How the awesome power of highly caffeinated coffee may continue to shape Union soldiers’ Afterlives.
On a chilly, drizzly day in March 2018, my lifelong boon companion Julie and her daughter, my honorary niece, joined me for a day trip to Gettysburg. My niece had never visited the town or battlefield before. In addition to seeing the historical sites, she was keen to undertake some EVP/ITC recording with her “Weird Aunt,” as I’m known to her circle. That day, we combined the driving tour and the ghost hunting, practicing what I call a “drive-by”—rolling the vehicle to a stop, lowering the window, turning on an iPad ghost box app and digital recorder, and inviting anyone present to speak.
(Electronic voice phenomenon, or EVPs, are recorded human voices that appear with no explanation across the spectrum of audiovisual technologies. The messages are often evidential, personal, and thought-provoking. Instrumental Transcommunication, or ITC, uses various forms of electronic devices, such as the so-called ghost box, to generate white noise or randomly generated phonemes from which it is theorized that spirits can shape speech.)
After purchasing an excellent driving tour CD with the marvelous Stephen Lang narrating, we set off, shortly reaching McPherson’s Ridge and the railway cut near the McPherson farmhouse, which saw heavy engagement during the first day of fighting. Before the battle, the area was excavated, but no rail tracks had been laid. This made a perfect spot for entrenchment by both sides as the battle lines shifted throughout the day.
What we captured there included the following:
Male voice one: What’s the coffee?
Male voice two: Official dark boots.
The audio file below repeats the sequence four times—twice at normal speed, once slowed, and once slowed with noise filtration.
At the time we recorded this exchange, I was unaware of the primacy of highly caffeinated coffee in the day-to-day lives of military men trying to get through the next chilly morning, the next hard march along muddy and rutted roads, or the next siphoning up of courage for a battle they might not survive.
“Coffee was often the last comfort troops enjoyed before entering battle, and the first sign of safety for those who survived,” John Grinspan, curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, wrote in a July 2014 New York Timesarticle. Union quartermasters issued each solder 36 lbs. of coffee beans per year, which the men roasted and ground themselves. Some of them used a Sharps coffee grinder carbine to do the latter, wherein the normal cartridge box built into the shoulder stock was replaced by a grinder with a detachable handle.
“Reading their diaries, one can sense the delight (and addiction) as troops gushed about a ‘delicious cup of black,’ or fumed about ‘wishy-washy coffee,'” noted Grinspan. “For much of the war, the massive Union Army of the Potomac made up the second-largest population center in the Confederacy, and each morning this sprawling city became a coffee factory. First, as [one] diarist noted, ‘little campfires, rapidly increasing to hundreds in number, would shoot up along the hills and plains.’ Then the encampment buzzed with the sound of thousands of grinders simultaneously crushing beans.”
To underscore exactly how much coffee meant to the average Union soldier, Grinspan tallied up how often the word coffee appeared in diaries and letters. The total was much higher than for words such as “war,” “mother,” and others that should have weighed on the mind of a soldier.
Confederates, on the other hand, used their ink and paper to complain that their coffee wasn’t worth a hill of Yankee beans (because it wasn’t coffee, but a grain- and vegetable-based, noncaffeinated horror show), and how annoyed they were that the enemy had the consolation of the good stuff.
In 1888, Union veteran John D. Billings wrote in his book Hard Tack and Coffee about the lives of Civil War soldiers, “What a Godsend it seemed to us at times! How often after being completely jaded by a night march—and this was an experience common to thousands—have I … made and drunk my pint or so of coffee and felt as fresh and invigorated as if just arisen from a night’s sound sleep!” Other soldiers referred to the dark brew as their “nerve tonic,” and when rations ran short, fumed that “no one can soldier without coffee.”
From the sound of things, they still can’t.
My friend, my niece, and I wonder whether we recorded two Union soldiers in conversation, one referring to the coffee aptly and humorously as “Official Dark Boots” in the same way we name our coffee blends—for example, “Wake the F$%# Up,” “Feels Like Flying,” or “Fog Chaser.” The beans, received from the quartermaster, were indeed official and boiling the grounds in a mucket would result in a black brew that provided them a figurative kick in the pants and give them the will to march. Ω
In a cornfield by the old Pry House in Keedysville, Maryland, the walls between September 1862 and today can sometimes grow thin.
