If you’ve been dying to catch an atmospheric glimpse of Court Street’s Phelps Mansion Museum, this Halloween season might be the best time to check it out.
“Death Comes To The Phelps,” an annual candlelight tour that explores death and mourning in the 19th century, has returned for the month of October.
Mark Dickinson, chair of the mansion’s board of trustees, has been involved in the tour for four of the five years it has been offered. The presentation features items from Dickinson’s private collection, gleaned from estate sales and antique shops. He will be leading tours along with Joe Schuerch, the mansion’s house manager, and Chelsea Gibson, treasurer of the mansion’s board of trustees and a visiting assistant professor of history at Binghamton University.
According to Dickinson, the tour sells out every October.
“Excitement for it grows every year, which is interesting since the subject matter is not too lively, if you’ll pardon the pun,” he said. “I think people find a morbid curiosity in it.”
Dickinson said he tries to add a few new pieces each year to keep attendees interested, and this year, the script for the tour was also changed.
“We changed the script to focus more on the American aspect of 19th-century mourning — even though everything was influenced by the British because at that time whatever Queen Victoria said everyone followed, it eventually became Americanized,” he said. “We talk a little more about local people involved in the business, and we’ll be focusing more on the family this time.”
The Gilded Age mansion, located at 191 Court St., was completed in 1871 and housed businessman Sherman Phelps and his family. Just 11 years after the mansion was built, every major member of the family had died. Tour guests are led through each room of the mansion, where the death date of a Phelps family member is announced before the presentation of topics like morbid nursery rhymes, embalming practices, superstitions and Puritan attitudes toward death that precede the Victorian era.
One room, for example, focuses on infant mortality and death during childbirth. The exhibit featured Alexandria feeding bottles, infamous for causing infant deaths via bacteria buildup in their long necks. Another displays a vial meant to catch widows’ tears, a “death mask” cast from a corpse’s face and a few art pieces woven from the hair of dead loved ones.
With high infant mortality rates and low life expectancy because of factors like the use of arsenic in ornamental items, unsanitary surgeries and disease outbreaks that worsened with urbanization, the Victorian era was immersed in what Dickinson calls a “culture of death,” which produced some of the era’s most intricate art.
“There was such fine craftsmanship, from the jewelry to the clothing to paper crafts, down to the last detail,” he said. “And no one really mourns like they used to, now you just get two days off from work.”
According to Gibson, the Victorians were also known for an enormous language of symbolism that figured into mourning traditions. Funeral wreaths had a horseshoe shape so that the two ends would point to heaven, and white calla lily wreaths for deceased mothers and infants symbolized youth and purity. Headstones were engraved with a variety of icons; an open book might have signified a love of learning, and drapery often symbolized the veil between life and death.
“I personally really like learning the symbology, because you become literate in a culture that is completely beyond us at this point, so now you can go to a cemetery and read the headstones in that way,” Gibson said.
Victorian widows followed the strictest mourning rules, undergoing mourning periods of about two years. While men usually just added black accents to their clothing for a short period after a death, grieving women adhered to specific dress codes and were barred from attending festive gatherings. Women were also tasked with preparing dead bodies for burial, a role that later switched when attitudes about death and medicine marked undertaking as a man’s job.
Gibson said the era’s mourning rituals were heavily influenced by class and gender expectations.
“As historians, we’re trained to look at race, gender and class, so I find it interesting how mourning in the 19th century was such a class-based and gendered thing,” she said. “Wealthy people or middle-class people would perform mourning to fit a kind of social [norm].”
In addition to the Phelps family, the tour touches on local points of interest like the Spring Forest Cemetery, established in 1849. Gibson said the guides’ research on the Phelps family and local affairs allowed them to more carefully gauge people’s attitudes toward death at specific points in time.
“One puzzle we have is that Robert Phelps decided to put all of the family in a mausoleum right before he died,” she said. “Did he do it because all the wealthy people in Binghamton were doing it, did he do it because he was afraid of grave robbing or was there another reason? I found this grave robbery that happened in New York City around the same time he created the mausoleum, so that kind of causality is interesting to figure out.”
A small painting displayed on the mansion’s first floor is said to embody the Victorian ideal of the good death: a peaceful death at home, surrounded by friends and loved ones. Gibson said this ideal has echoed through time as modern philosophers discuss the “right to die,” and it’s just one of many Victorian attitudes that might open modern minds toward the subject.
“This kind of thing can make people extremely uncomfortable because we don’t deal with it,” she said. “It was demystified in that period, and I think that’s something useful. As a historian, I think that when it comes to facing death, we’re the first century that hasn’t had to do that, and people forget how recent that is. So seeing this culture that’s so steeped in it seems really weird, but then you’re like, ‘Oh wait, that’s the fundamental process that unites everything.’”
“Death Comes To The Phelps” will be held at the Phelps Mansion Museum on Friday and Saturday evenings for the remainder of October. Starting times can be found on the event’s Facebook page. Each tour runs for about an hour. Adult tickets cost $15 and student tickets cost $10.