Dead Men’s Shoes

Dead Men's Shoes. Shoes found on the seabed at the site of the Titanic.

Dead Men’s Shoes. Shoes found on the seabed at the site of the Titanic.

Jones: I say, Brown, do you known when a pair of boots are like a dead man?

Brown: Can’t say that I do.

Jones: When they are mend-ed—men dead—see?

Brown: H’m very funny. Perhaps you know when a pair of shoes are like dead men?

Jones: I don’t.

Brown: When their soles (souls) have departed, my boy.

The Day Book [Chicago, IL] 18 March 1912: p. 6 

A recent news story about the discovery of a shoe-wearing skeleton found in a walled-up niche under Lincoln Castle inspired this post.  

When I owned a vintage clothing store, I purchased a box lot which contained a pair of shiny brown lace-up shoes. Examining them more closely, I realized that they were not made of leather, but of some brittle synthetic material and that, while they had normal laces, the backs of the shoes also laced. They were cardboard shoes for the dead—the heel laces made slipping them onto a corpse’s feet a walk in the park.

Corpses have often been buried naked under shrouds or in their nightclothes. Yet there is a long tradition of making sure the dead go to their graves equipped with footwear. Some Native American tribes plaited special cornstalk slippers for corpses; Egyptian mummies were furnished with gilt papier-mache sandals; Some Chinese women used to be buried in shoes with embroidered soles and a pearl on each toe to light the way to paradise. Let’s take a stroll through some random anecdotes about dead men’s shoes.

          Lacy Collison-Morley paraphrases an ancient Greek tale of a ghost unhappy over a missing sandal: 

Among the tall stories in Lucian’s Philopseudus is an amusing account of a man whose wife, whom he loved dearly, appeared to him after she had been dead for twenty days. He had given her a splendid funeral, and had burnt everything she possessed with her. One day, as he was sitting quietly reading the Phædo, she suddenly appeared to him, to the terror of his son. As soon as he saw her he embraced her tearfully, a fact which seems to show that she was of a more substantial build than the large majority of ghosts of the ancient world; but she strictly forbade him to make any sound whatever. She then explained that she had come to upbraid the unfortunate man for having neglected to burn one of her golden slippers with her at the funeral. It had fallen behind the chest, she explained, and had been forgotten and not placed upon the pyre with the other. While they were talking, a confounded little Maltese puppy suddenly began to bark from under the bed, when she vanished. But the slipper was found exactly where she had described, and was duly burnt on the following day. Greek and Roman Ghost Stories, Lacy Collison-Morley 

The British and Scandinavian journey to hell is rather like fell-walking: full of gorse and thistles, and you have to watch your step so you don’t plunge into a abyss. The proper footwear is essential on the road to dusty death, as described in a 16th century manuscript from the Cotton Library. 

When any dieth, certaine women sing a song to the dead bodie, reciting the journey that the partye deceased must goe; and they are of beliefe (such is their fondnesse) that once in their lives, it is good to give a pair of new shoes to a poor man, for as much as, after this life, they are to pass barefoote through a great launde, full of thornes and furzen, except by the meryte of the almes aforesaid they have redeemed the forfeyte; for, at the edge of the launde, an oulde man shall met them with the same shoes that were given by the partie when he was lyving; and after he hath shodde them, dismisseth them to go through thick and thin, without scratch or scale. Sir Walter Scott, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (ed. Henderson), III, 163 f. 

Here is what the Keeper of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, Joseph Anderson, had to say on the subject: 

5. Burial with Shoes on the Feet.—It is well known that this custom was a common one among the Teutonic and Scandinavian people in pagan times. In the remarkable cemetery of the transition period at Oberflacht the interments were found in single-tree coffins…Most of the bodies had been deposited clothed, and with sandals on their feet…

          One of the most striking of the northern Scandinavian sepulchral customs of the pagan time was that of binding the “hell-shoes” on the feet of the dead. In the “Saga of Gisli the Outlaw,” it is stated that, when they were laying Vestein in his grave-mound, Thorgrim, the priest, went up to the mound, and said, “’Tis the custom to bind the hell-shoes on men, so that they may walk on them to Valhalla, and I will now do that by Vestein,” and when he had done it, he said, “I know nothing about binding on hell-shoon, if these loosen.” [You’ll find the original here.]

