A New Idea in Cremation.
[From the New York World, January 22.]
A report to the effect that Colonel H. S. Olcott carried the remains of the late Baron de Palm in his snuff-box which he kept in his vest-pocket having gained general credence, a World reporter called on him yesterday to see whether or not the report were true.
“Not wholly,” said Colonel Olcott.
“Not wholly?” repeated the reporter inquiringly.
“That is, not all of them,” said the Colonel.
“Have you it with you?” asked the reporter.
“Ah,” said the accomplished President of the Theosophical Society. “Fear not. There is no danger. No ghost could be developed from so small a quantity of ashes. Perhaps a finger, an ear or a nose that is all. Such a ghost would be a promiscuous one. A finger here, a foot there, a nose in this place and a leg in that. Look!”
Here Colonel Olcott produced from his vest-pocket a silver snuff-box of fine workmanship, and, placing it upon the table before him, stood up and repeated a macaronic prayer, partly in Choctaw, partly in Hebrew and party in Egyptian. Then he began a strange though graceful dance, and low, sweet music seemed to issue from the snuff-box, and presently the lid flew open with a click. The Colonel then resumed his natural condition and sat down.
“Now,” said he, rubbing the ashes tenderly between his fingers, “these are what I call first-class ashes. See how white they are. See how finely pulverized. Did you ever clean your teeth”—
“Certainly,” exclaimed the reporter, somewhat indignantly ; “I always”—
“I beg your pardon,” said Colonel Olcott, “you interrupted me. I was about to ask you if you ever cleaned your teeth with cigar ashes.”
“Occasionally, said the reporter, mollified, “and they work splendidly.”
“Then, sir,” said the Colonel, “think how these would work. Talk of magic! Bah! Why, sir, I could just make my fortune cremating bodies to use for tooth-powder.”
“Tooth in,” said the reporter.
“You joke,” said the Colonel. “You should banish levity in the presence of”—
“New patent tooth-powder,” suggested the reporter.
“From levity to profanity, sir. You must really stop.”
“Agreed. But where are the rest of the ashes?”
“With the exception of a few that Dr. Le Moyne used to polish up a dissecting lance with, they are in possession of the different members of the Theosophical Society.”
“Do the other members keep them as you do?”
“No. Some of them keep them in lockets that hang from their watch chains.”
“Ah,” said the reporter.
The San Francisco [CA] Examiner 5 February 1877: p. 2
Baron de Palm was a member of the Theosophical Society and appointed Col. Henry Steel Olcott his executor, leaving him the bulk of his fortune. The Baron had expressed a wish to be cremated instead of buried. Although he died in May of 1876, his body was preserved until six months later, when he became the first modern cremation in the United States.
The preservation of the Baron’s corpse gave Olcott much trouble. As he remarks in his diary:
The body of the deceased was given in charge of Mr. Buckhorst, the Society’s undertaker, to be lodged in a receiving vault until I could arrange for its cremation. I was obliged to devise a better method of preserving it than the weak process of embalming that had been employed at the Hospital, which proved its inefficacy even within the fortnight. It gave me much anxiety, and no end of enquiry and research was involved, but I solved the difficulty at last by packing the cadaver in desiccated clay impregnated with the carbolic and other vapors of distilled coal tar. Decomposition had actually begun when the antiseptic was applied in the first week of June, but when we examined the corpse in the following December before removal for cremation, it was found completely mummified, all liquids absorbed and all decay arrested. It could have been kept thus, I am convinced for many years, perhaps for a century, and I recommend the process as superior to any other cheap method of embalming that has ever come under my notice.
Old Diary Leaves: The True Story of the Theosophical Society, Henry Steel Olcott, 1895: p. 158
See also Ashes a la carte, for the ingestion of human ashes as well as the use of ashes for cleaning teeth.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.