In my years of surveying memorials with University of Chester students at Overleigh cemetery (as discussed previously on this blog multiple times including here, here and here), I have avoided discussed one particularly chilling Victorian effigy. Still, since our group this year received a complaint regarding our survey work by a visitor to a child’s grave (as discussed here), perhaps I do need to mention it.
The ‘Chewing Gum Girl’ is Mabel Francis Ireland Blackburn. She died aged 3 of whooping cough in 1869. This solemn monument is distinctive: standing out from its surrounding monuments as one of only two effigies in the entire cemetery. Its abrupt length and thus stumpy appearance go to emphasise the young age at which Mabel died; the monument like her life feels foreshortened.
A further dimension is the uncomfortable propped position of her head on the pillows and her constricting night-shirt. To me, this does render the girl ‘choked’ in death rather than in peaceful sleep. Thus, it appears more akin to the staged positioning of a Victorian cadaver for photography.
This ‘realistic’ effigy has made it a focus of local folklore as discussed here. Namely, she has been given a nickname: the Chewing Gum Girl and the story has accrued around the tomb that she died from choking on chewing gum. Apparently local children with nothing more maudlin to fixate on and sing about whilst skipping, would repeat a verse that had at sometime been displayed on a sign next to the memorial:
Chewing gum, chewing gum, made of wax
Brought me to my grave at last.
When I die, God will say “Throw that dirty stuff away!”
The grave was utilised as a mortuary deterrent against an imagined choking killer; a story I would imagine stems directly from the effigial form of the monument itself. Chewing gum did emerge in the decade of Mabel’s death, but I don’t know if this tradition goes back to the late 19th century or came along later.
The memorial inspires acts of regular graveside mourning to this day. There are an interesting range of offerings added to the grave ‘by persons unknown’. There is a solar-powered mobile of a fairy with a red ribbon, fake flowers, a card, and a suffocated teddy bear. As such, it seems like so many modern children’s graves. They bring colour and movement to an otherwise static and lithic memorial space, in this case by those likely unrelated and drawn the story and appearance of the tomb. However, one wonders whether they are really mourning Mabel, or mourning the idea of a fictional Mabel who choked on chewing gum.
Is this mourning the dead or mourning the memorial?
Do those who reflect on her death as caused by chewing gum need it to be historically accurate for the tomb to be a powerful mnemonic for the dangers of blocked airways of children? Is the Chewing Gum Girl really Mabel, or just the effigy?
Alternatively, given the red ribbon, is Mabel now a focus of reflection for those who have lost those who have passed on too young?