Hair Today; Gone Tomorrow: Death by Hair

Hair Today; Gone Tomorrow: Death by Hair The Head of Medusa, Carvaggio

Hair Today; Gone Tomorrow: Death by Hair The Head of Medusa, Carvaggio

Since posting about the killer hair in the heart, I realized that my files were distressingly full of tales of persons done in by their crowning glory. I’ve left out the stories of people being whirled to death by their hair in industrial machinery: their numbers are legion and the stories grimly monotonous. Ditto for hair catching on fire from open flames or stoves. There are also many apocryphal tales of women killed by the insects nesting in their chignons—an early version of the “Spiders in the Bee-hive Hair-do” urban legend. One unfortunate lady was reported to have had a hole bored in her skull by something that hatched in her jute hairpiece, but, sadly for the collector of fortean deaths, this was refuted in the next edition.

Let’s start with a common category: The Hair Eater. This is one of the substances craved by those afflicted with pica. Nineteenth-century doctors labeled it “hysteria” or “perverted tastes.”

Singular Tumor

The English journals given an account of a singular tumor, discovered in the stomach of woman about thirty years of age, who had been under treatment for two years in a London hospital for a disease the nature of which had baffled all the skill of the physicians to determine. On a post-mortem examination, a solid tumor, composed of human hair, resembling in appearance a black duck with a very long neck, and weighing nearly two pounds, was found to occupy and nearly completely to fill the stomach and gullet, forming a tolerably accurate mould of these organs, and extending from the stomach almost into the mouth. This remarkable concretion had caused great thickening and ulceration of the stomach, and was the remote cause of death. On inquiry, a sister stated that during the last twelve years she had known the deceased to be in the habit of eating her own hair. Cincinnati [OH] Commercial Tribune 28 February 1870: p. 3

A woman named Harriet Adams lately died in St. Pancras Workhouse Infirmary, from the effects of eating her own hair. Dr. Ellis, Medical Officer of the infirmary, said deceased was admitted into the insane ward on the 9th of December last, and died on July 20. She was imbecile, but nothing was known of her antecedents. On the 31st March last, she commenced a spitting of blood, owing to something, in his belief, which she had swallowed. From this period she continued gradually to waste away and get weaker, till she died. He made a post-mortem examination. The body was extremely emaciated, and he found embedded in the stomach and intestines a quantity of human hair—no doubt her own—and wool, which the deceased had eaten. The effect of the secretion of this hair and wool had been to produce ulceration of the stomach, and cause death. Jackson [MI] Citizen 23 August 1870: p. 4

My first thought when seeing the note about the wool was about the inadequacy of the infirmary diet.


Surgeon Found Ball of Her Own Tresses in Stomach.

Des Moines, Iowa, Dec. 6 Her stomach filled with hair she had eaten from her own tresses in her sleep, Stella Watson, 14 years old, of No. 2204 School street, died yesterday. Not until a post mortem was held today was it known what had caused the girl such excruciating agony and baffled the skilled physicians who had treated her. They had given to her medicine for indigestion, but their most heroic remedies had failed to remove the ball of hair from her stomach, and she died in frightful agony.

Miss Weston was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Erastus J. Weston. Her winning ways and brightness as a pupil made for her many friends in the School street district. Her parents knew she had a childish habit of chewing the ends of her tresses in her sleep, but had no idea she was swallowing the hair or that it was the real cause of the breaking down of her health.

After the girl died the physicians obtained the consent of the parents to a post mortem. When they examined the stomach which all had agreed was the seat of the trouble, they were astonished to discover a ball of hair two inches in diameter. The outer covering, which was composed of hair most recently eaten, was soft, but the interior of the ball had become as hard as bone. At first the physicians did not know what the foreign substance was, but the forceps soon revealed its composition. In their opinion the ball had been accumulating for years. Bellingham [WA] Herald 6 December 1904: p. 3

This next story is an even more bizarre one. Of course hair is used in sympathetic magic, either to harm an enemy or to win someone’s love. But I have not located the tradition that suggests eating large quantities of the loved one’s hair was an effective love charm.


Reacroft Nearly Killed by Locks of His Two Wives’ Hair.

From the Los Angeles Herald.

Several weeks ago a harness maker named Reacroft, who lived at Compton, was taken sick. His case baffled the skill of attending physicians. Up to a few days ago Reacroft suffered intensely from an apparent obstruction of the intestine. It was then decided that an operation would have to be performed in order to save the man’s life, and Dr. K. D. Wise was called in. The operation consisted in cutting open the abdominal cavity and searching for the cause of the obstruction. The result of the operation was that the doctors made a discovery which is, as far as known, without a parallel in the history of operations in this or any other country.

