I have a penchant for cabinets of curiosities and reliquary chapels. Let me put in a plug for one such cabinet of secular relics: “The Museum Time Forgot”– The Mansfield Memorial Museum, in Mansfield, Ohio, on the second floor of the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Building. It was the brain-child of Mr. Edward Wilkinson, a tinner by trade and one of those self-taught, working-man naturalists the Victorian era produced in such abundance. He was trained as a geologist and in the late 1860s to the mid-1870s, he traveled as an “acquisitioner”—a specimen collector for the Smithsonian Institution. Wilkinson was recognized as the pre-eminent naturalist of the Midwest and he created an astonishing museum. It was wildly popular in the 1890s and when Wilkinson died in 1918, a local scoutmaster marshaled volunteers to keep the museum open until 1955 when it was closed.
This was a blessing for curio-lovers. If the museum had been kept open, modern curators might have swept away its collection of wonders. It is a true Wunderkammer. You’ll find a rainbow of stuffed birds, antique furniture, a memorial wreath for President Garfield, a bare tree trunk labeled “planted by Johnny Appleseed,” the lower jaw of a tiger owned by P.T. Barnum, Philippine beheading swords, a velocipede sharing a case with a moth-eaten parrot “27 years old at the time of death” and sheets of 1846 wallpaper. Or perhaps more to your taste will be a plait of hair labeled in Wilkinson’s hand: “relic of Johnstown flood,” stockings from the Revolutionary War, a pike made by John Brown for the Harper’s Ferry uprising. Zulu spears, a drum head taken from the Gettysburg battlefield, and Elektro, the 1939 robot. These marvels and more are all displayed in their original antique cases. You can find the story of the museum and its ghosts in Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Haunted Ohio.
I understand this impulse to save the Odd. I understand Victorian baby teeth made into lily-of-the-valley brooches; the bloody clothing of the Sture men kept as a memorial after their murder by King Erik Vasa; the layette of a dead baby packed away in lavender. I have the contents of my Great-Grandfather’s pockets from the day he died at Black Hill near Mansfield, Ohio while working on the Erie line. So today, in the random order of a cabinet of curiosities, you will find similar “secular relics:” mementoes of war, crime, love, and death.
Capt. Blake was engaged at the battle of Preston Pans, and, being wounded in the head by a Lochaber axe, his head was trepanned, and his daughter subsequently wore, set in diamonds, a portion of the bone of his scull, which was then extracted. The Gentleman’s Magazine 1840: p. 215
In a previous entry, I wrote of hangmen’s ropes in the press and the interest the public took in the details of these macabre objects. I can’t resist adding one more rope with a lengthy tally of victims.
A GHASTLY RELIC
Another ghastly relic has been added to the collection at the office of the Secretary of the Police Board. It is the rope with which 18 criminals have been hanged in Ohio. It was manufactured expressly for Dr. Hughes, who was the first to test its strength in this county. It was afterward stretched by Davis, McConnell, Cooper, Hood and Aden, who was the last one to dangle at its end, a new rope being manufactured for McGill. The rope has been borrowed by Akron, Kenton, Youngstown, Columbus, and other towns. It is three-fourths of an inch wide, of hemp, and is strengthened by braiding a small tarred strand of hemp in the crevices left by the large strands. Summit County Beacon [Akron, OH] 21 April 1880: p. 1
As a collector of textiles, I’m pleased when fabric outlasts flesh. Silk, which is basically protein, does not readily decay; garments 2,200 years old have been found in Chinese graves.
VERY RARE KEEP-SAKE
Benjamin Kaeser of this city has in his possession a very rare memento of his father, Joseph Kaeser, who died 43 years ago. The memento is a silk handkerchief which was buried with Joseph Kaeser 43 years ago and which was exhumed on Thursday morning. The remains of Mr. Kaeser, when the grave was dug up on Thursday at Ward Station, consisted only of bones. The handkerchief, which had been placed about the neck of the deceased, was, however, in a fine state of preservation and will be treasured by Mr. Kaeser. The remains were reinterred in the cemetery at Shiloh. Belleville [IL] News Democrat 14 May 1908: p. 1
Locks of hair be damned! An even better lover’s keepsake: an appendix. Oddly, this next squib appeared in a lengthy article about Mr. and Mrs. Love’s acrimonious divorce.
