The Victorians are strange and wonderful. So many things about them are fascinating and there’s not really a parallel society. Their lives are a maze of customs, ideals, propriety, and duty. And superstitions!
Superstitions were an important part of being a Victorian. Many of the superstitions functioned as warning or omens of death, which today seem darkly amusing, but the good luck charms were few and far between. In fact, I could only find one: you could obtain better luck by hiding a child’s shoe somewhere within the structure of your home—in the chimney, under the floor, etc. They had a lot of superstitions about shoes.
Victorians covered their mouths when they yawned to prevent their spirits from leaving, which also served the purpose of keeping El Diablo out (very important). Lots of things would bring unspecified bad luck. Any cautious Victorian will tell you that you have to be diligent. Neglecting to stop the clock in a room after someone had died is just foolish. New clothes at a funeral were frowned upon, but especially shoes. Wearing new shoes to a funeral was incredibly reckless for reasons I’m unable to discern.
Most Victorian superstitions frequently revolved around death, because there was a lot of early death in the Victorian world.
The spirit world was considerate and often gave the living a heads up that they were on their way out. Frequently these messages were delivered by animals or even the insect kingdom. Seeing an owl during the day, finding a firefly in your house, or a sparrow landing on your piano were all warnings someone you knew was about to die. If the spirits chose horticulture as their medium, they would notify you of an upcoming death by allowing a single snowdrop plant to grow in your garden or arranging for a vase that contained only red and white flowers. At times inanimate objects were used, such as a diamond-shaped fold in clean linen or a picture falling off the wall. If you were the one who was going to die, you might see yourself in a dream, or a mirror would fall and break in front of you.
Sometimes the spirit world did neglect to give people a heads up for reasons best known to themselves. In that case, you would be notified that someone has already died. This might come in the form of large rain drops, or a bird pecking at your window. You might be notified that someone has died by the sound of three knocks at your door. When you answered, there would be no one standing there.
You really had to watch dead Victorians. Like mischievous children, they were endlessly wily in their quest to evade their fate. They were known to hide in mirrors left uncovered after their death, or flee through the windows if the curtains were not closed. If you didn’t turn pictures downward, the dead would be able to possess the person in the photograph. They would attach themselves to women who didn’t wear a veil. And if they couldn’t avoid the ordinary process, their next trick was to lure others to follow them into the great hereafter. If they were not carried out of the home feet first, they would lure living family members to follow them into death. Part of the reason the dead were so eager to get away was because once they were buried, their characters were exposed. The alert Victorian would keep a careful watch over the grave. If flowers bloomed there, they were good souls. If weeds grew, well, that was just a judgement on them for being a terrible person.
It paid to not annoy the spirits. You didn’t have to understand why these things bothered them, the only important point to know is that they did. The spirits were personally affronted if you had 13 people at a table for dinner. Such an infraction would be punished by causing the youngest person to die within a year of that party. And, if you dropped an umbrella on the floor or opened an umbrella inside, congratulations. You’ve just incited a murder to occur in your home. As Queen Victoria said, “We are not amused.”
Of course, there were some things that could reverse bad luck. For instance, if you hear a dog howling at night when somebody is sick or in a treacherous situation, that’s bad luck. But, if you reach under your bed and turn over a shoe, this would cancel out hearing the dog. Death was well-known to come in threes, but wearing black ribbons after someone’s death would prevent them from taking more family members along. You could also stop the clocks in your home to prevent additional death. If you had the misfortune to meet a funeral procession head on, you could hold on to a button to insulate yourself from the bad luck that would surely follow.
This post inspired by Mr. Furman Walker! Thank you, friend!