The Lost Art of the Coffin Threat

 

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As I was researching The Victorian Book of the Dead, I ran across the now-forgotten art of the crape threat. The hanging of crape on the door was a well-known and terrifying symbol for death in a household. Some pranksters used crape to taunt or to tease—a young barber’s friends hung crape on his shop while he was away, as an unfunny practical joke, terrifying his sweetheart. One jilted suitor stole crape from another house and nailed it to the door of the woman he had hoped to marry. Crape was also a deadly serious threat, used, for example, in the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, where the wife of a non-union miner was threatened with rocks and bullets through her window and crape on the doorknob.

In a similar vein we find the miniature coffin threat, a much subtler method of intimidation than waving a gun in someone’s face. While small coffins were sometimes used in student or fraternal organization ceremonies, and to symbolize dashed hopes or wishes for an opponent’s demise in political parades, generally if you found a miniature coffin in the mail or on your doorstep, you were in very real trouble.

THREAT

CONTENTS OF NOTE

Miniature Coffins and Threat leads To Two Deaths in Anderson

Anderson, July 16. What is supposed to have caused the killing of T.F. Ramey and Tom Hayes, and caused the arrest of Barney Ramey, the 18-year-old son of Tom F. Ramey, and W.L. Hayes, Ed Wilson, George L. Wilson and Allen Emerson, is a small coffin-like box, a crude, but effective imitation of a model coffin in which a note was left. The box and the note were left on the doorstep of Sante Bagwell, a relative of the dead man, Ramey.

What the note contained has been a matter of speculation and the Daily Mail has received a copy of the note as it was found in the coffin.

Sante Bagwell: We want to give you some straight business talk. You know the kind of house you are keeping and the trouble you are causing in the neighborhood and in families and we have stood for it as long as we are going to. This thing has been due six months. There are fifty men who say they will see a better neighborhood. You can get out, or be took out. The Abbeville [SC] Press and Banner 20 July 1921: p. 3

Angry that Tom Ramey had accused them of sending the coffin, Tom Hayes and four other men came to the Ramey home and began beating him. Mrs. Ramey begged them to stop and when one of the men went to hit her, son Barney Ramey shot Tom Hayes and killed him. Ramey was also shot by one of the intruders and died the next day. The men boasted to Mrs. Ramey that they had money and connections so that the law couldn’t touch them. Barney Ramey was arrested for shooting Hayes, but was acquitted after just 22 minutes’ deliberation. Incidentally, although I assumed that most of the coffins I read about were inch-to-foot scale—dollhouse size–in this case, the “miniature” coffin was 18 inches long.

In this next story, whether or not Mrs Glazier really was cuckolding her husband, the coffin  (the story is ambiguous as to whether it was a full-sized one or a miniature) was a heartless taunt, much as a gangster might send a wreath to a rival to say, “I’m gunning for you.”

A FATAL JOKE

A Wife’s Paramour Sends a Coffin to the Husband, Which Causes His Death.

[Boston Spec. to North American.]

A weird story of a coffin and the delirium it caused the invalid, for whose remains it was intended, comes from the town of Ipswich. Payson Glazier and his wife, with their two children, lived in Linebrook, near Ipswitch. Aaron Sanborn is a neighbor whose attentions to Mrs. Glazier have created more or less talk. A few weeks ago tomorrow there arrived at the Glazier house a coffin bearing a silver plate marked with the name Payson Glazier. The latter at that time was in perfect health. Mr. Glazier destroyed the coffin by smashing it with an ax and reported that Sanborn was responsible for the ghastly joke, if joke it was.

Glazier betrayed the utmost uneasiness over the episode, and when he fell sick with what was called typhoid fever his ravings were all about the coffin. He imagined that the coffin had some connection with his sickness. The other day he died, raving to the end about the coffin. Mrs. Glazier continues to receive and apparently to encourage the attentions of Sanborn, who has a wife living. There is some talk of Glazier having been poisoned, but no evidence to show it. Sanborn refuses to talk about the coffin, and Ipswich is discussing the sensation from all points of view. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 4 May 1890: p. 17

Our Friends, the Cranks, also contributed coffin threats when their world views deemed them necessary.