[Sidney C.] Love was left with only one memento of the happy days which had preceded his wife’s coming into her inheritance—Mrs. Love’s appendix. He had preserved the appendix and carried it in a gold case attached to his watch chain. “Latest press dispatches concerning Love, sent from Seattle with the announcement that he had built up a second fortune, mentioned the appendix watch charm and told that Love still displayed it to sympathetic friends,” says the Chicago News. Kansas City [MO] Star 26 January 1920: p. 7
Another story, from 1922, told of a man who had his appendix gold-plated and wore it as a watch fob.
To this gentleman, graves were sacrosanct only when they were those of American soldiers or, perhaps, already opened:
Frank G. Kelly, formerly social secretary of the Young Men’s Christian Association, who recently returned from France, where he spent more than year in the United States graves registration service, brought back a strange memento.
“The Germans, when they were in possession of Chateau-Thierry,” said Mr. Kelly, “broke into a crypt in which a French king [Theodoric IV?], his queen and his child had been buried for 1,200 years. They were evidently in search of gold ornaments or jewelry that may have been buried with the old monarch. While searching for bodies of American soldiers that might have escaped burial parties, I ran across the crypt and picked up one of the king’s vertebrae.”
This piece of his majesty’s backbone is the memento brought home by Mr. Kelly. Bellingham [WA] Herald 11 February 1922: p. 4
While Mythbusters may have deemed the story of Civil War bullets hitting in mid-air “plausible but incredibly unlikely,” here’s a relic of an actual event.
A Curious Memento of the War. A gentleman of this city a day or two ago, while walking over the battle-gound of the Crater, picked up a curious and interesting relic of that famous and hotly contested field. It was two minnie balls flattened and imbedded in each other. One of them was Federal and the other a Confederate ball, and on being fired from opposite directions, they had struck squarely against each other, and became embedded one in the other, forming as it were a ring of lead, with the balls projecting on either side, and retaining sufficient traces to distinguish the side to which they belonged. Petersburg Index. San Francisco [CA] Bulletin 24 February 1877: p. 4
I’ve run across many stories of bullets and weapons preserved from the War of 1812. This story tells of an historic relic from 1812 given in the same spirit that a rope of South Carolina hemp was created in Massachusetts to hang Jefferson Davis.
The Right Spirit A patriotic lady of Savannah has sent to the Republican a large package of bullets, the history of which is somewhat curious. They were moulded by her husband in the war of 1812 to be used against the British, and have been kept as a relic in the family from that day until now. She freely gives them up to be used against the Yankees, with the prayer that each one may make the enemies of her country less. Charleston [SC] Courier 23 September 1862: p. 1
The practice in the following story is called Anthropodermic bibliopegy and whole websites are devoted to the subject. Usually the donation of skin is involuntary rather than a token of esteem.
A Ghastly Story.
A rather ghastly story is told regarding a French Countess, a friend of Camille Flammarion, the astronomer. On one occasion, observing her in evening dress, he frankly expressed admiration of her beautiful shoulders. When she died, in accordance with her directions, enough skin to bind a book was removed from this part of her person and sent to Flammarion, with a note gracefully asking him to use it as a cover for a volume of the next work he should publish. It is said that after a skillful tanner had been employed to prepare this strange memento it was actually devoted to the use prescribed, and upon the cover was inscribed in gilt letters, “Souvenir d’une morte.” Morning Star [Rockford, IL] 21 February 1893: p. 2
While the tale that follows is actually a fictional story: “The Blank Page,” by Isak Dinesen, meant as an allegory on writing, the odd relic lover in me thinks, “this is actually plausible” and longs for it to be true. Any one know whether Dinesen based her story on a real place? Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Dinesen’s narrator starts by describing how the Convento Velho, a Carmelite monastery in Portugal, made wonderfully fine linen—so fine that it was used for the bridal sheets of all Portuguese princesses.
“in the county of Portugal in very old and noble families a venerable custom has been observed. On the morning after the wedding of a daughter of the house, and before the morning gift had yet been handed over, the Chamberlain or High Steward from a balcony of the palace would hang out the sheet of the night and would solemnly proclaim: Virginem eam tenemus “we declare her to have been a virgin.” Such a sheet was never afterwards washed or again lain on.
