Leeches, Radium, and a Corpse in a Box: Strange Christmas Presents of the Past

A Hindenburg Christmas ornament. http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/15875/lot/1292/

A Hindenburg Christmas ornament. http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/15875/lot/1292/

I wish it to be distinctly understood (said Reginald) that I don’t want a “George, Prince of Wales” Prayer-book as a Christmas present. The fact cannot be too widely known.

“Reginald on Christmas Presents,” by Saki

December is whizzing by and soon Christmas will be at our throats.  One of the less attractive features of the season is the “Holiday Gift Guide,” for which I hope to offer a suitable and more fortean alternative from the pages of history.

It is impossible to turn on the television without seeing air-brushed celebrities throatily murmuring the names of the various “parfums” they are hawking, lingerie-clad angels with impressively cantilevered wings, and young women declaring ecstatically that they feel loved when their young man who went to Jared’s falls on one knee and snaps open a ring box containing something that looks like a bedazzled sea urchin.

It all makes me long for the simpler, old-fashioned Christmases of the past, where children were delighted with an orange or a stick of candy—or possibly a particle of radium.

One of the Christmas fads among the rich in London was making presents to friends of small particles of radium. As the latest quotation on radium is about $1,000,000 a pound it may readily be determined that the average man will have to pull through the winter with mighty little radium in the larder. Arizona Sentinel [Yuma, AZ] 30 December 1903: p. 3


Small Particles of Radium Present by London Women.

There is this to be said of the latest fad of London society women—the giving of small particles of radium as Christmas presents—that none of the recipients can complain of having received a cheap gift. To give radium in this way costs from $10 to $50, the outfit necessary therefore consisting of a “spinthariscope” and a speck of the new metal hardly big enough to be seen with the naked eye.

Sir William Crookes, the English scientists, invented the spinthariscope, which is a kind of microscope through which small quantities of the precious stuff can be examined to better advantage. The spinthariscope sold by a London chemist who has the radium monopoly is about the size of a finger ring case and has an opening for the eye something like that in a child’s kaleidoscope. By taking the apparatus into a darkened room and squinting through the eyehole one can see flashes of constantly varying light shooting in all directions, like miniature fireworks.

The idea of making Christmas gifts of radium has proved uncommonly infectious and the run on the chemist’s stock necessitated hasty communication with the firms in Bavaria and Austria who supply most of the radium that reaches England. Washington Post. Janesville [WI] Daily Gazette 16 December 1904: p. 7

That would, of course, be the Sir William Crookes who held séances with Miss Florence Cook and her winsome spirit-friend, Katie King.

Given the reputation of the British as a nation of eccentrics, perhaps it is only reasonable to expect that some of the presents sent through the Christmas post would be a trifle odd, although one has to wonder why it is assumed that some of these items were being sent as gifts.


Some of the Things Found by the British Dead Letter Office.

During the ten days preceeding Christmas about 190,000 parcels are handled every twenty-four hours by British postoffice officials, or approximately 1,750,000 for the entire ten days during which the rush lasts. The contents of many of the parcels are, to say the least, somewhat curious, says the Pictorial Magazine. A hamper of live leeches, for instance, seems a strange sort of Christmas gift. So does an artificial leg. Yet both of these were among the parcels “treated” last Christmas. Another long coffin-shaped box excited suspicion on account of the odor emanating therefrom. On opening it, however, nothing more dreadful was found than a young alligator in a dormant condition. Another evil-smelling hamper was found to contain no fewer than 300 dead mice, while yet a third inclosed a defunct puppy consigned for postmortem purposes to an eminent surgeon.

Christmas presents of live animals are constantly being sent through the post notwithstanding the fact that the practice is strictly prohibited. …

No longer ago than last Christmas eve a box was intercepted containing 150 live frogs, and a short time before twelve healthy young adders were discovered in an innocent looking hamper which was supposed to contain poultry.

