bodies on display, chatelet prison, dark tourism, dead, dead house, death, house of the dead, L'affaire Billoir, Morgue, Mortuary, Murder, Paris, spectacle, suicide, temple of suicide, theatre of death, thomas cook, tourist, unidentified, Victorians
Anyone familiar with David Farrier’s recent Netflix Series Dark Tourist, will know that for a certain element of society, tourism isn’t about sun, sea and sand but about exploring the macabre, dangerous or disturbing. Far from being a new trend, this phenomena has long history. In the nineteenth century the Paris Morgue was an unlikely, but popular, attraction. Many an English traveller would turn their steps away from the famous sights of that most romantic of cities and follow the crowds towards the best free show in town.
In Thérèse Raquin Zola perfectly captures the popular appeal of the morgue, with all of its grisly drama and spectacle:
“The Morgue is a spectacle within the reach of all pockets, free for all, the poor and the rich. The door is open, anyone who wishes enters. There are fans who make detours so as not to miss a single representation of death. When the slabs are empty, people leave disappointed, robbed, mumbling under their breath. When the slabs are well furnished, when there is a good display of human flesh, the visitors crowd each other, they provide cheap emotions, they scare one another, they chat, applaud or sniffle, as at the theatre, and then they leave satisfied, declaring that the Morgue was a success, that day”
The Paris Morgue was regularly featured in journals and travel books of the era. While there was often there was an undercurrent of moral disapproval at the voyeurism inherent in the morgue’s attraction, it’s popularity as a free public spectacle knew no bounds.
But how did a civic institution become a public spectacle and was there a more serious purpose behind this most macabre institution?
A Stinking Pestilent Place
Every city has a problem with what to do with the unidentified and unclaimed dead. In Paris the Medieval period, the Order of St Catherine fulfilled this function. Later, in the reign of Louis XIV, the practice of displaying the dead to identify them was established. The very word morgue comes from an archaic verb morguer which, as Vanessa R Schwartz explains, means to stare or have a fixed and questioning gaze, which would seem very appropriate under the circumstances.
In 1718 the Dictionaire de l’Academie defined the Paris Morgue as ‘a place at the Chatelet [prison] where dead bodies that have been found are open to the public to view in order that they be recognised’ and which was composed of ‘dead bodies found in the street and also found drowned’ [p49]. Indeed, drowning victims would be the staple of the morgue for most of its existence.
Despite the public function of such morgues, those historically attached to prisons were by no means a clinical setting for viewing the dead. Corpses were often tossed on the ground in piles, left to putrefy while unfortunate visitors had to to breath in the noxious vapours as they tried to identify them. Adophe Guillot described the Basse Geole as ‘[..] a stinking pestilent place with little of the respect death deserves ‘.
The Chalelet Prison in Paris fell-foul of its royal connections during the French Revolution and was closed in 1792. But not before hosting the grisly remains of the 7 prison guards killed during the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789.
The Temple to the Dead
The growing urbanisation of Paris in the nineteenth century, which saw more people living cut off from their traditional communities, increased the chance of people dying anonymously amongst strangers. This in turn created an administrative problem of how to identify the masses of unidentified corpses that kept turning up on the streets and in the Seine.
In 1804, a new morgue was built by order of the Napoleonic Prefect, in order to address this problem. The purpose-built morgue was sited on the Ile de la Cite, at the Quai du Marche, on the corner of Pont St Michel, it was close to the river – the supplier of so many corpses destined for display in the morgue. This new classical building was purpose-built in the centre of the administrative district –it was very visible, sited on a busy road and close by the Police HQ and courts. All elements crucial to its civic function – the river to bring the bodies, the public to identify the bodies, the police to solve crime, the courts to punish the guilty.
Although this new specialised building was far better than what went before, and drew in thousands of spectators, it still had its problems; there was no private entrance for delivery of corpses, the morgue had a terrible chemical smell, and there was a huge population of large grey rats that frequented the area.
the Morgue and the Media
In the 1850’s Napoleon’s prefect of the Seine, Baron George Haussmann had grand plans for Paris. Haussmann redeveloped (some say ‘disemboweled’) the crowded Medieval Isle de la cite, to build the new more spacious Boulevard Sebastopol. The old morgue, in the heart of Medieval Paris, fell foul of ‘Haussmannization’ and was demolished. In 1864 a new and improved morgue was built behind Notre Dame Cathedral on the quai de l’Arche Veche.
The new morgue was much larger than the old, with a large Salle du Public (exhibition room) and it was endowed with more advanced facilities including rooms for autopsies, registrar and staff, a laundry (for the clothing of the deceased) and a more discreet rear entrance for corpses. By the 1870’s photography was being utilised when corpses were no longer suitable for display, and by the 1880’s refrigeration was introduced. However, despite these sound scientific improvements and the emphasis on the civic duty of displaying the corpses to the public in order to aid identification, there remained a huge element of sensation and entertainment in a visit to the morgue. In the public imagination, which was fuelled by the popular press of the day, the morgue was intrinsically linked to suicide, murder and human tragedy.
A visitor to the new morgue in the 1860s would have been in for a grand spectacle of everyday drama. If the body on display was a cause celebre a visitor might have to queue for hours to gain entrance. In a single day tens-of-thousands of men, women, children, of all classes, might come to view the latest media sensation, such happened in the cases of L’affaire Billoir in 1876 & the Mystere de la rue Vert Bois in 1886. In the first case a man dismembered his lover, her body was fished out of the Seine in two packages, while the second related to an 18 month old girl found dead at the foot of a staircase. Both cases caused an ongoing media sensation. Keeping the cases in the news kept the crowds coming to the morgue in their thousands, to view the corpses and speculate on the circumstances of their demise. Ironically, in the Billoir case, while tens of thousands of visitors thronged the morgue to view his victim’s remains, less than 600 people attended his public execution. 
A visit to the morgue
The layout of the building created a kind of peep show for the crowds as they patiently jostled forwards. Billboards and posters advertised the corpses within, visitors were ushered in single file in one direction. Corpses were displayed behind vast plate-glass windows, draped with long green curtains which only succeeded in adding to the theatrical nature of the experience.
Bodies were laid out in two rows of six, naked but for a cloth covering their modestly, items belonging to them were hung up near them. In some cases, such as the Rue Vert Bois case and Mystere de Suresnes (two young girls retrieved from the Seine, triggering speculation that they might have been sisters), drama was added to the tragedy by posing them on chairs, in a kind of tableau, rather than on the cold hard slab. Due to initial mis-identification in the Suresnes case, these little corpses had to be put back on display, even after the bodies began to significantly decay, which must have been both a very macabre and a very sad sight. And as such, it was just the kind of spectacle the crowd came for: combining sensation, sentimentality and speculation.
Voyeurism and Moral Hygiene
Before refrigeration was introduced in the 1880s a constant drip of water was fed from pipes above each slab, in order to keep the bodies fresh. It is debatable how well this worked, and sometimes, such as that of the woman in the Billoir case, the body began to deteriorate and a wax model had to be substituted for the real thing.
Most of the bodies displayed were male, although women and children were also displayed (and were often the focus of intense media interest). Zola famously wrote of the morgue in his novel Therese Racine, where he touches on the erotic undertones of viewing a corpse:
“Laurent looked at her for a long time, his eyes wandering on her flesh, absorbed by a frightening desire.”
Contemporary moralists were particularly worried about threats to the risk to ‘moral hygiene’ entailed in a visit to the morgue. In particular, they feared the uncontrolled voyeurism of female visitor, women being considered the ‘weaker’ sex morally as well as physically. A visit to the morgue gave women access to view near naked male bodies. Not only women, but children were also frequent visitors to the morgue, and the effects of visiting such a macabre site on children were also a cause of public concern. None of this moral panic, however, diminished the crowds thronging the streets to gain entrance to the Morgue.
While it is true that some visitors attending the morgue might imagine that perhaps they could assist in the identification of one of the unfortunates on display, this was not the prime motive for most visitors. As Schwartz has argued, they were attending for the drama of the everyday, an interest both generated and sensationalized by the media. It was free theatre. Who knows, you might be lucky enough to witness the murderer, not quite returning to the scene of the crime, but brought low by conscience after being faced with his victim. This was not so far-fetched a scenario, the police did sometimes bring the accused to the morgue to gauge their reactions in a ‘day of confrontation’ , Clovis Pierre writing in Le Figaro described these events as ‘[a] sensational show’. It also gave the public the opportunity to participate in the drama directly. A contemporary writer, Firmin Maillard, exclaimed ‘who needs fiction when life is so dramatic’  – this was a huge element of the Morgue’s continued popularity.
It is interesting to note that the voyeurism inherent in a visit to the morgue extended beyond the corpses to its living denizens as well. Often better-off visitors came to the morgue as much to gawp at the lower classes at play, as at the deceased (whom they would have very little chance of being able to identify). One factor in common with those whose death resulted in the stigma of public display in the morgue, was that they were nearly all members of the lower classes, the poor and dispossessed of Paris were far more likely to die alone or remain unidentified. 
Innovation and Social Engineering
But of course the morgue served as far more than a public spectacle. Alan Mitchell in his article The Paris Morgue as a Social Institution in the Nineteenth Century, sees it as a positivist force, helping to revolutionise forensic medicine and policing – introducing refrigeration, pioneering forensic photography, focusing on autopsies.
It could also be seen has an attempt at social engineering: a way of turning the active and dangerously mob, who had engaged in revolutionary and subversive activity in the eighteenth century and the earlier parts of the nineteenth century, into passive and more tractable group of spectators.  Whether as deliberate policy or not, the morgue could be seen to have been a part of a wider social and political agenda in de-politicising the masses. Setting the foundation for today’s passive consumer culture, easily distracted from the bigger issues by the latest sensation or spectacle.
