A Peculiar Characteristic of Philadelphia Funerals.
Persons Who Endeavor to Gain Rides to Cemeteries, Although Unacquainted with the Family– Fainters and Flower-Pot Carriers.
[From the Philadelphia Press.]
“Madame, yon must get out of this carriage—it is intended only for the friends and relatives of the family. I never permit ‘regulars’ to attend funerals when I am in charge.”
The speaker was a well-known up-town undertaker, who stood beside a carriage in Kensington .yesterday and spoke to some one inside the vehicle. A streamer of black crape fluttering from the door-bell of a neat three-story dwelling near by and a long line of carriages, preceded by a hearse, told that a funeral was in progress. The first, second and third carriages had been filled with the near relatives of the deceased, and as the fourth vehicle drove up a woman, dressed in shabby black and with her face closely veiled, came down the steps of the house of mourning, and opening the carriage door herself, got in and sank back into the farthest corner. The action, quick as it was, did not escape the eye of the solemn-faced man standing on the steps of the dwelling. Quietly advancing to the curbstone, and in a voice just loud enough to be heard by the person for whom it was intended, he spoke. Without a word the unwelcome occupant alighted, drew her rusty black shawl more closely about her shoulders and walked slowly up the street. “That is an annoyance peculiar to Philadelphia,” said the undertaker to a Press reporter, who happened to be a witness of the episode, “and is probably more of an institution in Kensington than any other section of the city. The American custom of exposing the dead to the gaze of the general public, which has been in vogue for more than half century, has naturally led to abuses, of which this is one bf the most marked. I refer to the attendance of persons at funerals who have no possible interest in the deceased, nor connected by the most remote tie of blood or marriage. Not only do they mingle their tears with those of the mourners, but they actually force themselves into the carriages and ride to the cemetery, there to witness the final scene with apparently as much emotion as the nearest and dearest relatives.
“REGULARS” AND “FAINTERS.”
“There are very few funerals taking place north of Girard avenue and east of Fourth street,” continued the speaker, as he closed the door of another cab, “where you will not find what we term ‘regulars.’ They are an evil tolerated simply because the solemnity of the occasion prevents such measures being taken as would prevent a repetition of the annoyance. The ‘fainter,’ to use another trade phrase, is a similar nuisance, but not seen as frequently as her more ubiquitous sister. The ‘fainter’ swoons suddenly while looking at the corpse, and is only revived by copious draughts of brandy. She usually picks out a soft chair to fall upon, and is quite expert at assuming a graceful position. The precise object of the ‘fainter’ I have never thoroughly understood. Whether to gain sympathy, or whisky, or to display an attitude, is a question. Of the two characters, however, the regular is the most familiar and the most audacious. At an ordinarily large funeral, say of twenty or more carriages, she is seen most frequently. The body is laid out In the parlor as a general thing, sometimes a day before the funeral, and is there viewed by the relatives and friends. The neighbors usually testify their esteem for the deceased by calling at the house, although they may not be acquainted with the family. In many cases this visit is expected, and it is looked upon as slight if It is not made. English people, however, show a decided aversion to having any one gaze on their dead, except those very near to them, but custom is so arbitrary that the residents of any neighborhood, and specially in this section of the city, would feel insulted if they were not allowed to take the last look. As I said before, one of the outgrowths of this custom is the regular funeral-goer. She reads, besides her weekly story paper of sensational trash, the marriages and deaths in the Ledger. She notes carefully all the funerals that are to take place within a reasonable distance of her home, and appears to have an especial weakness for interments at the Palmer-street burying-ground. If two funerals occur in the same day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, the “regular” is delighted, and makes a strenuous effort to attend both. She dresses herself early in the morning, and, provided with a large handkerchief, she repairs to the house of death. The first thing the “regular” does is to make a mental estimate as to whether the crape on the door belongs to the undertaker or to the family; to speculate as to whether the coffin handles are solid silver or plated, to take an inventory of the furniture, the carpets and the probable cost of the coffin.
MAKING AN INVENTORY
“She examines the quality of the shroud and passes judgment on the profusion or poverty of the floral offerings. Then she makes a critical survey of the mourning worn by the grief-stricken relatives, and is usually able to tell whether it is owned or borrowed, and it the latter, it becomes almost a duty to find out who the owner is, and how often the crape has done duty on similar occasions. With an experienced ‘regular’ this is an easy matter, and these points once settled to her satisfaction, she opens! the flood-gates of her every-day grief. She looks on the face of the dead and weeps. She snivels and sobs, and says, ‘How natural! How very natural! Poor, dear man; he just looks as if he were asleep,’ and then usually turning to some one near, she offers consolation by remarking that ‘it is the prettiest corpse ever I see’d in my life. So peaceful and life-like.’ It makes not a bit of difference, whether the dead man or woman is wasted to skin and bone from a lingering disease or not, to the ‘regular,’ the corpse is always ‘so natural.’ She sways to and fro, and exhibits all the symptoms of grief, and sobs audibly as the clergyman pronounces a eulogy on the noble qualities of the deceased, who might have been in life a grinding skinflint or consummate rogue. As the coffin lid is fastened on, the ‘regular’ dries her tears and prepares to execute a flank movement on the undertaker. Her plan is usually to get into a carriage the minute it stops in front of the door, as that woman did a moment ago. Rather than have a disturbance, many undertakers permit this, and the ‘regular’ accomplishes her principal object, which is to get a ride to the cemetery. She has a melancholy mania for getting as close to the grave as possible and crying loud enough to attract general attention. Then she goes home in the street cars, and hurries off to another funeral, where the same programme is repeated. Very often we encounter another class of ‘regulars’ who strive only to get a ride to a graveyard where their own people are buried. These worthies always betray themselves by carrying a flower-pot, which they vainly try to conceal in their shawls. The pot contains flowers to be planted on the graves of their own dead.”
“The flower-pot regulars make a regular picnic out of the occasion. They take their sewing and lunch. An old tombstone forms a table if the weather is fine, and seated on the grass, the cronies gossip and sew to their heart’s content. On a clear day in the springtime, I have seen no less than twenty of these scandal-mongers waiting at the Palmer Street Ground for a funeral to enter, which they follow like carrion crows in search of horse meat.”
