Rest in peace Ma’am
cemetery symbols, Christianity, death, Felbrigg, Free masons, Funerary art, graveystone, headstones, iconography, memento mori, monuments, mourning, reading gravestones, skulls, symbols, tombstones, Victorian Death
Popular graveyard images explained
This is the companion piece to my stroll through a graveyard post, which covered a very brief history of British cemeteries and headstones. In this post, I’ll be looking at the meaning of some of the common images and symbols that can be found on historic headstones up and down the UK. It’s important to be aware that because the topic of graveyard iconography is so vast, and can vary widely depending upon locality and beliefs, this article is not intended to be comprehensive. Instead I will focus on some popular eighteenth and nineteenth century memorial styles, many of which I have come across during coronavirus inspired rambles around my local area.
Anchors have Christian symbolism as well as a more prosaic meaning denoting sailors or the Royal Navy. In Christian tradition they go back to the catacombs of the early Christians, and were secrete symbols of Christianity, like the fish. Anchors symbolise hope. The example below is from a war grave and denotes a member of the Royal Navy, the other from an earlier grave, possibly of a mariner.
Cemeteries are often filled with sculpted angels casting their benign gaze over the graves of the Victorian departed. There are several popular types of angel with different meanings. Grieving angels drape themselves in mourning over the dismantled altar of life, angels clutching flowers rue the fleeting nature of life, praying angels emphasise religious faith. Other angels are more judgemental – the recording angel with their book and the angel Gabriel with his horn, a sentinel waiting to call the Christian dead to rise of the day of the last judgement. and some angel images are unique, such as in the monument to Mary Nichols in Highgate Cemetery, which depicts an angel sleeping on a bed of clouds.
Arches symbolise victory of life or victory in death  or the gateway to heaven . This would send a reassuring message to the mourners as they passed under the grand arched entrance to All Saints Cemetery in Jesmond.
Arrows are memento mori, symbolising the dart of death piercing life, and can sometimes be found wielded by skeletons, to drive home the link to mortality. The arrow below is linked with a pick, symbolising mortality, and a knot which was often used to symbolise eternal life.
Books can appear in a variety of forms, open, closed, piled up. They can represent the Bible or word of God, the book of life, learning. A closed book might symbolise a long life, an open or draped book can symbolise a life cut short (4). The example below acts as a Memento Mori, reminding the living that they too will die, and is augmented with a skull and bones rising up through the earth.
Chest tombs were popular from the seventeenth century, the leger stone on top, with details of the deceased, was raised up on a chest-like structure. The body is not buried in the chest, but beneath the structure. The example below is from St Lawrence’s church, Eyam, Derbyshire, and incorporates the skull and crossbones iconography (the essential remains that Christians believed were required in order to rise on Judgement Day).
Cherubs often symbolise innocence and are popular on the tombs of children. The cherub below left is from Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh, and rests its elbow on a skull, an obvious symbol of death and mortality. The example on the right, from Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle, the cherub holds arose and flower bud, the rose can symbolise heavenly perfection or mother, while the broken bud could represent the fleeting nature of the young lives commemorated by the monument .
Clouds represent the heavens, below, an angel peeks out from behind the clouds, which are pierced by the rays of the sun.
Columns again hark back to a classical tradition. A broken column represents a life cut short, often the head of the family. The example on the left is from Jesmond Old Cemtetery, Newcastle, while the one on the right, with the addition of a wreath for remembrance is from Highgate Cemetery, London.
Coats of arms
Usually designates a family or individual or location. The example below seems to be from a proud Novocastrian, as it was erected in St Andrew’s church in Newcastle and the crest bears some similarity to the coast of arms of Newcastle (three towers), rather than to the family name of the deceased. It also shows a mason’s compass and set square.
The kingdom of heaven.
Doves can be seen flying downwards and upwards, with broken wings and carrying olive branches. Broadly speaking a dove flying up is the soul flying up to heaven, flying down, the holy spirit coming from heaven.
