Spooky season came to Milwaukee early this year as monsters descended upon the city for the Midwest Haunters Convention.
Coffin corners are commonly believed to be one of the many weird myths about the Victorian age, but the stories of life in the historic Galloway House offer evidence to the contrary.
A coffin corner on the upper landing of the staircase at Galloway House
I went to the Galloway House looking for ghosts, and if the couple meandering through each room with KII EMF meters were right, the place is teeming with them. I didn’t expect to find something even more compelling: Evidence supporting a claim that has long been believed to be nothing more than a funerary myth from the Victorian age.
The Galloway House is a living history village, a collection of historic pioneer structures turned museums nestled within the bustling modern city of Fond du Lac at the base of Lake Winnebago, Wisconsin’s largest body of water. The village is comprised of buildings relocated from around the county and dressed with authentic items and furnishings from the period. There’s a one-room school house, toy shop, printer, mill, blacksmith, photography studio, church and more that are open to explore for a taste of life at the turn of the century.
The site’s namesake is the Galloway House itself, an imposing Italianate villa that has sat on this site in one form or another for 175 years. It was surrounded by rural farmland at that time, far outside the Fond du Lac city limits. It served as the family home of the Galloways when they came to Wisconsin from New York in the 19th century, making their fortune in dairy and lumber.
Edwin H. Galloway bought the house in 1868. It was considerably smaller then, but he soon began to transform it into something more suitable for his family and workers. Though he died not long after, his son Edwin A. Galloway continued to oversee his father’s vision by completing the construction. The house finally settled into its current form in 1880 with 30 rooms, including a kitchen, summer kitchen, four family bedrooms, servant’s bedrooms, a formal parlor, conservatory, playroom, and a three-story tower topped with a red-roofed cupola. The grand manor even boasted one of the first bathrooms in the state.
Three generations of Galloways lived and died there until they abandoned the house in the late 1920s for the modern conveniences of a new home in the city.
Galloway House had one of the first bathrooms in Wisconsin
The ghosts of Galloway House, according to local legend, are the spectral remnants of the children who lived there more than 100 years ago. Stories tell of phantom giggles and small footsteps heard running through the house as they play.
When I visited for the 2021 grand reopening, guides were stationed throughout the house in period-accurate attire to share stories and answer questions. In the front room I met Marion Blake, a lively and knowledgeable woman who has been volunteering there for decades. Marion had personally known Edwin P. Galloway, the last patriarch of the family to live in the house. Edwin was born in 1890, and died just a few weeks shy of his 100th birthday. In the years after he donated the house to the Fond du Lac Historical Society, Edwin would hang around when it was open and entertain visitors with stories about life in the extravagant home. Marion’s husband even played with the family dog, Chief, who was mounted by a taxidermist after death and is now hidden away somewhere within the house because he made visitors uncomfortable.
Marion was connected to the history of the house and the family so I asked her if she thought Galloway House is haunted. I’m in the research phase of a new project that recently fell into my lap, and regardless of my own personal skepticism, I need to gather both the factual history as well as the folklore.
Marion had clearly been asked this before. She explained that in all her years there, she had spent many long hours in the house, often by herself, and had never experienced anything even remotely paranormal.
“People did die in the house,” she assured me, “but there are no ghosts.”
I met another guide in the grand entrance hall who provided a detailed history of the home’s ornate woodwork, all handmade by workers at the Pullman Company who usually built railroad cars. At the base of the narrow staircase, he brought my attention to the twisting wooden bannister, the hand-turned balusters, and intricately-carved finials. Then he pointed out two tall, arched niches in the wall, one at each turn of the steep stairs. In a lower voice, he apologized preemptively for the morbid subject matter, then explained that those niches were called “coffin corners.”
I perked up. Coffin what?
It seemed I had unexpectedly stumbled upon a fascinating bit of death history. I couldn’t believe my luck.
The only problem is coffin corners are supposed to be a myth.
Victorian hairwork mourning art on display at the Galloway House
Victorians were death-obsessed. They elevated mourning to an artform. Elaborate funeral rituals, elegant dress, ornate coffins, sprawling garden cemeteries. And then there was the weirder stuff, like post-mortem photography, holding wakes to ensure loved ones weren’t accidentally buried alive, and superstitions like covering mirrors, stopping clocks at the time of death, or removing the deceased from the home feet first to prevent the spirit from looking back into the house and beckoning another living soul to follow.
That’s why myths about Victorian death practices are easy to believe, such as “coffin doors,” or the false notion that photos of people with posing stands and vacant stares were corpses being posed like mannequins.
Another one of these beliefs that is said to be a myth is that of the “coffin corner.”
If stories from the Galloway House are true, that may not be as much of a fallacy as some historians believe.
Coffin corner niche near the bottom of the stairs
Coffin Corners Debunked?
Historian Mary Miley Theobald, author of Death by Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked, writes in her blog:
“Someone might explain that, because most people died at home in their beds and because most bedrooms were upstairs, it was difficult to get the casket up and down the stairs when the staircase turned a corner. So at the landing, Victorian architects would cut a niche into the wall. The pallbearers would insert one corner of the coffin into the niche and make the turn at the landing.”
An early reference to coffin corners comes from a 1939 work detailing Victorian architecture:
“At the turn of the stairs near the landing there was usually a niche with a curved top that enshrined an urn or apocryphal goddess, in marble or plaster,” the author wrote. “The Victorians, who made no provision in their houses for such incidents of living as play or love-making, took care to provide for the eventuality of death, and the goddess’s niche was, in reality, the hole in the wall necessary for the passing of the coffin.”
In the 1972 book The Victorian Home in America, author John Maass dismisses the idea entirely, stating, “The story of the ‘coffin niche’ is a hoax – undertakers did not prepare the dead for burial in upstairs bedrooms.”
“Many Victorian homes do have niches built into the wall of the staircase,” Theobald elaborates. “But these were for decorative purposes: to display a statue, perhaps a bust, or a vase, or maybe flowers. Why would anyone carry a coffin upstairs to the corpse rather than carry the corpse downstairs to the coffin?”
It might be easier to transport a body down the stairs in a coffin rather than carry it, but it does seem like a rather unlikely scenario. Galloway House offers an alternative perspective that may prove the curious architectural element’s grim lore could be more fact than fiction.
Parlor of the Galloway House where weddings, funerals and baptisms were held
The Family Coffin
I spoke to several guides at the Galloway House about the coffin corners. Each one insisted these niches were in fact used for moving a coffin.
But not to transport the dead downstairs as has been suggested.
The Galloways kept a family coffin in the attic, the guides told me. When a death in the family occurred, the coffin would be brought down to the parlor on the first floor where it was used to display the deceased for friends and family. When the wake was over, the body would be transferred to a more modest receptacle for burial. The family coffin would then be carried back to the attic for storage until it was needed again.
The tight turns of the staircase would certainly make it difficult to haul a heavy wooden casket up and down every time someone died.
If these claims are true, however, would those shallow niches really offer a practical solution to the arduous task of maneuvering a coffin? (If someone with a casket, staircase, and coffin corners wants to demonstrate, hit me up.)
More importantly, is the family coffin still in the attic? And if so, can I convince someone to let me see it?
I’ll be making more trips to the Galloway House throughout the research process, so I’ll try my luck and let you know how it goes.
Galloway House at dusk
As for the ghosts, it’s worth noting that Edwin P. Galloway himself actually dedicated a few paragraphs of his memoir to memories of late nights as a child when his frightened Aunt Flora would rouse him from bed and send him downstairs to investigate strange noises.
Is it just old and creaky, or is there actually something ghostly going on at the Galloway House?