The final curtain
The Morgue was finally closed in 1907 due to concerns with moral hygiene and a desire to professionalize the Morgue and its functions. Its replacement was the Medico-legal Institute which remains to this day. However, the Paris Morgue of the past should not be dismissed simply as grisly voyeurism (although that certainly did play its part).
The Morgue represented a way for the authorities to institutionalise death which contributed to the improvement in scientific and forensic techniques. It also highlighted the drastic changes in rapidly industrialising societies. While the nineteenth century is famous for its obsession with the Good Death, the morgue showcased the alternative, the Bad Death. Showing death as anonymous, ignominious, public, and, the antithesis of the Good Death, an ephemeral popular entertainment.
This de-sacralisation of death, turning it from a private religious contemplation of the eternal into a public spectacle, heavily linked to current events was fed by the popular press, whose influence on popular culture was becoming more pervasive as the century progressed. It may also have been a way of allowing an increasingly secular, urbanised and disconnected people to experience the horror, the drama, and the hidden tragedies of everyday lives – from a safe distance. In some ways, not much has changed.
Photograph of the Paris Morgue public viewing room. Source unknown. Via Cult of Weird.
Sources and notes
Mitchell, Alan, ‘The Paris Morgue as a social institution in the nineteenth century’ Francia 4 1976 (581-96) 
Schwartz, Vanessa, R, 1998 ‘Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris’ University of California Press - and 
Tredennick, Bianca, http://muse.jhu.edu/article/478521 – Some Collections of Mortality: Dickens, the Paris Morgue, and the Material Corpse, The Victorian Review.
black death, bones, cadaver, chantries, chantry, Christianity, corpse, effigies, funeral, funerary, Gisant, Henry Chichele, Lincoln Cathederal, Medieval death, memento mori, mortality, purgatory, resurrection, Richard Flemming, shroud, skeleton, spirituality, Thomas Haxby, tomb, transi, York Minster
A dark secret in Lincoln Cathedral
A visitor wandering the aisles of Lincoln’s fine Gothic cathedral, awed by its vast air ribbed vaulting, intrigued by its curious Medieval carvings – such as the famous Lincoln Imp – and immersed in its impressive Medieval and Wren libraries, would be forgiven for overlooking the tomb of Richard Fleming, the bishop of Lincoln from 1420-1431.
Fleming’s monument forms part of a chantry chapel and is tucked away on the North wall of the cathedral. A cursory glance is all most visitors probably afford it – yet another elaborate memorial to a high churchman. But if you look a little closer, Richard Fleming’s tomb hides a remarkable and macabre secret. In the lower part of the monument, beneath the sculpture of the recumbent bishop in his robes of office, lies a very different image, a shrunken cadaver, ribs protruding, eyes hollow, wrapped in a winding-sheet. The sculpture offers a visceral reminder of the bodily decay, awaiting high and low alike, after death. Fleming’s tomb is one of the earliest English examples of the Transi or Cadaver Tomb in England. But why would a prominent and influential churchman chose to have himself depicted as food for worms?
What’s in a name
Kathleen Cohen, in her fascinating book Metamorphosis of a death symbol, explains that the word transi derives from the latin verb transire – trans to cross, ire to go and that this links in with the French word transir, in use from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, and which means ‘to die’ or ‘to pass away’ or ‘ to go’. Transi tombs can, using this basis, be interpreted as depicting the transitional body, from life, to death, and onwards to resurrection.
Transi or as they are more commonly know, cadaver tombs are similar but also distinct from the more familiar Medieval tombs, known as gisants, which depicted the medieval deceased recumbent and dressed clothes befitting their rank and station. In stark contrast, the transi figure presents the viewer with the deceased in an advanced state of decomposition, sunken eyes, prominent ribs, even covered in toads, snakes and vermin (although this was always more popular on the continent, particularly Germany, rather than in the British Isles).
Cadaver tombs could be double deckers or single – Richard Fleming’s is a fine example of the double-decker with the gisant style representation atop the cadaverous one, while the sadly battered and worn cadaver tomb in York Minster, in the west aisle of the north trancept, is an example of the single-decker, with deceased represented only as a decayed corpse. The York tomb is attributed to Treasurer Thomas Haxby (1418-1425) but according to research by Dr Pamela King, may in fact belong to Treasurer John Neuton, founder of York Cathedral’s Medieval library.
Possibly the most famous cadaver tomb in England belongs to Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury between 1414 – 1443, and is a fine example of the double-decker transi tomb. Other examples of cadaver tombs were employed by lay people, men and women alike, and even royalty (particularly in France).
Medieval Death: Plague and punishment
For many years art and architecture historians shied away from examining any deeper meaning in these grisly monuments, seeing at most either a simple didactic Memento Mori function – reminding the living that they too will die, or a psychological reaction to the horrors of the Black Death. The plague that had killed between 30-60% of Europe’s population had peaked in the 1340’s and many felt that its impact was expressed in these monuments and other Morbid medievalisms. However, the plague argument can be challenged by the fact that there had been regular outbreaks of plague before the Black Death. Perhaps most convincingly, Italy, the origin of the Black Death in Europe, and which suffered huge numbers of deaths, did not evolve a strong cadaver tomb tradition at this time. So, while the Black Death may have had some influence on the medieval taste for the macabre, it was not necessarily the driving force behind the development of the cadaver style tomb. 
In fact, more recent research by Kathleen Cohen in her 1973 work Metamorphosis of a death symbol and in 1987 Dr Pamela King’s PhD thesis Contexts of the cadaver tomb in fifteenth century England have added new dimensions of temporal and spiritual complexity to these remarkable and shocking monuments. They argue that they can be viewed as both a reaction to changing social and political situation of the fifteenth century a time when church and nation-state were becoming ever more intertwined – and as a part of the broader spirituality of the Medieval past. They may be viewed then, not as a simple Memento Mori didactic with the viewer, but a reaction to contemporary issues faced by the church as well as a crucial part of the souls journey through purgatory – a dramatic means for soliciting the prayers of the living for the benefit of the dead.
A Morbid Taste for Bones, The state of the soul after death
As mentioned above, while it is true that lay people, both men and women chose the cadaver tomb for their funerary monument, churchmen seemed particularly drawn to this style of memorial and may have been instrumental in its initial dissemination. Cohen and others have suggested that this may in part be due to the fact that during the 15th century the church underwent a radical change due to the rise of the nation-state. As more and more powerful men were rewarded for their loyalty to king and country with ecclesiastical preferments, the church became vastly wealthy and inextricably linked to worldly power. Henry Chichele (1363/4 – 1443) was a prime example of this type of man: a high-flying ecclesiastical lawyer who was rewarded by Henry V for services rendered to the crown with the archbishopric of Canterbury, in 1414.
Chichele, like many of his contemporary churchmen, chose the cadaver tomb. And make no mistake, these tombs would have been deliberately chosen by their future occupants, not picked for them by relatives after death. In a ‘double-decker’ the incorruptible office held by the individual is depicted in the gisant style sculpture above – showing the individual in all the pomp and glory of their office. Beneath, the corrupt human form is depicted decaying and gnawed by worms. But what was the message they were trying to convey?
Medieval art and literature often portrayed the body as intrinsically sinful. Images of a vain and luxurious life were often counterpoised with images of the consequences of sin suffered after death. The state of the soul after death was of huge importance to Medieval people. Images such as the Danse Macabre, Mort Roi (king death) and the three quick and the three dead, emphasised that worldly vanity and glory would not help the soul awaiting judgement. This preoccupation with the state of the soul after death was because Medieval people believed that upon death, the bulk of them would end up in purgatory for an indeterminate period before they reached their final destination, be it heaven or hell. One of the prime purposes of most medieval tombs was, therefore, to elicit prayers from the living to speed the deceased person’s passage through purgatory to heaven. Cadaver tombs were no different, many, such as that of Richard Fleming, being associated with their own chantry chapel precisely for this purpose.
It was also an element of Medieval Christian belief that the death provided not only a release from the sins of the mortal body, but also from the original sin of Adam. It was thought that the life of an individual from cradle to grave was a re-run in microcosm of mankind’s fall from Grace. And with the fall from Grace came the hope for resurrection. Pamela King decodes the cadaver tomb imagery thus: the physically corrupt body is an allegory for the soul, the Transi image therefore provides, to paraphrase Dr King, an accessible figure for a metaphysical state. 
Part of this concern for the soul expressed itself in a wish to humiliate or abase the mortal (and sinful) body in order to save the soul. Not only wealthy and powerful churchmen could wish to patch up the disjoint between their worldly success and their Christian faith. John FitzAlan, 14th Earl of Arundel (1408-1435) chose a cadaver tomb. Arundel was a highly successful and able commander during the latter part of the Hundred Year’s War. During his short but highly successful military career he accrued many titles and lands for his services. Although he died of wounds in France, his will stipulated he be buried in the FitzAlan Chapel at Arundel Castle, his tomb is a double-decker cadaver tomb.
In an aside provided by Kathleen Cohen, Arundel, despite being praised as the ‘English Achilles’ for his military skill, could also be ruthless and cruel. En route to fight in France it is said that he rounded up 60 or so women and girls from a convent in Southampton to ‘amuse’ his troops while at sea. The unfortunate women, having been raped by the soldiers, were then tossed overboard when a storm overtook the troop ships. It would seem then, at least to modern eyes, that a powerful and wealthy individual choosing a tomb that humbles and humiliates the body as an act of Christian piety in death, could also display a certain degree of hypocrisy.