As discussed in my previous post A stroll through a graveyard a flying faces developed out of the Memento Mori image of the flying skull, reminding the living that they too would die. Winged skulls gradually morphed into flying faces during the eighteenth century, representing the soul flying up to heaven. Later the face became cherubic and represented innocence. The Three examples below are, from left to right, from All Saints Churchyard, Newcastle and Holy Trinity, Washington Tyne & Wear.
See world, below.
Hands are popular motifs on headstones and can have a variety of meanings, from the hand of god coming out of the clouds, to the offering of prayers in blessings. Hands can also indicate that the deceased is going to heaven (pointing upwards) or may have died suddenly (pointing downwards). The example below left shows a handshake, which can be between a married couple or fraternal, alternatively, if one hand appears limp, it can indicate God taking the hand of the departed . The example on the right shows a hand with a heart, this can indicate charity and generosity, but it can also indicate the deceased was a member of the Oddfellows fraternity .
Hourglasses are memento mori, reminders of mortality and that life on earth passes quickly. They can appear with wings, to symbolise how ‘time flies’ and on their side, to demonstrate how time has stopped for the deceased. Below left, from an eighteenth century headstone from St Andrews, Newcastle, on the right, a more pointed link between the hour glass and mortality, from Holy Trinity, Washington, Tyne and Wear.
Ledger stones are flat against the ground and often cover family plots, the stones filling up as the graves receive more burials.
Memento Mori Scenes
Many early headstones from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries combine a variety of memento mori images into scenes designed to remind the living of their own mortality and the importance of living a good life in order to go to heaven. The examples below are from various graveyards around Newcastle and show that some masons had seemed to have a particular flair for the macabre!
Obelisks are an ancient Egyptian symbol that represented life and health, and/or a ray of the sun. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, Europe was gripped by a passion for all things Egyptian. Obelisks became popular as funerary monuments, particularly in the Victorian era. On the left, obelisks in an overgrown patch of St Peters, Wallsend, and on the right, from Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle.
Many headstones list the occupation of the deceased, but some go further, below left is an example of an artist’s paint palette and to the right, a classical scene depicting a physician, naturally enough, on the side of the monument to a doctor.
Funerary portraiture can be found on monuments and tombs from ancient times and isn’t always restricted to those of historical importance or aristocratic lineage. In the Victorian period, photography became more widespread and trends such as post mortem photography were embraced, photographs can even found on some headstones from the period. Preston Cemetery in North Shields has a rare surviving example, I viewed it once many years ago, but I’ve not been able to locate it since.
The example below left, is that of Dr James Milne at St Peter’s churchyard Wallsend (the above classical scene is also from his monument) a man well respected locally, the monument was erected by his friends. The other example shows renowned renaissance humanist scholar, and one-time tutor to Mary Queen of Scots, George Buchanan, and can be found in Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.
Memento mori symbols, carried by Death or the grim reaper, symbolising the cutting off of life. The example below, from Grey Friars Kirkyard incorporates the hourglass to emphasise the fleetingness of time.
Sexton’s are the church officials who look after the churchyard and dig graves. Their tools can appear on gravestones as an indication of their occupation, or more generally as a symbol of mortality. This example is from the Covenanters Prison, in Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.
Shells can be used as a decorative motif, but also have a Christian origin, in particular scallop shells are associated with pilgrimages (still popular today on the Camino Trail). After the Jacobite rebellions in the eighteenth century, they could also be a political gesture, indicating allegiance with the king over the water. The example below is from the seventeenth century mausoleum of the infamous Bloody Mackenzie in Grey Friars Kirkyard.
Whether winged or floating above cross bones, skulls represent mortality and act as Memento Mori. Trevor Yorke notes that from the medieval period onwards, it was believed that the skull and crossbones were the bare minimum bodily parts required to ensure resurrection on the day of judgement.