On Tuesday, 16 September, 1862, farmer Phillip Pry, Jr., and his wife Elizabeth, née Cost, found that the Civil War was standing on their doorstep. Since the summer of 1844, the couple had dwelt happily in their imposing home, high on a hill, which Phillip and his brother Samuel had built on their father’s land. The road between Boonsboro and Sharpsburg ran along the foot of the hill, and as Philip and Elizabeth could see from their front porch, it had become an artery for the Confederate war machine. Soldiers in grey, wagons, armaments, ambulances, horses—for a day and night they moved past the Prys’ house in a kaleidoscope of pending misadventure.
The next day, the road was crammed with soldiers in blue trundling along with the Union Army’s horses, vehicles, and ordnance. They were headed to attack the Confederacy at Sharpsburg—a bloodbath now known as the Battle of Antietam. Shortly, the Prys’ home would be commandeered as a headquarters and a field hospital by no less than the flamboyant George Armstrong Custer. From that moment, the Prys’ bucolic life on the hill was over.
For safety, Elizabeth Pry and her five children—all under the age of 15—were sent by army ambulance to Keedysville. When at last allowed to return, they found their farm devastated. Despite repeated attempts, the family was never compensated by the government for property damage and looted crops, domesticated animals, and stored supplies that totaled more than $60,000 in today’s money. Financially ruined, the Prys chose to start over again in Johnson County, Tennessee, but they never regained their antebellum prosperity. Before Elizabeth died in 1884, she begged her husband to take her body back to Keedysville to be buried where life was once sweet. He did as she requested. In 1900, he was laid to rest beside her.
Surely no one would blame Philip or Elizabeth Pry for haunting the happy home stolen from them. Indeed, reputedly, there was a female ghost seen as she descended the staircase and also one who peered sullenly from an upstairs window when the house caught fire in the 1970s. One or either of these ghosts may be Elizabeth Pry. Lacking access to witnesses or recorded evidence, I must place these stories in the realm of lore. Not so, however, the following. The witness, actor Sean Byrne, was interviewed by me in June 2018 at the Pry farm—now a field hospital museum run by the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.
In 2005, when Byrne was 12, his Boy Scout troop engaged in a service project assisting the then-executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine George Wunderlich to restore Pry House. On a warm September day, Wunderlich, the troop’s leader, was in the Prys’ kitchen washing salt pork for the boys’ Civil War-inspired dinner. Byrne says that the Scouts—about ten in number—had time for mischief. “We wanted to go to the cornfield and start chucking corn at each other,” he recalls.
The stalks and corn in the husks were dry, waiting to be harvested for feed. “The corn easily came over our heads. I’m six-foot now, so I was probably like four-foot-something then, maybe,” he says. “I was in the middle of this field—it was probably right about there. I remember grabbing an ear of corn and turning around and there was a gentleman standing there.”
Byrne insists that the man, who stood just a few feet away and whom he could see at full-length, was a Confederate soldier. “He was wearing a grey uniform, buttoned-up jacket; he had a hat with a turned up brim, yellow gloves tucked under his belt.” There was a lantern hooked to his belt, too. The soldier also had a blonde goatee and hair long enough to be seen beneath the brim of his hat.
The expression on the man’s face was matter-of-fact—”stoic,” Byrne describes it. “I saw him, then he put up his hand. He said, ‘Stop. Wait. Be careful,’ then turned and walked away,” states Byrne, “but he kept a very straight line; he didn’t zigzag.”
It was then, Byrne remembers, that he consciously grasped the unapparent: “He was only about 50 percent there. I could see the corn through his body. He got no more than four feet before I lost him. He just kind of went into the corn. If [a living person] was walking through the cornfield, you could see them for say eight or ten feet—see portions of his body. But you couldn’t see him that far. He just disappeared.”
Stunned, Byrne let go of the corn. “I got a good gash in my finger, because dried corn is actually very sharp, and I ran back to the house where Mr. Wunderlich was. I told him I needed first aid, but also that there was this man there. And Mr. Wunderlich told me, ‘Wait, wait, let me guess. You saw a man with a lantern?’ I said, ‘Yes! How did you know?'”
