Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Mark Twain and the Totenhauser

A few days ago I posted about Totenhauser (aka hospitals for the dead, aka waiting mortuaries). In the comments, Ink recalled a Mark Twain story involving a guard at one of these establishments. I don't want to spoil the story, which I thought quite a good one, called "A Thumb-Print and What Came Of It," part of Twain's Life on the Mississippi (pp. 232-247 of the linked edition)... but I will share Twain's description of the Totenhaus:

Toward the end of last year I spent a few months in Munich, Bavaria... One day, during a ramble about the city, I visited one of the two establishments where the Government keeps and watches corpses until the doctors decide that they are permanently dead, and not in a trance state. It was a grisly place, that spacious room. There were thirty-six corpses of adults in sight, stretched on their backs on slightly slanted boards, in three long rows -- all of them with wax-white, rigid faces, and all of them wrapped in white shrouds. Along the sides of the room were deep alcoves, like bay windows; and in each of these lay several marble-visaged babes, utterly hidden and buried under banks of fresh flowers, all but their faces and crossed hands. Around a finger of each of these fifty still forms, both great and small, was a ring; and from the ring a wire led to the ceiling, and thence to a bell in a watch-room yonder, where, day and night, a watchman sits always alert and ready to spring to the aid of any of that pallid company who, waking out of death, shall make a movement -- for any, even the slightest, movement will twitch the wire and ring that fearful bell. I imagined myself a death-sentinel drowsing there alone, far in the dragging watches of some wailing, gusty night, and having in a twinkling all my body stricken to quivering jelly by the sudden clamor of that awful summons! (pp. 233)

Ignoring for a moment Twain's literary turns, comparing watches dragging, the night wailing, and his body "in a twinkling" (all evidences of paranormal activity) stricken to quivering jelly (invoking decomposition)... how many Americans had this as their first introduction to the Totenhaus? How many wondered what Twain was smoking, or pooh-pooh'd those wacky Germans? Now I'm curious if Totenhauser were ever described in Godey's Ladies' Book. (Oh hush, I love me a good tangent...)

Edit: Apparently I've not been using the correct plural for -haus, which should be -hauser not -hausen which is the verb -to dwell, -to reside, -to live. Shame on me for forgetting my high school German! Though the verb form is sort of interesting, particularly in this context.


squadratomagico said...

Wow -- good, creepy find!

Digger said...

Uber hat-tip to Inky!

Ink said...

Ooh, a Godey's connection would be really interesting!

And I'm just happy you liked the story. I'm pretty sure I will LOVE your book when it comes out, given that I work on the Gothic and you're hitting all those zones of interest. So cool.