Originally an ancient Egyptian symbol for health that entered the western tradition via the Greek Ouroboros, a snake swallowing it’s own tail, symbolises eternal life. This example is from All Saints Cemetery, Jesmond, Newcastle.
Square and compass (Masonic/Freemasons)
The square and compass is a found on the funerary monuments of members of the Freemasons, often accompanied by a ‘G’ representing God and Geometry. The Square and compass are a reminder to Freemasons to keep their actions within the tenets of Freemasonry .
Table tombs have the ledger stone on top, supported by legs and forming a table structure. The burial is beneath. The examples below are from Tynemouth Priory in Tyne and Wear.
Torches represent human life, death, and eternal life. If they are pointing down and have no flame they represent a life extinguished, whereas if they are pointing down but still alight the represent the eternal life of the soul. The example below symbolises bodily death but the eternal life of the soul.
Urns hark back to the funerary urns of ancient Greece, in which cremated remains would be interred. They became popular from the eighteenth century and endured into the Victorian period, possibly because they denote the body being cast off in preparation for the souls journey to heaven . They could also appear with flames atop – symbolising the eternal flame of friendship or religious fervour. Other urns appear are covered with drapery, which can symbolised the curtain between life and death or the casting off of worldly garments and often denoted the death of an older person  (and when coupled with a weeper, became a popular classical image).
Wheatsheaves are most often associated with a long life, although where only few stalks are found, this can indicate that the deceased was young. The example below, from Grey Friars Kirkyard, is combined with a skull and crossbones.
Women in mourning (weepers)
The image of a woman, with loose flowing hair, mourning over a tomb or an urn, was very popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. In this example from Jesmond, the weeper holds a wreath (see below for meaning).
The world or globe image represents worldly pleasure and is often coupled with death in order to emphasis the wages of worldly pleasure (and sin) are death, as shown in these examples from Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.
Wreaths are classical in origin, being awarded to athletes in the ancient Olympic games. In funerary art their circular shape represents eternal memory. Wreaths of bay leaves represent triumph over death, while wreaths of roses, like the example below, from Highgate Cemetery, London, can represent virtue and heavenly bliss (12).
This list represents only a snippet of the cemetery symbols that can be found. I hope this encourages you to go out and explore your local historic cemeteries and graveyards and to be able to read some of the richly symbolic funerary language used by our ancestors. Please remember to be quiet and respectful when you visit your local historic cemeteries, some may still be in use, and many monuments may be fragile.
Happy headstone hunting!
Snider, Tui, 2017, Understanding Cemetery Symbols
Yorke, Trevor, 2017, Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials
- The Cemetery Club, Symbols
- BBC, Victorian Memorial Symbols
- Tui Snider, Understanding Cemetery Symbols
- The Cemetery Club, Symbols
In the late Middle Ages, life was tough and brief, and King Death presided over all. Plague, social upheaval, famine, and the Hundred Years War had all taken their toll on the population and this was reflected in the dark art of the fifteenth century.
Ars Moriendi, or Art of Dying, texts set out how a Christian could have a Good Death; Memento Mori images, such as the three living and the three dead, reminded people of the transient nature of earthly pleasures – and the judgement to come; Cadaver or Transi tombs begged the passer-by to pray for the departed and so to quicken their passage through purgatory.
Grim traditions for a grim time. However, the late Middle Ages also saw the development of the gleefully morbid Danse Macabre or Dance of Death which could be found in Northern Europe and as far south as Italy. It is worth noting that the subject of the Danse is a vast one which encompasses performance, literature and the visual arts. This post will focus mainly two of the more well known, but now lost, visual representation of the Danse at Holy Innocents Cemetery in Paris and Old St Paul’s in London.
Origins of the Macabre
Macabre, a word that evokes not just morbid themes, but also hints at a certain fascination or even relish for the subject. A word that fits the art of the post plague Medieval world like a decaying body fits a tattered shroud.