The suggestive, but rather inelegant, simile was interrupted by a young man who called the undertaker’s attention to a woman ascending the steps, and crowding her way between the persons coming out of the house. She was prevented from going any further by the undertaker whispering something in her ear.
“That woman,” said be, resuming his position at the curbstone, “has been going to funerals for twenty years, to my certain knowledge. If she fails to get a ride, she is content to watch the house while the family is absent. She takes occasion to go all over the house and examine everything. I don’t think the woman is dishonest. She is a genuine female Paul Pry, umbrella and all. Now, then, you know all about the Kensington regulars,” concluded the voluble undertaker, as he slammed to the door of the last carriage and mounted the box with the driver, “and I only hope that I may be called upon some day to bury the whole tribe in one grave.”
St. Louis [MO] Globe-Democrat 17 February 1882: p. 11
“Abroad last summer I found a number of tombstones with murder stories on them,” said a detective. “The poor folk under the stones were the victims of murderers undiscovered and unhanged.
“One inscription was in the English town of Merrington. I jotted it down in my notebook. It was on the tomb of two murdered children. Here it is:
The detective read from his notebook:
“‘An unknown hand caused all our pain,
Sleeping we were slain.
And here we sleep till we must rise again.’
“Another was in Samdridge, the tomb of a Custom House officer shot by smugglers. It said:
“‘Thou shalt do no-murder, nor shalt thou steal.
Are the commands Jehovah did reveal.
But thou, O unnamed wretch, withouten dread
Of thy tremendous Maker, shot me dead.’
“A tombstone in the cemetery of Cladoxton, Glamorganshire, said:
“‘To record murder
This stone was erected over the body of Margaret Williams, aged 26, living in service in this parish, who was found dead with marks of violence upon her in a ditch on a marsh below this churchyard on the morning of Sunday, the 14th of July 1822.
“‘Although the savage murderer escaped the detection of man, yet God hath set his mark upon him, either for time or eternity, and the cry of blood will assuredly pursue him to certain and terrible but righteous judgment.’
“Another stone made me laugh. It was in Dulverton. It said:
“‘Mrs. Jane Winsmore, born 1794; died 1851.
Poisoned by the doctor, neglected by the nurse.
The brother robbed the widow, which made the matter worse.’”
The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 9 December 1905: p. 11
A Strange Nervous Malady Which Sometimes Attacks Grave-Diggers.
(New York World.)
A strange sort of mental affection, known as “corpse-quake,” has often been found to exist among grave-diggers. It is no uncommon occurrence that a person employed in cemeteries for many ears is suddenly afflicted with a shaking similar to that experienced by persons suffering from ague.
A grave-digger who has been employed at the Cypress Hills Cemetery for fifteen years was seen yesterday by a reporter of the World.
“I know of a number of such cases,” said he. “Ten years ago we had three diggers here who had worked together for quite a while. One of the three who used to be a very lively chap and always willing and ready to tell a good yarn, became very quiet all at once. His companions noticed this, and thinking that Joe was not feeling well, let him alone. There was to be a funeral in the afternoon and we went over to dig the grave. As soon as Joe stuck his spade in the ground he began to shake. His companions told him to stop working if he didn’t feel well, but Joe paid no attention and continued with his work until the job had been finished. Three or four more graves were made that day, and every time Joe put down his spade he shook. The other two tried to make fun of him by imitating his shaking while at work. A few days later Joe’s companions had the corpse quake too and a week later had to stop work entirely.
“I thought that the three men had contracted malaria, but, strange to say, they never would have that peculiar shake while away from the cemetery. Joe came back to us, but every time he would pick up a spade and try to work, that old trouble would come back. We insisted upon his giving up the job, as he was falling away. He remained at home for about a week, and his wife told us that Joe was getting better again, when one day his boy mentioned the word “spade” in his father’s presence. It was the strangest thing in the world—no sooner had the boy said ‘spade’ than Joe took the corpse-quake again. He didn’t last long after that. He would be thinking about digging graves all the time, and this made him so sick that he died shortly after. I don’t remember what became of the other two men. They had to give up the job, and, I think, moved away from here altogether.”
The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 11 February 1889: p. 4
President’s Day is Monday, so today let’s look at some dead presidents—particularly stories of a few strange incidents at presidential tombs. Some 19th-century newspapers wrote about presidential graves suffering from neglect or disrepair like the overgrown grave of Thomas Jefferson in 1873, where student vandals had chiselled and chipped all the letters off of the granite monument or the once-popular tomb of William Henry Harrison, which was described as looking like a shabby bread oven in the 1890s. The tomb had been built on a hill overlooked the Ohio River. Steamboat captains would sound a reverential whistle and notify their passengers so that they could bare their heads at the simple brick vault, but the bricks were crumbling into dust by the time Harrison’s grandson came to the Presidency.
There have also been cases of genuine desecration of presidential graves: the infamous attempt to steal the body of President Lincoln from his Springfield tomb, vandals uprooting a cross at the head of John F. Kennedy’s grave in January,1970 and more vandalism there in December of 1997. And this strange disturbance at President Reagan’s grave by a person whose hobby is apparently desecrating as many presidential graves as possible. Such things happened more often in the past than one might expect, starting with George Washington.
Relics of the Father of His Country were avidly collected. One disgruntled gardener tried to collect the skull of George Washington, but was foiled. Below, a Washington biographer describes the old Washington tomb, which may still be seen today at Mount Vernon and also the condition of the General’s body. Prior to this description, the author fumes at a sacrilegious daguerreotypist offering to take pictures of tourists with Washington’s original tomb, aggressively peddling his services to people getting off the excursion boats.
This vault and inclosure were erected many years ago, in pursuance of instructions given in the following clause of Washington’s will: “The family vault at Mount Vernon requiring repairs, and being improperly situated besides, I desire that a new one, of brick, and upon a larger scale, may be built at the foot of what is called the Vineyard Inclosure, on the ground which is marked out, in which my remains, and those of my deceased relatives (now in the old vault,) and such others of my family as may choose to be entombed there, may be deposited.”
