Dead Letters: The Epistolary Zombie

death writing obit  1908

While burrowing through the literature of the resurrection of the entranced or cataleptic, I ran across several similar cases involving mysterious letters from the supposedly dead.

This first story is found in The Headless Horror: Strange and Ghostly Ohio Tales.

“OLD TRUEPENNY”

AN OHIO DEAD MAN SEEMS TO IMITATE HAMLET’S FATHER.

HE DOESN’T “REVISIT THE GLIMPSES OF THE MOON” IN PERSON

BUT SENDS GHOSTLY MISSIVES OF ADVICE

A CASE THAT’S PASSING STRANGE

Washington City, Sept. 21. A telegram from Toledo relates the story of a farmer in Montclara [Montclova], Ohio, who died and was buried thirteen years ago, but is still writing to his family. The Sunday Capital prints a story quite as remarkable, as follows: “A very remarkable case has come to my attention through a friend in the pension office which furnishes incidents for a novel as powerful as any Dumas or Eugene Sue ever used. In 1864 a lieutenant from an Ohio village was killed in one of the battles in Virginia and his body was sent home, buried with military honors and a handsome monument erected over it by the citizens of the place. Thousands of people paid their tributes of honor to the young hero and looked upon his face as the body lay in the town hall. He left a widow to whom he had been married only a year, and for more than twenty years she has been trying to get a pension; but, although she keeps fresh flowers upon her husband’s grave, she cannot prove that he is dead. The records in the adjutant general’s office are perfect, and affidavits can be furnished from thousands of people who saw and recognized his lifeless body, but every few months she receives a letter from him written in a hand as familiar as her own. Two letters never come from the same place; now they are postmarked in Colorado, then in Texas, then in New York. Once she got a note from him dated at Washington. He appears to know what is going on at home, and always alludes to local occurrences with a familiarity that is amazing. He sends messages to old friends and gives her advice about business matters which it seems impossible for a stranger to know. She cannot answer these ghostly missives, because he never gives any clew to his whereabouts, and no detective has ever been able to find him. Her friends believe that the writer is some crank or malicious person who takes this way to annoy her, and the distress the poor woman suffers cannot be measured by any other human experience. Long ago she ceased to open envelopes which came with the familiar address, but sends them sealed to her attorney, who uses every possible means to secure a clew to the identity of the writer. The only circumstances to suggest that it may possibly be her husband are the penmanship and the familiarity the writer shows with the lady’s private life, but how he could keep himself posted is another mystery, which cannot be solved. Several times the writer has intimated that he might soon pay her a visit, but the next letter always contains an apology for not having done so. The woman has suffered agony of mind beyond description, and her life has been ruined by this horrible mystery, but of late she has become more resigned, and would neither be surprised or disappointed if her husband should someday walk into her door.” Elkhart [IN] Daily Review 21 September 1885: p. 4

This story truly is “passing strange.” I wonder if one of the dead husband’s “pards” from his old Civil War unit learned enough about him to impersonate him? The different locations suggest someone either employed by the railroad or a drummer (a traveling salesman) or perhaps just a man with far-flung contacts. But what about the handwriting?  “Old Truepenny” is a term taken (again) from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It means a true, honest fellow. Dumas is Alexandre Dumas pere, who wrote The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.  Eugene Sue was a contemporary of Dumas pere, who wrote lurid novels like The Mysteries of Paris. Both men had a talent for highly dramatic, sensational plots and would have relished this odd tale.

Naturally that could not be the end of the story. After publishing The Headless Horror, I found this highly-colored variation. The soldier and his pension have vanished and the widow has remarried.

BACK TO LIFE

The Death, Burial and Resurrection of Thomas Hubbell

Perrysburg,Ohio, Sept. 19. One of the most tremendous sensations that ever agitated this community has just come to light, and is the sole topic of conversation. The affair, which originated in Monclana [sic] township, a few miles west of Toledo, has branches reaching as far as Cincinnati, will undoubtedly stir up some prominent medical people in the Queen city, as well as affect a number of physicians who received their education there. Thirteen years ago a farmer named Thomas Hubbell, living in Monclana township, died after a severe illness, and was buried in the country graveyard adjoining the church at which his friends and relatives worshiped. The funeral was a large one, as Hubbell was well known and highly respected, and hundreds of people saw the coffin in which they knew the remains of their friend and relative was to be lowered into the grave and covered with earth. After the first paroxysm of grief the widow and her fatherless children sank back into the routine of life. Seven years ago the widow married Thos. Marshall, of South Toledo. Two years ago the friends of the family were astonished to receive a letter bearing

THE SIGNATURE OF THE DEAD MAN,

But after wondering at the vulgarity of a person who would use such a solemn subject for a practical joke, the matter was half forgotten. No attention being paid to the letters, others followed in rapid succession, and the friends and relatives, at last alarmed, opened the grave in which Thos. Hubbell had been buried and found that the casket was empty. The wife’s terrible position has driven her nearly wild, and her new husband does not know what to do. In answer to the letter received a few days ago, Hubbell’s brother has gone after the missing man, who is still at a private insane asylum near Cincinnati, and the people of the county are waiting with breathless interest for the return of the long lost man. Matters are terribly complicated, for the property of the deceased man has been divided, sold or scattered, and it will be almost impossible to straighten up the estate. Hubbell’s adventures since his burial thirteen years ago, as told in his last letter, are of an Arabian Nights nature, and were not the proof so conclusive, would be unbelievable The night following his burial, he says that grave robbers took him from his resting place and shipped him in a trunk to one of the Cincinnati medical schools, where he was placed on a dissecting table in the presence of a class of the students. The demonstrator felt about the body of the corpse, making ready for the first cut. The knife was inserted when, to the horror of the demonstrator and his pupils.