There is scholarly debate as to the origin of the word macabre. It has been argued to be Hebrew, Arabic or a derivation of the Biblical name Maccabeus (the slaughter of the Maccabees was a popular subject of Medieval Mystery plays) . Whatever its true origin, it soon became indissolubly linked with a particular form of Medieval Memento Mori art, the Danse Macabre.
The first literary reference that partners it with the Danse Macabre appears in 1376 in Jean Le Fevre’s Le respit de la mort, written, appropriately, when Le Fevre was recovering from plague. Here ‘Macabre‘ appears to be a character or a personification of death:
I did the dance of Macabre
who leads all men to his dance
and directs them to the grave,
which is their final abode.
This poem exemplifies the Medieval literary penchant for didactic poetry. Such poetry often took the form of a conversation between the body and the soul, and usually had a Christian, moral theme entreating the reader to eschew the vanities of life in favour of preparing the soul for the afterlife. This genre sat comfortably alongside other Memento Mori traditions such as the Three Living and the Three Dead. Its didactic form was also a perfect fit for the Danse Macabre theme – with the personification of Death summoning his unwilling victims to the grave.
Dancing in the graveyard
The Danse Macabre usually depicted a line of dancers, from different estates in society, partnered by cavorting skeletons. Dancers are drawn from all levels of the social hierarchy – from Popes and emperors, princes of the church, kings, labourers and even children. Later depictions added women and newly emergent professional classes such as doctors and merchants – all clearly identifiable by stereotypical dress.
Often text or dialogue accompanies each pair of dancers, death calling each one and the dancer bemoaning their fate. Examples were found on charnel houses, cemetery walls and in churches. As a subgenre of the popular Medieval Estates Satire, the Danse Macabre hammered home, like nails into a coffin that, no matter your position in society, death was the great leveller .
The first known artistic representation Danse Macabre was to be found, appropriately enough, on the walls of the charnel house of Holy Innocents Cemetery, Paris. Holy Innocents cemetery was the oldest in Paris, dating from the end of the twelfth century and was situated next to the bustling marketplace of Les Halles. The cemetery would have been bustling with people, traders, scribes, sex workers. The Charnel house, a place where the bones of the dead, high and low, were all mixed together regardless of rank, would have been an ideal location for the mural. The Images at Holy Innocents were also accompanied by Le Fevre’s text, forever linking the two in the popular imagination and creating what some have likened to a Medieval comic strip with images and speech ‘bubbles’ .
Locating the Danse Macabre in a cemetery fitted with folk belief as well, it has been noted that in popular culture, it was not uncommon for people to report seeing corpses dancing in graveyards . Overall, the average Medieval person was concerned with the unquiet dead, sinners roaming about with unfinished business amongst the living – as many contemporary reports of revenants, attest.
The mural was commissioned between August 1424 and Lent 1425, a period of truce in the One Hundred Years war. The Treaty of Troyes gave Henry V, right to the throne of France, when he died in 1422, his son Henry VI, became king of France and England. However, as Henry VI was only a baby, France was placed under the regency of John of Bedford, Henry VI’s uncle and a well-known patron of the arts.
The image is a macabre carnival – death mocks and pulls at his dance partners, the fat abbot is told he will be the first to rot, while death flirts with the handsome chevalier and gropes the physician. There are 30 couples in all, from the highest to the lowest. With an ‘authority’ figure to introduce the dance, and another authority figure and a dead king to deliver the moral of the dance . As John Lydgate put it:
Come forth, sir Abbot, with your [broad] hat,
Beeth not abaissed (though thee have right).
Greet is your hede, youre bely large and fatte;
Ye mote come daunce though ye be nothing light.
Who that is fattest, I have hym behight,
In his grave shal sonnest putrefie. 
The subject matter of the mural may have been influenced by the contemporary political situation – the figures mainly depicted the ruling and martial classes, the king, constable and, of course, a corpse king. It was also this political situation, a lull in the hostilities, that allowed English poet John Lydgate to visit Paris in 1426.