Overall though, the transi image can be seen not solely as a reminder that the glories of high office may seem to be long-lasting, but sinful mortal bodies will all end up as food for worms, but also that death and decay are an inevitable part of the process that ultimately lead to resurrection of the good Christian soul. 
The End of purgatory and the rise of pagan glory
The fashion for cadaver tombs ran from the fifteenth century to the mid sixteenth century (and beyond, John Donne commissioned an extraordinary monument that would seem to have been influenced by this tradition). However as the religious climate of Europe changed with the protestant reformation in the sixteenth century, transis too, began to change. As the new protestant ideology promoted by Martin Luther (1483-1546) and others, rejected the idea that good deeds and indulgences from the church would get you into heaven, and promoted the idea that entry to heaven was based on God’s grace alone, the existence of purgatory was questioned. And if there was no purgatory then there was no need for elaborate tombs and chantry chapels designed to elicit prayers from the living for the dead soul.
The Renaissance also brought with it new ideas that contrasted with the Medieval mindset, including the concept of commemorating the deceased and their worldly deeds. So, while cadaver tombs continued to be built, in particular by royalty, they began to display a kind of pagan sense of glory instead of the Medieval focus on humility and abasement of the body associated with these types of tombs. One prime example of this change is the tomb of Henri II and Catherine Medici, at the Basilica St Denis, built between 1560-1573. Catherine, who was alive when the tomb was created, is said to have disliked the first emaciated image created for her and commissioned a second one. The replacement sculpture is said to have been based on a Venus from the Uffizi in Florence   and presents a very different image from the cadaverous worm riddled transis of the previous century. While the cadaver tomb still undoubtedly pointed to the resurrection of the soul, in this instance at least, royal vanity demanded a pagan aesthetic!
Cadaver tombs developed from a combination of factors – the concern for the state of the sinful soul after death – its need for prayers in order to achieve salvation, the conflict faced (in particular, but not solely) by high churchmen in relation to growing temporal power versus the spiritual asceticism of Christianity. Although it is hard to imagine that a modern viewer of such a tomb would not take away some form of Memento Mori didactic, it would seem that this was not their primary purpose as understood by Medieval people. As Protestantism spread through Europe, and the Renaissance provided a new emphasis on commemorating the dead, the cadaver tomb changed in style and purpose.
Regardless of their ultimate meaning, a modern viewer, coming across one of these macabre monuments is given a thought-provoking and startling insight in to the Medieval mind.
You can find some notable transi tombs in England in York Minster, Lincoln Cathedral and Canterbury Cathedral.
Sources and notes
Uncredited images by Lenora.
Brown, Sarah, The Mystery of Neuton’s Tomb
Cohen, Kathleen, 1973, ‘Metamorphosis of a death symbol’  
King, Pamela, 1987, ‘Contexts of the cadaver tomb in fifteenth century England’ 
If someone were to measure just how ‘gothic’ a story was via a tick-list analysis of stereotypical parts, then Edgar Allan Poe’s classic ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ would cross the qualifying line furlongs ahead of its competitors. A claustrophobic and foreboding location? Yes. A deliciously wordy study of depression and mania, sanity and insanity, the melancholy and the bizarre? Absolutely. A premature burial and a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom? Indeed.
Poe and H.P. Lovecraft never fail to scratch the itch for macabre entertainment when the mood takes me, and while I have always enjoyed them as a reader from childhood, doing audio performances of their work has brought a new and deeper appreciation of the music and rhythm of the language used.
I particularly relished the pronunciation challenges arising from the narrator’s discussion of the various books that Roderick Usher and he had been studying (around 24:30 in) and the fact that the story opens with a couplet in French. In addition, both Lovecraft and Poe had no problem in making single sentences stretch almost over a full paragraph, with punctuation which needs to be carefully noted in order for the main point of emphasis not to be lost.
I hope that you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed recording it.
Ramblingidioms at the Haunted Palace
The Haunted Palace has long been the home of the dark and unusual. Be it history folklore or the supernatural, Lenora and Miss Jessel have always delighted in all things strange and mysterious. It is with therefore with a great fanfare of dramatic gloomth that we would like to introduce the dark talents of Ramblingidioms.
As well as being a gifted writer and poet (see our post on his book of poetry Esto Perpetua), he has recently created a You Tube channel, Ramblingidoms, dedicated to the spoken word. Visitors can immerse themselves in classic yarns, from Dickens to Lovecraft, the supernatural to science fiction.
It seems appropriate to start this literary liaison with a classic Edgar Allan Poe story. The Masque of the Red Death is a vivid and dreamlike allegory of how death is the ultimate leveler – coming not just for peasants, but for princes too, no matter how wealthy they may be.
So, settle yourself in an overstuffed armchair, rest your feet on the grate of crackling fire, pick up your goblet of red wine…or blood… as Ramblingidioms presents:
America, Ballerina, Ballet, bobbinet, burns, Clara Webster, continental theatre, dance, dance history, dancers, death, Drury Lane, Emma Livry, England, fire, flame-proof, footlights, france, health and safety, Machine woven lace, Paris Opera, Philadelphia, Romantic, The Gale Sisters, tulle, US, William Wheatley
In the nineteenth century the epitome of grace and elegance – and sexual frisson – was to be found in the Romantic Ballet.
Ballet had originally developed in sixteenth century Italy as a ritualised Court pass time and was adopted by royal courts through out Europe. Early ballet costumes reflected the elaborate styles of the day.
Industrial developments in the nineteenth century saw a revolution in fabric manufacture, allowing for lighter more gauzy fabrics to be mass produced. This manufacturing development caused a revolution in ballet costumes.
Many of these ethereal dancers became feted stars of the day, but the glamour and fame of these ballet girls came at a high price and it could sometimes be fatal.
The Romantic Ballet
1832 Marie Taglioni brought the house down when she performed La Sylphide in a frothy concoction of white tulle. Her performance cemented the gauzy white tutu as the derigueur costume of the Romantic Ballet. It was an ideal fabric for depicting the typical dryads, nymphs and other supernatural creatures that populated the ballet blanche in the nineteenth century, and it also looked divine by gaslight.
The new costume was made of much lighter fabric and revealed more of the ballet dancer’s legs. But this change from the earlier, heavier, corseted and more restrictive costumes of earlier centuries was not caused by vanity – it was necessitated by the higher jumps and pointe work that ballet dancers were now expected to perform as the technique had evolved.
Alison Matthews David notes that the changes were considered highly scandalous, and many men attended the ballet for less than artistic reasons – after all, these aerial sylphs were all sexually available, for the right price. The sexual market-place aspect of the ballet had the knock on effect of pushing ballerinas to the front of the stage, nearer to the footlights and their potential patrons, and inadvertently placing them much closer to danger.
Despite the other-worldly, untouchable quality of Romantic Era ballerinas, the cold hard truth was that ballet girls were often lower class girls sold by their parents to ballet companies. They were underfed, over-worked and often sexually exploited. Yet they dared not complain about their dangerous and exploitative conditions or risk their livelihoods. 
Dancing with Death
Consequently ballerinas danced with death on a daily basis, so much so that they regularly incinerated both themselves and their audiences in truly incendiary performances. The combination ballet and firey death was so ingrained in the popular imagination that tickets to the ballet were macabrely nick-named ‘tickets to the tomb’ due to the risk of death by fire, smoke inhalation or toxic gases . Perhaps this was one of the aspects of the ballet that appealed to the well developed sense of morbidity of the Victorians – ballet at its extreme could encompass both sex and death, an alluring combination.
Media and literature of the day also took a morbid, and at times misogynistic, delight in reporting fatal tragedies when they struck, often lingering on the terrible injuries of the unfortunate girls.
In 1856 Theophile Gautier’s novel Jettatura described the death of a ballerina:
“The dancer brushed that row of fire which in the theatre separates the ideal world from the real; her light sylphide costume fluttered like the wings of a dove about to take flight. A gas jet shot out its blue and white tongue and touched the flimsy material. In a moment the girl was enveloped in flame; for a few seconds she danced like a firefly in a red glow, and then darted towards the wings, frantic, crazy with terror, consumed alive by her burning costume.”
This is no artistic flight of fancy, Gautier was inspired by the death of real life ballerina Clara Vestris Webster at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, in 1844.
Clara had been playing Zelika, a royal slave, in the ballet The Revolt of the Harem. In a playful and erotic harem bath scene, she had been throwing water over other ballerinas, when her skirts caught fire on one of the sunken lights being used to represent the bath. Terrified, the other dancers did nothing to help – fearing the same fate. Gautier, writing her obituary for the Paris papers, in a spectacular display of misogyny and callousness said:
“it was said that she would recover, but her beautiful hair had blazed about her red cheeks, and her pure profile had been disfigured. So it was for the best that she died.”
The Media also revelled in the gory details of the girl’s death, reporting that:
“The body was so much burnt that when it was put into the coffin, the flesh in parts came off in the hands of the persons who were lifting it, and on the same account it could not be dressed.” 
As with many similar cases, the inquest found the death to be an accident and attached no blame to the theatre, even though the fire buckets by the stage had been empty.
Clara’s death did encourage more research into the fire-proofing of dresses. Queen Victoria also helped instigate research into flame-proofing fabrics even putting the royal laundry at the disposal of Dr Alphons Oppenheim and Mr F Versmann. They found that treating fabrics with Tungstate of Soda and Sulphate of Ammonia solution made fabrics safer. However there were drawbacks: once washed, the fabrics had to be re-treated. Despite these promising findings, no safety legislation or regulations were enacted in Britain.