Wunderlich knew because it was not the first time he had heard a such a story. Now with the U.S. Army Medical Department Museum at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Wunderlich still remembers Byrne’s encounter in the cornfield. He was willing to speak about it and other similar instances of which he was aware.
For a number of years, he says, an academic conference on banjos was held in the barn on the Pry property to “discuss the importance of banjo music during the Civil War and things of that nature, and we had guys camping there. Doug Harding, a National Park Service employee from St. Louis, told me he got up to use the portajohn, looked out [across the property], and there was a lantern moving by itself through the cornfield.” Together, they went to the spot and determined that the light had followed the path of the old road once traveled by both the Confederacy and Union. “They moved the road away from the house many years later when they built the bypass around Keedysville,” Wunderlich states. Today, Pry House sits at the end of a long drive, perhaps a quarter mile from the modern road.
According to Wunderlich, the second encounter concerned “a Boy Scout from another troop who mentioned the same thing—a lantern walking through the corn. I pointed out to him where it had occurred and he asked, ‘How did you know?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s happened before.'”
Several years later, at another iteration of the banjo conference, two men saw the lantern traveling the same route. They told Wunderlich that a human form was visible, but only where the lantern cast its light.
Amongst paranormal researchers, there are several schools of thought concerning ghosts and hauntings: First, ghosts can be discarnate persons who are completely or partially aware they are dead. They may have chosen to remain in a place or with loved ones they are loath to leave, stay behind because of unfinished business, or possess other motivations we cannot comprehend. The second possibility is that events are captured by wholly natural but unknown mechanisms and—when conditions are right—they replay themselves. In this latter scenario, whether or not there are human observers is irrelevant, and any persons within the replay have no more consciousness than digital images projected on a screen.
If not for the other sightings of the lantern in the cornfield, Byrne’s encounter could have been the intervention of a concerned spirit still tied to the place where he died, as it is all but certain that the Union field hospital at Pry House treated Confederate wounded. By themselves, the sightings of the lantern moving down the old road could be the replications of the past. However, in tandem with Byrne’s encounter, a lifeless replay makes no sense.
The Confederate soldier appeared to see Byrne within his presumably 16 September, 1862 surroundings, playing in a roadway that was actively funneling elements of Lee’s army to Sharpsburg. The soldier also recognized it as daytime, for the lantern the others saw ablaze was not lit and was hooked to his belt. Concerned for the boy’s safety, he told Byrne to stop, wait, and be careful, presumably so that the Byrne would not be injured by whatever the soldier saw happening in the 1862 road.
That day, Byrne, who is now in his mid-20s, wore a Boy Scout Class B uniform—green pants and a red troop tee-shirt. Despite what would have a seemed strange attire, the soldier did not look surprised at Byrne’s appearance; he issued his warning, turned, and was gone. Perhaps there was so much activity within the soldier’s view that he did not critically register the weird garb worn by the boy in harm’s way.
So, is there another explanation—one that better fits the facts of the case? Could, for example, the time-space membrane between September 1862 and September 2005 have thinned enough to rupture?
In a bowl of hypotheticals, nothing can be proven, but we may speculate that a recipe for a time rupture was fully concocted on 16 September, 1862. First added, on 14 September, was the frantic and terrifying energy produced by the nearby Battle of South Mountain, in which the two armies fought for control of multiple Blue Ridge mountain gaps. Next added was the psychic trauma of 5,000 dead, wounded, and missing, including Alabamian Drayton Pitts, of whom I wrote earlier this year. Third, stirred in on the 16th was the mounting fear of the men of both armies and the region’s citizens, who knew a larger fight than South Mountain was imminent.
The Confederate soldier may have been stationed along the old road to help facilitate movement or to supply intel after barely surviving the Battle of South Mountain two days before. His consternation, determination, exhaustion, suppressed grief over lost comrades—all of these may have been the final ingredients that ruptured time.
The Scouts had been working on the property for two days and had both stirred up and become in simpatico with the energies of the estate, Byrne posits. His brief meeting with the Confederate soldier was “very simple. It wasn’t scary. I wasn’t waiting for something. I wasn’t invoking something. It was nothing blood-curdling—just a man doing his job.” Today’s visitors to the Pry House may yet see the soldier following his orders during the 24 hours before Antietam. Ω
If you enjoyed this article, please share it on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms.