Lydgate was impressed with the image and accompanying text and was influenced to write his English translation of Le Fevre’s text with the addition of extra characters drawn from Mystery plays and masques of the time. Lydgate also introduced some female characters to the text .
In 1430 a version of the Danse Macabre was painted at the Pardoner Churchyard, Old St Paul’s, London (commonly known as the ‘dauce of Poulys‘). Both image and text were influenced by the Mural at Holy Innocents. This version depicted 36 dancers from different stations in life, summoned by death. The St Paul’s images were augmented with dialogue between death and his victims, this time provided by John Lydgate’s translation ‘Out of the Frensshe’ . Writing in 1603 in his Survey of London, John Stow described the St Paul’s Dance, thus:
“[..] About this Cloyster, was artificially and richly painted the dance of Machabray, or dance of death, commonely called the dance of Pauls: the like whereof was painted about S. Innocents cloyster at Paris in France: the meters or poesie of this dance were translated out of French into English by Iohn Lidgate, Monke of Bury, the picture of death leading all estates, at the dispence of Ienken Carpenter, in the raigne of Henry the sixt.”
Stow’s comments highlight how influential the Danse Macabre at Holy Innocents was on subsequent versions.
Another common feature of both Holy Innocents Danse Macabre and St Paul’s was that they were situated in busy areas bustling with life and frequented by the public, both became popular, and thought provoking, attractions. Sadly, neither survive – Holy Innocents Cemetery was completely removed at the end of the eighteenth century and the mural at St Paul’s was destroyed in 1549.
Many other examples of the Danse Macabre were created in the following decades, notable ones having existing at Basel (c1440), Lubeck (1463) and Tallinn, Estonia (1500). Each was tailored to its own locale and reflected the patrons who commissioned it – where Holy Innocents focused on the martial classes, Lubeck featured more from the merchant classes.
Sadly, many examples are lost, surviving only in copies or as fragments of vast originals – such as the fragment at St Nicholas’ Church Tallinn by Bernt Notke (a copy of his earlier lost work at Lubeck). Clearly, later ages did not share the Medieval fondness for macabre public art.
So, how did the Medieval viewer read such an audio-visual experience?
The Unwanted Dance Partner
The most obvious message that even an illiterate Medieval viewer could take away from the Danse Macabre, is that death is the great leveller. No matter how high your estate, in the end death is coming for you.
The Danse was also personal, all of the estates of society could be found, so whether you were a king, a merchant or a labourer, or even a child, you could find your own representation in the danse; some of them even set the dance in a recognisably local landscape, for added impact. The viewer could also, in a sense, participate in the dance, because many of the life size frescoes within churches, such as that at Tallinn, required the viewer to process along the fresco in order to see all of the original 48-50 figures.
The danse was also undeniably slapstick. Viewers would have been familiar with figure of death or devils and their comedic antics in Mystery plays and even court masques so the viewer could laugh at the expense of their betters as they are dragged to the grave by a cavorting skeleton, whilst also being viscerally reminded of their own mortality.
But more than that, the Danse subverted the natural order of things. The dead should be at rest, subject to the funeral mass, and quiet in their graves, not cavorting about. It’s notable that many of these images were associated with graveyards – often sights of lively activity, commercial and personal, so much so that in Rouen in 1231 and Basel in 1435 edicts were passed prohibiting dancing in graveyards . The Danse images were challenging the norm. Dancing in Medieval thought was primarily associated with sin, paganism and seduction. Placing images of a sinful activity in a holy setting would seem to point to their purpose being penitential or confessional .
But, what of the text that sat alongside the images. In a world where the majority of people were illiterate, how important was it? While the images convey death as the great leveller, the dialogue between death and the living, prompts people to remember that earths glories are temporary, pride is the greatest sin of all, and that they should repent and prepare their souls for the afterlife.
However, while only a few would have been educated enough to read the text themselves, the message of atonement it conveyed would not have been lost on the illiterate. The images would have been viewed in the context of lively sermons on the subject and oral tales reinforcing the message that death could strike at any time, so you should prepare your soul. After the ravages of the Black Death this would have been particularly poignant .
