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  • Writer's pictureMacabre Emporium Pod

Episode 12 - The Victorian Episode!


Victorian's and Their Obsession With Death

Victorian mourning dresses
Family of women in mourning

Small Introduction to the Era

The Victorian Era was the time of Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 to 1901. This was a time when building materials had become cheaper, so there was a giant housing boom in the 1850s basically. This is when the majority of Victorian houses were erected.

Victorian homes were usually single-family residences for the more middle-class citizens and their staff. They had also been used to house numerous factory workers. They lined the very narrow streets with houses that would and could accommodate many people living in just one building. The homes were incredibly easy to build, in part due to the new Industrial Revolution, which resulted in the rising of literally millions of Victorian homes over numerous decades.

Victorian Houses

When you think (or at least when I think) of Victorian-style homes, I think of the beautiful mansions from The Addams Family as well as The Munsters. Some notable Victorian-style homes that you may know of are the two that I already said, are the house from Full House, the house from Mrs. Doubtfire, and The Creel house (Vecna’s childhood home) from Stranger Thing, and one of my personal favorites…the murder house from Season One of American Horror Story.

Victorian-style homes were typically made out of stone, wood or brick. It really depended on the materials that could be gotten ahold of. They were usually 2 or 3 stories tall. It made the absolute perfect open area to allow their servants (and sometimes the servant's families) to live up in the attic. You know attics are creepy, and this along with the shadows of servants walking in front of a light up there could have contributed to the “ghosts” that “haunt” the attics.

The inside of the Victorian houses more often than not included hardwood floors (normally with Oriental rugs strewn everywhere), very large rooms with high ceilings, ornately detailed furniture, beautifully tiled hallways, thick and heavy drapes that hung from the window…usually to just above the floor, intricate wooden staircases and their handrails, double doors for most (if not all) rooms that were not a bedroom or bathroom. There was usually a beautiful library (which I’d love to have), balconies overlooking the second floor, and numerous ornamental decorations throughout. They were usually dark inside and the wood was carved all over the house which gave way for the light to cast ominous shadows. The sheer size of the homes in the first place gave more than ample room for “ghost sightings” and investigations to be held.

The outside of the houses were fairly similar. They all tended to have very large front porches, and large windows of every size from the bottom floor to the top - this included stained glass windows as well as bay windows. They had very steep roofs and turrets (which are small tower-like structures). There were also dormers - the little windows that stick up from the roof with their own roof (usually very small windows). They had iron railings and extremely fancy carved-out gables (think the upper portion of the outside of your house…usually where the roof meets in the middle - that big open area underneath is the gable).

The sizes of these homes were massive. And I highly suggest if you EVER get to tour the inside of one (especially if it is in full-on period decor) it. David and I have one by us that gives free tours once in a while and my goodness this place is pure beautiful Victorian excellence. Also a little creepy, not gonna lie. There are definitely areas where I felt like I was being watched. Things explained a bit later may give insight into why that was, or maybe it won’t. Who knows.

A Bit More…Dark

With this being the Victorian Era, you better believe a lot of what became “popular” in that time was sure to come from Her Majesty - Queen Victoria. When her husband, Prince Albert, died of Typhoid Fever on December 14th in 1861, she went into mourning. She and their children were all very sad, as anyone would be in that situation. She started wearing the traditional mourning color, which is….black. In fact, from the day Prince Albert died, she wore nothing other than black. Queen Victoria in black…always in black…was seemingly what set an eerie and morbid tone for the Victorian Era.

You have to remember, the modern medicine and technology we have now was not a thing back then. The life expectancy in the Victorian Era was only half of what it is now, so you can imagine death was something that happened often to those you knew. Most adults didn’t live past the age of 50 or so. That is considered too young now.

Death became an obsession at this point, for everyone. It was something you couldn’t escape, something you had no choice but to deal with in terms of others and prepare for in terms of yourself.

Death, Rituals and Memento Mori

Back then, when a family member died, they would be laid out inside the house. Some had dedicated areas within them where the dead would be placed upon actually dying, usually for paying your respect to the dead. They were sometimes just left in the room in which they died.

One thing that the people back then did, was when a loved one died, was going into an immediate period of mourning. If it was a husband/father that died, the wife and children would wear black The wife had to wear black for one year, and then grey for one year (they called the grey period half-mourning). The children had to wear black for a year as well. Of course, the length of time would vary depending on your relationship with the deceased person. Women and children weren’t allowed to leave their homes, they weren’t allowed to attend events or anything with the exception of going to church. They had to stay home and mourn. If it was a wife/mother that died…well, the man was free to come and go as he pleased, as he was the breadwinner in the house and had to support his family but he had to wear dark suits for 6 months. The man would also be expected to marry relatively soon after the death of his wife. Deceased grandparents or siblings would warrant a mourning period of 6-9 months. Aunts/Uncles/Cousins etc warranted a mourning period of 4-6 weeks.