This time-honored custom was nowhere more strictly upheld than within the royal house itself, and it has there subsisted till within living memory.
Now for many hundred years the convent in the mountain, in appreciation of the excellent quality of the linen delivered, has held its second high privilege: that of receiving back that central piece of the snow-white sheet which bore witness to the honor of a royal bride.
In the tall main wing of the convent, which overlooks an immense landscape of hills and valleys, there is a long gallery with a black-and-white marble floor. On the walls of the gallery, side by side, hangs a long row of heavy, gilt frames, each of them adorned with a coroneted plate of pure gold, on which is engraved the name of a princess: Donna Christina, Donna Ines, Donna Jacintha, Lenora, Donna Maria. And each of these frames encloses a square cut from a royal wedding sheet.
Within the faded markings of the canvases people of some imagination and sensibility may read all the signs of the zodiac; the Scales, the Scorpion, the Lion, the Twins. Or they may there find pictures from their own world of ideas: a rose, a heart, a sword—or even a heart pierced through with a sword.”
The narrator further tells of a visit to the convent’s gallery by an aged lady, a former maid-of-honor to a princess.
“But in the midst of the long row there hangs a canvas which differs from the others. The frame of it as as fine and as heavy as any, and as proudly as any carries the golden plate with the royal crown. But on this one plate no name is inscribed, and the linen within the frame is snow-white from corner to corner, a blank page.” “The Blank Page,” Last Tales, Isak Dinesen
The Baron’s Romantic Pillow.
A sentimental French Baron sleeps every night upon a pillow filled with the hair of all the most lovely women in the world. He has paid as much as 5 francs for a single hair, to insure himself against the fearful calamity of having a hair from the head of a plain girl creep into the collection. It must be dreams of fair women that come each night to the gallant nobleman. Evansville [IN] Courier and Press 27 February 1891: p. 3
I wonder what type of hair that pillow really contained; my evil mind immediately recalled the wig made of the pubic hair of King Charles II’s mistresses.
The uxorious and maritorious often have trouble letting go:
Singular Relic. On the death of M. Malot, a lawyer and magistrate of Avallon, France, the body of his wife, embalmed and well preserved, was discovered in a secret chest in his study, in which he had kept it for five and twenty years. The two bodies were consigned to one grave. Macon [GA] Weekly Telegraph 13 November 1827: p. 1
There is a man in Philadelphia who will sell a wooden leg cheaply. It belonged to his wife’s first husband. She kept it as a memento of the departed, displaying it in a prominent place in the parlor. As might have been expected, however, it was banished when she married the second time, but when the ardor of the honeymoon began to diminish she restored the leg to its old position. The husband’s objections have failed to remove what to him is a disagreeable object, but he thinks that a fair pecuniary offer for the appendage would tempt the quondam widow to part with it. Daily Herald [Biloxi, MS] 27 May 1900: p. 2
That wooden leg story reminded me of this gem from Augustus Hare:
“‘There was, and there is still, living in Cadogan Place, a lady of middle age, who is clever, charming, amiable, even handsome, but who has the misfortune of having — a wooden leg. Daily, for many years, she was accustomed to amble every morning on her wooden leg down Cadogan Place, and to take the air in the Park. It was her principal enjoyment.
“One day she discovered that in these walks she was constantly followed by a gentleman. When she turned, he turned: where she went, he went: it was most disagreeable. She determined to put an end to it by staying at home, and for some days she did not go out at all. But she missed her walks in the Park very much, and after a time she thought her follower must have forgotten all about her, and she went out as before. The same gentleman was waiting, he followed her, and at length suddenly came up to her in the Park and presented her with a letter. He said that, as a stranger, he must apologise for speaking to her, but that he must implore her to take the letter, and read it when she got home: it was of great importance. She took the letter, and when she got home she read it, and found that it contained a violent declaration of love and a proposal of marriage. She was perfectly furious. She desired her lawyer to enclose the letter to the writer, and say that she could not find words to describe her sense of his ungentlemanly conduct, especially cruel to one afflicted as she was with a wooden leg.