 FINDS COFFIN MODEL IN MAIL

Military Secretary at Denver Startled by Package from Crank

Denver, Colo. Nov. 7. When Lieutenant Colonel Thomas F. Davis, military secretary of the department of the Colorado, United States army, opened his mail a few days ago he came across a large brown registered envelope, sent from Cripple Creek, and addressed to the army headquarters, Denver. It weighed perhaps half a pound.

The colonel opened it hurriedly and then jumped. For out of the envelope fell the model of a coffin, cut from a cigar box, and covered with black satin which had been cut and pasted on with mucilage.

The coffin was written over with strange devices and a couple of sheets of writing paper, scrawled over from top to bottom with daggers and skulls and cross-bones. Visions of bombs like Jacob Schiff got and of the Black Hand and of the Ku-Klux clans flitted across his brain as he rang for an orderly and a pail of water. [An “infernal machine” had been mailed in September to Jacob Schiff, an American financier. The package was stolen from a mailbox by a boy, so the plot was foiled.]

Further examination proved the package to be less dangerous than it looked. The writing was unsigned, and accepting that the package was sent from Cripple Creek, there was nothing to show who or what the sender was. The greater part of the writing was unintelligible, although here and there enough could be made out to show that the writer, evidently insane, had a fancied grievance against the army, and was threatening it with annihilation. The coffin, he explained, was sent to hold the general staff when he got through with them.

Colonel Davis returned the package to the postal authorities, marking on the cover, “Not intended for army headquarters,” and coffin and all are now in possession of the registry department. Post office inspectors are making an investigation of the affair. The sender is believed to be a harmless crank, although the orderlies at headquarters have received instructions to take no chances with queer looking individuals who visit headquarters in the next few weeks. Omaha [NE] World Herald 8 November 1906: p. 6

Voudou was a popular and exotic subject for late-19th-century newspaper stories, both fictional and non-fictional, so readers would have had a nodding acquaintance with fetish charms and spells.  Keep in mind that the journalists of this period were far from politically correct; the characterization of the “ignorant negro,” is too often found in stories of African Americans and anomalies.

AN EMBLEM OF DEATH

A Miniature Coffin, Containing the Image of a Man, Found Under Strange Circumstances—Voudouism or Kuklux?

There still remains a relic of barbarism among the colored population of this city, which time and religion can only exterminate—a firm belief in fetish charms and obi. [obeah]. By the strange combination of toe nails, claws, intestines, hair and the like, the ignorant negro firmly believes that he can place an enemy under the spell of voudouism, or by having the “obi” on their person, like Achilles, they are invulnerable. Old negroes, men and women, that make voudouism a business, are looked upon by their race with awe, and their behests, no matter how preposterous, are implicitly obeyed, for fear of coming under the evil eye. At about one o’clock Friday morning, a strange and mysterious thing was found at the door of P. Dufour’s undertaking establishment, on Royal street, near St. Philip, which can be construed into an attempt at

A Fetish Spell,

Although were it in the country, and Mr. Dufour a carpet-bagging official, the circumstance would be termed “intimidation by the kuklux.”

At the hour above mentioned, Sergeant Baveroft, of the Third Precinct, noticed a candle dimly burning on the doorsteps of Mr. Dufour’s store, and thinking some of the night hawks were at work, the Sergt. Grasped his revolver and stealthily approached the spot. As he neared the place a strong gust of wind extinguished the candle, which had the effect of convincing the sergeant that it was indeed burglars plying their avocation. With a bound he jumped on the step, and by the expiring spark of a wax candle, to his horror, he saw

A Tiny Coffin,

Fringed around with black; the lid slightly pushed back, exhibited the image of a man made of some kind of red material.

Brought face to face with death in miniature, the Sergeant, no matter what his feelings were, exhibited no emotion but quietly raised the coffin and carried it to the Third Precinct Station.

