Breckenridge Heritage Alliance unveils spooky Halloween offerings
At around 1:30 in the afternoon on Jan. 19, 1888, the Finding family’s middle child, Clara Ada, died of “membranous croup.” Or at least that’s what the family thought. The mysterious circumstances around the 12-year-old’s death have spurred a new exhibit by the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance at the Milne House.
“The Findings were one of the most prominent families in Breckenridge during the 1870s to 80s,” said BHA archivist Kris Ann Knish. “They were the upper-middle class.”
Owners of Finding’s Hardware, Charlie and Martha had three daughters, Agnes Eleanor, Clara Ada and Charline Antoinette. The family, and the wake for their middle child are the subject of the BHA’s deathly display, just in time for Halloween. A large portrait of the family, draped in black crepe, hangs in the main room at the Milne House along with a mourning dress and child’s casket, all elements of the Victorian’s mourning period. What exactly happened to Clara Ada Finding?
“You’ll just have to come find out,” teased Knish. “I don’t want to give it away.”
This Halloween the BHA shows that more than just spirits have lingered on from Summit’s past. Along with information about the Findings, the new BHA exhibit highlights the etiquette of death and mourning in the Victorian era, and explains that while the culture has changed, we still hold on to a lot of the same traditions.
Many of our current superstitions actually took root during the Victorian era. Ever wonder why you shouldn’t open an umbrella inside? The Victorians believed doing so would lead to a murder in the household, according to Knish. Do you hold your breath when passing a graveyard? The Victorians theorized you wouldn’t get buried otherwise.
“There’s so much of their culture that we still practice today,” said Knish. “Even hair art…”
When a loved one died, Victorians would memorialize the deceased with a piece of art made from their hair. While we might find that practice a little unsettling now, the same idea of holding onto a piece of our loved ones has lasted. Now people keep Mom in an urn on the mantle, can have their loved one’s ashes pressed into a diamond or even added to tattoo ink. Death is still fascinating to us and so are the ways we recognize it.
The BHA exhibit is set up as a wake. Presently, wakes are used to celebrate a person’s life, tell a few stories and generally take some time to remember a lost loved one. The origin was a little more practical though. During the Victorian period, wakes would last three to four days with someone watching over the deceased the entire time.
The extended wake, most importantly gave the family time to make sure the dearly departed was actually departed. The medical profession wasn’t the exact science it is now, so though uncommon, it was possible that the “deceased” person was actually in a coma. Watching over the body for a few days was a good way to double-check. Travel also wasn’t as simple during the Victorian period, so the death grace period gave families an opportunity to arrive from far away and pay their respects.
One element of Victorian death etiquette that is not as closely observed now is the mourning period. Though we still often wear black to funerals, the Victorians took things a lot further. According to Knish, widows mourned their husband’s death for at least two years, wearing black the entire time. Their social lives also died with their husbands as widows were expected to only go to church during the mourning period.
During the first six months widows had to wear a crepe bonnet and a long veil. Even doctors didn’t like the veils as wearing the crepe for that long could cause the dye to permeate the nostrils causing blindness and cataracts, Knish said.
BHA operations manager Cindy Hintgen is quick to point out that the Milne House isn’t the BHA’s only spooky site this season. “The Briggle House is definitely the most haunted,” Hintgen said.
From a lost key suddenly appearing in the middle of the attic floor to air whooshing through the windows when they first opened the child’s casket, both Hingten and Knish have seen their fair share of strange happenings at BHA sites.
To find out exactly what happened to Clara Ada Finding, have tea with the departed at the Briggle House, or enjoy a paranormal investigation or tombstone tour of the Valley Brook Cemetery. Book tours with the BHA online at BreckHeritage.com or call 970-453-9767.
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