After finding the obstruction it should be stated that its removal could only be brought about by slitting open the intestine. The doctors report that the substance inside felt very hard. The intestine was opened, and the medical attendants were astonished to find a large mass of woman’s hair. The foreign bod was removed and the wound in the intestine carefully sewed together. The patient rallied thoroughly, and seemed for the time to recover from the effects of the operation, but although alive it is hardly expected that he will recover, as it was found that 6 feet of intestine were just verging on gangrene on account of the long stoppage caused by the impacted hair. The hair plugged the intestine as tightly as a cork would a bottle, and the man as on the verge of death when the operation was completed.

The switch of hair was 2 inches in diameter and about a foot in length. It was human hair to a certainty. The doctors were all unanimous on this point and that it was a woman’s hair was proved by its length. The strangest part of all is that one-half of the hair is black and the other half blonde.

After the operation the patient denied ever having swallowed any hair. This statement made the matter more intensely interesting for the doctors who were trying to solve the mystery. Reacroft has been married twice. His first wife was a brunette, and is reported to have had jet black hair. Reacroft took unto himself a second wife about four months ago. She had blonde hair. The supposition is that the switch of hair found in the stomach was made up of hair taken from the locks of both wives of the patient. This theory is probably correct, as is also the one that Reacroft swallowed it as a charm. If he did the charm will in all probability cost him his life. St Louis [MO] Republic 24 October 1891: p. 12

He denied eating the hair? Was he another sleep-eater? Even more bafflingly, another article suggests that “Reacroft was induced, in conformity with some fad of the Christian Scientist, to gulp down the hair, which must have weighed all of three ounces.” [Tacoma (WA) Daily News 15 August 1891: p. 3]

I have failed to find out if Reacroft survived this harrowing ordeal.

So far our hair fatalities have been the result of the over-ingestion of hair. Alas, even a single hair might have a disastrous effect.


Vineland, January 11. George W. Harvey, of Iona, died last evening in terrible agony. He was celebrating the anniversary of his golden wedding. While surrounded by his children and grandchildren he kissed one of the latter on the head. A hair lodged in his throat. A severe coughing spell ensued. Mr. Harvey suffered greatly and at last burst a blood-vessel. He died in a few minutes. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 12 January 1894: p. 1

Another category of hair-curling casualties was the hair-suicide.


A Young Lady of Brooklyn Commits Suicide With Her Hair

New York, June. 1. A peculiar case of suicide was reported in Brooklyn yesterday. It was that of Miss Lillian Norfolk, one of the handsomest, most talented and wealthy young women on Long Island. Her maid entered the bathroom adjoining her mistress’ bedroom and was horror-stricken at the sight presented to her gaze. In the bath tub, which was filled with water, was the nude body of the young woman. Her hair, of which in life she was so proud, had been wound three times about her throat, and then fastened three. One hand, the one which had turned the faucet and started the water, clutched the highly polished piece of metal in the grip of death. The body lay partly upon one side and was submerged in the water. There was no evidence that the young woman had suffered. The face looked calm and peaceful as it lay there framed in the beautiful black hair. She had strangled herself with her own hair and in order to make death certain had turned on the water, probably just before losing consciousness from strangulation. Various causes are given for the deed, prominent among which is a disappointment in love. Bay City [MI] Times 1 June 1892: p. 1

This sensational story got quite a bit of coverage and there are many discrepancies among the variant articles. Speculation was rampant over the reason behind the suicide, if suicide it was. Local gossips had several theories: Her lawyer, Freeman Clarkson, said that she was about to lose a piece of property by foreclosure. Her physician said that she was despondent, perhaps about money matters, and had been drinking “very hard. He thinks, as she took a good deal of whisky to her room with her, she became intoxicated, and while at the marble basin toppled over, her hair was caught in the faucet, and not having sufficient strength or sufficient comprehension to unfasten her hair, she was strangled in that way.”

“The Flatbush gossips” said that Miss Norfolk was in love with Edward Indig, a young grocer, and killed herself because he wouldn’t accept her leap-year proposal. The gallant Mr Indig did not hesitate to savage the young lady’s reputation.

“Mr. Indig, who does not appear to be worried over her death, says they were merely acquaintances. He had known her for six years and she always bought her groceries from him. He said:

‘I am afraid Miss Norfolk was addicted to the use of narcotics. I noticed that she had been using them the last time I saw her. I thought it was better that we should not meet. I suspect it was the narcotics which made her kill herself. You know how they work on young women.

‘You never can tell what a girl is going to do. Even when she is dead in love with a man she hides her affections away. Perhaps that was the way with Miss Norfolk and me. But one thing is sure; I never knew it.’