The old vault referred to was upon the brow of a declivity, in full view of the river, about three hundred yards south of the mansion, on the left of the present pathway from the tomb to the summer-house on the edge of the lawn. It is now an utter ruin. The door-way is gone, and the cavity is partly filled with rubbish. Therein the remains of Washington lay undisturbed for thirty years, when an attempt was made by some Vandal to carry them away. The insecure old vault was entered, and a skull and some bones were taken; but these comprised no part of the remains of the illustrious dead. The robber was detected, and the bones were recovered. The new vault was then immediately built, and all the family remains were placed in it. Mr. William Strickland, of Philadelphia, who designed the composition on the lid of Washington’s coffin, and accompanied Mr. Struthers when the remains of the patriot were placed in it, in 1837, has left a most interesting account of that event. On entering the vault they found everything in confusion. Decayed fragments of coffins were scattered about, and bones of various parts of the human body were seen promiscuously thrown together. The decayed wood was dripping with moisture. “The slimy snail glistened in the light of the door-opening. The brown centipede was disturbed by the admission of fresh air, and the mouldy case of the dead gave a pungent and unwholesome odor.” The coffins of Washington and his lady were in the deepest recess of the vault. They were of lead, inclosed in wooden cases. When the sarcophagus arrived, the coffin of the chief was brought forth. The vault was first entered by Mr. Strickland, accompanied by Major Lewis (the last survivor of the first executors of the will of Washington) and his son. When the decayed wooden case was removed, the leaden lid was perceived to be sunken and fractured. In the bottom of the wooden case was found the silver coffin-plate, in the form of a shield, which was placed upon the leaden coffin when Washington was first entombed. “At the request of Major Lewis,” says Mr. S., “the fractured part of the lid was turned over on the lower part, exposing to view a head and breast of large dimensions, which appeared, by the dim light of the candles, to have suffered but little from the effects of time. The eye-sockets were large and deep, and the breadth across the temples, together with the forehead, appeared of unusual size. There was no appearance of grave-clothes; the chest was broad, the color was dark, and had the appearance of dried flesh and skin adhering closely to the bones. We saw no hair, nor was there any offensive odor from the body; but we observed, when the coffin had been removed to the outside of the vault, the dripping down of a yellow liquid, which stained the marble of the sarcophagus. A hand was laid upon the head and instantly removed; the leaden lid was restored to its place ; the body, raised by six men, was carried and laid in the marble coffin, and the ponderous cover being put on and set in cement, it was sealed from our sight on Saturday the 7th day of October, 1837. . . . The relatives who were present, consisting of Major Lewis, Lorenzo Lewis, John Augustine Washington, George Washington, the Rev. Mr. Johnson and lady, and Mrs. Jane Washington, then retired to the mansion.” The Illustrated Life of Washington, Hon. J[oel] T[yler] Headley, 1860
This narrator claimed to have been present at the removal of the Washington bodies to their new tomb.
William H. Burgess, who lives in Alexandria, Va., assisted, in 1836, in building Washington’s new tomb at Mount Vernon. He says: “I was a lad then, but I remember that in removing the bodies of George and Martha to their present tomb we decided to open the coffin. I looked in and saw General Washington’s face. The body was well preserved, and the features were intact. There was nothing to indicate the time he had been dead. A minute after exposure to the air there was a collapse, and nothing was recognizable. The face looked like his pictures.” Repository [Canton, OH] 8 June 1889: p. 2
Several decades after the gardener’s attempt to get a head, there was another dire rumor about Washington’s skull.
WASHINGTON’S HEAD SAFE
No Truth in the Tale of the Tomb Desecration
[From our Regular Correspondent]
Corner Fifteenth and G Streets, N.W.,
Washington, Sept. 29, 1887.
The story that the head of Washington was stolen from Mount Vernon and carried to Paris by curiosity hunters is pronounced by Dr. G.M. Toner as an unqualified falsehood.
The remains of Washington were removed from the old and original coffin about fifty years ago and placed in the marble sarcophagus made for that purpose, which was not only to keep out the air but so constructed and fastened that it would be next to impossible for anybody to violate the sanctity of the seals without having uninterrupted access to them for many hours.
THE SKELETON INTACT IN THE TOMB.
When the remains were transferred from the old coffin to the marble receptacle many members of the Washington family were present, with persons of prominence, and they all certified to the fact that the skeleton was all intact. After the sarcophagus was put in its place the iron grated door was locked and the key thrown into the Potomac. The old lock is still in good preservation and has never been tampered with.
During the Rebellion the grounds at Mount Vernon were held sacred and the hand of the vandal was never known to have desecrated any part of the tomb or its surroundings.
WATCHING NIGHT AND DAY.
The last resting place of Washington has been vigilantly watched ever since the present tomb was erected. Though some distance from the mansion, every device known has been used for many years to alarm the superintendent of the grounds. Now electric wires communicate with the house, making it impossible for any one to even attempt to open the iron doors.
The story, therefore, that the skull of Washington was ever removed or even profaned by the touch of vandals, Dr. Toner says, is utterly without foundation. In 1849 the Washington heirs loaned to Mr. Clark Mills the original cast of Washington’s face, made during life by the celebrated sculptor Houdon. It was never returned, but in its place, a copy which Mr. Mills claimed was in better condition than the original, was sent to the Mount Vernon mansion. It subsequently passed into the possession of Mr. McDonald, the sculptor, and is supposed to be in his possession still. Speculation was rife for a time as to who had the original. It was not, however, stolen, and is probably still in New York. New York Herald 30 September 1887: p. 6
Those pesky, overwrought headline composers were at it again in this article about an incident at the McKinley vault. There was an actual event, but no attempt to blow up the tomb.
VANDALS AT CANTON
Guards at McKinley’s Tomb Attacked
WANTED TO BLOW IT UP
That is What is Generally Believed. Great Excitement.
Dastardly Plot at Canton
Attempt Was Made Last Night to Blow Up McKinley’s Tomb.