“Platitudes for the fallen officer were given in great numbers and the correspondent concluded with a highly personal plea: ‘Poor Joe! May the turf lie lightly on his manly breast.’”
“In the spring of 1864, the pages of Schuylkill County’s most important newspaper was filled with information of exciting events from America’s increasingly bloody civil war. But amid the news of battlefield drama also came the sorrowful news of local soldiers cut to pieces during hellish combat in the rolling hills of the Virginia countryside.”
Whenever the modern world seems unprincipled and bleak, take comfort. It ran amok in the old days, too, as these Victorian news clippings attest.
“Looks Like Attempted Revenge”
“Hazelton, Pa., Dec. 4.—An attempt was made last night to blow up the residence of A. P. Platt, one of Sheriff Martin’s deputies. This morning, two sticks of dynamite, one of which was broken, were found on the steps of Mr. Platt’s residence. The explosive was carried to police headquarters and it was found that the piece which had been broken must have been thrown against the porch by someone. Had the dynamite exploded, the house would have been wrecked and Mr. Platt and family probably killed. There is no clue to the guilty parties.
“Mr. Platt is the manager of the A. Pardee & Company store in Hazelton, and is a prominent Hazletonian. He has offered a reward of $100 for the apprehension of the parties who placed the dynamite on the doorstep.”
“A Narrow Escape”
“Chicago, Oct. 2.—A number of very narrow escapes from death by fire occurred at No. 90 East Chicago avenue early this morning. The building is a two-story frame owned by John Johnson and occupied in the basement by Miss Julia Hogan as a restaurant; first floor as a saloon kept by Roose & Steuberg, and the second floor by John Johnson and family. Officer Moore saw the flames leaping from of the rear of the building, turned in the alarm and then ran to the scene to arouse the inmates. He rushed to Johnson’s rooms and seized two of the children, who were in a back room, and were nearly suffocated. In coming downstairs, he fell and injured his left hand and arm, but the children were not injured. Mrs. Johnson caught up the baby and escaped in her night dress, followed by her sister and husband. In Miss Hogan’s restaurant, in the basement, were sleeping Julia Hogan and Mary Esperson, Helen Larsel and Louise Norin. The last named, the cook, was aroused by the heat and smoke, which came from the kitchen. She called the proprietress, and they tried to gather some valuables, but the flames spread so rapidly that a retreat was necessary. Miss Hogan was compelled to run through the flames, and her arms were severely burned in attempting to save a dress, in the pocket of which was $56. The damage to the building was slight.”
“Body Snatching in Richmond”
“Richmond, Va., Oct. 30—Chris. Baker and Wm. Burnett, colored men and professional resurrectionists, were arrested this morning while moving the body [of] a dead pauper through the streets on a wheelbarrow. The body had been stolen from the morgue at the city alm-house. David Parker, the keeper of the morgue, was arrested on a charge of complicity, but has been bailed. Barker and Burnett were sent to jail.”
“A Tale of Bigamy, Murder, Lynch Law, and Female Devotion”
“A man calling himself Captain Hutton settled a year ago in Sarcoxie, Missouri, courted and married a Miss Fullerton, daughter of a respectable widow lady of that village. He had with him a sickly looking boy called Tommy, for whom he manifested great attachment. They lived in the village—Hutton, his young wife, and Tommy, until about a month ago, when at the request of Hutton, Mrs. Fullerton and Tommy started on a trip to Ohio with him on business.
“Arriving at Sedalia, Hutton procured a power of attorney, with which he returned alone to Sarcoxie, and by virtue of the writing took possession of Mrs. Fullerton’s property, and commenced to selling the same. Suspicion was excited. His answers to questions about Mrs. Fullerton’s whereabouts were unsatisfactory. He was arrested after an exciting chase, and through letters found on his person, attention was directed to a certain house in St. Louis. There the officers found Tommy in the person of a young woman, who confessed that she was Hutton’s wife and that she had consented to his fraudulent marriage of Miss Furguson [sic]. She had been drugged during the journey, and Miss Ferguson [sic] had disappeared, and, she had no doubt was murdered.
