The Consumption Letters: Decomposing Correspondence
Today we return to the theme of ghostly odors with a piece on what might be called dead letters in a very literal sense. The author, Dr. George B. Richmond, a physician, suggests one of the stranger theories I’ve run across in the Spiritualist literature.
About the most mysterious occurrences that have been reduced to a science, of late, are your experiments in psychometry or reading character from the autographs of persons living or dead. How a person should divine the fact that a certain writer is dead, while the autograph is sealed up and unseen by the person holding it, has always been a mysterious matter to ourself till of late. Recently, occurrences have convinced me that while writing a letter, the paper imbibes the nerve-aura of our bodies from the hand, and that aura or vapor is subject to decomposition like all matter. When it decays, the subject who holds it, gets the death impression from that decaying vapor. I append one fact on this point. I have been long in the habit of filing my letters and laying them aside in bundles. A trunk of black walnut had been used by me for that purpose: painted outside, and planed inside. The wood was perfectly dry, and has been kept in my house for fifteen years. Into this trunk I had put some hundreds of letters, tied up in bundles of fifteen or twenty. More than a year since, the trunk, on being opened, emitted a most offensive odor. This fact was observed for more than a year at every opening of the trunk. During the year, in studying mental phenomena, I had become painfully aware that letters written to me by friends, produced dreams in my sleep, long before they reached me, and I began to study the effect of letters on living persons more closely. Finally I opened the aforesaid trunk of letters that had now come to attract my attention more than ever. When opened, it an offensive vapor was intolerable; so much so, that every one in the house could smell the odor that arose from it. On examination I found letters to the number of sixty from persons who were dead. Some had been dead five, others six, and some ten years, others not so long. Among these persons were Dr. Parker, who died at Prof. Gatchell’s some five years since, who was for a time a student with me. A number from Dr. L. K. Rosa, of Painesville. Forty or more letters were from my wife, dead five years. Some from her sister, and a number from my own sister who died of consumption. Most of them died of this disease: others died of fever, cholera, and various other diseases.
This aura from the letters of those longest dead was intolerable, and I began to think that these letters were charged with a vapor from the body of the writer, and aa the writer’s body began to decay, this vapor being impressed with the law of that particular body, follows in the decomposition; and in this ease the number of letters aided in the production of the death scent.
In some of the letters from my wife, written twenty years since, were small slips of fine silk paper, and some pieces of birch bark, thin as silk, printed perfectly full, and from these bits of paper this vapor was discernable. I send you one of the letters and slips also. It is known to be a fact that a letter from the hand of a person sick with small-pox will transmit the disease for years after it is written. A slip of ribbon from the wallet of a person sick with small-pox was tied around a child’s neck, and the disease was transmitted to her and went through a whole neighborhood. It would appear from such facts, that matter transmitted to a letter, by a consumptive person, might, when its particles were undergoing decomposition, transmit the disease to a friend: or especially one who had lived in personal intimacy with, and imbibed the vapor of the breath and body of the sick person. Twenty years’ observation among hundreds of consumptives, has satisfied me that they often communicate the disease to each other. I have often observed that in families, where consumptives exist, persons of the same temperament are almost sure to take on the same condition. Not unfrequently these four, five or ten persons given to the disease, all drop off in a few months of each other.
In some three cases I have known the wife to die in just a year from the death of her husband: two cases occurred in one family. The above cases are miasmatic, the one imbibing the disease from the other. All matter has a diurnal and annual law attached to it; as in miasmatic districts, persons who have an ague are attacked in the same hour of the day; or an hour later or earlier: the paroxysms following in regular daily occurrence as to hours: and also the same patient has the same disease at the same time the next season. This will explain why a person dying of miasmatic or consumptive disease, will draw another into the same state, the second system having imbibed the same disease, from the vapor of his or her body; and it may act in just a year, the imbibed matter following out the annual law of its action.
How far letters from persons dead, might predispose a sympathetic nature to the same disease, I cannot say; but I know enough to satisfy me that where great numbers are together they may become decidedly unwholesome. I committed the mass of mine to the flames. Where such masses of the bodies’ aura collects as in hospitals, and water-cures, the rooms should be washed frequently with water of chloride of lime, in a strong solution of common salt. No water-cure should have a single room papered; the walls should be left naked, for washing and cleaning. There must collect in such places as many stinks as Coleridge smelt in Venice: “Many smells and seventy well defined stinks.”
Buchanan’s Journal of Man Vol. 5, Joseph Rodes Buchanan 15 February 1855: pp. 34-35
In the same issue, the editor took Occam’s Razor to Dr. Richmond’s theory, while still admitting that there might be something in it.
The testament of Dr.[B.W.] Richmond in reference to a death-scent in autographs of the dead, appears rather marvelous and incredible. It is much easier to suppose that old paper may acquire a mouldy, decaying, or putrid smell, than that such a smell should be originated by the spiritual or nenous connexion of the writer’s body with the manuscript. Nevertheless this is a mere question of fact, and although I cannot realize any such death-scent by my own senses, an intimate female friend whose smell is wonderfully acute, has long maintained that she could recognize this peculiar smell and influence, not only in the manuscripts of deceased persons, but still more decidedly in their clothing even after repeated washing. Whether her opinions were free from imaginative deception, I had not determined by any test experiments, but the spontaneous testimony of Dr. Richmond, goes far to establish the facts by corroboration. However, the perception of death by the psychometer is not based upon any exercise of the sense of smell.
Buchanan’s Journal of Man Vol. 5, Joseph Rodes Buchanan 15 February 1855: pp. 43-44
There is a parallel belief that the clothing of the living should never be used to dress the dead. As the corpse decays, the person whose clothing was used will sicken and eventually die. There is also a belief that photographs of the living should not be put into coffins lest their subjects also fall ill.
Dr Richmond obviously accepted the miasma theory of disease, although I’m not sure how that fit in with the fact that smallpox actually could be transmitted through paper. He has also got some ideas about “like temperament infects like,” and throws in a mention of water-cure for good measure. A gentleman of the eclectic school, no doubt.
Other stories of dead letters, particularly ones imbued with the Scent of Death? chriswoodyard 8 AT gmail.com
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 newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.