Canton, O., Sept. 30 A strange story comes from Westlawn cemetery, where a company of regulars from Fort Wayne, Mich., is guarding the vault in which the body of the late President McKinley lies. It is to the effect that the guard on duty on top of the vault last night fired a shot at one man who refused to heed his challenge; that the shot was diverted by another man, who appeared from another direction, and that an effort was made to stab the guard.
Private Deprend was on guard duty on top of the vault at a point commanding the entrance below and the approach from the rear. Shortly before 7:30 o’clock he saw what he took to be the face of a man peering from behind a tree about forty feet from his post. He watched it for twenty minutes, he says, and at 7:45 o’clock saw the man hurry to a tree ten feet nearer. He challenged the man to halt, but this was not heeded, and the fellow approached nearer. Deprend levelled his gun and aimed to shoot for effect, but just at that instant, another man, who came toward him from the opposite side, caught the gun, threw it up, and the bullet spent in the air.
This same man struck Deprend on the right side of the abdomen with a knife or other sharp weapon, cutting an L-shaped gash in his overcoat an inch and a half long each way, and a smaller one in his blouse. The flesh was not broken, but was bruised under the cuts in the clothing. Deprend, in the struggle, fell and rolled down the side of the vault.
Lieut. Ashbridge, officer of the day, was in front of the vault and rushed to the top on hearing the shot, but the men made their escape. All members of the company, on hearing the shot, hurried to the vault, and, besides searching the cemetery, the guard was increased.
Deprend is said to be an excellent soldier, and to have a fine record with his officers. He says the man who attacked him was masked, but that the first one he saw was not masked. He saw the latter carried a white package in his right hand and something that glittered in his left.
Since the incident stories have been told in camp of some incendiary conversations overheard in the crowds that have visited the cemetery, including one today, alleging that some stranger said: “Lots of people would like to see this whole thing blown up.”
Canton, O., Sept. 30. Eight prisoners broke from the county jail here Sunday by sawing out the bars of a window opening from a court between the jail and court house. They had five minutes start when discovered. Bloodhounds were immediately put on the trail.
Canton, Sept. 30. The city is astir today over the assault on Guard Deprend at the vault in which McKinley’s body rests. Some advance the theory that one man who broke jail here last night made the attack in an effort to secure a rifle, with which to protect himself against pursuing officers. The belief is general, however, that the attack was part of a plot to blow up the tomb. Riverside [CA] Daily Press 30 September 1901: p. 1
A later article quoted a sentinel who described three men who had spoken to him as he was guarding the tomb. “One asked how long sentinels in front of the vault gates were kept on duty. I told him half an hour at a time. He asked me if there were other guards. I told him several on the hill, over the vault and at other places. The second man said he did not see the use of all this fuss: that no one would try to do any harm now.
“The third man said he was mistaken; that there were lots of people who would like to see the whole thing blown up.
“No, I had no suspicion that any of these men would have any interest in or would sympathize with any act of violence. I think they were speaking of the disposition of other classes who might be prompted to such acts.” Morning Herald Lexington KY] 1 October 1901: p. 1, 8.
One can see how this might have been twisted by an overzealous journalist into an actual attack on the monument, but the men’s remarks might equally seem suspicious: like reconnaissance for some dastardly mission.
Other papers sneered at the event as the product of a nervous guard’s brain.
The marauder scare at Canton, as nearly as we can make out, was not caused by beings in the flesh, but by spirits which are supposed to haunt cemeteries. It is not likely that there will be any further difficulty with such uncanny presences, if the officer in command of the detail will carefully exclude spirits from the camp. The Evening Times [Washington, DC] 1 October 1901: p. 4
In fact, “Particular inquiry was made as to Deprend’s sobriety. The time, it is said, established beyond all reasonable doubt that he had not been drinking….The most common belief is that the sentinel was over-wrought by the loneliness of his position; that his nerves were taxed, and that imagination contributed to some of the details related in good faith. The post is regarded as particularly isolated and depressing to a man guarding it at night.” Morning Herald [Lexington, KY] 1 October 1901: p. 1, 8.
There was definitely something to the notion of the job being particularly depressing. [See this post on Tombstone Madness.] Here is the story of a soldier who apparently had a breakdown while guarding the Cleveland grave of President Garfield. This was before the immense tomb we see today was finished. I have not found others, so the journalist may have exaggerated.
A Soldier Becomes insane While Guarding Garfield’s Tomb.
Cleveland Dispatch to Philadelphia Press.
Joseph Kashinsky, a private in Company H, Tenth U.S. Infantry, on duty at Garfield’s grave, in Lake View Cemetery, has become insane, and has been taken to Detroit for cure. The peculiar form of insanity is melancholia, and a peculiar state of affairs came to light when the case was looked up. The men on the guard dread their duty, and several cases are reported of men committing offenses for the purpose of getting punished.
Anything or any device is used to get away from the ghostly array of mounds and tombs. This is said to have driven Kashinsky insane and his incoherent language and actions carry out the impression. One man, a veteran, said: “I dread the duty, although I am not afraid of it and do not complain, but on the younger the strain is intense. Many tricks are resorted to to escape the night watches.” Kashinsky is a young Pole, but ten months a soldier, twenty-one years of age, and until this trouble came a light-hearted, healthy young man. Cincinnati [OH] Commercial Tribune, 2 April 1883: p. 2
Some newspapers attributed the young man’s insanity to the “Curse of Guiteau” (another post, another time), a malign hoodoo widely reported to have killed and driven dozens of people insane.
There had been an attempt to snatch Garfield’s body before it was placed in the temporary tomb in Lake View Cemetery so guards were felt to be necessary. “The guards are almost essential to protect the tomb from the relic fiends as from the ghouls. The guards assert that were it not for their presence, and the wire screen or fence, which completely surround te tomb, that the crowds that visit it would chip off, break up and carry away vault, casket and all as relics. As it is they break twigs from adjacent trees, reach through the wires and pluck blades of grass, pick up pebbles or anything else they can seize upon.” New Ulm [MN] Weekly Review 14 February 1883: p. 1
The Garfield tomb was a popular tourist attraction. In 1882 there were complaints of littering, theft, vandalism, and harassment of bereaved visitors by the “picnic masher element.” Lake View Cemetery decided to close its doors to the public on Sundays, except for “proper persons” who could apply for a ticket of admission. [Source: Cleveland [OH] Leader 22 August 1882.]