“Several years elapsed, and the lady was paying a visit to some friends in the country, when the conversation frequently turned upon a friend of the house who was described as one of the most charming, generous, and beneficent of mankind. So delightful was the description, that the lady was quite anxious to see the original, and was enchanted when she heard that he was likely to come to the house. But when he arrived, she recognised with consternation her admirer of the Park. He did not, however, recur to their former meeting, and, after a time, when she knew him well, she grew to esteem him exceedingly, and at last, when he renewed his proposal after an intimate acquaintance, she accepted him and married him.
“‘ He took her to his country-house, and for six weeks they were entirely, uncloudedly happy. Then there came a day upon which he announced that he was obliged to go up to London on business. His wife could not go with him because the house in Cadogan Place was dismantled for the summer. “I should regret this more,” he said, “but that where two lives are so completely, so entirely united as ours are, there ought to be the most absolute confidence on either side. Therefore, while I am away, I shall leave you my keys. Open my desk, read all my letters and journals, make yourself mistress of my whole life. Above all,” he said,” there is one cupboard in my dressing-room which contains certain memorials of my past peculiarly sacred to me, which I should like you to make yourself acquainted with.” The wife heard with concern of her husband’s intended absence, but she was considerably buoyed up under the idea of the three days in which they were to be separated by the thought of the very interesting time she would have. She saw her husband off from the door, and as soon as she heard the wheels of his carriage die away in the distance, she clattered away as fast as she could upon her wooden leg to the dressing room, and in a minute she was down on all fours before the cupboard he had described.
“She unlocked the cupboard. It contained two shelves. On each shelf was a long narrow parcel sewn up in canvas. She felt a tremor of horror as she looked at them, she did not know why. She lifted down the first parcel, and it had a label on the outside. She trembled so she could scarcely read it. It was inscribed — ‘In memory of my dear wife Elizabeth Anne, who died on the 24th of August 1864.’ With quivering fingers she sought for a pair of scissors and ripped open the canvas, and it contained — a wooden leg!
“With indescribable horror she lifted down the other parcel, of the same form and size. It also bore a label — ‘In memory of my dearest wife Wilhelmine, who died on the 6th of March, 1869,’ and she opened it, and it contained — another wooden leg!
“Instantly she rose from her knees. ‘It is evident,” she said,’ that I am married to a Blue Beard — a monster who collects wooden legs. This is not the time for sentiment, this is the time for action,’ and she swept her jewels and some miniatures that she had into a handbag and she clattered away on her own wooden leg by the back shrubberies to the highroad —and there she saw the butcher’s cart passing, and she hailed it, and was driven by the butcher to the nearest station, where she just caught the next train to London, intending to make good her escape that night to France and to leave no trace behind her.
“But she had not consulted Bradshaw, and she found she had some hours to wait in London before the tidal train started. Then she could not resist employing them in going to reproach the people at whose house she had met her husband, and she told them what she had found. To her amazement they were not the least surprised. “’Yes,’ they said, ‘yes, we thought he ought to have told you: we do not wonder you were astonished. Yes, indeed, we knew dear Elizabeth Anne very well; she was indeed a most delightful person, the most perfect of women and of wives, and when she was taken away, the whole light seemed blotted out of Arthur’s life, the change was so very terrible. We thought he would never rally his spirits again; but then, after two years, he met dearest Wilhelmine, to whom he was first attracted by her having the same affliction which was characteristic of her predecessor. And Wilhelmine was perhaps even a more charming person than Elizabeth Anne, and made her husband’s life uncloudedly happy. But she too was, alas! early snatched away, and then it was as if the whole world was cut from under Arthur’s feet, until at last he met you, with the same peculiarity which was endeared to him by two lost and loved ones, and we believe that with you he has been even more entirely, more uncloudedly happy than he was either with Wilhelmine or Elizabeth Anne.’
“And the wife was so charmed by what she heard, that it gave quite a new aspect to affairs. She went home by the next train. She was there when her husband returned; and ever since they have lived perfectly happily between his house in the country and hers in Cadogan Place.”
“Mrs. De Bunsen said that a cousin of hers was repeating this story when dining at the Balfours’. Suddenly he saw that his host and hostess were both telegraphing frantic signals to him, and by a great effort he turned it off. The lady of the wooden leg and her husband were both amongst the guests.” The Story of My Life, Vol. 3, Augustus Hare, 1901
Happy collecting, all!
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. And visit her new blog at The Victorian Book of the Dead.