An examination showed that the image was surrounded by a powder emitting a very pungent odor, which upon being inhaled by the curious officers caused them to feel as if the hand of sleep was gently pressing down their eyelids. Who put it there, or who went to the expense of money and labor to make this strange present, and what was the object, is yet a mystery, as no person for several hours previous had been seen in the vicinity. New Orleans [LA] Times 20 February 1875: p. 3

Does anyone more well-versed in Voudou ritual than I know the meaning of the red figure and the soporific powder?

Of course, such spells might backfire.

A St. Louis negro woman, arraigned in a police court for assailing her husband, proved that he had made a miniature coffin and inscribed it with her name, that being the voudoo mode of consigning her to the devil. She argued that such an outrage justified her in chastising him. The Daily Astorian [Astoria, OR] 20 April 1879: p. 3

While the target of the coffin found by the New Orleans police officer was a mystery, usually the point was clear to the recipient. There are frequent reports in the papers and in Congressional hearings about African Americans terrorized by coffins containing miniature nooses left on their property by the Klan or similar groups who made it clear what the consequences would be if the families did not clear out.

NEGRO IS WARNED BY COFFIN, NOTE

Monroe County Resident Told to Leave Community, He Reports to Police.

A sinister warning, composed of a note ordering him to “leave Georgia,” placed in a miniature wooden coffin, sent an excited Monroe county Negro to Macon police authorities Saturday afternoon.

The Negro, Whitman James, 52, lives near Montpelier Springs, about 17 miles from Macon.

James said he awoke at daylight to find the small coffin on his front porch in front of the door. On top of the coffin was the following message, written with pencil on tablet paper:

“Warning (printed in large letters across the top.) This is your warning to leave Georgia by Saturday. Your boys must go to. Or suffer.”

The small coffin had been expertly made. [Were these available commercially? Did you just walk into the undertaker’s showroom and ask for one? Was this a home crafts project for the kiddies?] It was of plain board, in an oblong shape, and had been lined inside much in the manner of regular coffins. It was about two feet long and about six inches wide in the widest part.

Enemies Unknown.

James hoped that the Macon police could examine the coffin and find its maker through fingerprints, but when it was learned that the coffin had been handled by many persons, Chief Ben T. Watkins shook his head doubtfully.

The chief held hope, however, that the hand writing would prove an important clew…

The Negro said that he “hadn’t done nothin’ wrong” in his whole life of 52 years, spent in the Montpelier Springs community, and did not know of any enemies.

He said he heard the clock “strike every hour” Friday night, and didn’t look forward to sleeping soundly Saturday night. He did not intend to leave the community if he had to stand guard every night with a gun, he said.Macon [GA] Telegraph 8 January 1933: p. 10

A high-profile example comes from1915, when the family of Governor Charles Whitman of Rhode Island was sent letters threatening the kidnap and murder of the Whitman baby and packages containing daggers and miniature coffins with plates bearing the names of the Governor and his wife, one containing a message saying that they would soon need a full-sized coffin. As District Attorney, Whitman successfully prosecuted a New York City Police Lieutenant named Becker for the murder of Herman Rosenthal, a gambling house operator. While Governor, Whitman signed Becker’s death warrant and saw him executed. Becker’s supporters sent the threats and coffins when Whitman refused to stop the execution. [See Mike Dash, Satan’s Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, and New York’s Trial of the Century (Reprint, New York: Three Rivers Press, 2008).]

Jilted lovers also used the miniature coffin for spite or revenge.

DOLL POPPED FROM MINIATURE COFFIN

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

Is it just my perverse imagination that sketches an entire lurid backstory for Mr. Sutherland and Miss Spalding involving furtive meetings, tearful recriminations, and criminal operations?

Other examples of threats with miniature coffins? And what, if any, relationship is there between coffin threats and the so-called “fairy coffins” of Edinburgh’s Arthur’s Seat? Enclose answers in a tiny Fisk patent burial casket and send to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.  You can read more about the art of crape threats in The Victorian Book of the Dead, now also available for Kindle.

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.

 

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