There was much resentment expressed in some newspapers about the expense and the “farce” of keeping up a guard of soldiers at Garfield’s grave and eventually the guard was withdrawn July 1, 1886. With this event, as well as the finishing of Garfield’s permanent tomb, a story emerged about some genuine bodysnatching:
When Secretary Endicott ordered the guard removed from Garfield’s tomb the family and friends of the dead President were alarmed. Detectives informed them that an organized band of body snatchers had plotted to desecrate the sepulchre. It was finally decided to remove the remains to an obscure vault in another corner of the cemetery. This was accomplished in darkness by a party of four chosen friends. Pittsburg [PA] Dispatch 19 February 1890: p. 1
The article goes on to describe how four prominent Cleveland business men, friends of the Garfield family, got a key to the holding vault, got Garfield’s immensely heavy coffin out of its sarcophagus, and carried it in complete darkness to an obscure vault in a little-visited section of the cemetery. Then they resealed the sarcophagus, locked the door, and went home, sworn to secrecy. Apparently one of the men hurt himself so badly in carrying the heavy coffin that he never really recovered. The article goes on to describe how people paid their respects at an empty sarcophagus, little knowing of the “necessary deception.”
Today Garfield’s massive monument at Lake View Cemetery is said to be haunted by mysterious lights and perhaps the apparition of the man himself.
Our last case concerns some truly odd events at the holding vault where the body of President Warren G. Harding and his wife were kept until the Harding Monument could be built.
Harding’s Tomb Guards Are Annoyed
Marion, O. Jan. 3. Lieutenant R.H. Harriman, commander of the guard detachment stationed in Marion cemetery to guard the vault in which reposes the body of the late President Harding, supplement a previous order, today issued instructions to the twenty-six men in his command to make every effort to capture a marauder, who, since the formation of the guard detachment, has continually annoyed the perpetual guard of six men. Gruesome disturbances including bugle blowing at midnight, ghostly noises by prowlers and throwing of stones in the direction of the vault make up the offense with which the individual or individuals will be charged if captured.
Several time soldiers have caught glimpses of a man and on several occasions have shot at him. Early one morning a guardsman chased a man for over half a mile.
It is believed by Lieutenant Harriman that the continual disturbances represent an attempt to frighten the men and to break the morale of the detachment. It is also thought that possibly people came to the cemetery to rob the graves of flowers. Elyria [OH] Chronicle Telegraph 3 January 1924: p. 8
An Associated Press story added that “at first it was thought it was small boys, but when the disturbances kept up, the guard took it more seriously.” So seriously, that Lieut. R.H. Harriman, the commander of the tomb guards, ordered his men to shoot directly at anyone causing a disturbance. The article said also “Riot guns have been sent from Fort Hayes, at Columbus headquarters for the guard detachment here, and these loaded with buckshot will be used if the disturbances continue.”
It seems unlikely that flower thieves or pranksters would be flitting about the cemetery, risking being shot. The stone throwing and ghostly noises almost suggest poltergeist manifestations.
It’s a curious thing that the stories about Garfield, McKinley and Harding all refer to events at holding vaults, rather than their finished tombs. Is there something about corpses in transit or bodies not yet laid to rest that encourages graveyard intruders?
Any other stories of presidential tomb disturbances? Signal by dark lantern to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Today’s guest-narrator tells the bizarre and gruesome story of an undertaker’s revenge.
The story began innocently enough in Ironton, Ohio in 1933, when Dr. Joseph Lowry was found dead in his bed. He was thought to have had a stroke and was laid to rest next to his late wife in his $40,000 mausoleum in Woodland Cemetery. His estate amounted to around $300,000.
Official suspicions were first aroused when a key to a safe deposit box was found in the Lowry house, but the box could not be located. It was whispered that several of Lowry’s strong boxes had been emptied by his sister Alice Barger and nephew Clark, who were said to have borrowed money from Lowry in the past. An autopsy was ordered, but on the exhumation morning when the authorities needed a key to the mausoleum, the Bargers were nowhere to be found. Eventually the authorities burned a hole through the heavy metal doors with a welding torch.
Dr. Lowry’s body was autopsied at a local funeral home. There was no sign of a stroke. In addition to previously unnoticed marks of asphyxiation, a surprise awaited. …
But Mrs Daffodil will let the author tell the story in her own discursive way:
Many years ago I ran across a story called “The Coffin with the Plate Glass Front or The Undertaker’s Revenge” by Jean Dolan, which was part of the Ohio Valley Folk Research Project, a collection of locally-collected folk-tales. Part of the story concerned a doctor disemboweled by an undertaker, which, as I am a lover of the grim and gruesome, I filed away for future reference, assuming it was just a folktale.
Then, as I was writing Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Haunted Ohio, I spoke with a genealogy librarian from Briggs-Lawrence County Public Library in Ironton, Ohio. She told me about some of the hauntings at the library and mentioned something about a disemboweled doctor who had formerly lived on the site.
Alarm bells went off. I had assumed the story was just a story, but the librarian graciously sent me newspaper clippings about the sensational story to prove that it wasn’t a fake.
Was he murdered? Why were his insides removed? Here we enter into the realm of conjecture. What follows is entirely speculative, based on local hearsay, gossip, and innuendo, sometimes a more reliable source of truth than the most carefully sworn testimony:
The story goes that when Dr. Lowry’s wife Sarah died in 1931, he ordered a very expensive, custom-made polished wood coffin. When it arrived, it had a slight scratch. Dr. Lowry noticed it at once. The undertaker murmured that it could easily be repaired. The French polisher could be on the job within the hour….
Dr. Lowry cut him short. It wouldn’t do. He wouldn’t be imposed upon with shoddy, second-rate goods. He insisted on being shown the coffins in stock and selected one, a top-of-the-line model, to be sure, with the genuine imitation mahogany veneer but a good deal less costly than the custom-made coffin. Dr. Lowry knew perfectly well that the custom coffin could be fixed but perhaps he was having second thoughts about the Dear Departed, or it may have been one of those minor economies that keep the rich richer than you and me.
