Haunted dolls have been much in the news of late, going so far as to achieve broadcasting respectability via a story on National Public Radio. This marvel led to a brief discussion on Twitter about Cabbage Patch Dolls as a Tool of Satan and the moral panic inspired by Garbage Patch Kids cards.
I made the mistake of introducing the subject of “Reborn” dolls. Sadly, they are sometimes used as therapy dolls for women who have lost a child, cannot have a child, or long for a baby to cradle after their children are grown up. They are designed with great care to look like newborn infants or even premature babies. Nurseries are fitted out and layettes bought. The dolls are carried in slings or carriages, attended as carefully as if they were living beings, like one of those clockwork dolls that cry at random, given to teenagers to care for in an effort to curb teen pregnancies. One sees their owners at doll shows gently bouncing blanket-wrapped bundles or patting a still vinyl figure inside a Snugli™. The practice hovers somewhere in the shadow-land between unspeakable tragedy and obsession.
The idea is not a new one. There is a certain amount of loose talk in doll collector circles about “mourning dolls,” made in the image of a lost child, supposedly using their real hair and teeth. While funeral effigies were sometimes made for infants of aristocratic houses and images of the sleeping Infant Jesus were a popular devotional object, primary source documentation on “mourning dolls” is—to the best of my knowledge—lacking. However, doctors of the past sometimes prescribed dolls for women deranged by the loss of a child.
Tragedy of a Wax Doll.
(London Cor. Chicago Inter Ocean.)
A pitiful tragedy has ended with the death of Mme. Magdon, a mad woman, who a year ago lost her infant son through illness.
After her bereavement, she lay for some months between life and death. Nursed back to strength, she wandered continually through the house calling for her child. A doctor pronounced her insane and suggested to her husband that he should place a doll in the empty cradle in the hope that the woman would devote her affection to it.
A large wax doll was bought, clothed in the dead child’s garments, and placed in the cradle. The bereaved mother found it, believed it to be her lost son and was passionately devoted to it. She took it out for an airing every day, dressed it, and undressed it, and would hold it in her arms for hours together.
Usually her husband accompanied her when she took the doll out, but he was unable one day to return home at the usual time, and Mme. Magdon, wheeling a perambulator with the doll in it, went out alone.
As she crossed the Square Parmentier a van collided with the perambulator, which was upset. The doll fell out and was crushed by the wheels of the van. The woman gave a cry of shrill despair and flung herself to the ground in an effort to save her “child.” The wheels passed over her breast and she died without recovering consciousness. Flint [MI] Journal 18 October 1907: p. 9
Seen in this context, this story about a childless couple who “adopt” a doll—said to be true by its author—seems entirely plausible.
If this story, dear reader, were the work of my imagination, I should hesitate to write it. It would seem too improbable with its mixture of tragic and ludicrous, but I can assure you that, as far as the facts relating to Ana’s doll go, it is entirely true.
Ana was once in the service of a friend of mine, and her present position, her house and husband, are as I represent them. If I have failed to do justice to any one, it is to the doll, whose beauty great judges declare to have been indescribable. But Ana had no doll when this story begins. She was a rosy cheeked girl with flaxen braids wound about her head, and big blue eyes that still seemed staring at the world with infantile astonishment. She was but seventeen, but even then betrothed to a certain young Hans who had placed himself with a grocer—a youth as red cheeked, round eyed and baby faced as Ana herself. They were very fond of each other and very true to each other, but they had prudent souls and had set before themselves the fact that a certain sum must be saved before they married. It was a comfortable sum, too, not to be made by a maid servant and a grocer’s clerk in a hurry, but as Ana confided to her mistress, “Ven some peoples gets married togeter, right away comes dose children, and cos’ dem much money. It is better dot dose peoples wait until dey got dot money once already.”
No one ever contradicted Ana or strove to dissuade her from her purpose. If Hans ever said anything to anybody—which seemed unlikely, for he would sit long hours without speaking, even to Ana on Sunday evenings, when he always went to see her—he was probably encouraged in his economical intentions. At all events this honest pair of German lovers never swerved from their object. Every month they made a deposit in a savings bank, and slowly the dimes turned to dollars, and the dollars to eagles, and the eagles became the sum total of the marriage portion—very slowly, some sweethearts would have fancied, but Hans and Ana possessed their souls with patience.
