December 1, 2010

The Victorian Genre of Death Stories

Did you know that nineteenth century people were obsessed with death?  It makes sense.  The mortality rate was very high, and people would short the living in order to save money to properly bury their children ~ because it was pretty likely that at least some of their children would die.  There was a whole industry built around the fetishization of death.  Now, of course, it's all underground and we act like it doesn't even happen. But, then, there was a genre of story where the death of a person would be told in great detail.  They appeared in newspapers and people would write them in letters to loved ones. Here's an example: the death of Ulysses S. Grant in 1885 in the New York Times (from here).  This is only half of it. It goes on about the lead up to the death, 14 pages total of single spaced text.
News of Ulysses Grant's Death

[From page 1 of the New York Times, July 24, 1885]
















New-York. -- Because the people of that city befriended me in my need.

U.S. Grant.


Mount McGregor, July 23. -- Surrounded by all of his family and with no sign of pain, Gen. Grant passed from life at six minutes after eight o'clock this morning. The end came with so little immediate notice as to be in the nature of a surprise. All night had the family been on watch, part of the time in the parlor, where he lay, rarely venturing further away from him than the porch on which the parlor opens. There seemed no hope that death could be held off through the night. It was expected at 9 o'clock, again at about midnight, and again neat 4 o'clock. There was serious failure at 9 o'clock and at midnight, but not at 4 o'clock, and as day came, bringing but slight change, the hope was that he might last until midday.

The General did not speak even in a whisper after 3 o'clock this morning. Before that it had been little more than an aspiration at any time of the night, and then only answers to inquiries. But when the respiration grew rapid and weak all his powers that depended upon it failed him. His normal respiration is under 20. It was quick during the evening, 44 at midnight, 50 at 3 o'clock, and 60 at 5 o'clock. Then it became quite faint.

He coughed somewhat after midnight, and was able with the doctor's aid to dislodge the mucus and throw it off, but from about 3 o'clock he could neither dislodge it or expectorate, and it began to clog his throat and settle back into his lungs.

It was about 4 o'clock when the rattle in the throat began. For an hour or longer, Dr. Shrady, in the hope of easing, rather than of sustaining the General, as he was past that, have been giving hypodermics of brandy with great frequency, and applying hot cloths and mustard to various parts of the body, especially the hands and feet, which were growing very cold.

It was soon evident that the General was too far gone to be aided by stimulants.

Then came the waiting for death. The family had all been near the General through the night. It was not kept from them that he was beyond saving. They moved quietly about the sick room and out on the porch.

The General lay on the bed, his face leaden, yet with some warmth left in its hue. His eyes were closed. Power to open them had been restored to him, and it was occasionally invoked when some member of the family, or the doctor, or one of the attendants spoke to him. Then he would open his eyes. He could make no other recognition, but that of the eyes was clear. His lungs and pulse were failing, but there was yet no cloud on the brain.

At about 4 o'clock Dr. Douglas, who had been resting a little at the cottage, joined Dr. Shrady at the sick bed. Dr. Sands, considering himself of no use in the case, had gone quietly to bed at the hotel early in the evening, and was not disturbed.

Dr. Douglas walked to the hill top after he had looked at the General. "He is conscious," the Doctor said; "that is, he has not lost his power of recognition. He Breathed; his heart lives; his lungs live; his brain lives; and that is about all."

At 5 o'clock, when Dr. Newman left the cottage for a few moments, came word of rapid sinking, of the death rattle, of cold extremities, and of the discoloration of the finger nails. All was failing except the brain, which would be the last to die, the Pastor said.

"For an hour past," he went on, "Mrs. Grant has been sitting with the General. When she speaks to him he opens his eyes. She says little and bears up wonderfully. As he is going, there is a change apparent in everything except his head. The broad forehead is as fine and commanding as ever. The head has not been seen to advantage in his sick chair, but now that he is recumbent it stands boldly out in the wreck of body. It has reminded me over and over again to-night of the death mask of Peter the Great."

While Mrs. Grant sat by the General the other members of the family kept either in the other parts of the room or on the porch, almost within whispering call. They did not care to risk annoyance to him by grouping about him before it became necessary.

The rays of the morning sun fell across the cottage porch upon a family waiting only for death.

