[Click the cover below to check it out! If you don’t see a book cover below it’s probably ad-blocker settings]
[This is a really weird gripe, but I really wish that they had put a simple line down the middle of the book to look like a real open book. It could have been really light as to not distract from the text. It’s really off-putting to me for some reason.]
“Chris Woodyard, author of the The Ghosts of the Past series, digs through long-buried newspapers and journals, for this fascinating look at the 19th-century obsession with the culture of death. The Victorian Book of the Dead unearths extraordinary tales of Victorian funeral fads and fancies, ghost stories, bizarre deaths, mourning novelties, gallows humor, premature burial, post-mortem photographs, death omens, and funeral disasters. Resurrected from original sources, these accounts reveal the oddities and eccentricities of Victorian mourning. Packed with macabre anecdotes, this diverting, yet gruesome collection presents tales ranging from the paranormal and shocking to the heartbreaking.“
[I really should have paid more attention to the ‘newspapers and journals’ part. When I first read it and decided I wanted this book, I didn’t realize it meant that this book is just the author’s copy/pasting Victorian newspaper articles and journals to be the actual innards of the book.]
As you can see from my little blurb above [below the synopsis], I either didn’t pay attention to, or didn’t understand, what this book actually consisted of. I thought it was a historian’s research and explanations of Victorian ‘death practices’ via newspapers and journals that was their source. What it actually is though, is a giant book of all those said newspaper articles and journals printed out for you to sit and read through yourself. I’m not exactly opposed to this, since I read a book with a similar formatting about The Servant Maid Annihilator, but I had known that going into that book.
I wouldn’t say I felt… tricked? But it’s definitely not what I expected, and I don’t know that I’d have added it to my wishlist [and therefore received it as a gift] if I had known it was a giant book of printed articles. And not just articles, old timey Victorian-age articles. To add to this as well, this book definitely seems more independently-published which I don’t mind at all, except for the typos inside of it, and the fact that for some reason the author didn’t think it would have been beneficial to either have different font types or font sizes to differentiate between all the articles and their commentary before/interrupting/after the articles. Frequently I would have to stop and re-read sections after being confused about why the perspective suddenly changed or how the text from one paragraph to the next suddenly didn’t make sense. The only difference between the two was the indentation, but most of the time it was all so subtle and clustered together, it was barely noticeable. I’m sure that it would have probably been more expensive to alter the fonts in some way between the articles/author’s direct writings, but I really feel like it would have made a drastic difference; not to mention would have helped me not feel like reading through certain chapters was an actual chore.
Allllllllllll of that being said, I did actually like the book’s contents. The subject matter has always been interesting to me, since a lot of ‘curiosity cabinet’ innards and concepts come from the Victorian ages themselves, or inspired later generations. Stuff like post-mortem photography, [mourning] hair art, and historic funeral practices is definitely my jam. Most of what we think of with imagery of ‘the grieving widow’ and practices still held today during funerals, in some way or another was either invented or drastically altered by the Victorian ages. Those Victorians sure liked the death and macabre, and grieving was a very particular and judgement-driven affair.
I don’t want to go into too much detail here since it’s historical information, but I’ll give some highlights that I thought were either especially abhorrent or especially interesting:
-When Victorian women were prepping their wedding, in addition to usually sewing some part of their bride getup, would sew their own burial shrouds as apart of the process due to how prevalent dying during childbirth was
-While there was an insane amount of ‘mourning wear’ that people would wear to show their grief, apparently there used to be a specific type of ‘mourning rings’ that were in the shape of little coffins with a carved skeleton inside that had the name and/or birth and death dates of the person they lost. You can look them up and they’re both beautiful and oddly adorable.
-I thought it was mostly a Mary Shelly thing [she kept her husband’s preserved heart with her most of her life after he died] apparently keeping either parts of your loved ones post-mortem or even their full mummified or petrified body was something people did then. [And yes, I know this is a common practice in many other parts of the world, but I’m talking about Victorian white people here] It’s wasn’t common but also not entirely looked down upon, either.
-The full mourning attire that most women were culturally forced to wear when grieving was full of various toxic elements that would sometimes disfigure them if it didn’t fully poison them to death
-Men’s mourning attire [besides wearing black] usually only required certain colored gloves and the size/color of the band on their hats to signal they were grieving
-Women’s crinoline [usually the petticoat part of their dresses] were massively unwieldy but also horribly flammable. It was so common for women’s dresses to catch on fire and engulf them in flames instantly that it was considered a massive public health risk and announced by most of the US government at the time. Some doctors and newspaper referred to it as ‘The Crinoline Holocaust.’ [Idea for an all-lady metal band name, btw]. It also was taken advantage of, as many men who no longer wanted to deal with/be married to their wives [and didn’t want to put forth the effort to get her locked up in an asylum for no reason] would simply throw matches at their wives to light them on fire and it would be deemed an accident.
-[Women’s choice of killing their husbands at the time was arsenic]
-Women were held to a very strict grieving timeline, or she would be publicly shunned and exiled. If a grieving widow was seen not wearing specific expected items for certain periods of time, it was a massive ordeal. Widows would sometimes be expected to have to wear the full [dangerous] grieving outfit, act a certain way, speak a certain way, for over two years or more. But if a widow acted too emotionally [full on early/violent grief of crying inconsolably] for too long [according to her family or the public] she could be locked up in an asylum.
-James Moon’s Suicide Machine [AKA – auto-decapitation machine]. That’s all. Look it up.