“In compliance with Hutton’s demand, she had personated [sic] Mrs. F. at Sedalia, in signing a false power of attorney, under which he returned and took possession of her property. He had then sent her to St. Louis where she was employed as a maid of all work in the house where she was arrested. A mob took Hutton from jail and hung him. He has passed by different names—‘Dan Springer,’ ‘Joseph Lee,’ ‘A. G. Hutton,’ and many others. The frail woman whose devotion to him led her to the committal of such revolting crimes is in jail in at Carthage. She says her maiden name was Mary Williams. She was born in Scioto County, Ohio; went to Oxford to school; became infatuated with [Hutton], ran away with him, and they were married in Ironton, in 1866. Afterward she went with him to Kansas, often dressing in male attire at his request, and in that garb was present when he married Miss Fullerton.”
“Judge Thayer Again Sick”
“Warren, O., Sept. 23—The Webster murder trial is again fated with ill-luck. Judge Thayer, at the close of court Tuesday was taken with another fainting fit, and afterwards announced he would be unable to go farther with the case. Judge Nichols, of Columbiana, was telegraphed for, but he has announced his inability to come. The future course which will be pursed is not at this time known. The suspense and outlook is most discouraging to those interested.”
[Judge Thayer was eventually replaced by Court of Common Pleas Judge William Day of Canton, Ohio, in the trial of Lewis Webster, who was accused of killing elderly farmer Perry Harrington. This was Webster’s second retrial on the murder charge; he had been found guilty and sentenced to hang in both previous trials. According to Mrs. Harrington, Webster, wearing a mask, had burst into the couple’s farmhouse, demanded money, and then shot her in the side and arm when, after his mask slipped, she cried out that she knew who he was. Mrs. Harrington ran out of the house to a neighbor’s and upon return, found her husband dead, a bullet hole in his forehead. Astonishingly, Webster was acquitted at the third trial and went on to marry his then-fiancée and live in the town where his claims of innocence where finally vindicated.]
“A Fatal Result”
“A fatal result from a common practice of school children is noticed in the papers. A little girl was going down the stairs some days ago, at a public school in New York, when she and some of her companions, taking hold of the banisters, proceeded to slide down. She struck her spine upon the point of a stick used to reach down bonnets and cloaks from the hooks. She was taken home, and died after lingering two days in intense agony.”
“John Snyder Ends His Life in Bantley & Fronheiser’s Store.”
“He Lost His Wife and Children in the Flood and Became Temporarily Insane—Four Shots Fired, Only One of Which Takes Effect.”
“John Snyder, aged about thirty-five years, son of Joseph Snyder, Sr., of Conemaug [sic] borough, suicided at noon Saturday, in the hardware store of Bantley & Fronheiser on Clifton Street. He went into the store and purchased a 38-caliber revolver from one of the clerks, who loaded it for him. There were quite a number of people in the store at the time, and after a short conversation with Mr. Ed. Fronheiser and Mr. J. L. Foust, the clerk who sold him the revolver, he turned as if to leave the store, and no further attention was paid to him. In a moment after he left the counter a shot was heard, and everyone turning around saw Snyder with the smoking revolver in his hand. He instantly fired three more shots, the last one taking effect in the right temple.
“The people gathered around the prostrate form but life was already extinct.
“Mr. Snyder lost his wife and four children in the flood [This refers to the Johnstown Flood, 31 May 1889, in which the insufficiently built South Fork Dam collapsed after days of heavy rainfaill, sending a literal tidalwave down the valley into the town, killing an estimated 2,209 people.], and did not recover from the excitement sustained by his great loss.
“He obtained work after the flood at Moxham, and attended to his duties for several weeks, but ultimately left and went to Ohio. He returned about a week ago, but still mourned for his wife and children. No cause is assigned for the rash act, other than temporary insanity.
“The body was removed to the home of his parents in Conemaugh borough, and Coronor Evans was notified. The coroner, however, decided an inquest unnecessary, as the case was one of plain suicide.
“The funeral took place yesterday afternoon at 2 o’clock from the Old American House at Conemaugh, where his parents live, and was private.
“The deceased was a wire drawer by trade, and worked in the Gautier works. He was a member of the Conemaugh borough Fire Company. He was much Esteemed by all who knew him, and great regret is expressed that he should so suddenly end his life.”
“Contraband Given Wages ”
“General Wool [John Ellis Wool (20 Feb., 1784-10 Nov., 1869)] has issued an order giving the ‘contraband’ employed in Fortress Monroe wages at the rate of $8 per month for the men, and $4 per month for the females.”
