Misc. Tidings of Yore

Forgotten Lore & Historical Curiosities



Ballerinas On Fire (1861)

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, September 28, 1861

Philadelphia’s Continental Theater on Walnut Street was the site of a handful of deadly fires in the late 1800s, the first of these tragedies being the subject of this entry. At least eight, but possibly nine ballerinas perished in an inferno ignited after one of the dancer’s gauzy green costumes came into contact with flames from a gas tube backstage.

A crowd of fifteen hundred watched William Wheatley’s production of the first act of The Tempest on the evening of September 14, 1861. The show was interrupted by strange lights from behind the scenery, followed shortly by screams, stage carpenters rushing onto the platform and the appearance of a young dancer engulfed in flames. This dancer, Zelia Gale, screamed and waved her arms frantically as her costume and skin melted away. She finally fell beneath the stage where a carpenter covered her in a sea cloth from the set design.

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Dick the Crow: Professional Mourner (1903)

From the Barton County Democrat, Aug. 28, 1903:

He Has His Faults, But the Town Is Fond of Him.
     Alexander Lidnum, according to an Easton (Md.) letter to the Baltimore American, is the professor of a tame crow which is in his way a unique character. Dick, as he is called, notwithstanding his mischievous escapes and thieving atrocities, is a universal favorite throughout the town, and has hosts of warm friends. One of his favorite haunts is Spring Hill cemetery, which he visits daily. Charles Seymour, the keeper of the cemetery, is one of his warmest friends, but is, nevertheless, a victim of his mischievous pranks. He has stolen from Mr. Seymour numerous rules, pencils and other articles. One one occasion he took a pipe from the pocket of his coat, and on another a gold watch from the pocket of a man’s vest, which he had removed from his person and laid on one of the graves near by. Dick is also a professional mourner. He attends every funeral that takes place in Spring Hill, and, perching himself on the edge of the open grave, remains there until the funeral service is ended, or until the grave is entirely closed, when he wanders off to look for mischief.
     Another of his favorite places of visitation is the carriage shops of James A. Spence, where ‘Dick’ Thomas and James Dillon have to watch him constantly to prevent him from confiscating their paint brushes and numerous other small articles.
     Dick always pays friendly visits to George M. Wilson’s flour mill, but as yet has relieved Mr. Wilson of nothing more valuable than a lot of bugs in his wheat, which he was glad to get rid of.
     This crow is to be seen almost every morning perched somewhere along Dover street, watching very intently the work of laying new gas mains, and seems very much interested in the work. He also visits daily the site upon which the new national bank building is being erected, and from his apparent interest in and close watchfulness of the work as he struts around from one part of the building to the other one would think he was general superintendent of the construction thereof.
     The workmen have orders from the bank officials not to molest or injure him in any way. Recently he went out to Hickory Ridge farm, two miles from town, where William Rust resides, went in the house and picked a new stiff hat to pieces for that gentleman, besides tearing down a window blind and stealing a key.
     Dick is a very sensitive bird, and if anyone does anything to hurt him he never forgets it and will have nothing to do with him or go anywhere near him. When night begins to come on Dick will leave what he is doing and make for his home before dark.”

Odd Last Requests: Post-Mortem Crankism (1895)

From The Wichita Daily Eagle, Aug. 2, 1895:

Curious Wishes Made by Persons When Dying.
Requests Have Been Made to Provide Drinks, Shaves, Rides, and Music for Mourners-Eccentric to the Last.
     The world is full of cranks, as everybody knows, but the great majority of them confine their eccentricities to their life upon this sphere. Few of them make arrangements to keep themselves before the public eye after death, but the few who do so exhibit a fertility of ideas that would have been of great value to them in the advertising line during their lives.
    The latest exponent of post-mortem crankism was a queer old farmer of Kent, Saratoga county, this state, who recently departed this life, says the New York Advertiser. He left explicit directions in his will as to his burial, the most noteworthy being that he should have his favorite pair of rawhide boots as a part of his grave clothes and that he should be taken to the cemetery in the family sleigh. His wishes were carried out to the letter and he was whirled up to his last resting place to the accompaniment of jingling bells and buried with his boots on.
     A Brooklyn saloonkeeper, who was a jolly in life as he was fat, left directions with his widow as he gasped ‘Good-by’ to set aside one hundred dollars of his estate with which to provide beer for his friends on the dreary drive to the cemetery. The widow not only provided every carriage with fifty bottles of the cheering beverage, but drew on the saloon stock for two kegsful, which were emptied at the side of the coffin before it was taken from the house.
     Another saloonkeeper, a Staten Islander, whose place was a famous resort for fisherman and was himself an ardent angler, often said that he would never lie content in the cold ground. So he made arrangements to have his body cremated and imposed the dying injunction on his friends to see that his ashes were scattered about on the salt water he loved so well, from the head of the statue of Liberty. His wishes were religiously carried out and the funeral party returned to his old saloon and drank ‘his health,’ as provided as in his will.
     Still another saloonkeeper, whose place was well over on the east side of town and who was an inveterate fisherman also, had his ashes committed to the deep. He was a member of a little fishing club that went down in a tug to Romer Shoals every Sunday during the season. He found when on his deathbed that he had but fifty dollars beyond his cremation fees and decided to give the ‘boys’ a good time with it. He ordered that the money be applied to the hiring and stocking of the tug for the first trip after his death and asked that his ashes be taken along and dumped overboard at the shoals while a schooner of beer was drunk to his memory. It was done as he ordered.
     A female keeper of a tramps’ lodging house in Montreal is about the only woman on record who devised for herself a funeral on other than conventional lines. She left orders that all her lodgers be provided with a shave, a breakfast and a high hat with mourning ribbons, and that they all follow her body to the grave behind two brass bands. The bands were to play the ‘Dead March in Saul‘ on the outgoing trip, but to play, ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me‘ all the way home. The churches attempted to stop the carrying out of her remarkable injunctions, but were unsuccessful, and the old woman was serenaded as per desire.
     The most horrible of all these grewsome provisions was that made by a Virginia colonel, who died about twenty-five years ago, in Amelia county. He demanded, under penalty of cutting off from all his possessions, that his widow have him put in an open coffin in a clump of woods near the house, and leave him there for six weeks. Every morning and evening of that time she was to come to him and brush his hair and whiskers. Luckily the colonel shuffled off his mortal coil in the middle of a very cold winter, so he ‘kept.’ His widow was able to carry out his wishes, therefore, and came into all his property.
     There are quite a number of cases of religious enthusiasts who have demanded to be buried in a standing position, so as to be all ready for the judgment day, and a negro in South Carolina was buried feet up because he believed that the flat earth would be turned upside down at the first blast of Gabriel’s trumpet and he wanted to be ready right side up.
     People innumerable have had valuables or momentoes buried with them at their request, and a short time ago in France a dying woman had her pet cat killed so that it might be buried in her arms.”

Man Wants Beer & Limberger Cheese at His Funeral, Wife & Children Get Nothing

Los Angeles Herald, 26 May 1906

Panic! At the Funeral

The majority of funerals that I’ve attended have been somber, solemn events that thankfully went as smoothly as could be expected without chaos and destruction. (Well, there was that one time I walked into a nest of baby ticks, but I didn’t make a big deal out of that.) In most situations, I always imagine the worst case scenario. For example, what if the casket fell over during the service? Here are some examples of send-offs gone array that are much worse than a toppled corpse (even though that would be very, very traumatic.)

Evening Public Ledger [Philadelphia] 26 Feb. 1916
In Chalfonte, Pennsylvania, the floor underneath a crowd of funeral attendees collapsed. Mrs. Abram Garges in the casket with about 100 guests fell, barely escaping a descent to the cellar. “A panic followed. Women and children cried. One woman was temporarily deranged.”
Somehow no one was hurt.
Bemidji Daily Pioneer [Minn.] 20 Dec. 1909
Joseph Prefontaine’s mother was being viewed at his home in 1909 when a candle’s flame caught some funeral hangings on fire. Joseph’s son, George, was severely burned trying to keep his grandmother’s body from catching fire and a seven-year-old who was asleep amidst the panic, died in the fire.
The St. Paul Globe 20 Jan. 1902
A “scene of wild disorder at the United Brethern church near Humbolt” broke out as “flames burst through the floor beneath the casket” during the preacher’s eulogy. As the air inside the church blackened, mourners departed through windows in a most chaotic scene. Some men gathered their composure and put out the fire, saving the church. The reverend finished his sermon at the cemetery. The cause of the fire wasn’t a supernatural entity’s final remarks on Mrs. Edward Obenbaugh, but rather a stove downstairs that had overheated.
The Citizen [KY] 28 Nov. 1907
At a double-funeral for Pennsylvania homicide victims in 1907, a rumor circulated that the church was collapsing. As mourners raced for the exits, the heater was knocked over, making the situation even more chaotic. One man was killed and eight others were injured as the “frenzied” crowd stampeded the doors.
Pullman Herald [Wash.] 9 Jan. 1904

Carrie Sayres (also spelled as “Sayre”) was a schoolteacher at the Myra Bradwell School and one of the many people who perished in the Iroquois Theater Fire on December 30, 1903. 572 people died (including over 200 children) during a holiday performance of an Eddie Foy show. (I’m finding many interesting clippings about this tragedy that I’ll be posting eventually.)

The disaster left Chicago on high alert, as tragedies often do.

During Carrie’s highly-attended Jan. 4 funeral, a fire started several doors down from the church. At the first cry of “fire” from outside, people began to panic. Even though police asked the mourners to remain inside the church because they weren’t in any danger, the scent of smoke wafting through the air caused the crowd to scramble towards the open street. Pallbearers rushed to the side of Carrie’s casket in case they had to run with it amidst the chaos.

When the people realized that they were safe, many of them went back inside the church where Carrie’s funeral continued.

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