Macabre But True: 9 Surprising Victorian Era Traditions

Macabre But True: 9 Surprising Victorian Era Traditions

The Victorian Era was a period of great progress and advancement for many societies. But what may surprise you is the number of strange, macabre traditions that were practiced during this time. In this article, we will explore nine of the most surprising Victorian Era traditions and their unique histories. From mourning jewelry to post-mortem photography, these strange customs will leave you marveling at the eccentricity of the Victorian Age.

The Victorian era tends to conjure images of prim and proper ladies with parasols, men with monocles and cravats, smog, and maybe unethical child labor.

What you may not think of is two-headed sheep taxidermy,  seances, or a preoccupation with death and mortality.  The Victorians did not mess around with their creepiness; they took the macabre to a whole new level, which is evidenced in some of the lingering remnants of their penchant for all things weird. Pictures of dead bodies, hair made from body parts - the Victorians really did know how to do macabre in style!

1) Postmortem Photography

Image of Victorian post-mortem photography, a mother and father with their deceased daughter

Courtesy Daily Mail

When we reference post-mortem photography in the Victorian era, we're not talking about the kind you might have seen on CSI. We’re talking dressed, posed, and frequently looking very much like an alive-but-sleeping person photos of the recently departed. Often, the photos would be touched up with paint after being developed to give the impression of rosy cheeks and open eyes.

It is also noted that these photos (or daguerreotypes as they were earlier known), were not simply a grim keepsake of a deceased loved-one. Photographs of the dead, particularly children, were a tool to cope with the grief and sense of loss. Capturing the likeness of the dead before they were laid to rest was more popular in the Victorian era - because this may well have been the only photograph that grieving families would have depicting their lost loved ones, since photography was so expensive. 


2) Jewelry Made from The Hair of The Dead

A macabre tradition victorian brooch made with the hair of the dead

courtesy Daily Mail

Another sweet remembrance in a similar vein to Victorian post-mortem photography comes in the form of wearable jewelry made from a lock of hair from the deceased. Yes, you read that right. Dead people's hair. Worn as an accessory.

But while this may seem a little grim or disturbing by modern standards, the sentiment behind the concept is still alive today - as it is not unheard of to have the ashes of the deceased compressed into a diamond or other form of jewelry. But in the Victorian era, hair was used in the construction of jewelry. Intricately woven locks of hair made into brooches and pendants were just another way to grieve your beloved. Sweet, in a macabre kind of way.

3) Sketchy Surgery

Still image from Victorian barber Sweeny Todd, of Jonny Depp slicing the throat of a customer

Source:  Pinterest

If you were unlucky enough to require any kind of surgery in the Victorian era, chances are you’d die. Either during the procedure, from blood loss, or afterward from sepsis. Victorian “barber surgeons” didn’t have anesthesia so you’d be 100% awake, alert, and aware during your surgery, whether it was stitching a wound or hacking off a limb!

And, to add insult to injury, if you weren’t the first patient of the day, the instruments would probably not be clean. There was no sterilization or even soap and water rinses, because no one knew about bacteria yet.

4) Victorian Flower Language

Dark floral bouquet to illustrate Victorian flower language

Source:  Pinterest

Because of the uptight propriety of Victorian morality, oftentimes messages that might raise an eyebrow had to be sent secretly. The language of flowers, or floriography, was one such code. It was kind of like the Victorians' answer to texting and emojis, but with a little more finesse.

Each flower had different meanings and when combined with other flowers or when arranged in certain ways, could relay information without sparking suspicion. The most dire of these? The black rose, which could mean hatred, death, or any number of equally dangerous things! 

5) “Freak” Shows

Victorian freak show poster of the dog faced man

Source:  HorrorBuzz

The Victorian era was an age of advancement - with people taking a keen interest in scientific discoveries, world exploration, medical advancements and anything 'new' or unexplained. It's no surprise, then, that 'freak' shows were extremely popular at this time, as people sought out new and unusual forms of entertainment.

Everyone has heard of the Elephant Man and the Wolf Boy - but it seemed that all kinds of 'exotic' oddities were popular at the time. During the Victorian era, crowds flocked to these so-called “freak” shows to gawk and point at people with various physical anomalies; tattooed “savages”, conjoined twins, bearded women, it was all fair game to Victorian crowds looking for a shock!

6) Mesmerism

Line drawing to illustrate the victorian practise of mesemerism in which a woman is being hypnotised using animal magnetism


‘Mesmerism’ is the term coined due to ‘Franz Anton Mesmer’ (1734-1815), a most curious Austrian gentleman, well worthy of further research, who practised and popularised a therapeutic form known as ‘Animal Magnetism’.Mesmerism, or animal magnetism, was the forerunner of what we know today as hypnotism. Victorian practitioners believed mesmerism was useful for all sorts of things and was a very important medical specialty, used for anesthesia and healing or "laying on of hands". 

Mesmerism was popular during the Victorian era, despite being more of an 'underground' practice due to being disqualified by the medical profession. 


7) Seances and the Spiritualist Movement

A gif of Vanessa Ives during the Victorian seance scene in Penny Dreadful

We already know Victorians were preoccupied with death, so it should come as no surprise that they frequently tried to commune with the departed via seances and Ouija boards.

Mediums and spiritual guides, many of whom were charlatans looking to make a quick buck and gain notoriety, routinely visited the parlors and drawing rooms of the elite. Even the Queen herself was a proponent and believer in the Spiritualism movement and frequently held seances to commune with her husband after his death.


8) Occultism

Monochrome art print of a woman surrounded by demons as part of a Victorian style occult scene

Source: The Drawing Source

Tangentially related to the Spiritualism movement was the growing (but secretive) popularity of occultism.

The resurgence of magick, neo-pagan ritual, astrology, and tarot during the Victorian era can be directly linked to modern magickal and spiritual practice. The occult “boom” of the mid-to-late 1800s is thought to be the result both scientific and industrial advancement coupled with religious rigor.


9) Taxidermy

A two-headed sheep is a prime example of a strange Victorian taxidermy tradition

Source:  Flickr

And finally, in perhaps one of the most bizarre Victorian traditions of them all, taxidermy. But not of the standard deer-head-on-the-wall type. No. Victorian taxidermy was next level, frequently resulting in the creation of vignettes staged with dead animals and fantastical creatures like a cat with wings.

Some of the most famous pieces were created by a man named Walter Potter, who created such fanciful scenes as squirrels playing cards and kitten school children.

Are you down with Victorian culture? What's your favorite unusual tradition?

Title image: todd keith


About the Author

Kristi Pahr