[The term “contraband” was applied to escaped African-American slaves who, after fleeing their owners, affiliated themselves with the Union Army. In this same year, the Contraband Act of 1861 stated that any Confederate military property, including slaves, would be confiscated. The 1862 Act Prohibiting the Return of Slaves made sure that no escapee who made it to contraband camps would ever be returned to their masters.] Ω
In Britain in the 1800s, the widow’s grief of Queen Victoria helped spur the creation of mourning jewelry, but in the 1600s, the impetus was the judicial murder of an anointed king.
Charles Stuart, later King Charles I, was born in Fife, Scotland, 19 November, 1600, to then King James VI of Scotland, later James I of a unified Britain, and his wife Queen Anne of Denmark. He was a second son, never meant to rule. Yet, Charles had the role of heir foisted on him at the death of his beloved, handsome, and accomplished older brother, Henry, Prince of Wales, who died unexpectedly in 1612.
Charles was small, sickly, and had a stammer. He was also intellectual, loved and patronized the arts, favored elaborate high Anglican worship in the age of the Puritans, and married a Roman Catholic—the delicate and beautiful Princess Henrietta Maria of France, known as Queen Mary, after whom the U.S. state of Maryland is named. Charles also believed profoundly in the Divine Right of Kings, was willful and stubborn, and refused to make the compromises that could have prevented a civil war, the destruction of the monarchy, and his own death.
As had the life his similarly-natured paternal grandmother, Mary, Queen of Scots, his own earthly days ended in execution by beheading on 30 January, 1649. His final words were “I go from a corruptible to an uncorruptible crown, where no disturbance can be.”
After his death, loyal adherents of King Charles ordered a small number of memorial rings made incorporating various Stuart motifs, portraits, and locks of the dead king’s hair. Antique jewelry expert JJ Kent, in Jewelry Guide, Volume I, wrote that a ring, “said to be one of the seven given after the King’s death, was possessed by Horace Walpole and sold with the Strawberry Hill collection. It has the King’s head in miniature and behind, a skull; while between the letters C. R. is this motto: ‘Prepared be to follow me.’”
Another of the rings was in the hands of a gentleman who wrote to Notes and Queries in June 1862, more than 200 years after Charles’s death: “I possess one of the rings alluded to [in a previous issue]. The family tradition is that it was given to a maternal ancestor, one of the Finnes family, by King Charles on the eve of his martyrdom. The portrait, in enamel, is set between two small diamonds.”
During the Commonwealth and the Restoration, Royalists created hundreds of additional rings, pendants, and other jewelry items memorializing the king. Multiple examples exist today in museums and private collections. Remarkably, new memorial jewelry for Charles was created in 1813, when his body was discovered in the burial vault of Henry VIII and Queen Jane Seymour at Windsor. The coffin was opened in the presence of George, the Prince Regent (later King George IV), and his private physician, Sir Henry Halford, who later wrote a detailed account of what transpired.
“[There was] an internal wooden coffin, very much decayed, and the Body, carefully wrapped up in cerecloth, into the folds of which a quantity of unctuous or greasy matter, mixed with resin, as it seemed, had been melted, so as to exclude, as effectively as possible, the external air. The coffin was full [and] great difficulty was experienced in detaching [the cloth] from the parts which it enveloped….
“On removing the pall, a plain leaden coffin… bearing an inscription ‘King Charles, 1648,’ in large legible characters, on a scroll of lead encircling it, immediately presented itself to the view. A square opening was then made in the upper part of the lid, of such dimensions as to admit a clear insight into its contents. [The head] was found to be loose, and, without any difficulty, was taken up and held to view…. The back part of the scalp was entirely perfect, and had a remarkably fresh appearance; the pores of the skin being more distinct… and the tendons and ligaments of the neck were of considerable substance and firmness….
“…On holding up the head, to examine the place of separation from the body… the fourth cervical vertebra was found to be cut through its substance, transversely, leaving the surfaces of the divided portions perfectly smooth and even, and appearance which could have been produced only by a heavy blow, inflicted with a very sharp instrument, and which furnished the last proof wanting to identify King Charles the First.”
Halford noted that the King’s hair appeared black, but “a portion of it, which has since been cleaned and dried, is of a beautiful dark brown colour. That of the beard was a redder brown.” More hair was then snipped for the new mourning jewelry.