The members of the family had gone to their rooms about 7 o'clock on the advice of Dr. Shrady that they seek rest. The General lay perfectly still. He was yet conscious but not alert. There had been frequent visits. When attendants touched his hands, stroked his forehead, or moistened his lips he did not heed them. At times he would open his eyes; the vision was clear, but there was no sign that he more than barely recognized the surroundings. Such had been his condition since 3 o'clock. The family took the doctor's advice and withdrew. The doctor said he would inform them instantly of any change. Dr. Douglas and Dr. Shrady remained at the bedside. They saw that the General was sinking, that he could not last long, yet the limit of his endurance could not be fixed at 7:30 o'clock. They went out on the porch and Dr. Sands, who had spent the night at the hotel, joined them. The Rev. Dr. Newman was there. Dr. Sands stepped to the bedside. The General's breath came in quick gasps. He had no color. The hands lay white, limp, and cold on the sheet that covered him. His wasted, feeble body could not bear heavier covering. The throat was exposed. It fluttered with every effort to breathe. There was no more motion of the chest. Dr. Sands returned to the porch, shaking his head. He agreed with his associates that the end could not be far off. None of them would say how soon it might come. Dr. Newman inquired if he ought to go to breakfast; he had staid through the weary watch of two nights. Dr. Shrady advised him to wait. The Pastor asked the nurse, Henry, who thought a decline unlikely within an hour. It was then 7:40. Mrs. Sartoris entered the sick room, and as she stood at the bedside the General opened his eyes. She bent over him, and, slipping her hand under his, asked if he recognized her. She thought she felt a slight pressure from the cold fingers. That decided Dr. Newman and Mr. Dawson, the stenographer, to go to breakfast.

They had not been gone more than five minutes when the nurse, Henry, stepped to the parlor door and beckoned to the doctors. A change had come. Dr. Shrady sent for the family. The bed stood in the middle of the room. Dr. Douglas drew a chair to the head near the General. Mrs. Grant came in and sat on the opposite side. She clasped gently one of the white hands in her own. When the Colonel came in Dr. Douglas gave up his chair to him. The Colonel began to stroke his father's forehead, as was his habit when attending him. Only the Colonel and Mrs. Grant sat. Mrs. Sartoris stood at her mother's shoulder, Dr. Shrady a little behind. Jesse Grant leaned against the low headboard fanning the General. Ulysses junior stood at the foot. Dr. Douglas was behind the Colonel. The wives of the three sons were grouped near the foot. Harrison was in the doorway, and the nurse, Henry, near a remote corner. Between them, at a window, stood Dr. Sands. The General's little grandchildren, U.S. Grant, Jr., and Nellie, were sleeping the sleep of childhood in the nursery room above stairs.

All eyes were intent on the General. His breathing had become soft, though quick. A shade of pallor crept slowly but perceptibly over his features. His bared throat quivered with the quickened breath. The outer air, gently moving, swayed the curtains at an east window. Into the crevice crept a white ray from the sun. It reached across the room like a rod and lighted a picture of Lincoln over the deathbed. The sun did not touch the companion picture, which was of the General. A group of watchers in a shaded room, with only this quivering shaft of pure light, the gaze of all turned on the pillowed occupant of the bed, all knowing that the end had come, and thankful, knowing it, that no sign of pain attended it -- this was the simple setting of the scene.

The General made no motion. Only the fluttering throat, white as his sick robe, showed that life remained. The face was one of peace. There was no trace of present suffering. The moments passed in silence. Mrs. Grant still held the General's hand. The Colonel still stroked his brow.

The light on the portrait of Lincoln was slowly sinking. Presently the General opened his eyes and glanced about him, looking into the faces of all. The glance lingered as it met the tender gaze of his companion. A startled, wavering motion at the throat, a few quiet gasps, a sigh, and the appearance of dropping into a gentle sleep followed. The eyes of affection were still upon him. He lay without a motion. At that instant the window curtain swayed back in place, shutting out the sunbeam.

"At last," said Dr. Shrady, in a whisper.

"It is all over," sighed Dr. Douglas.

Mrs. Grant could not believe it until the Colonel, realizing the truth, kneeled at the bedside clasping his father's hand. Then she buried her face in her handkerchief. There was not a sound in the room, no sobbing, no unrestrained show of grief. The example set by him who had gone so quietly kept grief in check at that moment. The doctors withdrew. Dr. Newman, who had entered in response to a summons just at the instant of the passing away, looked into the calm face, now beyond suffering, and bowed his head. There was a brief silence. Then Dr. Newman led Mrs. Grant to a lounge, and the others of the family sought their rooms.