THE CORPSE AROSE,

And with eyes wild and staring, and with blood rushing form his nostrils, gave vent to a cry that froze their blood. The witnesses of this horrible affair could not move or make a sound until the revivified corpse, with a maniac yell, leaped upon the demonstrator and attempted to snatch the gleaming knife from his hand. One of the students, throwing off the stupor that had overcome him, rushed upon the maniac and caught him from behind. After a terrible struggle Hubbell was bound to the dissecting table, upon which he raved, and by his almost superhuman efforts to break his bonds tore the flesh of his arms and legs in a horrible manner. Leading members of the faculty, after an examination into the man’s condition, announced that he had lain in a trance, and had, when the dissecting knife entered his arm, returned to consciousness, but was wildly insane. Hubbell was immediately transferred to

A PRIVATE MAD HOUSE

As it would be hard to establish his identity, and the faculty were afraid of an exposure, which would necessarily make public their methods of obtaining subjects for scientific investigation. In that mad house the man remained for thirteen years, but is now completely recovered, and wishes to return to his wife and friends. The whole story of his adventures has been related to him by the officials of the asylum. He is said to be much changed, but the memory of his entire life previous to his burial has returned to him, and with the proofs given him by the medical men he claims he can fully establish his identity.

DISCREDITED BY HIS RELATIVES

Toledo, Sept. 19. The Blade this afternoon gives the details of an interview with some of the relatives of Thomas Hubbell. They place no credence in the story that letters have been received from him, or that he is alive. They state that Mr. Hubbell died of pneumonia, and that four days elapsed before burial took place. The grave has been opened and the remains have not been found, but with this exception the story is pronounced without foundation in fact. Daily Illinois State Register [Springfield, IL] 20 September 1885: p. 4

Well, never mind then….

Now the motif of the cataleptic corpse coming to life on the dissecting table is an old favorite in the bodysnatching canon. For an additional fillip, in a few tales, the “corpse” is then shipped off to an insane asylum.

A Supposed Corpse Resuscitated by Resurrectionists.

A story comes from Egremont, Berkshire Hills, Mass., which agitates people hereabouts, that Estelle Newman, about thirty years old, died in Egremont in 1878, and after the funeral service in the little Methodist church, was buried in the town cemetery and forgotten. The sensations comes from the dying testimony of H. Worth Wright, of Connecticut, said to have confessed to his brother that he, a student in the Albany medical college, was present at the funeral while other students lay in wait near the cemetery till the burial was over, and the graveyard deserted, and then helped disinter the body and carry it in a sack to the medical college. They at once went to work on it in the dissecting room. While on the table, the body showed signs of life and was resuscitated. Finding the woman alive on their hands the authorities of the college had her taken to the insane asylum of Schoharie county, N.Y. This is the last Wright is said to have known of her whereabouts. Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 11 December 1884: p. 1

Then there is this similar story of an affectionate but elusive wife.

A Man Who Claims to Have Been Receiving Letters from His Dead Wife.

[Nebraska City Press.]

William S. Aimison, a farm-hand working for  a man by the name of Bills, near Rock Bluffs, in Cass County, was in the city Friday, and told one of the strangest stories that the Press has ever been called to relate. Aimison says that he was married in Illinois about six years ago, and that three years later his wife died of consumption. He attended the funeral, of course, looked on the face of the woman he loved for the last time, and saw the coffin closed and lowered into the grave. Soon after he went to Kansas, and for six months has been in Nebraska. His story is that shortly after he reached Kansas he received a letter, dated and postmarked at his old home, in his wife’s handwriting, in which he could not be deceived, and signed with her name, “Lulu.” The letter told how she missed him and wanted him to come back, and how she needed his help. There was a sentence something like this:

“You all thought I died, but I did not, and am better than when I saw you last.” That was the only thing in the letter that would have been thought singular or out of the way by one not knowing the facts. Since then at irregular intervals, several months apart, he has received other letters, all affectionate, but none attempting to explain the mystery, assuming that there is one other than some one is playing a ghastly practical joke. These letters came, the most of them, from Illinois, but one came in June last from Concordia, Kan., near which place he was located up to March, bitterly bewailing the fact that he had left there before the writer got to him.

Aimison has investigated the matter to some extent, sending one of the first letters received back to his wife’s parents in Illinois and asking what it meant. They made nothing of the mystery, but agreed with Aimison that the handwriting was that of their daughter. He answered one of the letters addressing it “Mrs. W.S. Aimison” and it came back to him from the dead letter office.

On Thursday he received a letter from Table Rock saying that the writer, “Lulu” was there sick and without money. His visit to the city was on his way to Table Rock, the man stating that he was determined to get to the bottom of the matter, and if he discovered nothing by this trip he would work his way back to his old home and disinter his wife’s remains or the coffin, to see if they were really in it. The story is a strangely fanciful one. Aimison is said to be a man incapable of its invention, but it is given for just what it is worth. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 30 October 1887: p. 16

A comparable tale of a love buried and resurrected can be found at this link at Mrs Daffodil Digresses.

Are these just variants of a 19th-century urban legend—the epistolary zombie, the Scribbling Dead? If they really happened, were they merely elaborate hoaxes designed to extract money from people like Mr. Aimison by claiming to be sick and broke? Or did such unlikely resurrections ever actually happen?

What is slightly unsettling about the Hubbell story is that a Thomas Hubbell of the correct date did exist and his tombstone stands at Monclova.

Any family lore about the Hubbell or Aimison (or any other) dead-letter cases?  Take pen in hand and send to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Look for more stories from Beyond the Grave in The Victorian Book of the Dead, arising in September.