The reformation and Death gets a reboot
In the sixteenth century, the religious and political landscape of Europe was drastically altered by the Protestant Reformation as well as technical innovations like the printing press. Nevertheless, it was during this period that the Dance of Death had its most famous reboot. In 1523-25, Hans Holbein produce his famous version of the Dance of Death, however, rather than a public fresco in a church, his work was a series of woodcuts often reproduced in codex/book form. This broke up the dance into a series of pages and also provided a more private and personal experience for the viewer. And, also, from a modern perspective, reinforces the link between the format of the Dance and modern graphic novel or comic strip art forms. Holbein’s Dance of Death also repurposed the genre as a tool of social satire and religious reform, rather than as a moral or religious lesson .
Dancing down the ages
The heyday of the Danse Macabre as religious symbolism was the Late Middle Ages, however, the striking visual image of death harrying the living has remained a popular subject for artists throughout the ages, although its message may have changed.
In the nineteenth century, Thomas Rowlandson collaborated with poet William Combe to produce the satirical series The English Dance of Death in 1815. In the twentieth century, Ingmar Bergman’s Iconic film the Seventh Seal (1957) used Dance imagery, and in the twenty-first century, English Heavy Metal Band Iron Maiden’s 2015 album was named for the Dance of Death.
The English Dance of Death, Thomas Rowlandson 1815. Image from Haunted Palace Collection.And if you thought that the Dance of Death was now just the preserve of historians and heavy metal fans, one school of thought has it that the modern predilection for dressing up in scary costumes at Halloween can be linked back to that most macabre of medieval traditions .
Sources and notes
Binski, Paul, Medieval Death, Cornell University Press, 1996    
Cook, Megan, L, and Strakhov, Elizaveta, Ed. John Lydgate’s Dance of Death and Related works, Medieval Institute Publications, 2019        
Ebenstein, Joanna, Ed. Death: A Graveside Companion, Thames & Hudson, 2017. 
Gertsman, Elina, The Dance of Death in Reval (Tallinn): The Preacher and His Audience, in Gesta Vol. 42, No. 2 (2003), pp. 143-159 (17 pages) Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the International Center of Medieval Art  [15 
Platt, Colin, King Death: The Black Death in England and its aftermath in late-medieval England, UCL Press.
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.
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 
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 
If you visit the small jewel of a museum in Thirsk you will see the rather strange sight of an oak chair hung from the ceiling in one of the display areas. The chair was suspended at the explicit request of its owner to prevent anyone from ever sitting on it including maintenance and cleaners. The museum has never broken its promise in over 30 years despite numerous requests and even the threat of legal action.
A notorious ruffian
Local legend has it that the chair belonged to Thomas Busby, a thug, thief and drunkard who lived in North Yorkshire in the latter part of the 1600s. Busby married Elizabeth, the daughter of a small time petty crock, Daniel Awety who lived near the village of Kirby Wiske. Awety had purchased a farm after moving to the area from Leeds. His house which he called Danotty Hall was ideal for Awety, enabling him to continue with his illegal coining activities in relative seclusion. It was even reported that Awety had built within the house a hidden chamber which was connected to the cellar via a secret passageway. Busby who was also the original owner of an inn near Sandhutton and just three miles from Danotty Hall became Awety’s partner in crime.
A crime of passion
The details of what happened that fatal last day of Awety’s life are vague. Awety and Busby may have argued earlier that day but over what is not known, it could have been something to do with Elizabeth, the coining business or almost anything else. Their relationship was known to be far from harmonious with Busby often in a foul mood with Awety for some reason or another.
What is clear is that later that day a drunken and volatile Busby returned to his inn only to find Awety waiting for him threatening to take Elizabeth home with him. Busby’s mood only blackened when he saw Awety sitting in his favourite chair. Whatever their second argument of the day was over Busby forcibly removed Awety from the chair and threw him out.