The surviving spouse would tie a black cloth around the doorknob of the room their deceased loved one’s body lay in. I’m not sure what the significance of that was. All of the clocks in the house were stopped and left at the time of their loved one’s death. Mirrors would quickly be covered to keep the deceased person’s soul from coming back into the house once it had left - and to keep their loved ones' image from getting stuck in the looking glass. They apparently didn’t want ghosts hanging around or something. You will find this a little contradictory once I get a bit further into all of this.

They would also make jewelry to wear out of the hair and teeth of their dead loved one. I can’t say much about the hair in jewelry, as I have a locket with my mom's hair in it, however, I don’t wear it. But wearing your dead family member’s teeth….as jewelry, that to me is a little weird. Like how did they come across getting said teeth? Did they pluck them out themselves?? Was this something that was done by a professional prior to being buried? Again…I couldn’t get a clear answer on this.

Now, in today's time, we can look at pictures and videos of our loved ones that have died. Back in the Victorian Era, that wasn’t as easy to do. Videography wasn’t popular yet….and had literally JUST become a thing in 1888. Photography was accessible but wasn’t cheap, so it was usually only used later in life or for very big events. So death masks became popular.

A death mask is quite literally a mask that is made from an impression taken of the face of the deceased. It was done to preserve their features and likeness. A mold would be made of the face and then once dried, it would be given to the family. It was something tangible they could hold and touch when they were missing their loved one. They usually wound up on a mantle in the house somewhere though.

However, those that are fortunate enough to have the means to pay a photographer to come out and take photos usually did so after a death. This was called post-mortem photography. There were stands, chairs and special techniques used to make the dead look alive. For starters…the stands, these were used so the deceased would be propped standing up for the picture. If they were sitting, there would be a headrest standing up behind the deceased to hold their head up for the picture. They would also be able to be posed however the family or photographer chose to do so. If it was a baby, they would usually be placed in the mother’s arms or laid down flat with their head turned slightly towards the camera. To make the deceased look more alive, if their eyes were closed, they would paint their eyelids to look like their eyes were open. The photos would be developed and then given to the family.

I’m sure you all have seen the eerie Victorian post-mortem pictures before. Some of them are so well done, it is hard to tell which out of the group of people is dead. They are fascinating photos and I can only assume, they were entirely cherished by the families. But, everyone in those photos is deceased by now, and the pictures get taken to oddities stores to be sold, or they get scanned and uploaded to the internet…they are everywhere. The Thanatos Archive is a great site to see a huge collection of these photos, however - you have to pay for membership. Though Google does the trick too, if you’re really curious to see more or haven’t ever seen one in general.

Funerals and Burials

When the actual funerals for the deceased were held, they were done so within the home. The bodies would be placed into a glass casket so they could be viewed. If the body had started to show signs of decay that would upset onlookers, they were placed in very traditional closed caskets. If it was the case that a couple of children dying together, or husband/wife/child together…a family-sized casket would be created to allow them to lay together in death, and later be buried together. The deceased person’s family would actually hire professional mourners to appear at the funeral to give the deceased a look of being a more established and popular person in society.

The deceased was carried out of their house feet first so that they couldn’t look back and call another to join them in death. There was actually a job position called a “funeral mute”. The role of the funeral mute was to wear all black with a black sash (or a white sash if they were a child) and carry a long cloth-covered stick. They were to stand aside mournfully and silently by the front door of the deceased person’s house before leading the coffin in its procession to the cemetery.

When it came to the burials, those were practically the same as they are now. In normal cemeteries - as graveyards had been full up at this point. However, there were a couple of things they did differently. For starters, the Victorians were terrified of being buried alive. And just in case their loved one was in fact not dead, they would insert a rope into the casket before it got lowered into the ground. The rope went all the way up and outside of the hole and was attached to a bell. Just in case the dead wasn’t really dead…they could pull the rope and the grave keepers would hear it and be able to get them out. Some graves were bricked just in case a “Resurrectionist” came by needing a body to sell for profit since medical students needed them to learn from.

Speaking With the Dead

With death being so widely dealt with and the steps they’d go to make sure everything was done the way it was supposed to after a loved one's death, it was extremely hard for the spouses left taking care of the children and families. They had a hard time coping with the death of their spouse, so they sought out ways to communicate with their dead loved ones. Remember earlier I said they were a bit contradictory, as they would cover the mirrors so their souls couldn’t come back into the house? - well, this is where it gets contradictory. So they would start out not wanting ghosts or souls invading their homes…yet wanted to speak to them.

