This Magpie Tale has us singing “Oh What a Beautiful Mourning!”
The highly popular BBC series Call the Moirologist about professional mourners is a reminder that no one understood this profession quite like the Victorians. And even in the United States in the Victorian era (which, for the record, was not part of the British Empire and had no more right to say they were living in the Victorian Era than they had to say they lived in the Ming Dynasty) it was perfected to an art.
Chicago, still considered to be the new metropolis of the West, proved to be the unlikely center of this unusual industry, and from its establishment in 1879 until it closed in 1931, Northwestern Unversity’s Center for Moriology and Funereal Arts was the center of the industry — producing the nation’s best embalmers and publishing countless volumes on mourning etiquette. Mourning was an art, and training a bride to be how to conduct herself were she to become a widow was considered far more important than instruction on what to do on her wedding night.
The annual Moirology Ball and Fair held in mid-January — the weather needed to be bleak because sunny spring would just not be appropriate for such an event — drew thousands and was the windy city’s most important event. There were workshops on how to properly wail, vendors selling the latest in in black veils and ebony lace hankies, speakers on how to properly cover photos of the deceased in the home.
By the 1890s, the keynote speakers had to be of ever greater national prominence. In January of 1893, months after her acquittal, Lizzie Borden spoke to promote her new book I Never Touched the Ax: My Side of the Story, and the conference had to be moved from the Northwestern campus to the recently opened Auditorium Theater in downtown Chicago. Crowds lined up for blocks, and scalpers were selling tickets for over $1,000. Her speech gripped the audience with some booing while others shouted “I believe you Lizzie!”
Choking back tears, Miss Borden concluded her talk saying, “What has not been told in all this hoopla is my own loss, that I am now an adult orphan, living in crippling mourning. And yet I was subjected to that circus of accusations and lies. All I ask is for privacy so I may cry myself to sleep each night and mourn in peace and grace.”
A recurring theme on Call the Moirologist is the questioning of the ethics of the profession, and this first came into question with the publication in 1913 of the book How Much Would You Pay for Your Legacy? by Northwestern professor Dr. Creighton Capshaw. Capshaw argued for the closing of the center which he contended promoted a dubious profession, citing examples of how despised robber barons were cleansing their reputation at death by hiring mourners and speakers who gave praise filled eulogies but never knew the men in their lifetime.
Capshaw’s pleas went unheard by the university brass for years because it was too lucrative a cash cow for the school. Things changed with the 1929 stock market crash when the center’s endowment went bust and eventually people in the Depression were too depressed to want to learn about mourning and the center was closed, and the land was sold by the university and is now the home of Betty Lou’s Cosmetology College.