          This custom was also Christian. It was well-known to the liturgists of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Durandus says, “Mortui habeant et soleas in pedibus qua significant se esse paratos ad judicium”—the dead must also have shoes on their feet, by which they may show that they are ready for the judgment. As matter of fact, it is often found in Christian as well as in pre-Christian graves in Central Europe. Members of religious orders were usually thus buried, but the custom was not confined to them. Bernard, grandson of Charlemagne, who died in 818, was found with shoes on his feet when is coffin was opened in 1638. William Lyndewode, Bishop of St David’s, who died in 1446, was buried in St Stephen’s. When his grave was recently disturbed during repairs, the body was found wrapped in cere-cloth. It was unclothed, but with shoes on the feet. In the cathedral of Worcester a skeleton was found in 1861 having shoes or sandals on its feet, the soles of which were quite entire. The Abbe Cochet mentions a large number of instances in France, proving the existence of the custom there from the twelfth century to the seventeenth. In an account of the funeral expenses of Roger Belot, who died in 1603, there is a charge of 12 sous 6 deniers for a pair of shoes to place on the feet of the defunct. Notes on the Survival of Pagan Customs in Christian Burial [National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, Edinburgh and Society of Antiquaries of Scotland] Proceedings of the Society 10 January 1876: pp. 384-386 

Another rationale for going to one’s grave in the best quality shoes is illustrated by this 13th-century exempla: 

          I have been told by a man of religion that the mistress of a priest when about to die, with much importunity asked for new shoes of the best sort to be made for her, saying: “Bury me in them; they are very necessary to me.” This being done, next night long before light whilst the moon was shining, a certain knight and his servant were riding along the road and they heard the shrieks of a woman. As they wondered what this might be, behold, a woman running rapidly to them, cried out: “Help, help!” At once the knight dismounted and whirling his sword in a circle round him took the woman well-known to him within its protection. Now she was clad only in a shift and those shoes. And behold, from a distance there came a sound like the horn of a hunter; moreover the baying of hounds were heard going before him. When she heard these, she trembled exceedingly, and the knight when he had heard from her what it was, delivered his horse to his servant, bound three locks of her hair round his left arm and held his sword stretched out in his right. When that hellish hunter drew near, the woman said to the knight: “Let me run, let me run; see, he approaches.” And though he bravely held her back, the wretched woman struggled against him beating the knight with her hands and at length breaking the hair escaped. Then the devil pursued and caught her and threw her on his horse with her head and arms hanging down on one side and her legs on the other. After a little meeting the soldier again like this he carried off his victim. He going back in the morning to the manor, told what he had seen and showed the hair; and when they would not believe his tale, they found on opening the grave that the woman had lost her hair. This happened in the archbishopric of Mainz. The Dialogue on Miracles, Caesarius of Heisterbach. Book XII, Chap. XX (translated by H. Von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland, 1929)  I’m certain that I have seen a variant of this where the exhumed woman’s shoes are found to be worn through.

 A somewhat similar superstition [about hellshoon] prevails among the Tsiganes of Hungary, and also among the peasants of Tyrol, who moreover believe that the ghosts of persons who have been buried without “hellshoon,” and are therefore unable to get across the thorny tract of country which separates death from life eternal, assume the form of toads. Consequently toads are regarded with pity and sympathy by all good people in Southern Germany and along the banks of the Danube. The poor creatures are supposed to be hopping about, astray and bewildered, striving to find their way to some particular shrine where their future penance will be remitted. At the famous church of St. Michael in Schwatz, on the evening before great festivals, but when no one is present, an immense toad is reported to come crawling before the altar, where it kneels, and weeping bitterly, prays that its period of penance may be brought to an end, and that the omission to put the ” hellshoon ” in the grave of the human form of its being long ago may be pardoned through the intercession of St. Michael. — N. V. Tribune. The Green Bag, Volume 3, Sydney Russell Wrightington, et al, 1891, pp 387-8 

Post-mortem footwear was important in southern Europe also.In this example—one strips a corpse of everything—except its shoes. 

[A]t Naples it is also the practice to deposit corpses numerously in the Church vaults—each in such a position over a hole, that, as it putrifies and moulders, the remains drop into cellarage below, and make room for another corpse to succeed. Mr. was present at the stripping of the corpse of a priest—to the shoes—and the placing him in this position, amid remnants of mortality, and in a stench which must beggar description: he tells me he never witnessed a scene so odious or hideous. Minutes of remarks on subjects picturesque, moral, and miscellaneous, William Webb (gentleman), 1827 

The excerpt below echoes the belief  that the last person to be buried in the churchyard must be its guardian. In addition, the Irish believed that that person would have to take on the additional, apparently penitential labor of carrying water to the dead of the churchyard. 

