Saturday, December 11, 2010

1897 - Too Much Joy Was Fatal

While Preparing a Christmas Tree for Her Children Mrs. Rice Fell Dead


Father Had Saved His Earnings for Six Months to Give His Children the First Tree They Had Ever Had.

"Mamma, the clock has stopped between 12 and 1 o'clock. Something is going to happen sure between now and New Year's," said little Frieda Rice to her mother on Christmas morning, just as Mrs. Rice was hanging a few holiday treasures on a small Christmas tree. Barely ten minutes later the mother was breathing her last and her twelve-year-old daughter stood over her, horror-stricken and trembling with fright, too bewildered to make any outcry and too much shocked for tears.

The woman was the wife of John Rice, a shoemaker at 608 East Sixteenth Street. In the cheerless home which she left so suddenly her husband and four little children were vainly struggling yesterday to get some cheer out of the holiday that had been reft [sic] of all its joy by the calamity.

The family occupy the ground floor of the dingy tenement house. Times had been hard in that district for several years, and only during the last six months had John Rice been able to patch and mend enough shoes to allow him to lay by a little store for the celebration of the Yuletide.

A Tree Promised.

This year, however, their parents had promised them that they should have a nice tree, with all the apples, nuts, and raisins they could eat. They would also have some nice playthings to show their friends. For a week they had been eagerly anticipating the joy that was to come and on Christmas Eve Mrs. Rice had put the three youngest to bed, keeping up only Frieda to help her decorate the tree with all the good things.

The husband closed his little shop about midnight. Then he went back into the little dining room and offered his services. The tree had cost him 50 cents, a bit sum according to his method of calculation, and it should be fitted up accordingly. But his wife would not have it. Her own hands should arrange the pretty things with which she was to surprise the children. She was overjoyed at the opportunity afforded her. It had been a long time since she could give them anything more than their absolute need, and she wanted all the pleasure of bestowing for herself.

"You have worked hard enough all day, John," she said. "You just go to bed and I'll fix these things myself. I feel so happy - so joyful. I haven't felt that way in years. I hope the children will like what we have bought them. Poor dears, they've never had a Christmas before, and if we have to live on oatmeal and potatoes for the next week, I mean to give them a good one this year."

John's eyes nearly overflowed. He, too, was happy. He would not mar the pleasure of his wife, and he meekly retired with a parting injunction to his wife not to exert herself too much, as she was in poor health. He was just crossing the threshold into the next room, a little stuff, dark bedroom, when little Frieda, looking up, saw the pendulum of the old-fashioned German clock on the wall quite still, the hands pointing to 12:30.

The German Tradition.

She had heard the old German tradition that when the clock stops between 12 and 1 on Christmas morning, something fearful is going to happen, and with a blanched face she looked up again to make sure that she was not mistaken. Then she called her mother's attention to it.

The mother looked up. "Yes," she said, "my dear, there is something going to happen to you or to me between now and New Year's. I hope it won't be anything very bad."

She was fastening a little tinsel ball on the Christmas tree. She was a heavy woman, and her back was resting against a sideboard. Suddenly she gasped. "Oh! I feel so bad!" she moaned, "but don't tell papa. He'll be scared, and he has worked so hard. Let him sleep."

Frieda was herself scared, though, and did call papa. He at once ran out, and was just in time to catch his wife as she reeled sideways toward the floor - dead. For a moment father and daughter looked at each other. Then the unfortunate man burst into sobs loud enough to wake the other children. They all ran out and threw themselves on their mother's body.

Rice ran out and called the nearest physician. "This is a case for the Coroner," said the doctor. "I can't do anything for her. The poor woman has died of heart failure. She was too happy, I suppose." The physician knew the past history of the grief-stricken family.

The New York Times
New York, New York
December 26, 1897