Do you know who was real good at speaking to your dead loved one back then? Mediums. This isn’t a new concept to us, but back then, EVERYONE believed in an afterlife and that mediums were the real deal and could 100% communicate with the dead. This is when seances became big thing and also where the mediums could make a believer out of anyone with a parlor trick or two. Also, almost every single medium was a female. Not sure why. This always took place in the home of the deceased person. Yeah, mediums traveled back then. No storefronts for them!

At the start of the seance, there would be candles lit all around the room. The medium would have everyone in attendance sit in a circle. They would ask a name for the name of the person and begin their show. Once the medium said they could feel a presence in the room, they would ask out loud if the spirit in the room was that of “dead loved one’s name”, and then would proceed to knock on the table, usually 3 times. This was done as the “spirit” communicating with the medium, and of course, only the medium knew what the knocks meant. They would then say that the spirit will not make itself known more unless it was dark in the room. So everyone would get up and blow out the candles then return to the table.

This is where the more outlandish parlor tricks came into play. There was usually a young child brought in. They would put just a plain white sheet over their head and walk in a circle around the table so the family could feel the wind and draft from the “ghost” of their loved one. The child would also very lightly touch the people sitting at the table to make them believe they had just been touched by the deceased they came to make contact with. It was also said that rarely, the medium would allow the people at the seance a chance to touch the spirit by extending their arm out and feeling (usually at fingertip length) their loved one.

Crystal balls were also used, and once they made contact with the deceased person, the ball would be given to the family and told to put it in their window and keep it there. This wasn’t a good idea, as the crystal ball acted as glass, and when the sunshine hit it for hours on end…it was known to start fires and burn houses down.

While damn near all of the people back then, there were of course skeptics. There were men who would show up to every single seance unannounced and uninvited. They would watch the whole thing go down and try to debunk what was happening. They were quite literally called “Debunkers” and huge skeptics. They were able to debunk most of what happened, but no one wanted to hear any of it. Remember, they fully believed in the afterlife and NEEDED to believe

there was a way to communicate with their dead family members. So the debunkers typically just wasted their time, and breath.

As much as the Victorians believed, it never brought back their loved ones, and they never met them again until they themselves died.

And that is a bit about the Victorian Era obsession with death!



Odd Victorian Jobs and a Weird Game

Mary Smith - the most famous Knocker-Upper
Mary Smith, famous Knocker-Upper

Now with Sarah’s portion covering the mysticism of the Victorians, I have selected a few jobs during the time we might find odd because of the advancement of technology and some other fun little things that might fit with previous episodes.

Before the invention of the alarm clock in 1847 you would more than likely pay someone known as a knocker-upper. Knocker-uppers would wake Victorians at an agreed time either using a long pole to tap on windows or a peashooter. One of the best-known knocker uppers of the time named Mary Smith would make as much as 45 shillings which is equal to .76 cents in USD, of course, I inflated it and it comes out to 77.62 cents in 2023. Even with the invention of the alarm clock knocker uppers were around until the 1970s when the last one retired in 1973.

With as many horses and carriages on the streets during this era they were covered in sewage and horse shit. Being a wealthy Victorian you probably wouldn’t want to get anything on your dress or dress shoes, so maybe this is where you would “toss a coin to your sweeper, oh victorian wealthy, oh victorian wealthy” sorry it popped into my head when I wrote this out but yes there was a job just above being a common beggar was the crossing sweeper.

The wealthy would pay these sweepers to clear the street crossings so they wouldn't get manure and sewage on their large and elaborate dresses. Many people took up this profession because it cost nothing but owning a broom. Crossing sweepers would have their own set territory, if you were sweeping toward the edge of yours you and your customer would be met by a fellow crossing sweeper to take over in their territory. The job of a crossing sweeper was extremely dangerous as you had to dodge carriages in the street as you cleared the way for your customers.

If crossing sweeping wasn’t working out you could also try and be a pure finder. Now even with this name, there is nothing pure about it. Pure finders would collect dog feces from the streets of London and resell it to leather tanners to help purify the leather and make it more flexible during the tanning process. Dog feces would be mixed with water in pits with the leather to help break down the stiff elastic fibers to make the leather easier to work with. Tanneries would pay higher for the dried-out white feces of its high concentration of alkaline in them.

Another job that was just as dangerous if not more was a Tosher. Toshers made their living sifting through the raw sewage for any valuables that could be found. Crumbling tunnels, pockets of toxic fumes, large mischiefs of rats, and a literal tidal wave of waste were the hazards of Toshers. Toshers generally worked in pairs or large groups and could easily be recognized with their aprons with many pockets and a lantern strapped to their chest. In 1840 it became illegal to enter the sewers but this didn’t stop them as they would begin to work at night or in the early morning hours.