Mr. LeFanu [William Richard Le Fanu, author of Seventy Years of Irish Life, not Sheridan LeFanu, the horror writer], writing on Irish superstitions, says: “The so called battles of the Derins (buryings) originated in the superstition that the last person buried has, in addition to his other troubles, to allay the thirst of all previously laid in the churchyard. Where the water carried is procured I have never heard, but as much is wanted, the atmosphere being very hot, the labor involved is incessant and the carrier not relieved till the next funeral takes place. Peasants have been known to put shoes or boots into coffins to save the feet of their relatives on these weary water carrying walks. Our neighbor, John Ryan, provided two pairs of shoes in his wife’s coffin—a light pair for ordinary wear and a strong pair for bad weather.” The Guardian, London, 31 January 1894: p. 20 

An extraordinary superstition was brought to light in Scotland, a short time ago, during the course of the trial of a man named Laurie for the murder of an English tourist, a Mr. Rose. The police were requested by the counsel in the case to explain the mysterious disappearance of the dead man’s boots at the time of the inquest held on his body. With manifest reluctance the inspector in command of the local constabulary informed the court that he had directed a policeman to take the boots down to the seashore and bury them in the sand below high-water mark. The purpose of this extraordinary measure was to “lay” the murdered man’s ghost, — an object which, according to ancient Scotch tradition, may be obtained by burying his boots under water. For ghosts are popularly credited with as deep-rooted an aversion to water as they have to walking barefooted; and Mr. Rose’s ghost, being shoeless, would therefore abstain from disturbing people in the neighborhood of the spot where the murder was committed….The Green Bag, Volume 3, Sydney Russell Wrightington, et al, 1891, pp 387-8 

While some traditions bar the wearing of “dead men’s shoes” as ill-omened, most soldiers have felt no qualms about taking footwear from a dead comrade or enemy. 

“Trading” Shoes with Dead Men.

“After our first battle,” said a veteran, “it gave me a shock to find all our dead and wounded left on the field stripped of shoes and hats. Sometimes a man’s pockets would not be rifled, while his shoes would be missing. We were disposed then to talk a good deal about vandals robbing the dead, but later we came to accept the appropriation of dead men’s shoes as a matter of course and as a sort of rule of war. A man who would treat a dead soldier’s body with due respect would have no compunction about removing the dead man’s shoes, providing they would fit him.

“I have known our men to ‘trade’ shoes with our dead in the same way, and thereby hangs a story. After the long march to Louisville in the fall of 1862 the men of our division were walking on thin soles or on no soles at all, and noticed that after Perryville, on the march to the mountains, some of them were well shod. I couldn’t believe that any of my boys would wear dead men’s shoes, but there were the shoes and I couldn’t keep my eyes off them. One night a pale young fellow came to my quarters and said he was in great trouble.

“He said that after Perryville he traded shoes with a dead man and thought little of the transaction. Seeing me look suspiciously at his shoes made him nervous, and that night he examined the shoes carefully. He found written on the tongue or flap of each shoe his own family name. This startled him and he had queer dreams. He put the shoes aside and came to ask what he should do. We found under the name of the man the name of his regiment and company, and after the war my little trader of shoes found in southwestern Kentucky a branch of his grandfather’s family.” The Rising Son [Kansas City, MO] 29 March 1906: p. 3 

At Spring Hill [Tennessee], a dilapidated rebel sharpshooter came upon one of his victims and took the dead man’s boots. A comrade came along and wanted to trade for them. “Go on now. Kill a gentleman for yourself and get a pair.” Perrysburg [OH] Journal 28 January 1912: p. 3

But what is done in wartime, is not so acceptable in peace.  


Toledo, O., Nov. 17. After the body of William Steinhauer had been lying in an undertaking chapel here for one day less than a year, a nervy thief stole the burial shoes from the dead man’s feet. A scribbled note found in the chapel said: “I need the shoes more than the stiff does.” The body is being held because of litigation. The Democratic Banner [Mt. Vernon, OH] 18 November 1913: p. 1 

And finally, shoes from the dead. 

Several papers in 1879 and 1880 claimed that an Indiana medical student “wears a pair of shoes made of human skin.” The squibs “quote” Hamlet: “To what base shoeses we may return, Horatio.” I will cover this in a future post. 

Boots From Human Skin

In 1876 the firm of Hahrenholtz [possibly Ahrenholtz] Brothers, boot and shoe manufacturers, New York City, made a pair of boots from human skin, which they sent to the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia. They were never put on exhibition, which shows that there was some humanity left in the exposition officials if not in the maker of the ghastly footwear. They were afterward sent to the Smithsonian Institution, but were not allowed shelf room. St Louis Republic. Clinch Valley News [Jeffersonville, VA] 21 June 1895: p. 3 

I can’t find the Hahrenholtz or Ahrenholtz firm in the 1876 business directories of New York. Just a hoax story? Or do those boots lurk somewhere in the forbidden depths of the Smithsonian? 

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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 Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.


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