Searchers solve Victorian mysteries

Strange world of 19th-century death rituals on display at museum

Posted 10/21/19

In the flickering light of kerosene lanterns, searchers combed the farm for clues. After piecing together riddles scattered between the barn, the blacksmith’s shop and the sumptuous parlor of the …

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Searchers solve Victorian mysteries

Strange world of 19th-century death rituals on display at museum

Posted

In the flickering light of kerosene lanterns, searchers combed the farm for clues. After piecing together riddles scattered between the barn, the blacksmith’s shop and the sumptuous parlor of the old farmhouse, the murder of Abigail Tobin was solved.

The whodunit was one of two worked by guests at the Littleton Museum’s “Walking with the Dead” event on Oct. 18 and 19. The puzzles, designed by a master gamemaker from Denver’s “Puzzah” escape room, sent groups out across the 19th-century homesteads at the living history museum armed with nothing but a flashlight and their wits.

The event was also a chance to explore the macabre world of Victorian-era mourning rituals, said historical interpreter Cory Van Zytveld, sitting in the museum’s 1890s-era house.

“The mortality rate was extremely high in those days,” Van Zytveld said. “Sickness was rampant. There was no proper sanitation or germ theory. As a way to cope, they developed elaborate practices around death.”

After a loved one died, mirrors were shrouded to prevent ghosts from peering out. Seances and psychics gained popularity as people sought ways to contact their loved ones in the hereafter. Women were expected to wear mourning clothes for up to a year, inspired in part by Britain’s Queen Victoria, who wore a mourning veil for decades after the death of her husband, Prince Albert.

At the museum’s 1860s farm, interpreter Merlin Barnes said practices around death in Colorado’s early frontier period were likely far more rudimentary than the later Victorian era.

“It was mostly young men here, many of whom had just come from the violence and death of the Civil War,” Barnes said. “They may have had a more matter-of-fact relationship with death.”

Cut off from family, early settlers developed surrogate relationships, and Barnes recalled one account of miners in a gold rush town who held a funeral for a pet housefly.

But on this night, as an owl alighted from the barn in the dawning moonlight, searcher Bonnie Bond and her companions found themselves encouraged after solving Abigail’s murder, and set off to find a lost treasure of gold.

“Heck yeah,” Bond said. “We got this.”

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