For years each Sunday afternoon saw him arrive at the kitchen door of Ana’s service place dressed in his best clothes and wearing a red geranium blossom in his buttonhole. Sometimes they went to church together hand in hand—were they not betrothed? –and if any one grinned neither Hans nor Ana was offended. He bought her papers of peppermint drops and sticky slabs of taffy. She knitted him red worsted comforters, and blue mittens and yellow wristlets, and sometimes they read their hymn books and sometimes their bankbooks, rejoicing when the money gathered interest, until at last there came a day when Ana revealed to her mistress that the money had been accumulated and that the wedding was at hand.
Meanwhile Ana’s cheeks had faded and Ana’s eyes were not so blue, and little puckers were to be seen at the corners of her mouth, and certain pencil lines crossed her forehead, which had been as smooth as ivory on her betrothal day.
Hans, too, had changed from a round curly headed boy to a stocky man, with a bald spot on the top of his head, and both of them had lost sundry teeth which they were far too economical to seek to have replaced by a dentist.
Still they were as fond of each other as ever, and very happy in the little frame house, with a small garden about it, which they bought and furnished from their savings. Hans was also promised a partnership in the grocery, and it seemed as though their good angels had looked favorably upon these humble and honest lover. Their house shone with cleanliness. In their little parlor were the brightest carpet the whitest curtains and the most highly colored religious pictures to be bought. A clock set in a Swiss cottage of carved wood ticked away between a German china shepherd and shepherdess. There was an escritoire in which the bankbooks were locked up, and the usual number of chairs and a table, also an enlarged photograph of Hans and Ana hand in hand, taken in their early courting days. Sacred indeed was this apartment, but the other rooms were just as tidy, and for a while Ana seemed perfectly happy.
There came a time, however, when she seemed to her late mistress to have grown graver—to be anxious about something. She sighed, and when questioned answered;
“Yes. I have some droubles.” Pressed to say what they were, she shortly added; “I vait now a good vile for de good Lord to send dose leetle childrens, and dose leetle childrens did not come. And Hans, he vaits too.
But children did not come to them.
One day, Hans, having been, as in duty bound, to the church fair with his wife on his arm and his money in his pocket, had bought several pretty and useful things, and taken chances in something on the toy table—he hardly knew what—because that worthy lady, the pastor’s sister, had requested him to do so. Hans was economical, but to spend money at a church fair was a religious duty in his eyes and Ana’s. It was the last day of the fair, and just as he was about to leave the building, the pastor’s sister touched him on the arm and said: “Well, Hans, don’t go without your doll.”
“My doll?” said Hans.
“You drew the doll,” said the pastor’s sister. “You had the lucky number.”
“Ah, I have no children to give a doll to,” said Hans, in his native language, but he went back to the toy table and took the parcel that was handed to him.
“I will take it,” said Ana.
She carried it home in her arms, saying to Hans every now and then: “This is heavy—heavy as a real baby, as large and soft as if it were alive.” When they reached home she lighted a light and sitting down began to unwrap the folds of muslin and paper, and shortly looked upon one of the most beautiful objects they had ever seen.
It was one of those wonderfully fine imported dolls that are really artistic. Its face was a sweet as a cherub’s, its waxen arms and shoulders had dimples in them, its flaxen hair curled about its temples. It had the face of a little child of two years old and was a large as a baby of six months. When it was held up its eyes opened; when it was laid upon its back they closed. Ana stared at it solemnly, and suddenly uttered a cry of rapture. Then Hans, all this time, attentive but remote, stepped forward and knelt down beside his wife. He timidly touched the doll with his finger.
“Kiss it, then, my beloved,” said Ana.
“This is no common doll,” said his wife. “This is a doll child. The dear Lord has sent it to us to compensate.”