In 1861 the beautiful Gale sisters, Ruth, Cecilia (known as Zela), Hannah and Abeona (know as Adeline), took the USA by storm. The English ballerinas toured the states wowing audiences wherever they went; however it was their final venue that has made them famous: The Continental Theatre in Philadelphia.
In August 1861 Actor Manager William Wheatley leased the theatre on Walnut Street. He spared no expense going so far as importing a special effects expert and the beautiful Gale sisters from England. The Ballerinas had their dressing room directly above the stage, it was fitted out with mirrors with gas jets next to them, in order to maximise the light they gave off.
On the evening of the 14 September 1861 an audience of 1500 people filled the Continental Theatre for the first night performance: Shakespeare’s The Tempest, adapted as a ballet. Many no doubt hoping for a glimpse of the fine legs of the beautiful Gale sisters as they floated about the set, the audience was unprepared for the horror about to unfold just off stage.
At the end of Act one, the Gale sisters and the corps de ballet had to flit up the narrow staircase to their dressing room 50 feet above the stage – a quick change was required for the next scene. While the show continued beneath them, the Gale sisters began to change costumes. Ruth climbed upon a settee to retrieve her gauzy tarletan costume, but the hem caught on the gas jet and within seconds Ruth was ablaze. In terror, Ruth ran through the dressing room and dashed herself into a plate glass mirror, adding to her horrific injuries. Her sisters, in trying to help her were caught up in the blaze. 
In the panic and confusion they flung themselves from the window onto the street below. A Miss McBride ran flaming on to the stage and fell into the orchestra pit, where she was eventually put out by stagehands.
Initially Wheatley had called for the curtain to fall and asked the audience to remain seated, however he soon realised the severity of the unfolding tragedy and ordered an evacuation. It is remarkable that no members of the audience were killed during the fire.
That was not the case with the ballerinas. Burned and broken ballerinas littered the streets outside the theatre as police, doctors and bystanders desperately tried to help. Harper’s Weekly described the scenes as ‘most piteous and agonising’. The burnt ballerinas were taken to taverns and hotels, and eventually by carriage to the Pennsylvania Hospital. With little or no pain killers available, the journey must have been agony. Over a four day period between six and nine ballerinas, including all of the Gale sisters, lost their lives. 
At the Coroner’s Inquest William Wheatley was cleared of all wrong-doing, and it must be said that he and his wife did all they could after the tragedy to pay medical bills and funeral costs for the lost girls. Wheatley also erected a memorial to them in Mount Moriah Cemetery. However, one wonders, in his no-expenses spared refit of the Continental, how much expense was spared for safety measures? 
The dangers faced by ballerinas in their highly flammable costumes was not entirely ignored by the authorities, in France an Imperial Decree was issued in 1858 which attempted to introduce flame-retardant fabrics for ballet dancers. When the fabrics were treated it had the unfortunate side-effect of rendering the formerly ethereal white tutu heavy, dingy and stiff. The safer tutu, where it was available, was often rejected outright by those it was intended to protect, as the case of Emma Livry shows.
Emma Livry, the illegitimate daughter of a ballet dancer and a baron, was the last great star of the Paris Opera Ballet from her debut in 1858 until her death in 1863.
She had been offered a drab flame retardant dress, but Emma simply refused to wear it. Her attitude may seem blase, but it cannot have been uninformed. There were too many high profile cases for Emma not to have been aware of the very real dangers faced by ballerinas in their flimsy tulle tutus.
Emma’s unintended final performance was on 15th November 1862, during rehearsals for the ballet opera La Muette de Portia. Sitting down, she raised her tutu above her head to prevent crushing the delicate fabric, the rush of air this created caused a nearby gas light to flame and this set light to her tutu. The fire blazed to three times her height. Engulfed in flames, she ran across the stage several times before she was finally caught, and the fire put out.
Her injuries were catastrophic, Emma suffered 40% burns, her stays were burned on to her, although her face was untouched. She survived for eight months eventually dying on 26th July 1863 of Septicaemia caused by her burns. She was barely 21. Shortly before her death she was still unrepentant, saying of the flame-retardant materials, “Yes, they are, as you say, less dangerous, but should I ever return to the stage, I would never think of wearing them – they are so ugly.” 
Bonfire of Vanities
It is important to remember that there were a lot of reasons for Emma, and others like her, to have made such a fatal choice of costume. It is disingenuous and a little to easy to attribute it to the vanity of these girls.
Flame-proofed tutus were stiffer and dull looking. Tulle tutus looked celestial, glowed softly in the low lights of the theatre, and made the dancers look like sylphlike creatures from another world. Dancers were poor girls, worked to exhaustion for minimal wages. They depended upon captivating the audience, in particular wealthy men who might become their patrons and lovers, they needed to look stunning to be marketable. If they did not bring in paying punters, there was a real chance they would end up back in the gutter, starving. The irony is that they risked their lives in order to survive.
Responsibility must also rest with governments who either did not bother with health and safety legislation, or where they did so, they failed to enforce it or hold anyone to account. More could have been done to make theatres safer places for ballerinas, fire blankets and fire buckets are simple measures but could have been effective safety measures, but too often these measures were overlooked with catastrophic consequences.
Sarcophagus containing Emma Livry’s burnt tutu. Paris Bibliotechque National via Fashion Victims.
The Tragic Gale sisters found their final resting place in Mount Moriah Cemetery. Though their grave stone is worn and faded now, the New York Clipper reproduced the text of their memorial:
“Over the deep broad grave in Mount Moriah Cemetery, Philadelphia, in which repose in eternal silence the four sisters Gale, a memorial tablet has been erected by the subscription of many kind friends who knew the poor girls in their pure life. And upon it has been graven the following inscriptions :
On one side –
With a mother’s tearful blessing They sleep beneath the sod, Her dearest earthly treasures Restored again to God!
And upon the other –
IN MEMORIAM Stranger, who through the city of the dead With thoughtful soul and feeling heart may tread, Pause here a moment – those who sleep below With careless ear ne’er heard a tale of woe: Four sisters fair and young together rest In saddest slumber on earth’s kindly breast; Torn out of life in one disastrous hour, The rose unfolded and the budding flower: Life did not part them – Death might not divide They lived – they loved – they perished, side by side. O’er doom like theatre let gentle pity shed The softest tears that mourn the early fled, For whom – lost children of another land! This marble raised by weeping friendship’s hand To us, to future time remains to tell How even in death they loved each other well.”
Sources and Notes
(The above includes extracts from Frank Leslie’s 1861 editorial on the Gale sisters demise). [ 
Daily Dispatch, October 1 1861, The recent terrible accident at the Continental Theatre in Philadelphia, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2006.05.0285%3Aarticle%3Dpos%D11
Matthews David, Alison, 2015, ‘Fashion Victims The Dangers of Dress Past and Present’ - 
The Public Ledger, 18 March 1845 Shocking Death of Miss Clara Webster: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=59&dat=18450318&id=cSA1AAAAIBAJ&sjid=GicDAAAAIBAJ&pg=6310,1978758&hl=en
automaton, Catherine Tylney-Long, Colonel Luttrell, dark humour, death, eighteenth century, gallows humour, Georgian, haunted houses, history, John Joseph Merlin, Lord Tylney, morbid, Mrs Delany, Wanstead House, William Pendarvis
The Grave humour of the Georgians
It is well-known that the Victorians had a love of all things macabre and death-related: from elaborate funerals to Memento Mori – in the nineteenth century death was in vogue. However, their eighteenth century ancestors, the Georgians, despite being less obviously morbid, certainly knew how to get a kick out of death when the mood suited them. As Autumn is now upon us, and Halloween fast approaches, a little bit of Georgian ghoulishness may suffice to whet the appetite!
Laughing at death
The tendency for some humans to laugh at death has been likened to a kind of instinctive cognitive behavioural strategy – it allows individuals to face what they fear most, such as their own inevitable demise, whilst offering them the catharsis of laughter . In the past, when death was such a visible part of most people’s lives, a bit of dark humour might help cut death down to size- to tame it a little. Of course, the terrors of the grave could also offer up a damn good scare. In the eighteenth century, the newly emergent Gothic novel found a ready audience of people who revelled in its dark aesthetic. Science and technology also offered opportunities for experiencing horror first hand in the forms of mechanical automatons and the immersive horror offered by magic lantern phantasmagoria shows. In short the Georgian’s were some of the first horror fans.
The following anecdotes have been shamelessly plundered from Julian Litten’s erudite and engrossing book on all things funereal: The English Way of Death: The Common Funeral since 1450.
An invitation to drinks with Sir William Pendarvis
For every thrill seeking eighteenth century libertine, there was an equal and opposite moralist, ready to offer their censure of decadent or immoral behaviour – whilst still relishing the details.
Mrs Delany, strong on piety and moral improvement, related the following tale of death-based debauchery, which occurred in about 1720:
“Sir William Pendarvis’s house was the rendezvous of a very immoral set of men. One of his strange exploits among other frolics, was having a coffin made of copper (which one of his mines had that year produced), and placed in the great hall, and instead of his making use of it as a monitor that might have made him ashamed and terrified at his past life, and induce him to make amends in future, it was filled with punch, and he and his comrades soon made themselves in capable of any sort of reflection; this was often repeated, and hurried him on to that awful moment he had so much reason to dread.”
