People in Victorian times had a more personal relationship with death and mourning. A very personal relationship.
As in, they sometimes posed with their dead relatives for photographs. Propped them up and sat right next to them.
Sometimes they’d paint open eyes on their deceased loved one’s eyelids to make it look like they were still alive. Other times they’d pose the body as if it were simply taking a nap.
Grotesque to us, but quite normal to them.
“We have to remember photography was more rare and more expensive then,” explains Paulette Thompson, lead interpreter at the Owens–Thomas House, which devotes the month of October to a recognition of Victorian mourning customs just in time for Halloween.
“That photo may be the only photograph they ever own of a deceased love one. They didn’t want to remember them as being dead — they wanted to see them as they had been in life,” she says.
Unlike today, when the deceased go directly from a hospital to a mortuary, “people did all that at home in the Victorian era,” says Thompson, explaining that the body of the departed was usually displayed in the parlor of their home for mourners and well–wishers to see.
“When we think about death today we can’t begin to put ourselves in the place of these people who had to wash and prepare their own dead father or husband or sister or child. It was a much more personal experience back then.”
Besides some of those memento mori photographs, macabre–minded visitors to the Owens–Thomas House this month will also see a child’s copper coffin from 1884 on loan from Fox & Weeks Mortuary and a Victorian “hair wreath” — a giant ornament made of the actual hair of the deceased.
“This hair wreath is huge,” marvels Thompson. “And it’s obvious that it’s hair from more than one person. It’s creepy!”
Not all Victorian mourning customs were so overtly creepy, however, and many of them we still use today.
“For example, placing flowers around the casket was originally done so that if the body weren’t embalmed it wouldn’t smell with the stench of decay,” says Thompson. “We think of it as a showing of emotion. But that’s not how it evolved.”
Operated by the Telfair Museums, the Owens–Thomas House is better known as America’s finest example of Regency architecture and the first home in Savannah with indoor plumbing. So why the Halloween makeover?
“It’s a great way for us to capitalize on that group of tourists who come to Savannah each October expecting to hear scary tales,” says Thompson.
“Tourists are coming here with the expectation that there will be some maniac wielding a bloody ax to jump out of the bushes and scare them. But this is not Disneyland. We just want to be able to give people an alternative.”
Another impetus behind the program is to pay tribute to the comparatively unsung Dr. James Gray Thomas, whose name is half of the house’s moniker. (The “Thomas” part of the Owens–Thomas House’s name is generally considered to refer to his widow Margaret, who bequeathed the family home as a museum upon her death.)
A living history program Halloween weekend, Oct. 28 and 29, highlights his contributions to public health and safety during another of Savannah’s frequent Yellow Fever epidemics.
“Dr. Thomas is sort of a forgotten person in Savannah history. People don’t realize how important his efforts were in saving people from Yellow Fever and malaria and typhoid. He was in the state legislature and was instrumental in passing laws about public health,” says Thompson.
“Yellow fever affected everyone on the east coast from Florida to New York — anywhere mosquitoes were common. People were dying in the 1800s all over the country.”
Owens–Thomas interpreter Corrie Hand portrays widow Margaret in the living history production. Hand also gives a talk on Victorian mourning customs at 6 p.m. Oct. 27 in the Telfair’s Jepson Center.
The living history programs are a comparatively new thing for the “O.T. House,” and this month’s program follows on the heels of two previous successful programs dealing with the house’s history and the visit of Marquis de Lafayette to the house in 1825.
“Just within the past year we started to offer these,” says Thompson. “It’s a great way to get people to put themselves back in time and see what life was really like back then, trying to give people an understanding about how Margaret Thomas felt about the death of her spouse, and what it must have been like to have a coffin in the formal drawing room of the house.”
While the Owens–Thomas programming is an alternative to ghost tours, ironically it was during this selfsame Victorian era when ghost stories really evolved into their present form.
“People in the Victorian era were fascinated with death,” says Thompson. “They had a real fascination with spirits and mediums and things like that.”
That said, Thompson still maintains that the truth is far more interesting than fiction.
“If only I could convince some of the other tour guides in town of that,” she laughs. “History is so interesting itself, I don’t know why anyone would want to twist it.”
In Memoriam: Death and Mourning in the Victorian Era
Where: Owens–Thomas House, 124 Abercorn St.
What & When: Oct. 1–31 — Mourning customs are incorporated into daily tours and exhibits inside the museum
Oct. 27–Lecture: Owens–Thomas House Interpreter Corrie Hand presents “Mourning Practices” at 6 p.m. in the Neises Auditorium at the Jepson Center
Oct. 28 & 29–Living History Tours at 6 & 7 pm.
Reservations required–tickets $10 members, $15 non–members, $25 with Telfair Pass. To purchase contact Cyndi at 790–8880 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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