Some of the inclosures are decidedly sarcastic. Of this class was a two foot long cane bearing the endorsement: “A Christmas present for Johnny. For outward application only. To be well rubbed in.” Daily Herald [Biloxi, MS] 15 December 1907: p. 7

One suspects that “Johnny” was a middle-aged barrister rather than a naughty schoolboy.

For the truly perverse child, there were special toys:

Morbid Toys

“We have had morbid, decadent literature for a long time,” said a family man, “but I never expected to see the day of morbid toys.”

“What do you mean by morbid toys?” a bachelor asked.

“Toys dealing not with pleasant, agreeable things, but with things shocking and tragical,” was the reply. “Three morbid toys are numbered among the Christmas presents of my second son.

“The first is a mechanical railroad accident. You wind up a train and set it on a track. Off it goes, but in crossing a bridge an arch collapses, and the train falls, breaking into half a dozen pieces that can be put together again, and scattering passengers and luggage everywhere. An ambulance and stretchers are among the accessories of this railroad accident toy.

“The second is a dolls’ hospital—not a dolls’ house, but a hospital—with little operating tables, little medicine bottles, saws, bandages, splints and what not.

“The third is a toy funeral in a box like a Noah’s ark; but instead of a procession of bright pink cows, green lions, yellow bears and so on, we have here a black procession of little cabs, a hearse and tiny black figures walking two by two. The Minneapolis [MN] Journal 25 December 1906: p. 12

[Incidentally, a fake Lego Funeral Home Play Set has been making the rounds online.]

An exhilarating new thing in toys is a miniature hearse, drawn by four prancing horses, and a little coffin with a doll inside, surrounded by a group of mourning dolls. Next we shall have a gallows and a guillotine. Delaware County Daily Times [Chester, PA] 7 February 1881: p. 1

Mourning dolls, dressed in black, were also a recognized novelty. They are mentioned in an 1877 Godey’s Lady’s Book as an “odd caprice,” and in newspapers from about 1880 to 1892. In 1890, one type of “mourning doll” sold so well in Ohio that stocks were exhausted before Christmas.

The holiday season can be stressful for some, leading to  truly dire and vengeful “gifts.”


Tailor Leaps to Death, Asks That Body Be Sent to Wife.

New York, Dec. 11. After writing a note asking that his body be taken to his home as a “Christmas present” for his wife, Kalman Sneid, a tailor, tonight leaped to his death from the platform of an elevated railway station 110 feet above the ground. The body narrowly missed two women pedestrians.

“Officer, please take my body home to my wife for a  Christmas present,” the police said the note, found in Sneid’s pocket, read. “I told her I would not come home again, and I won’t. She has caused me to live a dog’s life.” Times-Picayune [New Orleans, LA] 12 December 1912: p. 29

One angry widow regifted an unwanted present.


Widow Returned Tombstone Erected by Men Who Sold Her Husband Liquor

Charles Grimm, saloonist, doing business at the corner of West Ninth and Chestnut streets, received a gruesome graveyard Christmas present yesterday, which he does not fully appreciate.

About a year and a half ago William Riden, who had been a character in Chattanooga for years, died supposedly from the effects of drink. Prior to his death Mrs. Mary Riden, his wife, according to a State law, filed written notice with a number of local saloon men warning them to sell Riden no more liquor. It is stated that several Saloonists persisted in selling the liquor after this legal notice had been served on them. Riden died and the widow sued Grimm Brothers for $10,000 damages, alleging that they sold her husband liquor contrary to the law. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court and there decided in favour of the widow.

During the trial of the lawsuit Grimm Brothers erected a tombstone over the grave of the dead man. Last week Mrs. Riden conceived the idea of returning the tombstone as a Christmas present to the Saloonists. She sent a man with a wagon to the cemetery, and he brought the stone to the city, where she had it wrapped in paper and during Saturday night deposited in Grimm’s front yard, accompanied by a note in which Mrs. Riden expressed the desire that the tombstone be altered so as to make it appropriate to be erected over the head of the grave of Charles Grimm after his death. The presentation has caused a sensation among those persons who were familiar with the details. Just what Mr. Grimm will do with the tombstone is hard to say. The Times [Philadelphia, PA] 27 December 1898: p. 7

Body parts were the perfect gift for the medical man. I will not make the expected joke about “He wanted to get a head.”


