said to have developed with sudden and unrelenting speed.

 

Cora’s sudden need for sleep, or ‘trances’ as they became known, began to increase in frequency. As the child fell asleep in the drawing room shortly after the first communicative experience, her hand began to twitch, as though writing. While her mother attempted and failed to rouse her, she soon thought to put slate and pencil into Cora’s hand. Several messages from deceased relations later, each closing with the phrase ‘We Are Not Dead’, this ‘ability’ was clear to make the young girl’s name.

 

Now, with the blessings of her mother (thanks to the reassurances of deceased relatives), Cora’s periods of trance sleep – now occurring multiple times a week – attracted crowds eagerly awaiting her messages. It is said that she delivered meaningful messages from deceased parties to endless gathered strangers. It was in these early years of her development that Cora was frequently ‘taken over’ by the spirit of a German surgeon – which considering young Cora was neither, was quite a feat.

 

Her Germanic guide would take over Cora for some several hours a day, healing those who came to her, and visiting those who were too ill to make the trip. She supposedly caused such a stir within her community that both doctors and ministers alike were perturbed by her presence and her mysterious healing abilities. The blog ‘The Unobstructed Universe’describes the clergy within her community as being ‘sycophants’, disgruntled by their empty pews (due to Cora’s proofof life beyond death) with their parishioners ‘doing their own thinking’. Opinions around Cora’s abilities, particularly her work during this German era (much like Bowie) continue to be delivered with much conviction, even today.

 

Indeed, in one of many apocryphal stories of her youth, she was deemed ‘satanic’ by clergy after successfully operating on Mr Keyes, a carpenter, whose infected finger was causing him great distress. The German spirit surgeon was soon thriving through these small acts of medical intervention. However, it must be reiterated, the surgeon was just that, and Mr Keyes, although free of infection, still lost part of his finger.

Soon, Cora’s small community became a spiritualist stronghold where traditional practises of faith and medicine were surplus to requirements.

 

Still aged eleven, Cora’s spirit guides commanded it that she be removed from school, as the current teachings of man would do them, and in turn, her mediumistic abilities, no good. Given the idea, I can attest that most eleven year olds would convey the same message, spirit guides or not.

Therefore, after watching the young girl’s abilities, it was decided that Cora would be utilised for public speaking. After reading no specialist textbooks, the young girl showed the ability to speak on a plethora of scientific and esoteric subjects via the intelligence of multiple spirits. As her name and abilities grew, she could speak on any subject given to her by a public audience, all with supernatural accuracy.

After moving to Buffalo, New York aged fourteen, by fifteen, she was commanding large audiences and amazing the masses. Her age, as with many other young successful mediums, certainly played a key part in solidifying the legitimacy of her abilities.

250px-Cora_L_V_Richmond_-_portrait_-_1876

Accounts of mediums early years are, more often than not, fantastical and compelling, but must (understandably) be taken with a pinch of salt. One must remember that however one may believe the authenticity of another’s abilities, personal histories within the 19thcentury were exactly that – written and edited however one wanted, with few means of referencing their paranormal claims.

 

As with all good Victorian mediums, much of their early years are filled with apocryphal tales of unexplainable abilities and communications from heretofore unknown relatives, where later years, tales of success and fraud are far more equal in their frequency. Did pre-teen Cora speak in fluent German and operate on those who were suffering? While many may see it as unlikely, many others beg to disagree to this day.

 

Frank Podmore, writing in 1902, said that ‘naughty little girls have for many generations amused themselves and mystified their elders by rapping on the foot of their wooden bedsteads and throwing the less expensive crockery…’ (202)

 

While rather dismissive in language, Podmore is not untrue in his generalisations. Many successful female mediums required lavish backstories, where mediumistic abilities were developed from a very young age. Some claimed to summon coal from thin air, others talked to deceased relatives while some levitated or solved murders. Dipping your toe into the pool of early mediumship spills forth a veritable flood of mystical childhoods.

 

Cora first married aged sixteen. Her husband, some thirty years her senior, was the professional mesmerist Benjamin Franklin Hatch. He subsequently became Cora’s manager, moving her into performance circles she had previously been unable to permeate as a young, unmarried woman. For better or worse, he equipped Cora with a showmanship lacking in many of her contemporaries.

Her marriage with Hatch was fraught with problems, her divorce proceedings (still recorded in newspaper archives) even more so. With back and forth claims of abuse and affairs on both sides, they were divorced in 1863. Twenty-three year old Cora was not on her own for long, but managed to get three more marriages under her belt before her death in 1923.

 

Despite her troubled personal life, Cora’s large public lectures were a huge source of income and notoriety for much of her professional life. Unlike many mediums who preferred to conduct one to one readings or slate writings in a large arena, acting as background artists to their phenomena, Cora was at its forefront. She delivered lectures on a wide range of topics from spiritual and esoteric matters for mathematics, physics and the abolition of slavery.

There are multiple testimonies of triumphant lectures; stories of moral redemption and scientific astonishment.

