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  • Heather Tweed

Victorians Who Slept In A Coffin

Updated: Jan 9



A Space Saving Coffin Cupboard


Peculiar Furniture

Imagine sleeping in a coffin! Clambering in, pulling the sheets up then simply dozing off! No-one except a Vampire would do that by choice would they? Well the answer is yes. Some Victorians chose to sleep in their own coffins whilst others were forced to do so as a form of punishment.Back in 2017 when I was researching the tragic Murder of a 19th Century performer, one of the shocking facts that appeared in the court case was that his murderer had been made to sleep in a coffin as a child. Today as I searched through a bound copy of The Strand Magazine I found my sticky note marking an article on ‘Peculiar Furniture’ which includes a coffin cupboard! I decided to investigate a little further.The newspaper archives threw up a number of stories. Some shocking, some more pragmatic. Here are a chosen few.


A Sheffield Novice Forced To Sleep In A Coffin

In 1912 a young Novice Nun escaped from a Convent claiming that she had to ‘Undergo a humiliating discipline and submit to revolting hardships’ which included being made to sleep in the coffin she would be buried in had she been ordained as a Nun.Her father had forced her into the calling against her will. On the train to the nunnery a kindly woman spoke to the girl and realised her distress. They exchanged details and woman later visited the Convent claiming to be the girls aunt. The woman gave the girl shelter and a more traditional cosy bed to sleep in once the girl had escaped.

Motherwell Times – Friday 31 May 1912


Inspiration For The Handmade’s Tale?

17 years earlier in 1895 we have a troubling story from Canada to almost parallel Margaret Attwoods The Handmaid’s Tale. A Dr. Jacques had visited 1,200 smallpox cases during a Montreal epidemic and was praised for his good work in the city. Amongst his patients were the Aubin family, mother, father and five daughters. They moved in with Dr Jacques and he set up a quasi religious community with five young sisters. ‘..the five children lead a life almost as severe as the terribly austere regime of a Carmelite nun. They are robed in red material, with a white head-dress falling down over their shoulders. These girls have no education whatever, yet their medical protector says they are very learned in things pertaining to the celestial sphere.’. They were chained by the neck to an alter every day to pray. The each slept in a little room or cell on the second floor which contained a table, a tin bath, and a coffin used as a bed each night. Dr Jaques also slept in his own coffin on the ground floor.The community was no short lived affair, the first reports are from 1890 and mentions in news reports continue until at least 1896.

Pearson’s Weekly – Saturday 27 July 1895



A Coffin Cradle


Vaszary Kovacs

In 1894 a former comic actor and coffin dozer named Vaszary Kovacs, passed away in Hungary.He had been quite a character becoming a cross bearer at funerals. For a small fee of course, he was after all an actor.‘With his snow white beard and flowing white hair, the wooden cross in his right hand, and the left on his sword, was a conspicuous and dramatic figure. For the last twenty years of his life slept in his coffin, which, with his own hand, had painted in the national colours of Hungary. He died in the coffin, and his last wish was that the lid should be merely nailed down over him, and that no one should touch his dead body.

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette – Tuesday 09 October 1894


A Surprising Revelation From A World Cup Player

During the 1966 World Cup footballer Gerry Hitchens tells us he used to play with a young footballer called Luigi Meroni at Torino club in Italy. Reportedly the eccentric Luigi dressed in the style of an Al Capone gangster, was once arrested and fined for walking a chicken on a lead through on Italian city road and, of course, slept in a coffin.

The People – Sunday 03 July 1966


Why?

There are some distressing continuing reports of cruelty cases where children are made to sleep in coffins as punishment. Also think of fictional character Max Branning in TV soap Eastenders who was traumatised as a child when his father forced him into a coffin.

Some poor souls have troubled minds and mental health issues which lead them to think they need to sleep in a coffin.Some people simply had a morbid fear of anyone touching them after death and perhaps felt it a more dignified ending if the lid was simply nailed to the coffinOthers such as The Bermondsey Coffin Club saved to buy coffins well in advance of their devise. Once the coffin was delivered the problem was where to store such a large item taking up precious space and vulnerable to woodworm and rot if kept in a damp cellar or shed? The answer was to utilise it as an item of furniture. A useful corner cupboard, a dining table when raised on legs or indeed a made to measure bed! Diss Express – Friday 22 September 1905

Today there are coffin clubs devoted to demystifying funerals and the process of death. Unfortunately they don’t report how comfortable a coffin may or may not be to sleep in. If you do know please don’t contact me!

Thank you for reading.

@heathertweed


A Victorian ‘Coffin Cab’ Named for its distinctive shape as well as the possible outcome of the deadly diseases that could be transferred in the confines of the passenger seat.

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