State Examiner Receives Grewsome Christmas Gift by Mail.

Cincinnati, O., December 22. A human skull, enclosed in a box and neatly wrapped in tissue paper, was the Christmas present received here today by State Examiner C.E. Brotten, who is in this city to examine county offices. The skull showed marks upon it and a bullet hole in the top of it. The package was mailed form Canton, O. Brotten thinks it was sent as a practical joke. [???] Cleveland [OH] Leader 23 December 1911: p. 1

Although they were less welcome if they went astray in the mail.


Doctor’s Freight Delivered at Wrong Place

Body He Had Procured at a Medical College for Dissection Sent to Farmer’s Young Sons.

Crawfordville, Ind., Dec. 27.

Citizens in and about Bowers, a small place near this city, are greatly excited because of a ghastly Christmas box sent to Charles Campbell, a farmer. Campbell has been on a visit in Dakota for some weeks and before he left home he instructed his two small boys to open a Christmas box he expected to send them. On Christmas day a box was delivered at Campbell’s home. His sons opened it and were horrified to find it contained the body of a woman. The limbs and arms had been severed close to the body to allow the ghastly object to be crowded into the box. The body was taken from the box and hung up in the barn where it was viewed by scores of people. [The obvious choice of what to do with a spare dismembered corpse.] As soon as the health officers heard of it they ordered the body cut down pending an investigation.

It was soon learned that the body belonged to Dr. Campbell of Lafayette, who procured it at the medical college at Indianapolis and was shipping it home for dissection. He was able to convince the officials that everything was regular. Dr. Campbell secured the body and took it to Lafayette. The Billings [MT] Gazette 31 December 1901: p.2

I’ve previously written about “coffin threats” in this blog and “crape threats” in The Victorian Book of the Dead. There was also the “shroud threat,” which in this case, ended tragically.

Christmas Gift Was a Shroud—Caused Death.

Louisville, Ky., Dec. 27. A most gruesome Christmas joke and one that turned out fatally was perpetrated Sunday night by some person unknown, on Benjamin Moelmann, aged 17, who lives with his parents at Hancock and Madison streets.

Young Moelmann has been afflicted with heart trouble, and for the last two weeks has been seriously ill. Sunday night about 7 o’clock there came a ring at the door-bell, and when a servant answered no one was to be seen. A neatly done-up package was found immediately in front of the door. It was addressed to “Benjamin Moelmann,” and was delivered by the servant to him.

Some of the members of the family crowded around to see what had been sent. Young Moelmann opened the package, every line of his face showing happy anticipation. In a minute this was changed to gloom, for the package contained a complete shroud and with it a Christmas card bearing the words:

“A bright and merry Christmas.”

The shock proved too much for young Moelmann. He died 18 hours later. No clew as to the identity of the sender has been found. The Hartford [KY] Herald 3 January 1906: p. 1


It is a Perfect Fit and the Unknown Giver Says “It Should Be Used at Once”

Naylor Can Find No Humor in the Strange Affair, and Will have It Investigated.

Duluth, Minn. Dec. 26. E.L. Naylor of Bemidji received a gruesome Christmas present. It was a coffin and a measurement of it discloses the fact that it is a perfect fit.

It was shipped to him by express from Fergus Falls, and Mr. Naylor does not know whether the coffin was a joke or carries with it a covert threat of some unknown enemy. On the outside of the box was a card with the following inscription: “Perishable; should be used at once.”

Within was another card on which was written the compliments of the season, and the donor expressed the hope that this day, probably meaning Christmas, will be the recipient’s last.