This early eighteenth century baronet would seem to be no different from many of his dissolute peers, such as the irreligious Philip Wharton of Hell-fire infamy, but perhaps a kinder parallel exists with the irascible Squire Weston of Fielding’s novel, Tom Jones. Mrs Delaney had personal experience of the hard-drinking Pendarvis clan, she had been married at seventeen to sixty year old Alexander Pendarvis, so she clearly had good reason to be unimpressed by Sir William’s antics. But perhaps at the end of the day, Pendarvis was just another of the species of the carousing and bibulous English squire – albeit with a dark sense of humour – no doubt a dreadful husband but probably a great drinking buddy.
I wonder if he was buried in his punch bowl coffin?
Colonel Luttrell’s death masque(rade)
On 6 February 1771 Mrs Cornely held a Masquerade at the Pantheon in London. Such gatherings were popular in the eighteenth century and one could expect to see the usual throng of merrymakers dressed as harlequins, monks and medieval princesses, eager to party the night away. However, one guest, Colonel Luttrell, took things a little too far and his costume somewhat killed the atmosphere. RS Kirby, who witnessed the debacle, related that Luttrell cast such ‘a pall of gloom’ over the other guests that he had to leave almost as soon as he got there. And the reason for this downturn in the festivities…he had come dressed as a coffin!
Satan-Machines and the human condition
Before elaborating on the third tale of ghastly Georgian humour, in which Lord Tylney alarmed his guests with a gruesome garden ghoul, some preamble may be justified.
Philosophers have argued what it is that makes us human since time immemorial. In the seventeenth century Rene Descartes, in his Passions of the Soul and The Description of the Human Body, argued that humans and animals were basically automatons, humans distinguished only by their ability to reason. It was natural then, for life-like mechanical automatons to become part of that debate, similar today’s philosophical debates concerning when and if artificial intelligence might achieve sentience. Jessica Riskin, in her essay Machines in the Garden shows that far from viewing these human-machines as soulless – as we often do now – in the past they were often seen as capable of acting unexpectedly, playfully, wilfully and responsively.  This certainly comes across in Lord Tylney’s extraordinary display (described in the next section) with a choreographed event involving interaction between the living participants and the automatons.
What may seem unusual is that Tylney’s spectacle was so viscerally frightening. The most famous automatons, such as the exquisite silver swan at Bowes Museum or the dainty little keyboard player beloved of Marie Antoinette, may be slightly uncanny, but they are intended to be objects of beauty not fear. Nevertheless, historically, it was not unusual for automatons to be of a more menacing form. For many years the Catholic Church had been using mechanical and hydraulic automata as part of their clocks and organs to illustrate religious themes. But they had also been using automata to scare the devil out of their congregations with much more gruesome automatons – a famous example being the Sforza Devil.Many of these ‘Satan-machines’ had a pretty dramatic repertoire – wild rolling eyes, demonic expressions, chomping jaws, flapping wings and arms. Evan a tiny monk, created in 1560 by Juanelo Turriano, and now in the Smithsonian, that marched about offering benedictions in a rather sinister manner. Clearly these machines were intended primarily for the spiritual and religious improvement of the congregation, but Riskin also points to plenty of instances where their antics caused amusement . Of course, they were also good for business, drawing crowds of the curious and the faithful.
While the church used automatons in their mission to save their congregations souls, those who could afford to, used automatons for entertainment. Many princes of the church, royalty and noble families in Europe used hydraulic machines to create jump scares and booby traps for unsuspecting guests – water spouts could be triggered to drench guests and mechanical humans, animals, and dragons lurked about gardens and in grottoes to delight and amaze onlookers.
Lord Tylney’s Clockwork Cadaver
Perhaps the most interesting of Litten’s anecdotes occurred in at the fabled and ill-fated Wanstead House, Redbridge, London.
Wanstead House is most famous as the home of the beautiful and tragic Catherine Tylney Long, whose sad spectre is said to still haunt the grounds of the park. In 1768, long before the lovely Catherine met her tragic end, it was the setting of a spectacular or should that be spooktacular *sighs* practical joke that would be the envy of many modern haunted houses.
The following account is from the pen of an Italian Noblewoman, a guest at Wanstead and witness to the macabre piece of immersive theatre orchestrated by John, 2nd Earl Tylney (1712-84):
“Many lights appear in the trees and on the water. We are off and have great excitement fishing up treasure… tied to bladders. His Lordship is hailed from the shore by a knight, who we are told is King Arthur, have you the sacrifice my Lord, who answers no, then take my sword and smite the water in front of the grot and see what my wizard has done, take also this dove and when asked, give it to the keeper. Off again to some distance from the grotto, the lights are small and the water still, the giant eagle appears and asks, have you the sacrifice, no my Lord answers, so be it and disappears in steam.
His Lordship smites the water with King Arthur’s sword, all the company are still, a rumble sucking noise comes in front of the opening of the grotto the water as if boiling and to the horror of all the company as though from the depth of hell arose a ghastly coffin covered with slime and other things.
Silence as though relief, when suddenly with a creaking and ghostly groaning the lid slid as if off and up sat a terrible apparition with outstretched hand screeching in a hollow voice, give me my gift, with such violence, that some of the company fell into the water and had to be saved and those on the shore scrambled in always confusion was everywhere. We almost fainted with fright and was only stayed from the same fate by the hand of his Lordship, who handed the keeper the dove the keeper shut its hand and with a gurgling noise vanished with a clang of its lid, and all went pitch. Then the roof of the grotto glowed two times lighting the water and the company a little, nothing was to be seen of the keeper or his coffin, as though it did not happen. [sic!]” 
His Lordship may have been intending that some beautiful creature would swoon into his arms at the dramatic events, but he may have been a little disappointed that it was the lady in question – as Lord Tylney was not that way inclined.
Litten credits Lord Tylney with the concept for the event. Perhaps he had been influenced by the ghoulish phantasmagoria shows so popular at the time or automatons on display in noble houses and gardens both in England and on the continent. He certainly spent much of his life living in Italy where there were they had been popular for centuries.
But who was the macabre mechanic who breathed life into the drama? Litten looks to clues in the tableau to find the author of the mechanical pyrotechnics. The King Arthur motif would seem to be significant, as are the words ’see what my wizard has done’. Merlin was Arthur’s wizard, could this also be a covert reference to the extraordinary talents of John Joseph Merlin, famed for his exquisite automata such as the silver swan at Bowes Museum in Co. Durham. The eccentric inventor had arrived in England in 1760 and quickly made a reputation for himself (and not just for automata, Merlin had a penchant for cross-dressing and was a keen, if not always proficient, roller-skater). In the small world of the London elite, it is not unlikely that Tylney crossed paths with the brilliant John Joseph Merlin. Especially as Merlin’s penchant for cross-dressing may have appealed to Lord Tylney who is believed to have been homosexual. Merlin would certainly seem an ideal candidate for executing such an elaborate and memorable spectacle – although it is unlikely we will ever know for sure.
Tylney’s macabre drama draws on a long tradition of using automatons to scare and to entertain, but he also draws on elements of cutting edge contemporary culture with his emphasis on the Gothic with its predilection for knights and ghouls and good old jump scares. His guests had the opportunity for a good (safe) scare and a drenching if they weren’t too careful!
Saved from the flames
It is interesting to note that Julian Litten was given this tantalising titbit of Georgian horror by one Stuart Campbell-Adams, who explained that it was nearly lost in the mists of time. In a suitably gothic twist, this vignette of eighteenth century ghoulishness was amongst Tylney family papers intended to be consigned to the flames following the dissolution of Wanstead House. Only the quick thinking of either a maid or female relation of Catherine Tylney-Long saved them from destruction. Whoever the lady was, she clearly had a wicked sense of humour!
Sources and notes
Litten, Julian, ‘The English Way of Death The Common Funeral Since 1450’ Robert Hale, 1992 
Riskin, Jessica, ‘Machines in the garden’ at-http://arcade.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/article_pdfs/roflv01i02_03riskin_comp3_083010_JM_0.pdf  
It’s Good to be Bad: The psychological benefit of dark humour’ by Meg, 2014) at – http://megsanity.com/article.asp?post=14 
body bugs, burial, Burial Act, Burial reform, Cemeteries, churchyard, crypts, dancing on the dead, Enon Chapel, George Graveyard Walker, London, Mr Howse, open sewer, pyramid of bones, vaults, Victorian
Slums, sewers, corpses, a corrupt clergyman, a pyramid of bones, and …dancing on the dead. Sometimes the Victorian’s failed, quite spectacularly, to live up to their prim and proper reputation.
London’s burial grounds: a mass of putrefaction
London in the mid nineteenth century had a problem: a burgeoning industrial and commercial centre with a population pushing at 2.5 million living souls, it also had an ever growing population of the dead. Inner city burial had been carried out in London for centuries -it has been observed that London, even today, is one huge grave, if you only know where to look. But by the mid nineteenth century fears of disease spread by the miasma from inner city graveyards and a fashion for wealthier people to be buried in suburban cemeteries, meant that London’s remaining inner city burial grounds were often terribly overcrowded and unsanitary. One such place, the ‘Green Ground’ on Portugal Street, a burial ground for the nearby workhouse, was described by George Walker as:
‘[A] mass of putrefaction’ and ‘The soil of this ground is saturated, absolutely saturated, with human putrescence,’ the author noting that ‘The living here breathe on all sides an atmosphere impregnated by the odour of the dead.’ 
It was not uncommon for gravediggers to chop into or even discard earlier burials in order to cram new ones into overcrowded graveyards:
‘What a horrid place is St Giles Churchyard! It is full of coffins up to the surface. Coffins are broken up before they are decayed, and bodies are removed to the “bonehouse” before they are sufficiently decayed to make removal decent’
So reported the Weekly Despatch in September 1838.