-Wells Fargo has been around for fucking ever, and has been super corrupt for fucking ever. They were caught in a rather large scandal around 1891 where instead of letting people who died of tuberculosis away from their families be buried as cheaply as possible where they lived at the time, first would hold the body hostage until a living friend or family member was found. Then they would take the dead, embalm them, dress them up in the best funeral clothes around, in expensive coffins, require them to be shipped in ‘express trains’ [instead of just regular trains where they could be kept on ice], and force the family/friends to not only take responsibility, but make them foot the bill to the services they didn’t at all agree to, and would either [again] hold the body hostage or threaten legal/police action if someone didn’t pay them.
-It was believed that if a cat crossed over top a corpse for any reason, that cat was trying to make the corpse reanimate into a vampire. So any cats that just so happened to walk over/lay on/or even be near a corpse [including pet cats that were laying with their deceased owners, often in their own form of grief] would be killed, as to prevent the vampiric process to take place. [what.the.fuck.]
-Premature Burial was very much a thing, and was very much a problem in the Victorian age. And it’s about as terrifying as you can imagine. They were mostly found later when being exhumed for whatever reason and finding evidence of the person’s attempts to escape while suffocating [torn material in the coffin/scratches and broken wood, blood streaks on the inside from the people breaking their fingernails or bloodying their hands from trying to break through, or the body found in an obviously different position than they were laid in], but sometimes also because bodysnatching for medical schools was very much a thing back then, the supposedly dead person would snap awake while being dissected. [if they were lucky – sometimes it wasn’t until someone was fully cut into that it was seen that they bled and their organs could be seen moving]
-I’ve always thought that the ‘living room’ was called that because it’s a centralized common area but it got its name primarily in the Victorian era. In those times, home funerals were much more prevalent, and you’d keep the dead person in a separate room from the living mourners so no one would be overwhelmed/visit as they felt comfortable. The biggest room would be used for the ‘living’ while a smaller room would be where the body was laid, which is how the name stuck.
I will additionally say that there’s a lot of cool sources to check out in the book. It kinda sucks having to transcribe printed-out link urls [I’d like to hope that if the book is ever re-printed it’d use QR codes or something in addition at the very least] but most of the links that were listed as sources or suggested follow-up visits were well worth it, and often very macabre.
Also, we can’t forget Victorian-age racism. The Author does a good job about warning when such was going to be included in an upcoming article, but there is still some serious racist cringe going on.
Here’s one of the ‘nicer’ blurbs as an example. [prepare yourself for the cringe]
“In short time this procedure was repeated, and again and again did Mr. Moon disturb the grave in which his dead wife reposed to carry out his gruesome ideas of devotion. In the meantime, Moon’s friends tried by every argument within their power to dissuade him from his course, but he seemed to be unsusceptible to reason on the subject. He no longer could obtain assistance from white women of Caddo, and was obliged to employ two old colored mammies to take part in the periodic rites. Finally the negresses were frightened from the work by the stories of ‘spooks’ and spirits told to them by indignant white people.”
Big. Fuckin’. Yikes. [Also the context is that the man’s grief was so inconsolable and insisted that he dig up his wife’s body every other day to change her clothes]
Despite that this is an insanely long review and was the biggest ‘TIL’ experience I’ve had in awhile, it still took me forever to get through this book due to my complaints at the very beginning. I definitely recommend a read if you don’t mind reading old timey newspaper clippings and are especially into Victorian lore, but otherwise it was a weird experience for me to be both interested and bored at the same time.
I give The Victorian Book of the Dead 3/5 post-mortem photographs
“One of the oddest whims I have ever been called upon to humor was that of the man who insisted on going to his grave wrapped in the traditional winding sheet. He sent for me several days before he died and explained his fancy. I misunderstood him at first. I thought he meant an ordinary white shroud. I could remember the time, away back in my childhood days, when it was the custom to clothe both men and women in those flowing white robes, and I took it that he was simply a little old-fashioned and wished a reversal to primitive customs. But he quickly corrected that impression.
“I don’t mean anything of the kind,” he said. “I want to be buried in a sheet. A plain, everyday, white sheet.”
For once my curiosity got the better of my good intentions. “I’ll do as you ask, of course.” I said. “but will you kindly tell me why you want to be dressed in that peculiar style?” The old fellow’s answer fairly staggered me.
“Because I’m going to do a good deal of haunting when I’m through with the flesh.” he said, “and I’m going to take the sheet along with me, so there will be no delay about getting down to business. I’m going to leave lots of people behind who have been playing me mean tricks all their lives. I’ve never been able to get back at them in my present state, but just you wait till I get clear of these fetters, and if I don’t haunt them good and hard and make them wish they’d done the square thing by me when they had a chance, it won’t be my fault.”
“With age he had lost none of the urbanity peculiar to him in his sturdiest years, but constant intercourse with grief often assumed had shaken his faith in many things.”
Country Undertaker: Do you make any difference in your manner and expression in conducting different funerals?
City Funeral Director: Certainly. I have three expressions. One for first-class funerals, one for medium, and one for cheap funerals. First-Class funerals, as I call them, are when the family have wealth and social position. These people are calm and undemonstrative in their sorrow and I use what I call my ‘dignified sorrow’ expression – a calm, sad look, with a white tie. I charge $10 extra for this in my et ceteras. For the medium class I just sling in a sort of ‘ministerial sadness’ look that costs them $5 extra. If the family have lots of money and are pretty shoddy and bound to make a big show I use a ‘suppressed grief’ expression that I pride myself on. It is really pathetic. That costs the mourners $25, but it’s a dandy.