Mr. Naylor is at a loss to explain the motive for the repulsive gift. Tho he does not connect it with any intended malice, he is nevertheless nervous and intends to investigate the matter fully.

If Mr. Naylor’s endeavour to detect the identity of the sender and discover the latter’s purpose in casting a pall over his Christmas observance is unsuccessful, it is probable that the authorities will begin an investigation. The Minneapolis [MN] Journal 26 December 1904: p. 10


Washington, Jan. 7 A miniature coffin is not considered an acceptable Christmas gift for a young lady nor an attractive addition to Christmas tree decorations, according to the Rev. Harry Spencer, pastor of the Congress Heights Methodist Episcopal church, who today swore out a warrant for the arrest of Byron Sutherland.

Mr. Sutherland is charged with breaking up the recent Sunday School Christmas tree party by mixing in with the other gifts this gruesome donation, which, it is alleged, he had addressed to Miss Elizabeth Spalding, a pretty teacher in the Sunday school.

Sutherland denied that he was the sender, but Mr. Spencer has the word of the messenger who brought it to the church.

Miss Spalding unwrapped a large package which had the appearance of being a dozen long-stemmed roses, but, instead of roses, a two-foot coffin greeted her eye. When she lifted the cover a rubber doll leaped out. Columbus [GA] Daily Enquirer 8 January 1911: p. 5

Mrs Daffodil recently reported on Christmas tat easily made from common household items. The “fluffiness” and impracticality of feminine handicrafts was frequently complained of by male recipients.

An Odd Gift for a Man.

A Christmas present has usually a suggestion of beauty, comfort or daintiness about it, but a skull brush broom holder can boast of none of these qualities. It was made for a college man by his sister. The cardboard was cut in the exact shape of a skull and then covered with a coat of white paint. The teeth the young woman considered a work of art. A piece of cardboard covered with white kid was fastened to either side of the skull in the back, and between this and the skull the brush broom was held. The broom had an ivory handle. The young woman who originated this novel holder did so because her brother insisted that the only Christmas presents she knew how to make were “fluffy, soft perfumery things that were no earthly good.” Daily Illinois State Journal [Springfield, IL] 14 December 1896: p. 7

Having shopped at various dollar store chains, I am never surprised by useless objects. But sometimes you just have to wonder what the donor was thinking.

Captain Holman G. Purinton of St. Bernard Commandery No. 35, K.T., yesterday started on its way to California, a most extraordinary Christmas gift for Sir Knight George D. Metcalf, Commandant of Oakland Commandery Drill Corps…The gift to Mr. Metcalf consists of an ink stand, the remarkable feature of which is the pen-holder rack, which is made of the feet and legs of a rooster of most formidable aspect. Upon each of the feet are three spurs, each one of which is two and one half inches in length, the fourth spur having made its appearance. The base of the stand is made of polished cherry, and the rooster’s feet are dyed the same color and polished. Daily Inter Ocean [Chicago, IL] 21 December 1887: p. 7

Novel Christmas Present

Virden, Ill., Dec. 27. Mrs. J.C. Holderson received from her brother-in-law, Jay Worden, in Washington, D.C., a very curious Christmas present. The present was a gavel made from the tooth of a mastodon found in the Artic regions. The teeth were found and the gavel made by the Esquimos, and was purchased from them by Mr. Worden. It has the appearance of great antiquity. Daily Illinois State Register [Springfield, IL] 28 December 1905: p. 2

Some presents were obviously designed to flatter the recipients:


Among the curious Christmas presents of this year will be one for a man of national reputation, which has been all year in the making.

Way last January the present was decided upon, and a friend of the well-known gentleman requested the Burrelle press clipping bureau of New York to watch every paper in America and to take up every item which appeared concerning the man. The clipping bureau people followed instructions, and now present the history of one year in the life of this especial man.

The history ends just after election, and the 20,642 newspaper items found, include everything from a three line editorial mention to full page illustrated stories. These have been mounted on 3,200 great sheets of Irish linen paper and bound into three massive volumes.

