Book 4 of the Lady of Ashes Series
One of Victorian London’s most respected undertakers, Violet Harper has the new duty of accompanying coffins from various undertakers on the London Necropolis Railway for respectful funerals and burials in Surrey. But on her fateful first trip, the mournful silence of the train is shattered by the shrill ringing of a coffin bell – a device that prevents a person from being buried alive.
Inside the noisome coffin, Violet finds a man wide-eyed with fear, claiming he was falsely interred. When a second coffin bell is rung on another trip Violet grows suspicious. She voices her qualms to Inspector Hurst of Scotland Yard, only to receive a puzzling reply that, after all, it is not a crime to rise from the dead. But Violet’s instincts are whispering that all is not well on the London Necropolis Railway’s tracks. Is this all merely the result of clumsy undertaking, or is there something more sinister afoot?
Determined to get to the heart of the matter, Violet uncovers a treacherous plot and villains who will stop at nothing to keep a lid on her search for the truth.
For this book, I wanted to explore some of the mourning oddities that make Victorian mourning customs so fascinating. In particular, I decided to focus on what are known as “safety coffins.” The great fear of being buried alive was fueled not only by periodic cholera epidemics, but also by the writings of men like Edgar Allan Poe and his works such as The Premature Burial.
The idea behind a safety coffin was that it would contain some type of communication device inside it to alert people above ground, who would then rush to unbury the coffin. Unfortunately, many of these devices did not provide for air passage, and there is roughly an hour of air inside a coffin, meaning that even if someone were alive when placed in the coffin, he was surely gone by the time he was placed in the ground, which could be hours later.
For the record, the number of people actually recorded as having been saved by a safety coffin: Zero
Here are a couple of safety coffin examples:
Franz Vester’s “Burial Case,” which contained not only a ladder through which the deceased could crawl out, but a bell for the buried person to ring, plus a tube through which the face of the corpse could be viewed by the cemetery night watchman. The viewing tube was removable once it was established that the deceased was, indeed, deceased.
A “C. Redl” patented this coffin in 1887. Upon waking, the deceased could pull a string that would set off a bell above ground. The bell is even protected from the elements in the housing, and this coffin even seems to feature an air vent down to the coffin.
Developed by Christian Eisenbrandt, an inventor in Maryland, this “Life Preserving Coffin” had a spring-loaded mechanism that would cause the coffin to pop open at the slightest movement of the corpse. It also included a viewing/air hole. Two problems with this coffin: First, dead bodies tend to bloat and shift, so even a corpse could trigger it. Second: how, exactly, is the coffin going to spring open beneath six feet of dirt?
August 2, 1869
Until today, undertaker Violet Harper would have sworn that it was impossible for corpses to rise out of their coffins.
Now, she wasn’t so sure.
The sun was just breaking over the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral when Violet entered Waterloo station to stand on a dedicated funeral train platform with her undertaking partner, Harry Blundell. They were both watching as six coffins, including one under their own care, were loaded into the long compartments on the railroad hearse van, which contained twelve total slots. Each compartment in the van had a door in the side of it, past which a coffin was pushed so that it lay perpendicular to the train’s length. The coffins, stacked in individual compartments, were three high and four wide in the wood carriage. These special carriages were made especially for the London Necropolis Railway and painted chocolate brown, edged in an orange-red vermilion, to match the carriages of the London and South Western Railway, upon whose tracks the LNR ran.
Coffins were placed on large biers with hand cranks by the coffin porters, who wore simple dark-blue uniforms and matching hats with large brims and flat crowns. With one man on the ground cranking the bier up, the second coffin porter rode on the bier and pushed the coffin into its compartment, and was then cranked to the ground for the next coffin.
As the last coffin was pushed into its compartment on the ground level—a little too carelessly, in Violet’s opinion—she noticed that it bore a maker’s plate from Boyce and Sons Cabinetmakers. It reminded her that she wanted to set up dealings with Putnam Boyce again, now that she was permanently back in her London undertaking business.
But the coffin was hung up on something, and as one of the coffin porters pulled it back out to reposition it, she noticed something disturbing. She held up a hand to stop them.
“What’s the matter, Mrs. Harper?” Harry asked in irritation. Harry’s wife was expecting, and although she wasn’t due for at least a month, he was always impatient to return to the immediate area surrounding their shop.
She waved him off as she moved closer to inspect the coffin. It was one of those confounded “safety” coffins, intended to give loved ones comfort with the idea that if the deceased were not truly dead, he could send an alarm aboveground and be rescued even after burial.
Violet heartily despised these so-called safety contraptions, which took the form of bells, trumpets, and even ladders in vertical coffins, by which someone who awoke to find himself mistakenly buried could literally climb up a ladder and out of his grave.
No matter how often Violet railed against these foolish mechanisms, firmly telling people that only the return of the Lord Christ would cause people to waken in their graves, people still wanted them as a measure of comfort. And as always, unscrupulous undertakers were happy to sell them.
This one had a bell apparatus, with a bell attached to a string following along a folding brass pole that would be unfolded after the coffin went into the ground so that the bell sat above the freshly shoveled dirt.
Violet’s insides churned. If she opened the coffin, she would undoubtedly find a string tied to the deceased’s fingers and toes, so that with the merest of tugs, he could set the bell jangling.