The undertaker had not insisted on payment when the order was placed. He went home with a splitting headache and his wife put cool cloths on his forehead while he railed against the miserly doctor. He was his usual unctuous professional self by the time he next saw the doctor at the funeral. But he had the coffin taken up into the loft of the carriage house and covered with a horse blanket. On sleepless nights he brooded over the unpaid coffin invoice.
So when the news came that Dr. Lowry was dead, the undertaker danced a little jig of delight. He had sworn that Lowry would go to go his eternal rest in that expensive casket but it had been made for the Doctor’s wispy little wife and the dead man’s bulging midsection made it impossible to close the lid. Piece of cake, said the undertaker, preening himself on his ingenuity. He simply scooped out the internal organs, shoveled in a few handfuls of excelsior, stitched up the now much‑diminished belly, and voila! Not only was the coffin a perfect fit but the old man looked trimmer than he had ever looked in life. The heirs congratulated him on how well the old man looked. Only a few people seemed puzzled by the corpse’s diminished height. Oh well, they went away thinking, the dead always look smaller… It had been a simple matter to take up the old man’s legs a bit so the undertaker could cram him into the coffin crafted for the five-foot Sarah.
Soon, however, rumors began to fly around the town that the old man’s death wasn’t altogether a natural one. There was some suspicion that someone had helped the old boy along—either by poison or a pillow over the face.
Dr. Lowry was removed from his $40,000 mausoleum in his plate-glass-fronted coffin. The autopsy revealed a startling secret, but not the one expected. When questioned, the undertaker admitted that he’d taken a few liberties with the old man’s innards. Motivated entirely by spite, he said cheerfully. The undertaker led the authorities to the place he’d buried the remains of the Doc, but the parts in question were too far gone to be analyzed for poison. Any possible case against the heirs was dismissed for lack of evidence.
It is said that Dr Lowry haunts the Briggs-Lawrence County Public Library in Ironton—the site of Dr Lowry’s former home where he was found dead….He has also been seen roaming the cemetery in search of his missing insides.
Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Haunted Ohio, Chris Woodyard
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil is grateful for her guest’s ghost story contribution. Another story involving a doctor, poison, a ghost, and entrails, may be found at the Haunted Ohio blog. One wonders if the disemboweled Dr Lowry’s ghost could have been placated by the substitution of ersatz entrails: trimmings from a local slaughterhouse perhaps or bits of an opossum run over by a motor-car?
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.
Pathetic, humorous, and strange incidents are continually occurring in cemeteries. The public never hears of them because the cemetery superintendent isn’t often a talker. He doesn’t tell things unless he is asked. The stories of some happenings he declines to relate, regarding them as professional secrets. Above all, he of course never mentions names. The burying ground is one of the greatest places on earth to study character. The superintendent knows it and he is a most proficient student. His practiced eye detects the alleged mourner who simulates his grief, and in a moment he spots the financial skinner who is either cheese-paring expenses or making a spread to impress funeral participants to such a great extent that the display may be a sort of financial investment. In most cases friends and relatives who are not sincere mourners make strong and clever attempts at deceiving observers. Some, however, do not care, and family feuds are ofttimes carried to the side of the grave.
There was recently an instance of a woman laughing and chatting like a parrot a few minutes after the burial of a child. Then there are cases in which the wounds of sorrow made by the deaths of friends or relatives are so deep that the bereaved ones never recover. Some of this class visit and decorate the graves of their dead every day in the year, rain or shine. There are others, however, wounded just as deeply, who cannot bear the cemetery, but sit at home and suffer in silence.
The Curious and Superstitious.
The bane of a graveyard is the curiosity-seekers and the superstitious. People of the former class have a morbid love for funerals that is ghoulish. They gloat over the grief of the mourners, and feast their eyes on the face of the corpse if they get an opportunity. The abnormal appetite of these people seems never satiated. Their faces are so familiar to cemetery-keepers that they are missed if they neglect to attend a single funeral. Superstitious people are still plentiful. They wouldn’t enter a burying ground at night for a million dollars, and many of them wouldn’t go into a vault even in the daytime, not even if they were accompanied by an electric arc light and a cannon. A few days ago a remarkable superstition came to light at Graceland. One of the managers was walking in a driveway when he was approached by an old woman, tottering and bent with age. In one hand she carried a crumple strip of paper. Approaching, she said: “I’m looking for an open grave, sir. Can you tell me where to find one?”
“Yes, there is one right straight north of here—the seventh lot,” was the reply. “But why do you want to find an open grave?”
‘Well, you know, one of my granchillern’s got the scarlet fev’r, an’ I’ve writ the name of the disease on this here piece of paper. If I kin just drop the paper in an open grave, where it’ll git buried, the disease’ll leave the chile an’ go down in the grave.”
When asked for a look at the paper, she unfolded it and held it out. On the scrap was scrawled in a lead pencil, “skarlit fevr.” When the old woman was handed back her slip she hurried to the grave. The man watched her. When she reached the hole she stopped for a moment, and seemed to be muttering some incantation over the opening. Then she stretched her arm out straight over the middle of the grave, with the back of her hand down. In a moment her fingers, which had been tightly closed, opened. The light breeze lifted the “skarlit fevr” charm from her palm. It fluttered in the air an instant, and fell into the grave. The poor old creature was satisfied. With a contented, feeble smile, she turned and hurried away as fast as possible.
Wax Flowers and Coffin Plates.
Very frequently the family of the deceased removes the name plate from the coffin and has the flowers which were used preserved by dipping them in wax. The flowers are made in the form of a wreath. The silver plate is placed in the middle and the whole is placed in a glass case to be hung In the parlor. Then, after some one comes along and makes the remark that it is “mighty bad luck to have such a thing in the house,” the relatives take down the case and carry the plate to the cemetery and ask the superintendent to have the body taken up that they may put the plate back on the coffin. This has happened so often at every cemetery that the employes do longer smile when the superstitious man with the plate wants a coffin exhumed.