The impression conveyed by the grocer’s remark was that he didn’t think the girl was in love with him and committed suicide on that account, but she could hardly be blamed if she had.” Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 1 June 1892: p. 1

The coroner’s inquest, however, came to a sad, if prosaic conclusion: Accidental death from asphyxia, caused by pressure on the larynx. The report added, “It was shown that she was addicted to the use of liquor.” New York [NY] Tribune 23 June 1892: p. 10

In the next story, there seems to be no ambiguity over the cause of death, remarkably public as it was.


An Insane Patient Takes Her Life

The Cunning of a Diseased Mind Outwits the Attendants.

Toledo, Jan. 31. One of the most remarkable suicide sin the history of insane patients was reported last night from the Toledo State Hospital for the Inane. A patient by the name of Mrs. Madeline Messner, who was sent to the institution from Gibsonburg, actually strangled herself with her own hair. The act was done, moreover, while she was seated in a chair and while a number of other patients were about.

Patients with suicidal mania were kept in cottages by themselves, where special care is given to them. An attendant, who was in charge of the room, left it for a moment to bring some food to Mrs. Messner. When she returned she noticed that the woman was sitting with her head on her breast, but as that is a common attitude with suicidal patients, she did not attempt to rouse her, but busied herself with the care of Mrs. Messner’s supper. Soon she offered the woman some food, and when she held it toward her lips Mrs. Messner made no response. She gently shook the patient, and was horrified to see her face almost black from the strangling.

While the attendant was absent, Mrs. Messner had quickly taken down her long hair, twisted it about her neck tightly and fastened the free end to the back of the chair. The unfortunate woman had then put such a strain upon her neck as to quickly end her life. When she had ceased to drag at the hair voluntarily the weight of her body had continued the fatal work. A light wrap about Mrs. Messner’s neck had concealed the position of the hair coil from the attendant. Mrs. Messner was forty-four years of age and was the mother of thirteen children. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 1 February 1896: p. 1

Perhaps I wasn’t looking the right places, but I found no historic examples of hirsute homicide, although here is a unique modern example and then there is Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover,” which makes me wonder about the erotic tastes of Mr. Browning. The poem is supposedly based upon a lurid murder story (fictional?) in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1818, although that murderer actually stabs his long-haired lover to death.

We must not neglect the victims of facial hair, rare though they are, although in the interests of time, the gentlemen killed by sepsis from shaving (Lord Carnarvon and the Austrian gentleman shaved with a “dead man’s razor” spring to mind) will be omitted as peripheral to my theme. And I will also leave out, as too painful, the tragically large numbers of Santa impersonators who died in fiery beard accidents.

In this next case, the facial hair’s owner was out for vengeance.


Mahanoy City, Pa. July 2. Stung to a frenzy of madness because he was obliged to have his beautiful mustache shaved off as the result of a practical joke, Espiano Tosta killed his cousin, Mariana Tosta, at Girardville yesterday.

One week ago in a friendly game of cards, Mariana reached across the table and besmeared chewing gum over Espiano’s bristling mustache. For several days he tried to comb out the sticky gum, but the operation was too painful and it was finally necessary to have the hairs shaved off.

He brooded over the loss and when he met the perpetrator of the joke on the street, opened fire on him with a revolver. Grand Forks [ND] Daily Herald 3 July 1909: p. 5

We have already mentioned the question of insects in ladies’ artificial hair. Other perils included lightning-drawing hair-combs, or combs driven into the skull by a fall. While they were cheap and popular, celluloid combs and hairpins tended to explode, which made for dramatic newspaper stories of accidents and deaths. There were also poisonous hair products. A common method for covering grey hair was the use of a lead comb.

[Veteran horseman “Ard” Carpenter’s] death was caused by a free use of some of the lead poisoned hair dyes. “Dan” Green, a jockey formerly well known in Hartford, is also suffering from the same cause and is not expected to live long. Springfield [MA] Republican 9 August 1871: p. 8


Ballinger, Texas, May. 15. Miss Hallie Price, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. J.H. Price, of this city, is in a serious condition and may not recover, as a result of using a poisoned hair tonic on her head. The young woman’s head became infected from the use of the tonic. Fort Worth [TX] Star-Telegram 15 May 1919: p. 5

We notice a statement that a short time since a gentleman was placed in a lunatic asylum in Berlin, Prussia, to be treated for mental alienation, brought on by the use of hair dye. On examining the article which he had employed, it was ascertained to be composed of lead, mercury, and lunar caustic. It produced violent pains in the head, and at length led to madness. Plattsburgh [NY] Republican 8 December 1855: p. 2

Despite all the hysteria about insects in hairpieces, there were some plausible accounts of the less direct perils of hair accessories. A “rat” is a pad of various materials used to augment the user’s own hair.