No wonder that women rarely attended burials. Yet these places were often the only resort open to the poor. One scandalous case that provided a catalyst for a change was the infamous Enon Chapel….
Enon Chapel – undercutting the competition
Close to the Strand, on the west side of St Clement’s lane, an insalubrious neighbourhood was to be found. Accessed via a narrow court, Carey Street offered slum housing and overcrowding to the poorest of the poor. It was here in 1822, that an enterprising and cynical Baptist minister, Mr W Howse, founded his ministry: saving souls and selling burials. Enon Chapel itself, fitted into this down at heel locale, sited, as it was, above an open sewer which ran though its vault.In 1822, fear of the resurrection men was still strong. Burke and Hare had yet to set up their fearsome murder trade north of the Border, but before them were others, stealing fresh corpses from graveyards for the anatomists table. This popular fear may have been one of the factors in Mr Howse’s calculations in setting up his burial business at Enon. It had a vault. At barely 59 feet by 12 feet it wasn’t a large vault, but Mr Howse was an enterprising individual and knew how to spin a profit from almost nothing. In 1823 Enon was licensed for burials.
Burials in the vault at Enon Chapel were a mere 15 shillings. This compared very favourably to the competitors – close by at St Clement Danes it cost £1.17s2d for an adult burial, and £1.10.2d to bury a child – and that only covered a churchyard burial. At a time when poor families would often have to warehouse their dead in their homes until they had saved enough for burial, Enon Chapel had a clear advantage over the competition: offering both secure and, more importantly, affordable burials.
Things went well for Mr Howse for a number of years, if people marvelled at how capacious the tiny vault was, nobody asked any awkward questions. Even when worshippers retched into their hankerchieves or fell unconscious at the noxious stink that was rife in the chapel, especially in warm weather, they said nothing. It may have been harder to ignore the long black flies that emerged from the decaying coffins, or the ‘body bugs’ that would infest worshippers hair and clothes, and neighbours of the chapel noted that meat, if left out, would putrefy within an hour or two. By the 1830’s rumours were beginning to circulate, but still nobody suspected the true scale of the horror beneath their feet.
A Modern Golgotha uncovered
In 1839, following some concerns with goings on at Enon, the Commissioner of Sewers inspected the open sewer under the Chapel with the view that it should be covered or vaulted. However, their investigations took a grusome turn when they discovered human remains, some of them mutilated, discarded in the sewer – whether by design or accident, it was not clear. Oddly enough, despite the sheer horror of this discovery, the remains were not removed and burials did not stop. Mr Howse continued his profitable venture burying up to 500 people a year in the vault until his death in 1842. In total around12,000 people were buried in a vault measuring only 59 feet by 12.
In part, he appears to have managed to cram so many corpses into so limited a space because he discarded the coffins (he and his wife used them for firewood). This would no doubt have increased the stench exponentially – Julian Litten, in his book The English Way of Death, notes that intramural vault burials usually required a triple encasing for the corpse, in both wood and soldered lead, so as to ensure that the coffin was water-tight and air-tight . Discarding the outer shell of the coffin, Howse disposed of the occupants in deep pits filled with quicklime to help the bodies decompose.
It was also said that extensive building work, such as at Waterloo Bridge, allowed Howse to secretly remove upwards of sixty cart loads of decomposed human remains for use as landfill and bone-meal in the building trade; other remains were unceremoniously dumped in the Thames. It said that it was not uncommon to find a disembodied skull rolling down the streets around Enon Chapel.
Dancing on the dead
When Howse died in 1842, burials ceased and Enon Chapel was closed. The new tenant, Mr Fitzpatrick, took up residence in 1844. Despite making the surprising discovery of a large quantity of human bones buried under his kitchen floor, he was not put off, and simply reburied them in the chapel. Later tenants, a sect of Teetotallers, went one better. In the true spirit of Victorian enterprise, combined with a large and profitable dash of Victorian ghoulishness, they reopened Enon Chapel for dances using the great marketing tagline of ‘Dancing on the dead’:
‘Enon Chapel – Dancing on the Dead – Admission Threepence. No lady or gentleman admitted unless wearing shoes and stockings’
Who says teetotallers don’t know how to have fun!
The Poor Man’s Guardian, somewhat disdainfully, reported on these events in 1847:
‘Quadrilles, waltzes, country-dances, gallopades, reels are danced over the masses of mortality in the cellar beneath”
The dances seem to have been very popular, proving that even the Victorian poor, many of whom may have known people interred beneath them, had a dark sense of humour. That, or a pragmatic view of their own mortality and the fleeting nature of pleasure.
George ‘Graveyard’ Walker
Not everyone appreciated this grim humour. George ‘Graveyard’ Walker, a surgeon whose practice was in the vicinity of Enon Chapel, and who had a side-line as a public health campaigner, was Not Amused. And with good reason, he had had the misfortune to have viewed Enon Chapel vault in all its gory glory, first hand. In his book, Gatherings from grave yards, a survey of 47 London burial grounds, published in 1839, Walker described it thus:
‘This building is situated about midway on the western side of Clement’s Lane; it is surrounded on all sides by houses, crowded by inhabitants, principally of the poorer class. The upper part of this building was opened for the purposes of public worship about 1823; it is separated from the lower part by a boarded floor: this is used as a burying place, and is crowded at one end, even to the top of the ceiling, with dead. It is entered from the inside of the chapel by a trap door; the rafters supporting the floor are not even covered with the usual defence – lath and plaster. Vast numbers of bodies have been placed here in pits, dug for the purpose, the uppermost of which were covered only by a few inches of earth….Soon after interments were made, a peculiarly long narrow black fly was observed to crawl out of many of the coffins; this insect, a product of the putrefaction of the bodies, was observed on the following season to be succeeded by another, which had the appearance of a common bug with wings. The children attending the Sunday School, held in this chapel, in which these insects were to be seen crawling and flying, in vast numbers, during the summer months, called them “body bugs”..’ 
As well as a genuine disgust at the way material gain had trumped over moral and religious scruples at Enon Chapel, Walker, and many others at that time, considered the proximity of these putrefying burial grounds to human habitation to be injurious to public health. It was believed that, similar to sewage, badly overcrowded burial grounds were giving off a deadly graveyard miasma. Walker, himself, had a flair for the dramatic, describing the miasma as ‘the pestiferous exhalations of the dead’.
This miasma was believed to cause diseases such as cholera and typhoid. Gravediggers and those living close by cemeteries were at particular risk, but the threat was to the population as a whole.
The public scandal of Enon Chapel and its ilk, along with the tireless campaigning of philanthropists such as George Walker and reformer Edwin Chadwick, led to a Parliamentary Select Committee being set up in 1842. The committee was tasked to look at improving London’s overcrowded and unsanitary burial places. The law took it’s time, but pressure from Walker and The National Society for the Abolition of Burials in Towns eventually forced the government into action. The Burial Act of 1852 would seal the fate of London’s overcrowded inner city burial places, allowing the government to close them down. It also and allowed the creation of suburban garden cemeteries such as Highgate and Brookwood. Cemeteries that were designed as much to be enjoyed by visitors, as to bury the dead.
Roll up, Roll up – for the gravest show on earth!
There was to be one last macabre act in the tale of Enon Chapel. In 1848 Walker purchased the Chapel with the promise that he would give the inhabitants of the vault a decent burial, at his own expense, at Norwood Cemetery. This philanthropic gesture however, was somewhat marred by Walkers morbid sense of theatre. Rather than discretely disinterring the bodies and having them respectfully removed to their final resting place, he chose to open the event to the public. To drum up interest he had attendants strolling up and down the street holding skulls, a sure fire way to entice in the average Victorian death lover. And the public came in their droves – upwards of 6000 came to tour Enon Chapel and to view the immense pyramid of bones unearthed by Walker.
Despite criticism, Walker defended his approach in a typically Victorian way, he emphasised that the spectacle was educational (the same argument used by Madame Tussaud to elevate her Chamber of Horrors to a moral level) and he wasn’t precisely selling tickets – but he did accept contributions from visitors. Less educational and more sensational was the highlight of the Enon tour. Visitors came face to shrivelled face, with the long-dead proprietor Mr Howse. ‘A stark and stiff and shrivelled corpse’ identified by his ‘screw foot’ 
A case of poetic justice, the greedy speculator responsible for the desecration of so many of the deceased, found his own final resting place disturbed in the most unseemly way.
Footnote – it’s all in a name
It is interesting to note, as Catherine Arnold does in her fascinating book Necropolis, London and its dead, that if you look beyond the traditional explanation for the name Enon (the place near Salim where John the Baptist baptized converts), a far darker etymology emerges. Arnold points to Hitchcock’s Bible Names Dictionary which provides one possible meaning for Enon as ‘Mass of darkness’ – how very, very apt.
Enon Chapel is long since gone, the London School of Economics sits on its site now and the bones of the dead lie in an unmarked communal grave at Norwood.
If you want to find out more about London’s hidden dead, see the excellent and funny You Tube video by Caitlin Doughty and Dr Lindsay Fitzharris at the end of the sources section)
Sources and notes
Images by Lenora unless otherwise credited.
