Magic and Mourning in the Victorian Era
The sun never set on the British Empire during the reign of Queen Victoria. The world had never known a woman to have such a global influence on the cultural standards of her time. She influenced fashions, food, and standards of etiquette. Queen Victoria was seen as a role model of femininity, morality and intellect in the United States. The young Queen’s choice to wear a white wedding dress at her wedding to Prince Albert in 1840 set the standards for weddings into the 21st century. A woodcut of the British Royal family with their Christmas tree at Windsor Castle was published in the popular U.S. women’s magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, at Christmastime 1850 and introduced Americans to the the holiday tree. With American women following styles set by the young Queen, it is easy to understand how the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861, lead to the American traditions seen throughout the U.S. Civil War and post-Civil War era, known as the Reconstruction.
Queen Victoria publicly mourned her husband until her own death in 1901. The Queen established elaborate and structured mourning customs, especially for women. Etiquette books recommended that mothers mourn a child for one year, a child mourn a parent for one year, and siblings mourn for six months. Black crepe covered mirrors in the homes of the deceased, so that their spirit would not become ‘trapped’ between this world and the next. Widowers mourned for three months by wearing armbands, badges, or rosettes of black fabric.
Widows were expected to observe a minimum two and a half years in mourning, some records say one year and one day. Following the death of her husband, a wife began extreme mourning, in which she was to wear only black clothing and to keep her face hidden with a black, crepe veil when she left her home. This was so that others could not see her tearful eyes, and so that the spirit of the dead, which was believed to remain around the bereaved, would not attach itself to an unknown stranger.
Extreme mourning was followed by full mourning, during which a widow continued to wear black garments and a veil, but lighter shades of lace and cuffs were allowed. The final stage, half mourning, permitted the widow to wear solid-colored fabrics of lavender, gray, and some purples.
Widows were to wear only appropriate jewelry (usually jet, a jewelry made of polished coal, or charms which contained a lock of the deceased’s hair). Bracelets of the deceased person’s hair were extremely popular.
Widows avoided social functions, and corresponded on black-lined stationery. Funerals served as a ritual allowing survivors to honor the deceased and express their grief in the presence of friends and the community.
Changes Brought by the Civil War
Women held prominent roles in mourning rituals throughout the Victorian era. The enormous number of casualties brought on by the Civil War affected everyone in the country, whether Union or Confederate. At least 618,000 (some experts believe as many as 700,000) men died or were killed during the Civil War. Considering that the population of the United States at this time was approximately 31,400,000, the U.S. lost 20% of its total residents. Imagine 61 million people dying within a four year period of modern day U.S. How devastating would that be? That is the impact of grief which hit the United States.
During the first year of fighting, many Confederate women tried to maintain the rituals of dress and behavior that accompanied death. But with the increasing economic hardships, most women could not afford the elaborate rituals of dress and jewelry. With as many as one of every four Confederate soldiers dying, women across the region were thrown into a perpetual state of mourning and forced to abandon their rituals of dress and self-imposed seclusion.
Funerals During Wartime
As Confederate women’s ability to observe strict mourning rituals of dress and appearance declined, the number of funerals they witnessed increased. Before the war, funerals tended to be private family affairs. As the death tolls rose, funerals became daily, public events throughout the country. With men on both sides of the war dying so far away from home, strangers increasingly performed many of the rites associated with death. Rather than finding eternal rest in a family cemetery, most Civil War soldiers were buried in the fields where they had died. Look at this tombstone epitaph found in a field in Fredericksburg, Virginia carved by Confederate soldiers.
They came from the north to our southern land
to venge their fire and make their brand.
But this lonely, desolate forgotten spot
is all this Yankee bastard got.
Despite the staggering numbers of dead, women frequently tried to mitigate the impersonal and anonymous burials of Confederate and Union soldiers by attending services, writing letters to the families should a name and address by found. The American First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, was known to visit hospitals around the Washington, D.C. area in order to give flowers and fruit to wounded soldiers. She took time to write letters for them to send to their loved ones. Southern women placed flowers on military graves, both Northern and Southern. This Southern tradition would eventually become recognized as the U.S. Memorial Day.
Spiritualism and Victoriana
It is easy to comprehend the fascination with the supernatural in the late 19th century. After the death of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria was said to have been contacted by a thirteen-year-old boy living in Leicester, England named Robert James Lees. Reportedly, Lees participated in a family séance, during which a message from Albert to the Queen had been relayed. This message revealed the pet name known only to Queen Victoria and her late husband. Following this event, Lees was invited to conduct séances for the Queen throughout the remainder of her life.
The Victorians in the UK and US were haunted by the unknown. Mrs. Lincoln, America’s First Lady was also “an adherent of spiritualism, believing the living could be in contact with the dead”. It is easy to understand how so much loss of life would lead the survivors wanting to connect with the spirits of the people they loved. The core belief of Spiritualism was that the living could communicate with the dead through the help of a medium. The Victorian era is associated with industry and science, yet many Victorians, including Queen Victoria, were drawn to the paranormal. The most popular forms of spiritualism in the late Victorian period included hypnotism, clairvoyance, and crystal-gazing.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, like many late Victorians, was fascinated by the possibility of communication with the departed souls. The population delighted in stories containing gothic fables of living corpses and vampires. Novels were filled with dreams, premonitions and second sight. Spirits and the supernatural were everywhere. Following the U.S. Civil War, traveling medicine shows in the American South entertained by mixing versions of palm readings, phrenology, and fortune-tellers. Blend those interludes with music and comedy acts, then intermingled with a dash of the evangelical, and you have entertainment. These shows evolved into the Wild West shows of the later 1800s and eventually became Vaudeville in the early 20th century.
Hence, we can see that is was not simply a matter of stories and storytelling. The material world they inhabited often seemed supernatural…Disembodied voices over the telephone, (which was initially conceived as a means to communicate with the dead), the superhuman speed of the railway, and instant communication via telegraph wires.. Supernatural indeed. The Victorians experienced the collapse of time and distance by modern technologies which were transforming their daily life.
Queen Victoria circa 1870 photograph is used courtesy of National Media Museum, U.K.
Atlanta History Center, “Life After the War” Living Exhibit
The Lincoln Institute
National First Ladies’ Library
University of Vermont
All photographs are Public Domain or owned by the author.