 

Her biographer Harrison Delivan Barrett recounts-

“At Lynn, Massachusetts, in December, 1857, a committee composed of scholarly men anticipated that they would confound Cora’s guides by asking, “Will you please define the Pythagorean proposition?” Speaking through Cora, the guides asked, “Which proposition do you mean – the Moral Code or the so-called Scientific Proposition?” When no answer came from the committee, the guides took up the Moral Code. Following that discourse, a committee member, apparently a scientist, asked, “What is the diameter of a bucket filled to the brim with water?’ The response came through Cora, “The diameter of a bucket of water is probably as great as the diameter of a cranial structure, destitute the grey material denominated ‘brain’ by so-called scientists.”

 

By 1858, Cora had given some 600 lectures and assurances of her wondrous insight andCoraT1875 legitimacy were strewn throughout periodicals and newsletters. Commenting on a lecture Cora delivered aged 18, Dr A. B Childs commented that ‘The lady can address an audience of five thousand people with great ease, and the guides through her give an elaborate discourse upon any subject the audience may choose. There cannot well be a greater test of Spirit power than this.” (Jul 24th1858)

 

Not only was Cora able to lecture extensively on any subject given to her, but she delivered these talks through the abilities of co-working spirits, some of whom were particularly well known. On 24thFebruary, 1883, Cora delivered a lecture in one of her trances via the spirit of President James A Garfield, who had been assassinated two years prior.

 

Many transcripts of Cora’s ‘high level trances’ have been preserved for students and believers of Spiritualism, and are held up by many as still possessing unrivalled insight into the spirit world. Those behind Interfarfacing.org and the extensive Cora L V Richmond Archives remark that ‘For future generations they will bring more knowledge and wisdom to students better able to perceive larger portions of the gestalt; universal spiritual quantum physics.’

 

The lectures Cora so expertly delivered are often recorded as being as successful and thought-provoking as her early spiritualistic work in her small community. However, due to the developments in newspaper and periodical culture, unimpressed attendees’ voices were afforded as much column space as those celebrating the medium’s abilities. Taking newspaper reports and cultural context into account… when lecturing, it seems Cora may have spouted a lot of drivel.

 

As reported in the Boston Courier on November 21st1857, Cora Scott’s (then, Hatch) appearance and lecture was not received so positively by all attendees.

 

‘The first evening [Monday], Mrs. Hatch, though professing to be too ill to speak at all, did, nevertheless, talk one hour and a half “against time,” in order that the committee might not have an opportunity to test her claims to scientific attainments…Seven-eights of her time, at least, was consumed in rhapsodies upon points that had notthe most distant connection with the subject given her; and when at last she concluded, she said, that “in consequence of illness and exhaustion of the medium, we shall answer no questions tonight.” This was a downright imposition upon those who had been invited there to test her superhuman powers, and an effort was made to induce her to answer. Her reply was: “The spirts have declined to answer, and that is sufficient.”’

 

Despite such comments littering newspapers throughout Cora’s professional career, many people continue to praise her as one of life’s great inspirational speakers. A skim through psychic and spiritualist archives will unearth a plethora of contemporary journals who still explore the academic merits of her lectures. Considering Cora was actively speaking, presenting and lecturing at conferences until her death in 1923, there’s a LOT of material to sift through.. and as much as I adore the legacies of female Victorian mediums, I wanted to make this post part of a series, not a thesis!

 

A medium’s success and the hysteria surrounding so many performances and supposed demonstrations of other-worldly abilities are understandably easy to mock through modern eyes. There are understandably endless technological, cultural and social aspects to consider, but also developments in spiritualism itself; trance mediumship and performance mediumship/mesmerism on such a scale was new to many North American audiences. A growing willingness to speculate on the nature of eternity and a keenness to explore the new field of spirit study and experience the zeitgeist as it toured your doorstep. To put it bluntly, the 19thCentury wasn’t drowning in Psychic Sallys and Derek Acorahs.

 

After a series of spirit-guided lectures in the UK (to moderate success at most), Cora returned to North America in 1875, becoming a pastor in a Chicago spiritualist church (a position she held until her death), where she finally seemed to lay roots.

 

While doubts were cast upon her legitimacy as a medium in her lifetime, admirers of, and believers in, her work remain as passionate today as in Cora’s mortal lifetime.

Personally, I admire Cora’s gumption. She was a critic of evolution, four-times married at a time when one divorce would often ruin a woman’s reputation and publically danced about scientific topics through rambling spirit raptures on the nature of existence. She was a businesswoman, a celebrity and a woman with more confidence than anyone should strictly possess.

To me, whether or not she held mediumistic powers is immaterial; she was an international artist and icon, the likes of which we’ll never see again.

 

 

 

Further Reading/Sources:

 

https://interfarfacing.com

 

https://interfarfacing.com/statements.htm

 

http://psychictruth.info/Medium_Cora_Lodencia_Veronica_Scott.htm

 

http://theunobstructeduniverse.com/TUU_Blog/cora-l-v-richmond-the-most-amazing-medium-youve-never-heard-of/

 

http://www1.assumption.edu/WHW/Hatch/LifeWork.html

 

https://hatch.kookscience.com/wiki/Cora_L.V._Scott