Arnold, Catharine, Necropolis: London and its dead, 2007   
Fitzharris, Dr Lindsay
Litten, Julian, ‘The English Way of Death, the Common Funeral since 1450’,1992 
Find out where the secret burials of London are with Caitlin Doughty and Dr Lindsay Fitzharris:
1836, Arthur's Seat, bodysnatchers, burke and hare, coffins, Edinburgh, fairy coffins, folklore, Lilliputian coffins, magic, memorial, Menefee, miniature, National Museum of Scotland, seventeen, Simpson, sympathetic magic, West port murders, witches
Edinburgh. The elegant New Town, the Athens of the North, home to writers, philosophers and surgeons – the cradle of the Scottish Enlightenment. But entwined with this respectable façade there is also the Old Town, with its narrow wynds and closes, rife with tales of squalor, plague and sudden death. And looming in the distance, the ancient extinct volcano called Arthur’s seat.
A Strange Discovery
Late June, 1836, a group of lads out rabbiting made their way up the North East flank of Arthur’s Seat. Poking about in the undergrowth they came upon a small cave or recess, blocked by three slate slabs. Intrigued, they removed the slates and found within, 17 miniature coffins laid out in three rows – two rows of eight and a top row, apparently just begun, comprising one coffin. Boys being boys, as opposed to trained archaeologists, they then began to pelt each other with the mysterious little coffins. Despite this rough treatment, enough of the coffins made it down from their resting place and into safer hands.
The find was described by The Scotsman newspaper, at the time:
” [Each coffin] contained a miniature figure of the human form cut out in wood, the faces in particular being pretty well executed. They were dressed from head to foot in cotton clothes, and decently laid out with a mimic representation of all the funereal trappings which usually form the last habiliments of the dead. The coffins are about three or four inches in length, regularly shaped, and cut out from a single piece of wood, with the exception of the lids, which are nailed down with wire sprigs or common brass pins. The lid and sides of each are profusely studded with ornaments, formed with small pieces of tin, and inserted in the wood with great care and regularity.”
The discovery of the Arthur’s Seat coffins gripped the public imagination as both local and national newspapers began to speculate as to who put them there? How long had they been there? What was their purpose?
Media speculation and public fascinationAt some point shortly after discovery the boys had relinquished their treasure and the coffins eventually went on display in a private museum, run by Robert Frazier an Edinburgh Jeweller. Although sealed when originally found, they were soon opened and it was discovered that each neatly made coffin, contained a carved wooden figure, individually dressed – care had clearly gone into the construction of the strange artefacts. It was noted that some of the coffins in the lower rows appeared more decayed, some of the grave-clothes were completely missing, and this seemed to infer that they had been laid down over a considerable period of time. Theories were quickly developed as to the possible meaning of the ‘fairy ‘coffins.
The First newspaper report was in The Scotsman, 16 July 1836, which while managing to maintain an air of rationalistic superiority at the very idea of such superstitious nonsense as witchcraft or demons, at the same time seemed to revel in giving the paying public exactly the sensationalism that they wanted:
“Our own opinion would be – had we not some years ago abjured witchcraft and demonology – that there are still some of the weird sisters hovering about the Mushat’s Cairn or the Windy Gowl, who retain their ancient power to work spells of death by entombing the likenesses of those they wish to destroy.”
Sensing a good story, other newspapers followed suit offering their own, slightly more restrained, theories:
The Edinburgh Evening Post suggested the coffins could be an example of a tradition, found in Saxony, of symbolically burying those who died overseas. While the Caledonian Mercury suggested the origin was a tradition for family members to provide a ‘Christian Burial’ to sailors lost at sea.  This theory was supported, in the 1970’s, by Walter Havernick of the Museum of Hamburg who also proposed that the Arthur’s Seat Coffins represented a stockpile of such charms, stored there by a merchant for later retrieval. However, this would seem to me to be rather an extreme measure to take in storing merchandise that did not appear to have any real monetary value, in addition to which, the place of concealment was not even weatherproof resulting in damage to some of the coffins.
The National Museum of Scotland boasts many examples of charms against witchcraft that have been found in Scotland, charms were in use as late as the nineteenth century. Nevertheless the theories that the coffins were connected either with witchcraft or honorific burials for those who died abroad or were lost at sea, are hard to evidence in Scotland’s known folk traditions. 
Until recently though, two things did seem to be agreed upon: the coffins appeared to have been placed there over a period of time (differences in deterioration of individual coffins seemed to support this theory) and their most likely purpose was some sort of honorific burial. These conclusions were supported by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (later the National Museum of Scotland), who were gifted the remaining eight coffins in 1901.
The West Port Murders and the Day of Last Judgement
One of the most compelling recent theories is that proposed by Professor Samuel Menefee and Dr Allen Simpson. They studied the coffins in the 1990’s and although their published findings are hard to locate online, their work is quoted from extensively by Mike Dash in his detailed article on the Coffins, available on the Charles Fort Institute website (CFI).
Menefee and Simpson were able to identify that one or at most two individuals made the coffins (based on stylistic differences in coffin shape) and the tools used suggested the maker was a shoemaker, rather than a carpenter, as a sharp knife and not chisel was used to hollow out the coffins. The tin decorations were of the type used in shoemaking or leather-making further strengthening this theory. Their findings also indicate that the figures themselves were probably originally toy soldiers dating from the late eighteenth century. Perhaps the most important revelation from their study relates to the thread used in the clothing. Three ply cotton thread was used to sew the grave-clothes for one of the figures, this thread was not in use in Scotland before 1830. Other figures using one or two ply thread may have been earlier, but as Mike Dash suggests the date range could be as short at 1800-1830 – so it would seem that the infamous Scottish weather was to blame for the deterioration of some of the coffins, rather than the passage of time.
In fact Menefee and Simpson’s theory supposes a date after 1830 and they draw attention to the number of coffins in place as being a significant indicator that the placement of the coffins was event-driven, rather than part of a long-standing folk tradition. Dash provides the following quote from their work:
“It is arguable, that the problem with the various theories is their concentration on motivation, rather than on the even or events that caused the interments. The former will always be open to argument, but if the burials were event-driven [..] the speculation would at least be built on demonstrable fact. Stated another way, what we seek is an Edinburgh-related event or events, involving seventeen deaths, which occurred close to 1830 and certainly before 1836. One obvious answer springs to mind – the West Port Murders by William Burke and William Hare in 1827 and 1828.” 
Burke and Hare made a living out of death, selling bodies to the anatomist Dr Robert Knox a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. They began their careers as opportunists following the death of Hare’s lodger, Old Donald. Old Donald died owing a substantial amount of rent, so Hare and his friend Burke decided to sell his body to the local anatomists to recoup the loss. So profitable was this enterprise that their initial opportunism soon blossomed into a full-scale murder spree, tallying sixteen victims before they were caught. While Hare escaped the hangman’s noose by turning kings evidence, Burke was hanged for his crimes on 28 January 1829 and his body sent for public dissection.
What made both the work of the anatomist surgeons and the murders carried out by Burke and Hare so dreadful to people at the time, was they were in effect denying the deceased the chance of salvation at the Last Judgment. Christians at the time held a strong belief that the dead would literally rise up on the final day of judgement. So, if a loved one’s body was dissected and destroyed it was on the one hand a horror in the physical sense, but on the other hand, a deeper metaphysical horror at the spiritual consequences of the destruction of the body. People went to great lengths to protect their departed relatives from this fate, as the mort-safes in Grey Friars Kirkyard attest.
Menefee and Simpson’s study suggests that the event that triggered the interment of the seventeen coffins on Arthur’s Seat was the West Port murders of Burke and Hare. They propose that the coffins were a symbolic burial for those whose bodies were destroyed because of the actions of Burke and Hare. A way that the dead could still stand for their last judgment. So although their scientific analysis of the material used to make the coffins explodes one theory (of their antiquity) they do support the long-held view that they represent honorific burial.
So, were the coffins evidence of satanic rituals, witchcraft, protection for sailors on the high seas, or mock burials for those who died abroad? Or a reminder of the grisly crimes of Burke and Hare?
It would seem that one of the earliest theories, that the coffins represented honorific burials, might not have been too far off the mark, even if the motivation for them was event driven rather than an ancient tradition.
If the crimes of Burke and Hare are the inspiration behind the Arthur’s Seat Coffins, some questions still remain: who made the coffins – a relative of one of the victims or someone who knew Burke and Hare and wished to make amends? If they are related to the West Port Murders, then, as Min Bannister of the Edinburgh Fortean Society points out, why are they all male figures when the victims included twelve women? Could this simply be because the offering was a token gesture and not meant to represent the actual individuals? Is it also possible that the single coffin at the top represents the first ‘victim’ old Donald, whose death by natural causes gave Burke and Hare the idea for their terrible crimes? Chances are we will never know for sure, but perhaps that is part of their enduring fascination…
The Arthur’s Seat Coffins are on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
Sources and notes
Images – unless otherwise credited all images by Lenora.
http://blogs.forteana.org/node/97 The Miniature coffins found on Arthur’s Seat by Mike Dash   
ambrotype, carte de visite, daguerrotype, death, death photos, early photography, fakes, funerals, mourning, post mortem photography, rituals, the good death, the myth of the standing corpse, tintype, Victorian
~A note to the faint-hearted: this post contains photographs of dead people ~
The Victorian celebration of death
It has been noted by many other writers, that today when a loved one passes over, we celebrate their life, often avoiding or glossing over the distressing fact that they have died… almost as if it would be rude to mention it. Not so our Victorian ancestors, they positively revelled in rituals that celebrated death. This was unsurprising as it was all around them – poverty, incurable diseases and insanitary housing meant that had you lived in early Victorian England (the 1830 and 40’s) you would have been lucky to make it to your late thirties; while a fifth of children born at that time would not reach the age of five.