Chester, Pa., Dec. 4 A rat she wore in her hair resulted in the death of Mrs. Sarah Adler, aged 30. She died of mercurial poisoning.

The rat caused a skin disease to break out on her head. To cure the rash and relieve the itching, Mrs. Adler anointed her head with a salve. Instead of healing, the infection became worse, the mercurial substance in the salve aggravating her condition.The rat was one of the ordinary kind worn by the average woman. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 5 December 1911: p. 3

Then we come to urban legend territory–except look at the source…

Snakes and “Rats.”—It is reported from Richmond, Va., that a young woman [Miss Mary Wood in other accounts] was bitten several times by a young moccasin snake which had nested in that clump of hair known to fashion as “the rat.” While at work her head began to pain her; several small swollen splotches appeared on her scalp, when she removed this appendage at night. The mother, taking up the “rat” and on squeezing it, finding something wriggling inside it, tore it to pieces—when a six-inch moccasin dropped to the floor. Medical Times, Volume 39, June 1911

The snake supposedly got into her rat when she laid it aside in a hammock. Rats were often made of the owner’s own collected hair combings and were apparently attractive to reptiles.


Snake Concealed in False Hair Bites Little Child.

Mason Valley, Nev., May 26. The seven-year-old child of Andrew Ingman is critically ill from the bite of a small rattlesnake, which had concealed itself in a “rat” occasionally worn by an older sister of the child.

The snake had entered the house and crawled into the “rat,” which was lying on the floor of a closet. The child picked the “rat” up and was struck in the wrist by the rattler.

The family dog attacked the snake which had dropped to the floor, and was fatally bitten. Baltimore [MD] American 27 May 1909: p. 1

Some hair deaths were straightforward accidents.

Girl Strangled by Her Hair.

Santa Fe, N.M., April 19. Ella Pohl of Belin, a student in the New Mexico agricultural college, while picnicking climbed a cliff, lost her hold and plunged over. She was caught in a crevice. Her hair acted as a noose and she died in a few hours. Daily Illinois State Journal 20 April 1910:  p. 3

Sometimes the cause of death is more obscure and one suspects that, in this case, the young lady’s luxuriant tresses were a red “hair-ing.” The modern diagnosis might have been meningitis.

Killed by Her Hair.

Mabelle E. Wallace, aged 28, a well known young woman residing in Bedford township, has just died from a singular cause. She had a most luxuriant and heavy growth of hair, which was four and one half feet long. The weight of hair was so great that it had an effect upon her head and brain, which finally threw her into brain fever, resulting in her death. The hair was so fine and so much admired that she refused to have it cut. Jackson {MI] Citizen Patriot 9 March 1899: p. 4

Finally, sometimes the victim was not the owner of the hair, but an innocent bystander.  Electric (and Magnetic) girls were a popular theme from the 1850s through the 1890s, so this story may be no more true-to-life than Manic Panic Atomic Turquoise.

Electricity From Her Hair Killed a Cat.

Abilene, Tex., April 18 The latest in the way of an electrical girl is one who lives in the Buffalo Gap county near this place and who, like Samson of old, has all her power in her hair. The young woman is twenty-one years of age and says it is only recently that her singular power became manifest. Her hair is of the coarse jet black variety and so exceedingly long and thick that when she suffers it to hang down it completely envelopes her person, and the curling ends sweep the floor as she walks. It crisps and crackles and sparkles when she combs it, and at night gives out a strange, weird light. In point of fact she possesses a genuine article in “shining hair.”

So strong is the current of electricity playing constantly through her hair that one strand of it will convey a shock to the person who is so bold as to touch it. She discovered her singular power one night recently when she stopped down to fondle a pet kitten. Her loose hair fell all about the cat with a crackling noise, killing the poor creature instantly. Since then only a few people have had the hardihood to experiment with the matter, but all who have touched her hair are convinced of its electric power. A young physician in the neighborhood, who went to test the case in the interest of science almost died of the repeated shocks he received thereby.

The young woman herself is greatly annoyed at the sensation she is creating, and threatens to cut off her hair if people don’t stop bothering her about it, but her father and mother look upon it as a miracle, and are afraid for her to “tamper with it,” as they say, lest some injury will befall her. Philadelphia Times Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 28 April 1895: p. 19

If we have learned anything from this shocking catalog of deaths, they show us that life is a fragile thing and may hang on a thread as slender as a single hair…

Other stories of hair-raising death or murder? Comb your files, please for chriswoodyard8 AT

For more accounts of bizarre Victorian and Edwardian deaths, see The Victorian Book of the Dead (also available for Kindle) and join me at The Victorian Book of the Dead Facebook page for daily posts on historic death and mourning.


Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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