The General was not fully conscious for several hours before he died. There never seemed an utter lack of consciousness, but the hold upon his mind was slight indeed at times all through the night. He began to sink at about 7 o'clock last night, when the doctors forecast the end as almost certain to come during the night. He had been dying, however, for 36 hours before that, when decline followed the fatigue of his ride to the Eastern Lookout. Nothing came from the General before death which could be called his dying words. He took no conscious leave of his family. There had been prayers at midnight, when it was supposed he was going. Mrs. Grant then pressed his hand and asked if he knew her. He replied with a look of reassurance. He was near collapse at the time, and Col. Grant, thinking him possible in distress, asked him if he suffered. He whispered a feeble "no." That question was asked several times with the same result. Once, about 3 o'clock, he seemed in need of something. The nurse bent over him and heard him say "water." He did not speak after that.

At different times through the night up to that hour he made himself understood by some sort of response to questions bearing on his comfort. His last voluntary and irresponsive act of speech which embodied the idea that governed him in all his sufferings, and which will on that account stand probably as his last utterance, dates back to yesterday afternoon, when, noticing the grief that the family could not restrain, he said, whispering in little above a breath, yet quite distinctly:

"I don't want anybody to feel distressed on my account."

He was then past rallying to an effort to hide his weakness, but did not forget his solicitude to spare others pain.

Dr. Shrady was in charge at the cottage all of last night. Dr. Douglas was worn out and needed rest, which he took at the cottage, so as to be at call at a critical moment. Dr. Sands, assuming that he could be of no use, went early to bed at the hotel, and rose of his own accord in the morning, just in time to see the General die.

It was a folding bed, that had been put into the cottage for use by the attending doctor, to which the General was moved early last evening. He wanted to change from the sitting posture, of which he was thoroughly tired. A reclining position was thought dangerous for him of late months, because it brought on a stuffy throat and choking. That was not to be feared last night; the muscles of the throat had relaxed. No spasmodic power was left; the pulse had not been less than 100 for 36 hours before death, or the respiration less than 30. Both ran up steadily to the end, the pulse touching 120, 140, 160 in quick succession, and then mounting so fast that it could not be counted. It was flighty most of the night. Respiration reached 44 at midnight. It was 60- by 4 o'clock, with a quickening tendency to the end. It ceased to move the diaphragm about midnight. It touched the lungs only slightly at daybreak. Air went little below the throat toward the last. The arms and feet became cold early in the evening. Hot appliances were made to them and to various parts of the body, and were frequently renewed. This was not done in the expectation of reviving him nor was brandy injected for that purpose. Both the injections and the appliances were made for his comfort -- to ease him. They would have served also as a help to a rally if one had temporarily set in. But that was not anticipated. The treatment sought only to comfort him. It was applied whenever pulse or heart of lungs threatened distress -- sometimes every few minutes and again at intervals of an hour or longer.

The General, knowing his disease, foreseeing the result, and apprehending death sooner than did the doctors, had only one wish in regard to it. He wanted to die painlessly. The brandy, the hot appliances, and anodynes made the end what he wanted it to be. Otherwise the feverish coursing of the pulse, the panting, shallow breath, and the sense of dissolution which he might have felt extending upward to the brain may have made the end anything but a peaceful sinking into sleep. These symptoms and the treatment for them make a basis for doubt if the General could have been at any time during the night in clear mind. His posture in bed was most of the time on the right side. The head was bolstered. Toward the end he was turned on his back, dying in that position.

The end was characteristic, the doctors say, of the disease as diagnosed by them. It was a case of clear exhaustion, the emaciation having left him, it is said, weighing less than 100 pounds. This morning, when the first shock was over, the doctors recalled to the family the question raised in regard to the diagnosis, and asked the privilege of an autopsy. The family would not hear of it. They were satisfied, they said, with the diagnosis. The matter was dropped at once.

Dr. Douglas said there was nothing peculiar about the death except the resisting force of remarkable vitality. It was nine months yesterday since Dr. Douglas took charge of the General. The General had not been dead two minutes when the wires were sending it over the country. It was known in New-York before some of the guests heard of it at the hotel, where it spread very quickly. Undertaker Holmes was on his way from Saratoga almost as soon as the family had withdrawn to their rooms from the bedside. A special train which had waited for him all night was at once dispatched for him. A message was sent to Stephen Merritt, at New-York, to come on at once to take charge of the funeral services.

Sculptor Gohardt was informed that he might take the death mask. The General's body still lay on the bed clad in the white flannel gown and the light apparel that he had last worn. The face seemed to have filled out somewhat, looking more as in familiar portraits of him.