Yet despite these grim statistics, the Victorian fondness for funerals and funeral rituals grew out of more than just a pragmatic realisation that they would undoubtedly be attending an awful a lot of them. It was far more than that, the spiritual and religious beliefs of Victorians lead them to the view that death was something to prepare for, and that the dead should be remembered, not just in their living but in the manner of their passing. To have a ‘good death’ was important, to settle ones affairs not only materially, but spiritually as well, in preparation for the transition into the next phase of the souls existence. One aspect of this tradition which can seem macabre and slightly voyeuristic to the modern eye, is that of post-mortem photography. But creating images of the dead was not invented in the nineteenth century.
How the dead were remembered: from oil paintings to Carte de visite
Preserving the memory of the dead has a long history (and pre-history). From the monumental (think pyramids, mausoleums and tombs) to the personal and portable (such as jewelry and images). While we might find it odd to want an image of a loved one in death, in the past it was not unheard of. In the seventeenth century, when the beautiful Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby, died unexpectedly in her sleep, her distraught husband had her final portrait painted, post-mortem, by non other that Sir Anthony Van Dyke. But such extravagant memento mori (translated as ‘remember that you have to die’) were the preserve of the wealthy upper classes…until, that is, the advent of photography.
Capturing the soul
Post Mortem photography was popular in the UK, USA and Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, its popularity peaking in the 1860’s and 70’s. Its rise began in the 1840’s with the birth of photography.
Louis Daguerre, one of the fathers of photography, developed his eponymous Daguerreotype in 1839. Daguerreotype images were produced on treated silver-plated copper sheets, protected by glass. The images are strange to look at and change from positive to negative, depending on the angle. The process was expensive and time-consuming – it could take up to 15 minutes to develop an exposure, and the images created were fragile (often having to be protected in cases or frames). Nevertheless it wasn’t long before they were being used to capture the likenesses of the deceased.
In 1850 the cheaper Ambrotype method superseded the Daguerreotype. This process created a positive image on glass. As with the daguerreotype, the finished product was fragile and each image was unique and could only be reproduced by the camera.
The 1860’s and 1870’s brought the tintype photograph to prominence, which as the name suggested was created on a thin sheet of metal. This method easy to produce and was popular with itinerant photographers on the move. So the photographer was able to extend beyond the studio setting to other arenas…such the open battlefield, or the private deathbed.
The biggest revolution in democratizing photography was the Carte de Visite method, patented by André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri in 1854. His method produced small images made up of albumen prints on card. The truly revolutionary aspect of this method was that he developed a way of producing up to eight negatives on one plate, thereby driving down costs. This meant that images could more easily be shared amongst family and friends. With post-mortem images, it allowed family members who were not able to be present at the deathbed or funeral, to have a final image of their loved one.
Post Mortem Photography and The Good Death
In the early and mid-Victorian period, evangelical Christianity had a strong influence on attitudes towards death and dying. Professor Sir Richard Evans noted in his lecture The Victorians: Life and Death, that the emphasis was on a ‘good death’ – ideally a peaceful and gentle transition in to the afterlife, witnessed by family and friends; where a deathbed struggle with fever or delusion occurred, it could be seen as a metaphor for the Christian struggle for redemption. Post mortem photography represents part of this tradition, offering a memento mori – an object of reflection to the yet living – as well as, more prosaically, providing symbol of social status because not everyone could afford them.
That is not to say that all Victorians were comfortable with the idea of snapping images the dearly departed – far from it. As Catharine Arnold notes in Necropolis, photographic images such ‘Fading Away’, created by Henry Peach Robinson in 1858, which used actors to depict the death of a beautiful young girl, were not universally praised. Unlike the tasteful and idealised deathbed scenes depicted in oils, the disturbing intimacy and realism created by the medium of photography seemed to intrude on the very personal and private realm of grief.
In the case of ‘Fading Away’, the image was saved from censure when Prince Albert bought a copy, thereby ensuring its popular appeal. It’s a good thing he liked images of deathbeds, because Queen Victoria commissioned both a painting and a photograph of him on his own deathbed, in 1861. These images are available to view in the Royal Collection (See links at the end of this article).
Styles of post-mortem photography ranged throughout the nineteenth century and varied from the UK and Europe to the USA. Broadly speaking the earlier images focused on head shots and close ups, with the subject apparently ‘asleep’, later more ‘naturalist’ poses were adopted -where the subject was posed as if in life, and later still the funeral group – with the family gathered round for one last photo with the dearly departed in their coffin – became popular. However the significant difference between these images and images such as ‘Fading Away’, is that post-mortem photography was intended to be viewed in the private sphere, whereas Peach Robinson’s staged image was clearly for public consumption.
Mirrors with Memories 
So, why did the Victorians do it? Why have a stranger come into your home, while you are grieving, and interfere with your loved one, simply in order to take a photo? Well, it seems that a number of factors collided to produce the right climate for it: evangelical Christianity, with its concept of the good death, technological developments, and the rise of the middle classes, along with a large dash of Victorian morbidity.
In some cases, these images may have been the only images taken of the individual, this is particularly possible with images of babies and young children. And, practically speaking, they were a way of sharing the death of a loved one with relatives unable to attend the actual deathbed.
However, as well as a personal remembrance of the individual, they were also used as a way to reflect upon death – demonstrating Victorian preoccupations with both piety and morbidity. The images allowed for a dialogue between the living and the dead – a reconciliation that the viewer too will die. A Victorian viewing these images would have been able to ‘read’ them in a very different way than we do now -identifying the spiritual narrative, shared social values, the moral lessons in these images.
Jo Smoke, writing in Beyond the Dark Veil,suggested that as well as a moral and spiritual purpose, Memento Mori can also be seen as expressing class goals by equating ‘taste and beauty as metaphors for status and style’ – after all these images were often displayed in beautiful and expensive frames or jeweled cases and not every one could afford them.
He concluded that post mortem photography successfully encompassed both the spiritual and the consumerist nature of Victorian society, stating that they ‘symbolised tangibility by stretching the inevitability of human decay into the future by investing memory into materials of great physicality’.
Identifying Post Mortem Photography
Today, the internet is flooded with images purporting to be Victorian post mortem photographs. Sometimes a sort of ‘check-list’ is deployed to identify them and although one can probably assume that an individual depicted in a coffin, is almost certainly dead, other signs such as closed or painted eyes, blank expressions, visible standing frames, or strange posture aren’t necessarily proof-positive of a post mortem photograph.
The tradition of depicting the deceased as though living, often accompanied by living relatives and children, has created even more difficulty in differentiating between what may simply be an awkward and uncomfortable looking living individual and a posed corpse.
In the above post mortem image, the dead girl is propped up by her parents, with her head on one side. She appears notably sharper than her living parents who appear slightly blurred. Even when developments in photography led to reduced exposure times, it was still difficult to remain still during the process (unless of course, you were dead). This was such a problem that the living were often supported with apparatus, such as a Brady Stand. The use of these stands has led to what some call the ‘Myth of the standing corpse’  – whereby any images of a slightly suspect individual, where a stand is visible, may be identified as post mortem (a particular problem on commercial selling sites).
However there seems to be a strong argument against the possibility that the Brady stand, or any other stand (even combined with wires), could have ever actually support the dead-weight (pardon the pun) of a corpse, in anything approaching a natural manner. [12 – see the video at the foot of this post for more on this debate.]
The image above, originally from the Petrolia Archive, appears on many sites online as a post mortem photograph. The young girl in the middle is supposed to be dead – her painted on eyes are cited as evidence for it. However, given the ease at which a photograph could be spoiled by a sudden twitch or blink during the long exposure time, it can be argued that this is not necessarily certain proof that the subject is dead.  And in fact, this could explain a lot of the blank, dead-eyed stares that gaze out from us from some of these photographs.
Other images are more obviously photo-shopped, such as this fabulously gruesome image of two sisters, which would stretch even the Victorians capacity for morbidity!
It has been said that the advent of the Kodak box brownie, allowing families to document entire lives from birth to death, caused the Post Mortem Photograph to fall out of favour,  but there was more to its decline than technical innovation. By the end of the Victorian period and beginning of the Edwardian, there was a fundamental shift in attitudes to death. For one, evangelical Christianity, with its particular interpretation of the ‘good death’, had waned. By the Edwardian period a ‘good death’ had transformed into one more familiar to us today – a death without suffering or one that took the subject unawares, such as in their sleep. As such, conversations about death and dying became less acceptable than they had been in the early and mid-Victorian periods. Catastrophic conflicts such as the First World War, also played their part in changing attitudes. Such brutal conflicts took death away from the intimate family setting, and while death could be presented as a patriotic sacrifice to the state, it often occurred violently, or to far from home to allow for a photographic memento mori to be either desirable or practically possible.
In this modern world, where we have become desensitized to the graphic images of death reported in the media, we have shut death out, except in its most extreme and impersonal form. In contrast, these quiet, contemplative and very personal images of the dead offer us the opportunity to open a dialogue with death, and to reflect on that great leveler. And of course, they also provide an ever so gentle reminder that we too will die.
Anne Longmore-Etheridge Collection:
The Burns Archive:
The Thanatos Archive:
Sources and notes
Arnold, Catharine, ‘Necropolis: London and its dead’ 2007, Simon and Schuster  
Evans, Professor Sir Richard, https://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/the-victorians-life-and-death
http://metro.co.uk/2014/11/26/victorian-post-mortem-photographs-are-as-creepy-as-they-sound-4963836/ [this article contains some disputed post mortem photographs]
Mord, Jack, ‘Beyond the Dark Veil’, 2013, Grand Central Press 
https://dealer042.wixsite.com/post-mortem-photos The Myth of the stand alone corpse