Haunted Orange County kicked off October in a very fitting way. They hosted In Memoriam: A Victorian Mourning Exhibit during the first weekend of the month. The event was held at the historic Howe-Waffle Mansion in Santa Ana, Calif., which is known to have a few spirits of its own. I am absolutely fascinated with the Victorian period and made it a focus of my studies when I was working toward my MA in English, so I had to attend this exhibition, and it did not disappoint.
The Victorian era holds my interest because it was a macabre time in many ways. Gothic literature truly blossomed during this period with works by the Brontë sisters, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe. Death, especially among children, was at an alarmingly all-time high because of the Industrial Revolution. When Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, passed in 1861, she grieved for the remainder of her life and set the trend for elaborate mourning rituals, from fashion to conduct. The Victorians developed a distinct way of grieving and In Memoriam highlighted this fact.
The evening began outdoors with a video lecture, which provided an insightful overview of Victorian mourning practices. The speaker shared how it was customary for funerals to be held in the deceased person’s home, specifically in the parlor. He also mentioned that Irish wakes featured a professional mourner who was hired to stay by the casket and lament so the rest of the family could celebrate the person’s memory rather than wallow in sadness.
The most intriguing fact to me was the fear the Victorians had of being buried alive, a condition referred to as taphophobia. The coffins of the period included features like above-ground bells attached by a rope and escape hatches that people could use if they were mistaken for dead. If they suddenly awoke and found themselves locked in a funerary box, all they had to do was jingle the bell and scream for help. Interestingly, Edgar Allan Poe only perpetuated this fear with tales such as The Premature Burial.
Once the video concluded, we were all invited to step into the Howe-Waffle Mansion to see a variety of Victorian mourning artifacts up close. One of the rooms contained a display of Victorian mourning fashion. The dresses were beautiful in their simplicity and showed how the styles changed as the 19th century progressed. There were also accompanying accessories that lay on a table, which included fans, gloves, and a purse.
In the same space was an infant’s casket set up to imitate how a funeral service would look for a child. There were flowers, a French antique altar crucifix that dated back to the 1860s, and a wooden prayer kneeling bench. In another part of the house was a case holding a grave doll. Also referred to as a mourning doll, it was commissioned when a child died to be left at their gravesite and was a way for families to cope with the loss of such a young soul.
Postmortem photography also flourished during the Victorian period and there were several images on display featuring the deceased in their coffins surrounded by family members. Some included children who had passed, positioned among their surviving siblings. While many people may find this tradition bizarre or morbid, these pictures of the dead were works of art and proudly displayed in homes. The photographs imbued the dead with life so they could be remembered.
Other relics included display cases holding ornate brooches, rosaries and pendants containing locks of hair of the dearly departed. These were all popular jewelry pieces to wear when in mourning. Before my departure, I got an intimate look at an amazing replica of the historic Howe-Waffle Mansion. One of the hosts was kind enough to open it for me so I could peek inside. Every detail was done to match the exact layout of the house, from the walls to the furnishings. What a magnificent work of art!
In Memoriam: A Victorian Mourning Exhibit was such an educational and heartfelt affair, and I’m happy I was able to witness it. Haunted Orange County hosts several events monthly, including haunted tours and ghost walks, so check their calendar to learn about future offerings. The Howe-Waffle Mansion will also be putting on another Victorian-themed event called Hidden Dangers of the Victorian Home on November 5th.