Legend: A gown used to dress a corpse for a funeral is removed from the body and returned to the store where it was purchased. An unsuspecting customer buys the gown and wears it to a dance, where embalming fluid from the dress seeps into her pores and kills her.
Recently there was a certain story spreading over the entire Midwest which took everyone by storm. It seems there was a banquet at a prominent hotel in a certain city. One particular girl who was going decided it was important enough to have a new dress. She bought one at a local department store, a simple but exquisite gown. At the dance after the dinner, her escort noticed a peculiar odor while they were dancing. She had been feeling faint, and she believed it was the odor. She thought the dye in the dress had faded, so she went to the washroom and took off the dress. There was nothing wrong, so she went back to the dance again. However, she felt more faint, and the odor still remained. She thought she had better sit down, and on the way back to their table, she fainted. Her escort took her home and called a doctor. She died before he got there. The boy explained about the odor, and the doctor investigated the dress and found that the dress had a familiar odor. He ordered an autopsy, and they discovered that the girl had formaldehyde in her veins. The drug had coagulated her blood and had stopped the flow.
They investigated the department store where she had bought the dress and learned that the dress had been sold for a corpse and had been returned and sold to the girl. When she perspired and her pores opened, she took in the formaldehyde which killed her.
A favorite story of New York literary circles a few years ago concerned a beautiful young girl in a white satin dress. It was one of those anecdotes which everybody swore had actually happened to his first cousin or next-door neighbor, and several narrators became very testy when they were informed that several other people's cousins had evidently undergone the same experience just a few weeks before.
At any rate, the legend maintained that a very lovely but poverty-stricken damsel was invited to a formal dance. It was her chance to enter a brand-new world. Who knew but that some rich young man would fall in love with her and lift her out of her life in a box factory? The catch in the matter was that she had no suitable dress to wear for such a great occasion.
"Why don't you rent a costume for the evening?" suggested a friend. Not having thought of this before, the girl became hopeful, and that very night went to a pawnshop near her little flat, where for a surprisingly
reasonable sum she rented a beautiful white satin evening gown with all the accessories to match. Miraculously, it fit her like a glove and gave her such radiance that upon her arrival at the party she created a minor sensation. She was cut in on again and again, and as she whirled happily around the floor she felt that her luck indeed had changed for the better.
Soon, however, she began to feel faint and nauseated. She fought against a growing discomfort as long as possible, but finally stole out of the house with barely sufficient strength to stagger into a cab and creep up the stairs to her room. She threw herself onto her bed, broken-hearted, and it was then — possibly in her delirium — that she heard a woman's voice whispering in her ear. It was harsh and bitter. "Give me back my dress," it said. "Give me back my dress! It belongs to... the dead..."
The next morning the lifeless body of the young girl was found stretched out on her bed. The unusual circumstances led the coroner to order an autopsy. It was found the girl had been poisoned by embalming fluid which had entered her pores when she became overheated from dancing. The pawnbroker was reluctant to admit that he knew where the dress had come from, but spoke out when he heard that the district attorney's office was involved. It had been sold to him by an undertaker's assistant who had taken it from the body of a dead girl just before the casket was nailed down for the last time.
Specific hotels (where the dance was supposedly held) and department stores (where the dress was allegedly purchased) are often mentioned in early versions of this legend (c. 1935), with Marshall Field and Company being the most frequent example of the latter.
The gown is often described as being white, and in some versions as an actual wedding dress. (The purchaser had intended to wear it for her wedding but died before the marriage took place; the family decided to bury her in it instead, but changed their minds after deciding that the dress was too expensive.)
Earlier versions of this story describe the original wearer of the dress as being a "Negro" girl, and the victim as a white girl.
The girl dies because the embalming fluid (usually said to be formaldehyde) asphyxiates her by closing her pores, by entering her pores and embalming her alive, by causing her blood to coagulate, or by simply poisoning her.
The odor coming from the dress is often (but not always) the clue to discovering the means of the girl's death.
The poison dress was taken away from its original wearer and resold because it was returned to the store (for unspecified reasons); because the wrong dress was used on the corpse by mistake; or because a greedy mortician was surreptitiously removing expensive dresses from his "clients," replacing them with cheaper versions, and returning the originals to stores or selling them to pawnbrokers.
Some versions claim that the some or all of the principals involved in the story (e.g., the mortician, the store/pawnbroker, the hotel) paid off the victim's family to keep the matter quiet.
Origins: As Raymond Himelick of Indiana University noted, the "poison dress" legend has a couple of analogs in classical mythology: Hercules was
poisoned by a robe his wife had dipped in the blood of a former suitor; and Medea the sorceress sent a
poisoned robe to Creusa, the woman her husband had taken up with after divorcing her.
In a general sense, this legend is a fine example (see the version collected by Cerf above) of the genre of ghost story about spirits who return to avenge the theft of their property. (Remember the "Where's my golden arm...?" tale from your childhood slumber parties?) The racist aspects of earlier versions of this legend cannot be ignored, however. The point is frequently made in older versions that the original purchaser of the dress was a "Negress", even though Marshall Field and Company was an unlikely place for a black girl to have been shopping in the 1940s. The implication is that the "Negress" sought a place above her natural station in life, bringing disaster upon both herself and an innocent white person.
Sightings: In 1998's Elizabeth, a poisoned dress meant for Queen Elizabeth I kills one of her ladies in waiting instead; Fox's "Beyond Belief" TV program (30 June 2000) claimed this tale was true (based on "published reports"); and episodes of The Drew Carey Show ("The Joining of Two Unlikely Elements is a Mixture," aired 27 September 1995) and CSI: NY ("'Til Death Do We Part," aired 16 February 2005) featured embalming fluid-soaked wedding dresses.