More frustrating was that this coffin had been made by Putnam Boyce, a respected cabinetmaker whom Violet had used in the past. Most cabinetmakers made coffins during their slow times, for there was always demand for them in a mortal population. Mr. Boyce’s coffins were well crafted, with tightly fitted lids and smooth surfaces. Why, then, was he peddling in safety coffins?
Perhaps she would have to rethink her plan to purchase coffins from him.
“Thank you,” she said simply to the two coffin porters, who were still looking at her in bewilderment as to why she was halting their work. They pushed the coffin off the bier and into the compartment. With the last coffin now placed inside the hearse van, the train was ready for its journey from Waterloo station to Brookwood station in Woking, Surrey.
Violet climbed into the passenger carriage with Harry. They would accompany Mr. Harland’s body to the cemetery, making final arrangements at the chapel until his family arrived later in the day for the funeral.
The LNR had been in operation since 1854, but Violet had only recently become involved with it. Although she had sold Morgan Undertaking to Harry Blundell and his partner, Will Swift, four years ago, Will had recently asked her to buy him back out so that he could join his wife’s floral business. During his time with Morgan Undertaking, though, Will had built up a considerable business with wealthy patrons who wanted to start family crypts far outside the stench and overcrowding of London.
Not content with some of London’s garden cemeteries, such as Highgate and Kensal Green, they were flocking to Brookwood, which its owners bragged had enough spaces that London need never build another cemetery again. Clearly the gentlemen had no experience with what happened in a cholera or typhoid outbreak, where deaths in the thousands could occur in the space of a few weeks.
However, coffins at the 2,200-acre Brookwood didn’t have to be buried in the crowded manner that they did at these other cemeteries, and certainly didn’t need to be placed up to six feet deep as they did inside the ancient and overflowing church graveyards. The owners’ idea of creating a cemetery that could accommodate millions of bodies when fully developed—thus alleviating the need to ever build another London cemetery again—was commendable.
The funeral train pulled out of Waterloo with a steamy snort and a jarring lurch as Violet settled into her third-class compartment with Harry. This special train was only comprised of an engine, the hearse vans, and six passenger carriages. The passenger carriages were divided into two sections, conformist and nonconformist, with first-, second-, and third-class carriages within each religious section.
Conformist carriages were for those passengers who belonged to the Church of England, also called the Anglican church. The nonconformist carriages typically conveyed Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Unitarians, and Quakers, but might be those of other sects, as well. Special care was taken to ensure that people from different social backgrounds and religious leanings didn’t have to be distressed by having to mix with others of a different class.
The train ran a single, hour-long route from Waterloo to Woking, southwest of London, so it certainly had no beds or Pullman dining carriages, but it did have comfortable enough seats for the hour’s ride, even in third class. The first-class seats included plush cushions, chandeliers, filigreed ornamentation, glass windows instead of bare openings, and doting attendants, but such fripperies were never Violet’s concern when there were bodies to be looked after.
The only real inconvenience was having to travel at dawn with the bodies and wait at the cemetery for the train to return to London to pick up mourners at the more civilized hour of eleven thirty in the morning. If the number of mourners for the day justified it, later trains followed.
There were always details to attend to at Brookwood, but it was still earlier in the morning than Violet cared to rise.
The train conductor stepped into their carriage, nodded at Violet, Harry, and the other two undertakers in the car, and passed on through to the next carriage via the open platform between them. The undertakers were always recognized by their severe black dress and tall hats with black crepe wrapped around the base of the crown and trailing down their backs. However, the conductor had to dutifully check for any stowaways who might attempt to board the train for a free ride.
Now that they were in relative privacy, seated across from each other, Harry asked, “Do you feel well, Mrs. Harper?”
Violet had had violent experiences with trains in the past, having been involved in a wreck and also having witnessed a train hitting a murderer who had fallen from a platform. She had largely overcome her resulting fear of the hulking, steam-breathing beasts, but always felt an unwelcome twinge as the whistle shrilly blew and the engine started its laborious forward motion.
“Yes, I’m fine,” she assured him, even as she swallowed the unpleasant taste in her mouth.
Harry nodded knowingly and then proceeded to change the subject. “What did you notice on the platform?”
“A bit of false hope by loved ones preyed upon by an unscrupulous undertaker. A bell safety coffin.”
“Really? How fascinating. I was reading in the latest issue of Funeral Service Journal that an American named Vester has developed a new safety coffin that adds a tube connected to a viewing glass inside the coffin.” He seemed eager to share both his knowledge and the evidence of his willingness to research the latest in undertaking. “That way, the face of the corpse can be viewed from above. An interesting solution to the inadvertent bell-ringing problem.”
Harry referred to the fact that the swelling or position shifting that naturally occurred when the body began to decay would frequently cause the body to ring the bell and send people into a frenzy of grave digging. A viewing tube would enable a mourner or cemetery worker to look down and determine whether the coffin’s occupant was still alive.
Not that it mattered, for coffins held very little air, perhaps two hours’ worth at most, and so unearthing a coffin in time to rescue someone buried alive was nearly impossible.
Violet was displeased with her own grumpiness but unable to condone even a discussion of the infernal contraptions. She turned dismissively to the window to avoid any further discussion of safety coffins and the deceptive reassurance they gave grieving families. Instead, she contemplated the packed and soot-covered hovels of south London. That dreary cityscape soon opened up to impressive country estates, the rich red-brown coats of Sussex cattle, and the spires of crumbling country churches.
Excerpt copyright 2015 Christine Trent.