In my post on the occupational hazards of the bodysnatcher, I told of a Resurrectionist strangled by the corpse he was trying to get over a fence–an age-old story, sometimes told with animals substituted for a human corpse, but still, a cautionary tale of the biter bit. That story got me thinking about other examples of humans killed by corpses, a surprisingly underrepresented category in the annals of strange deaths. Possibly if I expanded my search to stories of persons infected by diseased cadavers, whether weaponized and hurled over the walls of a besieged city, or tainting the scalpel that pricked the medical student, this collection would be larger. Instead I concentrate on what we might call the personal touch. Let’s start this unpleasant necrology with a few near-misses.
A MAN ALMOST KILLED BY A CORPSE
A gentleman recently visited the hospital in Downieville, California, to witness a post-mortem examination. He consented to assist the steward to bring the subject downstairs. He took the feet, and holding them one in each hand, started down the stairs, the steward following with the head end. The man stumbled and his hands came down. The legs of the dead man spread and shut again, clamping his neck, and he fell to the bottom of the stairs, fainting, bestridden by the corpse. It required all the restoratives to bring him to. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 2 January 1861: p. 5 I don’t mind stretching a point to include coffins containing corpses, as they could also be lethal. See this wonderful post from Strange Company for a full complement of people crushed by corpse-filled coffins. I will just add one more.
Nearly Killed by a Corpse.
Carlisle, Pa. Dec. 18 While Alexander Ewing, an undertaker of this city, was lowering the body of Mrs. Margaretta Gibson McClure, daughter of Chief Justice Gibson, to the grave, the crossbar over the grave broke while the body was resting, throwing Mr. Ewing into the grave, the casket falling upon him and inflicting slight injuries. He was unconscious for an hour. Great excitement prevailed at the graveyard among the large body of mourners. The Newark [OH] Advocate 18 December 1893: p. 2
There are numerous reports of floors collapsing at wakes and funerals. The fall was usually blamed for the deaths of any victims, but in this case the fall guy was an already dead woman.
An extraordinary occurrence at Corunna is reported by the Madrid correspondent of the “Telegraph.” In the upper story of a house in that town lay the dead body of an old woman. Suddenly the floor of the room collapsed, and the corpse fell on a group of men in the room below. One of the men died from the injuries caused by the falling corpse, and the others were severely hurt. A curious coincidence is that the man who was killed had gone to the house to present an outstanding account, not knowing that his debtor had died. Ellesmere Guardian 16 April 1913: p. 2
Of course simple shock at seeing a dead body might do in the observer. (See this post about being scared to death.) There seems to be something missing from this story. Mrs All versions of this story are as short as this, and as succinct.
Knoxville, Tenn., Dec. 22. A special to The Sentinel from Kingston, Tenn., says Mrs. Martha Jackson went to the home of a neighbor, where lay the dead body of Charles Hood, a youth. She gazed upon the body and fainted, and in a short time was pronounced dead. Montgomery [AL] Advertiser 23 December 1906: p. 5
Jackson’s maiden name was Hood; what was her relation to the youth? Or was there something particularly gruesome about his body? And when the dead body proved not really dead, an ex-corpse could still trigger disaster:
RISES FROM COFFIN
Shock Causes Death of Aged Grandmother.
Butte, Cal., April. 28. While members of the family and relatives were grouped about the open coffin of Mrs. J.R. Burney’s three-year-old son yesterday, listening ot the funeral service, the body moved and presented the child, clad in its shroud, sat up and gazed about the room. His wondering eyes sought those of his grandmother, Mrs. L.P. Smith, 81 years old. The aged woman stared at the child, as if hypnotized. Then she sank into a chair, dead.
As she fell, the child dropped back into his coffin, from which it was quickly snatched by the frantic mother.
A physician, hastily summoned, said there was no hope for the boy and death came a few hours later.
Today there were two coffins in the Burney home. Double services were held and the child and its grandmother were buried side by side. Idaho Register [Idaho Falls, ID] 29 April 1913: p. 2
We have all seen those stories of hunting dogs who paw the trigger, shooting their masters, sometimes fatally. This tale is in a similar vein, but its wide syndication, foreign location, and unnamed victim suggest an urban legend.
Guardsman Killed by Corpse
Geneva, Friday. 4. Killed by a corpse was the fate of a gendarme in a forest near the village of Wildegg. Coming upon the body of a man who had committed suicide, the gendarme found that the right hand still tightly clasped a revolver. When he attempted to release the dead man’s finger from the trigger the weapon was discharged and the bullet pierced his chest. He died in a hospital a few hours later. Greensboro [NC] Record 4 September 1914: p. 1
This next tragic story has unfortunately been echoed by contemporary news stories of wives or children being trapped beneath a loved one’s dead body.
SMOTHERED SLEEPING BABE
Stricken With Apoplexy, Aged Woman Caused Niece’s Death. Wilmington, Del., June 11. During the night Mrs. Rebecca G. Vandegrift, of Middletown, the step-mother of United States District Attorney Lewis C. Vandegrift, was stricken with apoplexy and fell across the bed where her little niece, Ruth Vandegrift Wood, was sleeping, smothering the child.
No one was in that portion of the house at the time and some time this afternoon the members of the family who went to look for Mrs. Vandegrift found that she was dead and the child had also died from suffocation, caused by her aunt falling upon her. Medical aid was summoned, but all in vain.
Mrs. Vandegrift was 73 years old, while the child was but 4. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 12 June 1899: p. 3
Even more horrifying is this story of a true death grip:
KILLED BY A CORPSE.
The Death Grip of a Woman Strangles Her Mother.
Strange Affair that Occurred in a Western Hamlet
An Aged and Feeble Woman’s Terrible Fate
The Awful Discovery Made by Her Elderly Son.
Cincinnati, Dec. 10 One of the strangest affairs occurred last night at Elizabethtown, an insignificant hamlet on the Ohio river, ten miles below this city. The McDole family has lived for years in the most abject poverty. The mother is past 80. Besides her, the family consists of son and daughter, each about 60 years of age. The son [Charles] is a veteran, and greatly enfeebled by wounds received in the war and aggravated by insufficient and indifferent food.
Mother and daughter slept tighter, the mother being very feeble. The daughter was the most robust of the three. The family retired as usual, last night, and the son noticed nothing out of the ordinary, until early this morning, when groans from his mother’s room called him there to witness a blood curdling sight.
During the night the sister had been taken mortally ill. In her despair she had caught her aged mother in her arms and pinioned her tight against her breast. At the same time the mother’s head had been pulled down under the covers and partly bent downward, causing partial suffocation. The horror of the situation had caused her to faint, and while thus unconscious the daughter had died, hugging the mother.
The icy arms had stiffened and the aged victim was held as if in a vise. Help was summoned, but it required the united strength of two men to remove the dead woman’s arms and release the mother, who is so low from the shock and choking she received that it is scarcely probable she can recover. Pittsburgh [PA] Dispatch 11 December 1891: p. 1
As for the pinioned woman, I could find nothing more definitive than “she will live but a few hours.” However, the Cincinnati Post, in an article emphasizing the family’s eccentricity and filth, said that the victim was Mrs. Hetty McDole, age 81, and not the daughter, Martha McKinney, age 60. The coroner announced his intention to investigate the cause of death. [The Cincinnati [OH] Post 10 December 1891: p. 1]
Can anyone verify whether it was mother or daughter who became the killer corpse? Or is the whole thing one of those imaginatively lurid tales so beloved of the nineteenth-century journalist?
chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com who realizes that that last sentence is probably the pot calling the kettle black.
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 hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.