At Oakwoods cemetery there is a remarkable and apparently inexplicable mystery, for many years the authorities there have been finding candles just inside the great high iron fence which surrounds the grounds. In every instance the candle has been lighted and extinguished at once before any of the tallow has melted. Sometimes three candles are found bound together by a strip of a linen handkerchief. They are always found so close to the fence that whoever left them evidently reached between the iron bars and dropped them within. Scores of the candles have been found, and Superintendent Drew always has a fresh drawer full in his office. Many guesses have been hazarded as to the cause of the strange practice. The theory which seems most plausible is that it is a hoodoo charm performed by negroes the night of the burial of one of their kin.
Is the Grave Secure?
Quite frequently people ask cemetery superintendents to open the graves so that they may see if the corpse has not been stolen or disturbed. This is especially the case when graves are very much sunken. It is very seldom that the authorities will listen to the request. The suspicions are almost invariably groundless and explanations are made to the friends showing them the uselessness of disinterment. Body-snatching is almost unknown in in these days. The only cases that may occur are when the deceased has been taken away by some unusual disease which scientist would like to investigate. For all ordinary scientific study the hospitals and poor-house furnish an abundance of bodies. Sometimes before the coffin is lowered into the grave some mourner is already figuring on having the corpse exhumed before very long to see if it has been disturbed. One day at Oakwoods a mourner, who was unwilling to trust the records, walked the fence and scratched a cross on the railing opposite the grave which was in the single grave section. In a few weeks he came back and wanted the grave opened. He was so persistent that Superintendent Drew consented. The man wanted the grave opened which was exactly opposite the notch. The records and chart showed the grave of the gentleman’s relative was next to the one which he wished opened. He kicked up a great row, but the superintendent stood by his records and opened the grave indicated on the chart. It was the right one. The mourner had not been careful in making his mark, and had placed it a little to one side and directly in front of another grave, only a foot away. The coffin was taken up. The dead had not been disturbed and the man was satisfied.
The only kind of thieves and robbers that bother the burying ground is the flower thief. She, for this brand of thief is almost invariably of the feminine gender, comes with the blossoms in the springtime and she haunts graveyards all summer long unless she is detected. Decoration day before last, at Mount Greenwood Cemetery, two enterprising flower sellers and stealers had a narrow escape from being mobbed. A man drew up a wagon filled with potted plants near the station. Great crowds were getting off the train and he sold flowers right and left. Although he was selling them by the dozen on every hand, for some strange reason his supply seemed no smaller at the end of an hour than when he began. Presently, when the salesman’s wife was caught stealing flowers in the cemetery, his never-decreasing supply of floral goods was no longer a mystery. As fast as the purchased flowers were placed on graves the wife stole them and carried them back to the wagon. When caught she was surrounded by a crowd of a thousand people and came near receiving rough treatment.
Superintendent Rudd of Mount Greenwood is one of the oldest and most experienced cemetery managers in Chicago. The many years he has been in his present position have given him great experience with the general public.
“I could tell you things which you would scarcely believe,” said Mr. Rudd.
“Incidents transpire in cemeteries which if told exactly as they occurred would receive little credence. One thing which would occasion great surprise is the little real sorrow and grief caused by death.
Grief Arithmetically Measured.
“Most husbands are not hurt very much by the death of their wives. I don’t think over 20 per cent really feel badly wounded at heart when they hear the clods fall on the coffin lid. Wives are less heartless. About 40 per cent of wives, twice as many as the husbands, care considerably when their life partners are buried. Very few care when old people die. But when a mother leaves her child in the ground there are few instances when her heart is not almost broken. We once had a striking exception. A mother had just buried the third of her children who had died in quick succession of scarlet fever. The husband and wire had come from the grave to my office and were waiting for some papers. Tears were rolling down his cheeks, but the woman laughed and talked as if she were at a reunion in a beer garden. Finally the poor man could bear it no longer. Raising his clinched fist and cursing her, he advanced toward his wife and told her if she didn’t shut her mouth he would shut it for her.
“I remember one young man whose grief at the burial of his wife was heartrending. He screamed and cried until be could be beard clear across the hill. He threw himself on the coffin, and when it was lowered he tried to jump into the grave. Friends held him, and he was taken away almost fainting. Within a month the young man married again.
No Waking the Last Sleep.
“Very often in the winter husbands place their dead wives in the vault, and In the spring bring out wife No. 2 to see No. 1 put in the ground. Once an undertaker had occasion to open a coffin which was in our public vault. It was in the depth of winter, and the thermometer was below zero. The corpse looked very life-like, and after the undertaker went away he made some little remark about it. The little remark was repeated. It grew like a weed. It was enlarged and exaggerated until it was told over the entire neighborhood that a woman in a trance lay buried in the vault. The gossips did not stop to think that the body had been frozen solid for nearly a month. These stories, by the way, about people being buried alive are mostly manufactured for sensational purposes. I never heard of an authentic case, and I never met any one else who ever did.
Tricks of the Social Faker.
“Some queer and peculiar things are done out here by money ‘skinners.’ Who are thinking of saving every penny as much as they are of their grief. Two or three of the mourners will come out before the funeral and express their doubts as to whether we have a lot good enough for them. Then they conclude to place the remains in the vault temporarily.
The day of the funeral everything is imposing. The coffin is rosewood, or covered with plush or broadcloth, and there is a long line of fine carriages. Some time after the funeral the mourners will slip out to the cemetery, buy a single grave in the poorest, cheapest spot, and, without buying the $3 pine coffin-box, bury the casket in the ground. I remember well a heart-broken husband who came out to the cemetery to buy a lot and make arrangements for his wife’s funeral. The poor fellow could not restrain his feelings. Two big tears glistened in his eyes, and his voice quivered. He looked up at me through his glistening tears and said:
“‘Yes. It’s hard to (sob) bear. An’ it’s an awful (sob) trial (sob) to come out (sob) here and select this (sob) lot. I was wo-wonderin’ if you (sob) co-couldn’t gimme a little discoun-count for cash.’ (Long-continued sobbing.)