Then they kissed it. That night it lay between them folded in a shawl. The next day the neighbors were astonished by seeing a cradle carried into Ana’s house. Curiosity leading them to call, they found Ana sitting in her parlor sewing and softly rocking the doll, which looked as though alive. She was making a nightgown for it. No one dared to laugh—somehow no one wanted to laugh, for Ana repeated solemnly a German phrase, which can only be translated thus, “It is by the love of God given.” A certain superstitious admiration such as they felt when they looked at holy shrines in the church on Christmas night, possessed them, and Ana played the mother to her doll in peace. She dressed it as she would have dressed her own baby, held it on her knee, folded it in her arms and bade it kiss Hans on his return home at night, and actually in a very little while there appeared in the entry of the little house a perambulator, in which Hans and Ana took the doll to ride every Sunday afternoon exactly as other parents took their real babies.
Just as quietly as they had carried out their long engagement these two grown up children carried on their pretense of being parents, and the nine days’ wonder ceased to interest the neighbors in time, save when they told it to astonish some stranger.
Alas! Who could have thought that this curious play would end tragically? But it did.
One morning Ana, disheveled and in tears, appeared at her late mistress’ house. Her sobs choked her utterance, but at last she contrived to say: “Oh, madam! Great droubles—great droubles—de vorst droubles dot can come! Oh, madam!”
“Is Hans sick?” the lady asked, fearing that even worse had happened.
But Ana replied: “His heart is broke like mine! Oh! Never can ve laugh any more—all is gone!”
The lady waited for an explanation.
It came at last.
“My baby doll-my dear, God given baby doll-is dead!”
“Ana, what are you saying? A doll cannot die,” said her mistress.
“My doll baby is dead—she is killed dead!” said Ana “she is killed dead! I tell you how dot happens: last night I just put dot child asleep, mit on her de little nightgown and set de cradle in de parlor vere al vos still, ven comes my goot friend Gretchen und her husband und her leetle dog, und make some coffee on de table, und we drinks und laughs. I tinks nodding and Hans tinks nodding, but all de while Gretchen say: “’Vere goes dat bad dog?’
“’Oh,’ I say, ‘he plays—never mind.’
“I vish to be polite, but she say:
“’Ven he is like dot still he does mischief.’
“So ven ve laughs und eat leetle cakes und drink coffee a long time dey go away und she calls de dog und he comes.
“’I like no dot dog’s looks,’ my friend say. ‘He has stole someding. If you have got some meat put avay for breakfast you find it not.’
“’Oh, I guess all right,’ I say. But de leetle dog lick so on his mouth, und she say:
“’All wrong, I am sure.’ “So I laugh, und ve all shakes hands und go, und ve goes in und locks up, und I says:
“’Now I get my doll child and goes straight avay to bed, und I goes into dot parlor door mit a candle, und I see my child lying deat und bitten und eaten by dot dog on dot floor, und I falls down und knows noddings.’”
As soon as she could quiet Ana a little the sympathizing lady went with her to her house.
There in the cradle lay a very dead doll indeed. The dog had eaten the wax head and arms and chewed the kid body into tatters. There was no possibility of repair or renovation; but after a while it occurred to the lady to suggest a means of comfort, and she said.
“After a while you can buy another doll, Ana. One as pretty will cost something but you won’t grudge that. I will tell you where, and you can dress it in the same clothes, and forget all that has happened.”
At these words the mourning Ana ceased her sobs and turned upon her with flashing eyes.
“Buy a doll! I am not a fool!” said she. “You do not den know dot dere is like dis lost one no oder? Dis was by de dear God given to me, because so much I wanted a child. No, my doll child is dead and de world goes unter.”
And from that time to this Ana and Hans have been sad and unsmiling, and in their little garden in a little mound covered with turf and decorated as are the graves of German children. Here lie the tatters of their adored doll.
Mary Kyle Dallas in Fireside Companion.
Idaho Statesman [Boise, ID] 11 April 1891: p. 7
Mary Kyle Dallas was a prolific writer of novels, stories, plays and poetry. She also wrote on Spiritualist and occult topics.
Any stories of “haunted” dolls? They are surprisingly lacking in 19th-century paranormal non-fiction. Saki’s Morlvera comes to mind. ChrisWoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Other stories of dolls in tragic or sentimental circumstances may be found at Mrs Daffodil Digresses under the “Dolls and Toys” category.
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.