That night Busby still seething grabbed a hammer, stormed over to Danotty Hall and bludgeoned Awety to death. Busby then tried to hide his handiwork in the woods. Concern over Awety’s sudden disappearance led to a local search of the area being made. On finding the body, Busby was arrested at the inn and charged with murder.
In the summer of 1702 Busby was tried and sentenced to death for murder at the York Assizes. His punishment was to be gibbeted i.e. hung from a gibbet, his body dipped in tar and his remains displayed on a stoop (post) attached to the gibbet, in full view of his inn. The inn was soon after renamed the Busby Stoop Inn, a name which it retained until it closed in 2012.
Busby’s final warning
It is here that the story veers away from historical certainty and moves into the realms of local folklore. One version recounts how Busby was granted his last wish which was to have a final drink at his own inn and sit in his favorite chair. On leaving the inn to make his final journey to the execution site Busby cursed the chair declaring that death would come shortly to anyone who sat in it. Another version tells how Busby drunkenly shouted out the curse whilst being taken to the gibbet to be hung. Whichever way you look at it, Busby was determined that even from beyond the grave he would never allow anyone to enjoy sitting in his beloved chair.
Busby’s spirit was believed to have haunted his old pub as well as the area where he was gibbeted but it’s his precious chair, the focus of his curse which became irrevocably linked to his revengeful spirit. According to local legend, this seemly innocuous piece of furniture has been responsible for more deaths than most serial killers (one estimate puts the number of its victims at over 60!).
The chair’s first victim?
The first reported death alleged to be associated with the death chair is that of a chimney sweep who along with a friend sat in the chair whilst having a drink one evening in 1894. The sweep never made it home that night, being completely inebriated he laid down on the road to sleep. The next morning his body was found hanging from the post next to the gibbet. His death was ruled as a suicide but in 1914 the friend with whom the chimney sweep had spent his last hours with admitted on his death bed to having robbed and murdered his friend.
Dead man’s chair or Don’t sit down!
During the Second World War, the pub became a popular drinking spot with RCAF airmen. The airmen would goad each other to sit in the chair. Those that took up the challenge never returned from their missions.
In 1968 a couple of years before Tony Earnshaw took over the running of the pub, he overheard two airmen dare each other to sit in the chair. They both did. Returning to the airfield their car left the road and crashed into a tree. They both died on the way to the hospital.
Through the early 1970s the chair seemed to claim a number of victims including a cleaning lady who was diagnosed with a brain tumor after knocking into the chair; a number of cyclists and motorcyclists who suffered fatal road accidents; a hitch-hiker who was run over after having spent two nights at the pub and; a local man who died of a heart attack shortly after sitting in the condemned chair.
A group of builders having a drink at the pub cajoled the youngest of their group into sitting on the chair. Back at the site the man fell through the roof of the building and landed on the concrete ground below. This death proved to be the final straw for Earnshaw and he banished the chair to the cellar.
A delivery man from the brewery was in the cellar one day when he decided to try out the chair. He commented to Earnshaw that it was far too comfortable to be left down there. He was killed shortly afterwards when his van went off the road. Soon after Earnshaw must have decided that the chair despite being a profitable tourist attraction was too dangerous to keep any longer. In 1978 Earnshaw donated it to the Thirsk Museum
A grim legacy or tourist gimmick?
There are so many questions that have been left unanswered and probably unanswerable. Did Busby really commit murder over a chair? Could any person truly hold such deep affection for a carved piece of wood? Is Busby’s revengeful and jealous spirit still attacking anyone who dares sit in his seat? Or was the murder over something far more important, something which we will never know about? Is the chair really haunted or was it a money-making gimmick? Is the chair just really an extremely unlucky piece of furniture? Is this chair really the same chair that Busby fought over?