At the head of each item is the name and date of paper clipped from, this information having been put in with a book typewriter. The words thus inserted, amounted to 153,852.

In actual time, a very strict record of which has been kept, the work has required 64 working days throughout the year and has kept in employment during that time 30 people, as readers, clippers, sorters, mounters and binders. Every newspaper of importance is represented. [The rest of the article is a puff for the Burrelle Bureau.] Riverside [CA] Daily Press 11 November 1908: p. 7

Inquiring minds want to know the identity of this well-documented gentleman of national reputation!

A story is told of a professor of mathematics in an Illinois college, who is noted for his devotion to his profession and also for his eccentricity. Desiring to make a favourite pupil a Christmas present, he sent him a very difficult problem to solve. He liked nothing better than the disentanglement of a knotty mathematic puzzle, and took it for granted that his pupil would be delighted with his present. The North Platte [NE] Semi-Weekly Tribune 17 January 1902: p. 6

While others seemed calculated to embarrass.

A strange Christmas gift…was sent last month to a certain maiden lady.

The gift was sent to her by her nephew, and afterward he described it thus:

“At first I could not think of anything to give Aunt Mary for Christmas, and then, suddenly, I remember that she was an old maid, wholly unacquainted with the grand passion, and so, in order to give her an unique pleasure, I sent her an anonymous love letter.” Idaho Statesman [Boise, ID] 25 February 1906: p. 14

What a Chesterown, Ind., Citizen Found on his Doorstep.

Valparaiso, Ind., Dec. 23. The town of Chestertown, this county, is excited over the novel Christmas present received by one of the prominent businessmen of that town. Ira B. Tillotson, a bachelor, on going to his place of business this morning found a basket in his door, to which was a card bearing the inscription, “A Christmas present.” Inside the basket was a pair of red-haired twin babies, about a month old. Tillotson concluded to take care of the youngsters, and sent them in the country to his mother’s. Kansas City [MO] Times 24 December 1893: p. 4

Two years later,  inspired by a revival service, Tillotson quit his saloon-keeping business and became a travelling temperance evangelist. One wonders what became of the twins.

And finally, a truly useful gift, given with unalloyed generosity, in the true spirit of the season.


Curious Christmas Present To a Printer’s Devil.

Lockport, N.Y. Dec. 21 Nicholas Donner, a “printer’s devil” in the composing room of a local newspaper, will receive an unusual Christmas present tomorrow.

To save Nicholas’ life, Ralph Goble, a reporter; Alfred J. Clark, a compositor; Harry G. Few and Benjamin Lovell, pressmen of the newspaper, will submit themselves to a surgeon’s knife, permitting the doctor to take 20 pieces of skin from each to graft on the boy’s body.

Donner, who is 16 years old, was lighting a gasoline stove three months ago in the metal room of a newspaper establishment when the vapour exploded. His grease-soaked clothing got afire and he ran into the composing room a living torch.

William Robinson, a linotype operator, clapped one hand over “Nick’s” mouth, so that he could not inhale the flames, and with the other hand beat down the flames. Robinson was badly burned and was laid up three weeks, but “Nick,” the pet of the establishment, was saved.

The lad’s arms, legs and face were badly burned, for weeks he could not sleep, except under the influence of opiates. The newspaper men attended “Nick” and told him stories to make him forget his torture. Dr. Ferdinand A. Kittinger recently announced that “Nick” was doing well, except that several bad places refused to heal. The Doctor wished to get healthy skin to graft on the stubborn wounds. The four young men then volunteered to furnish the required cuticle. Sun [Baltimore, MD] 22 December 1902: p. 2

Young Nicholas received over 80 pieces of grafted skin. He seems to have survived until 1922.

Any additions to this holiday gift guide? Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com. The fact cannot be too widely known that anyone who tries to give me fruitcake will be buried with a stake of holly through his heart.

Chris Woodyard is the author of A is for Arsenic: An ABC of Victorian Death,  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.

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