JJ Kent wrote in the Jewelry Guide, “The hair at the back of the head appeared close cut; whereas, at the time of the decollation, the executioner twice adjusted the King’s hair under his cap. No doubt the piety of friends had severed the hair after death, in order to furnish rings and other memorials of the unhappy monarch.” The head was then replaced, the coffin closed and resoldered, and the vault left by all and sealed up. In 1888, it was opened again at the order of another heir to the throne, Prince Bertie, later King Edward VII, to return relics, including a piece of one of Charles’s vertebra and a tooth, which had been removed by Halford 75 years earlier. Ω
Victoria’s grief drove into high gear the already strong public market for jewelry to be at worn during all stages of mourning.
At the close of the 18th century and the early years of the 19th, memorial pieces with hair were generally small, delicate, and graceful. However, the oncoming Victorian era would turn “the entire ritual of mourning into a public display, and the jewelry changed accordingly, becoming larger, heavier, and more obvious,” wrote the curators of the Springfield, Illinois-based Museum of Funeral Customs in Bejeweled Bereavement: Mourning Jewelry—1765-1920.
In December 1861, Queen Victoria’s beloved consort, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coberg-Gotha, died of what is thought to have been typhoid fever. Married for twenty-one years, their happy union resulted in the birth of nine children. The forty-two-year-old prince’s demise shattered Victoria. For the rest of her life the queen wore mourning, and required many courtiers who served her and who attended court functions to do the same.
Victoria’s grief drove into high gear the already strong public market for jewelry to be at worn during all stages of mourning. For example, in the first nine months, the only acceptable jewelry was made of black glass, dyed pressed animal horn, gutta-percha (a latex plastic derived from tropical evergreens), vulcanite and ebonite (rubber treated with sulfur and heat), bog oak (fossilized peat), or carved from jet (a fossilized wood that washes up on west coast Yorkshire beaches, and was extracted from shale seams, particularly around between Robin Hood’s Bay and Boulby). In later stages of mourning, gold or pinchbeck (a composite metal) and hair-work jewelry commemorating the deceased was worn. Many of these items bore the motto “In Memory Of” and featured heavy black enameling.
In the United States, not one woman’s loss, but the losses of millions drove the mourning jewelry industry to its zenith. Between the years 1861-1865, the nation was locked in a horrific civil war that left thousands bereft of their loved ones. Soon after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, on Good Friday, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The resulting wave of grief may well have been the “high-water mark” of the hair work phenomenon. (“High Water Mark” was a title bestowed upon the a copse of trees on the Gettysburg Battlefield by John B. Bachelder, the first government historian of the Gettysburg battlefield, who realized its significance during the intense fighting now known as Pickett’s Charge.)
The collective grief was dissipated almost fully during the 1870s. By the early 1880s, many young adults had only sketchy memories of war and children had none at all, and in the way of rising generations, they chafed against their elders’ mourning habits. “Young people began to look at their parent’s elaborate rituals with distaste, the fashion industry experienced a backlash of sorts, and [mourning] jewelry was once again smaller and not much on display,” noted the curators of the Museum of Funeral Customs.
The custom of mourning jewelry had petered out almost entirely before World War I, although sentimental items such as “Mizpah” pins and rings (“Mizpah is an emotional bond between people who are separated either physically or by death. Mizpah jewelery is worn to signify this bond. From Genesis 31:49 of the Bible. ‘And Mizpah; for he said, The Lord watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another,’”) and celluloid photo buttons and were quite popular, as was name jewelry—including appellations such as “Mother,” “Sweetheart,” “Sister,” and others)—that has never since lost its appeal.
The mid-20th century marked a volte-face in the way the Western world dealt with death. Two world wars yielded staggering fatalities, making a collective psychological withdrawal inevitable. In addition, in peacetime, fewer and fewer people were dying at home; they disappeared into hospitals only to be seen again in their coffins, already embalmed and prettified by strangers. The idea of touching the dead and retaining any biological material from them became repugnant to the majority of the population. Discussing death became culturally distasteful, if not taboo. Even as late as 1993, when I encountered my first glimpse of mourning jewelry, I wouldn’t have spoken of my interest in death and death customs to anyone except my most trusted friends. Ω