Many people believe the deaths were just an unlucky coincidence. Another explanation could be simply that the majority of those brave enough to defy the curse were just risk-takers, prepared to push their luck (it is interesting how many of the deaths happened on roads and thousands of men of Bomber Command never returned from sorties) and were simply unlucky.
On one hand, it would be intriguing to test the chair to see if the legend about this unusual haunting is really true…but on the other hand, sometimes it is better not to know…
We are proud to say that The Deathly Stoop Chair of Thomas Busby has been featured in the 21st issue of Top 5’s Thriller Magazine. You can download the magazine for a 30 day free trial via Google playstore or iTunes:
Thomas Busby’s Ghost – The Busby Stoop Inn: http://www.spiritseekers.info/thomasbusbyghost.php
Busby’s stoop chair: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Busby%27s_stoop_chair
The infamous Busby Stoop Chair: http://www.thirskmuseum.org/chair.htm
The Busby Stoop Curse – The full story: http://soapboxcorner.blogspot.co.uk/2007/10/busby-stoop-curse-full-story.html
The Cursed Busby’s Chair: http://seeksghosts.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/the-cursed-busbys-chair.html
Chair of death: http://unsolvedmysteries.wikia.com/wiki/Chair_of_Death
Busby’s Stoop Chair of Death: http://www.theparanormalguide.com/blog/busbys-stoop-chair-of-death
 Busby’s stoop chair: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Busby%27s_stoop_chair
 The Busby Stoop Curse – The full story: http://soapboxcorner.blogspot.co.uk/2007/10/busby-stoop-curse-full-story.html
 Thomas Busby’s Ghost – The Busby Stoop Inn: http://www.spiritseekers.info/thomasbusbyghost.php
 The Cursed Busby’s Chair: http://seeksghosts.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/the-cursed-busbys-chair.html
 The Busby Stoop Curse – The full story: http://soapboxcorner.blogspot.co.uk/2007/10/busby-stoop-curse-full-story.html
 Death chairs
Our Day of Passing – An Anthology of Short Stories, Poems and Essays
Complied by Ingrid Hall and Franco Esposito
Death is a subject that most of us are at least mildly curious about. The fact that it is inevitable and that there is no hiding from it adds to its macabre appeal. I have always had a strange relationship with death and rather than becoming increasingly afraid of it in my middle-age, if anything, I have come to respect the power that it has over us all. You can be the sweetest person ever to walk the earth or a twisted, psychopathic serial-killer…but ultimately that great leveler, Death, will come for you.
The beauty of Our Day of Passing – An Anthology of Short Stories, Poems and Essays is that it has been written from a wide range of authors and poets from around the world. Rather than looking at death from one fixed, religious perspective it contains a full range of opinions proving that when it comes to death, there is no right or wrong answer.
So, whether you are pagan in your leanings or deeply rooted in your Catholic faith, or just like a good ghost story, I am sure that you will find something that will make you not only contemplate your own mortality but embrace your life.
Our Day of Passing was compiled by Ingrid Hall and Franco Esposito; edited by Ingrid Hall, Carmilla Voiez and Joanne Armstrong; and has contributions from the following international writers and artists:
Ingrid Hall, Franco Esposito, Dennis Higgins, Virginia Wright, Candida Spillard, Valeri Beers, Dada Vedaprajinananda, Strider Marcus Jones, Adam E. Morrison, Allyson Lima, D. B. Mauldin, David A. Slater, David King, Dee Thompson, Donald Illich, Edward Meiman, Eileen Hugo, Emily Olson, Joan McNerney, J.S. Little, Kin Asdi, Madison Meadows, Malobi Sinha, Marianne Szlyk, Mark Aspa, Mark David McClure, Megan Caito, Michael Brookes, Michael Burke, Pijush Kanti Deb, Prince Adewale Oreshade, Rafeeq O. McGiveron, Robin Reiss, Sasha Kasoff, Stephanie Buosi, Talia Haven.
Our Day of Passing is free to download on Amazon until Tuesday 23 February 2016 and will be available in paperback soon: