Nobody does macabre quite like the Victorians.
From mourning -- to keepsakes, to postmortem photography, to all things gorgeously gothic -- the Victorians make death simultaneously disturbing and delightful. Just look at some of the pictures from this exhibit at the Costume Institute's "Death Becomes Her" exhibit. Swoon.
Just the word "Victorian" conjures up images of stately, ornate mansions with carved staircases, secret passageways, and more than a specter or two creaking through the dark hallways -- kitten heeled boots clicking, mourning clothes swishing. Any Creepy Cornerista worth their salt has dreamed of shrouding their mirrors in black and holding a candlelit seance in the parlor of their Tudor Revival estate. The ectoplasm floweth like wine.
I'd wager that most of the spooky imagery that captures the western imagination is rooted in that era from 1837 to 1901 when Queen Victoria reigned over the British Empire and Jack the Ripper reigned over the streets of London.
It's impossible to talk about every aspect of what makes the Victorians so deliciously dark, but in our ghostly galavant around the world this Halloween, I thought it only fitting to touch on some of the more morbid aspects of Victorian life.
So pour yourself a glass of sherry and light the candles. The spirits may or may not be among us, but either way it's best to be prepared.
- Turn down family photographs so the deceased will not possess the living.
- Cover mirrors so the dead will not be trapped in them.
- Stop the clocks at the time of a person's death so as to avoid bad luck.
- Beware the "Three Knocks of Death." If you hear three knocks at your door, and nobody is there, someone dear has died.
- Don't bequeath anything to the dead. It invites them to come and get you.
- A picture or mirror falling off a wall portends the death of someone close to you.
And this is one of my favorites:
A dog howling at night when someone in the house is sick is a bad omen. It can be reversed by reaching under the bed and turning over a shoe.
I hope you have a shoe under your bed.
There are so many more Victorian death superstitions, these are only a few. Victorian superstition is so all encompassing, I can't help but wonder how ANYBODY could escape death or misfortune.
Clumsy Cadence knocks over a portrait -- we're doomed.
One superstition that I found particularly confounding was the notion that if you saw yourself in a dream, your death would be soon to follow. I don't know about you but I see myself in my dreams ALL THE TIME. Is this just me? Am I already dead? Did Creepy Corner just get a whole lot creepier?
The Victorians were world-class mourners.
Queen Victoria herself rarely ever wore non-black clothing again after the death of her beloved Prince Albert in 1861. And while Queen Victoria took mourning to new levels of devotion -- going so far as to having Prince Albert's quarters preserved exactly as he left them and having hot water delivered to his room every morning as had occurred in life so that he may shave -- the general Victorian population weren't exactly slackers.
You all know I'll take any opportunity to talk about postmortem photography.
Upon death, a family would very often take the opportunity to take one last photograph with, or of, the deceased. For the poor, this might be the only photograph ever taken of them.
The deceased would be propped up, staged as if alive, very often with the living family members posed around them. Sometimes they would be portrayed peacefully sleeping, other times they are "interacting" with the living, making it often difficult to tell the living from the dead. Color was "Photoshopped" (painted on the print) onto the cheeks, eyeballs were drawn in and given highlights, armatures were used to posture the corpse.
And of course there was mourning jewelry.
Black jewelry, made from a fossilized coal material called jet, was appropriate for a mourning woman, particularly in rings. While a woman mourned (for months, even up to a year for close family), a mourning ring with a short epitaph engraved on it might be worn.
As a tangible connection to the dead, hair from the deceased was often incorporated into the jewelry. Brooches, lockets, rings, pendants, hair clips -- waxed and sealed hair was not unusual in such keepsakes. And while hair was the more popular personal remnant to use in jewelry, some mourning jewelry was made with a tooth from a dead loved one.
The Victorians were quite nervous about being buried alive. So to guard against this, one end of a string would be tied to a bell suspended over a person's grave, the other end would be tied to the probably-deceased's finger. If a person was to wake up in their coffin, they could ring the bell and be dug up.
Some "safety coffins" employed air tubes to keep people alive if they were to wake up inside their coffin.
While nobody was reportedly saved by a coffin alarm, there were more than a few cases of exhumed bodies having dramatically shifted position, sometimes even with broken bones and scratches covering the inside of the coffin from when the unlucky "deceased" WERE TRYING TO GET OUT.
Fun fact: "taphophobia" is the fear of being buried alive.
Formerly headquarters for the General Post Office of London, and built on the burial grounds of what was St. Botolph's Aldersgate Church, Postman's Park is a memorial to those who died heroically, albeit at times unusually.
In 1887 artist George Fredric Watts proposed a memorial to "heroism in every-day life." It took many years for Watts' vision to be realized, but finally in 1900, a wall of ceramic plaques commemorating the brave Victorians who had given up their lives for the common man was unveiled in Postman's Park.
Each plaque tells, quite frankly, how the commemorated died. While the accounts can be moving in their forthright simplicity, a whiff of the grimness of Victorian life can be detected through the brightly colored plaques.
On the night of February 20th, 1838 Lucy Alsop heard a heavy knocking at her door. Answering it, she found a cloaked man, hidden in the shadows, claiming to be a policeman.
Man standing in the shadows, pounding on my door in the middle of the night? Policeman! Of course!
Telling her he'd captured the terrible Spring-Heeled Jack, he asked her for a candle. Eager to help, she went and fetched a candle for the "officer." Upon returning, the man:
...held the candle to his chest; in the flickering light he presented a hideous appearance, his eyes resembling red balls of fire. [Lucy] noted briefly that he wore a large helmet, and a tight-fitting suit that appeared to be a white oilskin... and then he vomited out blue and white flames.
Spring-Heeled Jack had struck again.
When Lucy screamed Spring-Heeled Jack grabbed her and began tearing at her clothes, neck, and face with what she described as "iron claws."
Able to escape, Lucy ran for her house, only to be captured again just outside her front door. Hearing her screams, her sisters and father came to her aid, dragging her into the house and slamming the door. Spring-Heeled Jack continued to bang at the front door, bounding away into the darkness only when one of Lucy's sisters "leaned out of an upstairs window and called for a policeman."
A mysterious urban legend/entity/menace, Spring-Heeled Jack was reportedly seen leaping across English rooftops and assaulting people from 1837 all the way into the 1970s. Some even claim that Jack reappeared in 2012.
While his appearance vacillated between something of a "fire breathing" pervert, and that of a hulking shadow person, few characters thrilled and terrified Victorians like Spring-Heeled Jack.
But who was Spring-Heeled Jack? Was he the work of a few sick tricksters? Or was he a garish incarnation of Victorian imagination?
He grew to such notoriety and infamy, it became nearly impossible to differentiate actual sightings from mere hearsay. As you can guess, a confirmed Spring-Heeled Jack was never caught and his mystery remains to this day.
And there is just a little peek into the deep, dark Victorian creepy corner. I don't need to tell you there is so much more.
I don't claim to be an expert, just an admirer, somebody who regularly scours the Internet for Victorian mourning jewelry and virtual tours of the world's most spooky Queen Anne Revival mansions.
So experts and fanatics, tell us!
What enchantingly eerie facts do you know about those morbid Victorians? Favorite urban legends? Death practices? Superstitions?
I'll save you a lock of my hair if you're good.