If you were a would-be grave robber or resurrectionist your profession might have a hidden danger just below the surface. And I’m not meaning the spores and fungus your body produces when you die. In, 1878 a man by the name of Philip Clover of Columbus Ohio would invent the coffin which consisted of a metal tube filled with gunpowder and metal balls to shoot any would-be grave robbers if they triggered the torpedo which the trip wire was generally attached to the head by the undertaker or funeral director as we know today. The torpedo itself would be hidden inside the clothes of the deceased or in the coffin trimmings as long as to the lid so when the lid of the coffin was pried open the torpedo would fire and injure or kill any would-be grave robbers. Four years later in 1881 Thomas N. Howell would patent the grave landmine which unlike the Clover torpedo buried inside the coffin. The grave landmine was buried above the coffin it was attached to. The grave land mine was advertised as “Sleep well sweet angled, let no fears of ghouls disturb thy rest. For above thy shrouded form lies a torpedo, ready to make minced meat of anyone who attempts to convey you to the pickling vat.” There isn’t any real evidence that can be found on how many of these torpedoes and landmines were actually effective, but you can find the patents for both devices on the internet.

Towards the end of Victorian times in the Australian state of Victoria, there was a ghost problem. Not the same ghosts as you would need a seance for but ghost hoaxing.

Ghost hoaxing between the 1890s and the 1900s was inspired by Spring Heeled Jack which was folklore from London and allegedly first spotted in 1937.

Australians would sometimes dress up as ghosts and like Spring Heeled Jack would terrorize passers-by for their own amusement or use ghost hoaxing for committing crimes. Some of these crimes would be assault, indecent exposure, sexual assault, and egg theft. With the help of phosphorescent paint allowing them to glow in the dark to appear more menacing. This paint would give them a green to blueish-green glow little did they know that this type of paint would cause cancer and sometimes death.

Most people believed that these ghost hoaxes were rowdy teenagers causing mischief or known as larrikins in Australia. It would turn out that these ghosts were actually adults. Anywhere from being a clerk to school teachers and one was a well-known public speaker of the time. Some of my sources did state that some were also middle-aged women.

Some might of thought this was harmless fun but as a community, it was becoming a huge problem and people started to be hoaxer vigilantes. In 1896 a veteran by the name of Charles Horman would appoint himself as a one-man army against the hoaxsters. I do have some examples of some of these ghost hoaxes. He would open fire on one teen with a shotgun impersonating a ghost and use a cane another hoaxer that was assaulting a woman. Parents of children that fell victim to these hoaxers would start taking the law into their own hands as well. One woman would unleash her pitbull on a hoaxer that attacked her daughter and near the end of ghost hoaxing a mob would chase one hoaxer down and beat him in his glowing ghost costume for harassing an elderly man.

Ghost hoaxing would quickly fall out of fashion by the start of WWI. Where death was no longer as amusing to most as Australian armed forces would lose over 50k soldiers. Instead of ending it on such a sad note, I do have some examples of these ghost hoaxes that were used. Which we can find pretty amusing to us now but, I can only imagine how terrifying these could of been in this time period.

In Ballarat Australia, one of these hoaxers was known as the Wizard Bombardier. He was often seen wearing white robes and a sugar loaf hat. Think of it as a more rounded top cowboy hat. His tactics were to disorient people on the streets below before hurling rocks and other objects at them before making his escape.

In Bendigo, Australia a more macabre approach and doubling down on the fear by setting up their ghost hoaxing grounds near cemeteries and painting a skull and cross bones nearby to heighten any pedestrian's fear before attacking.

In 1895 but with a location unknown a ghost hoaxer would dress up as a knight with a sword and shout “prepare to meet thy doom!” and also threaten them with decapitation before chasing after them. Also this year one of these hoaxers would wear a coffin on their back to appear as if they just rose from the grave.

In 1880 and 1889 a woman would incorporate music with her ghost hoax by playing the guitar outside a hotel as she sulked around the area.

As I mentioned earlier one of these ghost hoaxes was well-known in the community. A man by the name of Herbert Patrick McLennan would don a top hat, frock coat (formal men’s overcoat that goes down to the knees), and boots. He would also carry a cat ‘o nine tails ( a whip with nine flails or smaller whips) and whip women with it he encountered. A bounty of 5 pounds equaling $6.03 cents and inflated to 201.91 today in 2023. McLennan would wage war on the authorities and threaten to shoot anyone that came after him. He would address local leaders which he would refer to himself as “the ghost.”

Mclennan would eventually be arrested but he was a powerful clerk in his area and a public speaker he would still be sent to jail but would soon be released. I couldn’t find any information on if he continued on being a ghost hoaxer after his arrest.

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