It was yet early in the morning when dispatches of condolence and offers of help began to come in on the family. One was from the Managers of the Soldiers' Home at Washington, offering for the place of interment a site in the grounds at the Home, carefully selected and on an eminence overlooking the city. That dispatch suggested the urgency of fixing upon plans for the coming few days and for interment.

Col. Grant said that recently the General had written a note embodying his wishes in regard to the subject of removal from here. He was then anticipating death during this month. It would be too bad, he wrote, to send the family back to the city in the hot weather on account of his death. He proposed, therefore, that his body be embalmed and kept on this hill until the weather should become cool enough to let them go back to the city in comfort, and allow an official burial if one should be desired. The General's supposition in writing this note was that he would be buried in New-York. He had designated, one week after his arrival here, three places from which choice of burial place might be made. His note is given elsewhere regarding this matter. Washington was not one of the places named. He did not know that the family had been in correspondence with Gen. Sheridan, in April, about a burial place in Washington, or that Gen. Sheridan had selected a site on the grounds of the Soldiers' Home. The arrangement was then considered settled. Family preference naturally leaned that way when arrangements had gone so far. Only the Colonel and one or two others knew, until to-day, that the General had given expression to a preference. It was urged this morning the General might have preferred Washington above any other place, but that he had omitted to mention it because of modesty. The disposition of the family, however, when it was explained to-day what he had done, was to follow his wishes.

Plans in this direction were facilitated this afternoon, when a telegram came from Mayor Grace making an official tender of a burial site in any park in New-York City. Col. Grant, in reply, asked that a messenger be sent here to confer on the subject. A messenger will also come from the President to urge Washington. Several telegrams arrived later, one from Thomas L. James, expressive of the universal opinion that the interment should be in New-York. John A. Logan advises Washington. Such is the drift the matter is taking to-night.

There has been talk also on the less important but more urgent subject of what should be done immediately. Joseph W. Drexel came up this morning from Saratoga and begged the family to consider themselves at liberty to use the cottage as they hose and for as long a time as might suit them. W.J. Arkell placed his cottage at the disposal of the family. It is the only cottage here except Mr. Drexel's. These offers helped a decision rapidly. It was thought that arrangements for burial could be definitely made in 10 days; that the body might be taken to the Arkell cottage and left there under guard for that time; that then it might be removed to the place selected for burial, after which the family might return to the Drexel cottage to stay into the Fall. This discussion, in which Col. Grant represented the family, was, of course, merely tentative. A suggestion by Paymaster Gilbert A. Robertson, of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, fitted well into these plans. It proposed to Gen. Hancock, through Gen. Charles A. Carleton, Recorder of the Loyal Legion, that a Lieutenant and 13 men be sent here to guard the body until its removal. A Brooklyn Grant Army Post, which Gen. Grant last visited and which is to bear his name, sent a request to be allowed to act as guard of honor from this place to the place of burial.

The family are bearing the trial well. Few persons have been allowed to visit the cottage. It has been the intention to keep away those whose business was not of the first importance. There have been no willful intruders. The ladies have kept up stairs. They were excessively wearied by the long strain. As the end could not be averted, and as the General could be kept alive only in suffering, the family sorrow seeks comfort in the reflection that death has brought him the only possible relief. It is hard to find consolation with grief yet fresh, but the thought that it has happened for the best has so far averted such violent scenes as had been dreaded. Mrs. Grant is especially brave in her affliction. All have been deeply touched by the many expressions of sympathy from every quarter. Col. Grant has undertaken general direction of affairs. He has had all he could do to-day, and is likely to be employed to his full capacity for work until every arrangement can be completed. The conferences with Mayor Grace's secretary and the President's messenger to-morrow will no doubt go far toward settling the question to which all others are subservient. Dr. Sands went home to-day. Dr. Shrady wanted to try again to persuade the family to consent to an autopsy. They positively declined again, repeating that they were perfectly satisfied with the treatment and diagnosis. The undertakers have been embalming the body to-day. It will be finished to-morrow.
Questions of the Day:  Do you think it's healthier to obsess with death like this or to ignore it completely?

1 comment:

William B. Brahms said...

Interesting. I have read many Victorian obits in my study of last words. In addition to an obsession with death, there was also the tendency to lionize or vilify the dead depending on who they were -- in this case (as in most) to paint a most favorable portrait. I note that the headline indicates his last words were concern for others. In reality, hours seem to separate and such statements and his true last words, which were purely survival -- "Water" It mentions this quote in the obit by the time lime is obscured for a perhaps a more suitable dying statement. - William B. Brahms, author of Last Words of Notable People