“I had another experience with a mourner of much the same character. ‘Now, I’ll tell you,’ he said, ‘there are going to be a lot of swell, rich people out here at my wife’s funeral tomorrow. They don’t any of ’em own lots here, but when they come out tomorrow and see what a magnificent place you’ve got they may buy. Well, you know, of course I’m sort of bringing ’em out here, and maybe you might sell ’em some lots several, perhaps and well. I didn’t know but you might feel like giving me a little commission on all the lots you might sell to any of em.”
Repentance and Black Stockings.
“A widower came to my foreman once with a proposition that had never been heard of before. Several months previous the man had buried his wife. He was a cheese-parer on money matters, and, I guess, he saved all he could on funeral arrangements. At the funeral, of course, only the face was exposed. The rest of the body could not be seen, and no one but the widower knew how well or how poorly it was arrayed. Evidently he got to thinking the matter over and decided he hadn’t given his dead wife a square deal. Well, sir, he came to my foreman with a long pair of black stockings, and wanted his wife taken up so that be could put them on her.”
All of the large cemeteries have had more or less experience with people who have been so unfortunate as to lose a limb. One day a man from Pullman appeared at Mount Greenwood with a tiny coffin, about nine inches long, under his arm. He had in the coffin two of his fingers which had been cut off by a buzz saw. Instead of throwing them away or burying them in his back yard he brought them to the graveyard, purchased a lot, and buried the fingers. Several years ago a woman, living on the South Side, had a leg amputated. It was buried in a family lot. Recently the woman died. Her relatives had the leg taken up and placed in the coffin. They said they did it so that she would be perfect in heaven.
Some Recent Legislation.
Cemetery people all over the state are laughing at the ridiculous law passed by the Legislature in regard to the use of wire designs for holding flowers. The law makes it unlawful for these designs to be used in any way a second time.
“It is one of the most laughable things 1 ever heard of,” said Superintendent Rudd. “I presume the law was passed on the theory that the wire might become infected with contagion. Of course that is preposterous, especially if the designs are repainted. I guess if the truth were known it would be found that some manufacturers had some new design they wanted to get on the market. Perhaps they persuaded the Legislature to cripple the old designs.”
Daily Inter Ocean [Chicago, IL[ 21 June 1896: p. 23
A circumstance occurred last week at Portree, Isle of Skye, which may be added to the many chapters recording the fidelity and attachment of dogs to their masters. A rumour spread through the town one morning that on the previous night the dogs had torn open the grave of a young man who had died of fever, and was interred some weeks previous. So painful and shocking an occurrence caused great excitement in Portree; but in the course of the day Sheriff Fraser and others, having inquired into the facts of the case, found the facts to be not only of a less revolting nature, but fraught with the deepest interest.
When the young man was buried, his dog followed the funeral to the churchyard, and was with difficulty removed. It returned again and again to the spot, and, unobserved, had dug into the grave until it reached the coffin. At Portree, as in many other parts of the Highlands, the people bury their dead in a very superficial manner, making only shallow graves. The dog had gnawn through the coffin when the fact was discovered, but the body of its dead master was untouched; and there the faithful animal was found looking into the grave.
“I doubt,” says our correspondent, “if there be on record a more striking instance of canine attachment; for you must bear in mind that four or five weeks had elapsed since the interment, and the churchyard is six miles from the house where poor Norman’s father lives.”—Inverness Courier.
The Christian Recorder [Philadelphia, PA] 17 August 1861
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Although there is some controversy over the tale, it was only three years before this story that John Gray, the master of Greyfriars Bobby, died and was buried in Edinburgh’s Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. His little Skye Terrier is said to have spent 14 years sitting on his late master’s grave, dying in 1872.
Dogs faithful unto death were a staple of 19th-century lore and legend. Here is another, less grewsome example, from 1817:
In the parish of Saint Olave, Tooley Street, Borough, the churchyard is detached from the church, and surrounded with high buildings, so as to be wholly inaccessible but by one large close gate. A poor tailor, of this parish, dying, left a small cur dog inconsolable for his loss. The little animal would not leave his dead master, not even for food; and whatever he ate was forced to be placed in the same room with the corpse. When the body was removed for burial, this faithful attendant followed the coffin. After the funeral, he was hunted out of the churchyard by the sexton, who, the next day, again found the animal, who had made his way by some unaccountable means into the enclosure, and had dug himself a bed on the grave of his master. Once more he was hunted out, and again he was found in the same situation the following day. The minister of the parish hearing of the circumstance, had him caught, taken home, and fed, and endeavoured by every means to win the animal’s affections: but they were wedded to his late master; and, in consequence, he took the first opportunity to escape, and regain his lonely situation. With true benevolence, the worthy clergyman permitted him to follow the bent of his inclinations; but, to soften the rigour of his fate, he built him, upon the grave, a small kennel, which was replenished once a day with food and water. Two years did this example of fidelity pass in this manner, when death put an end to his griefs; and the extended philanthropy of the good clergyman allowed his remains an asylum with his beloved master.
Canine Pathology, Delabere Pritchett Blaine, 1817
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.
For more stories in a funereal vein, see The Victorian Book of the Dead by Chris Woodyard, a look at the popular and material culture of Victorian mourning.
Ever since the author of “Hamlet” put the grave digger into literature there has been an impression in literary circles that there is something more or less humorous, philosophic, or romantic about the grave digger.
Consequently, when the grave diggers in one of the Philadelphia cemeteries recently went on strike, the more or less humorous reporter of the Ledger was sent out to interview, and produced the following philosophy or lamentation of the grave digger:
Grave digging is healthful. It makes fine muscles. But it isn’t very exciting or profitable.
That is why the grave-digging force in a large cemetery has walked out, and another is about to. The grave diggers want it known that they are not striking for the excitement, but for the money.
“Those graves are hard to dig,” said one of the men in the Fernwood Cemetery today. The Fernwood force is all ready to strike if the Holy Cross diggers are successful in the strike they have carried on since Monday. It may be said, in passing, that if the Holy Cross diggers do not get their raises, they have at least got the “goat” of every undertaker in the city for the manner in which they are spoiling funerals. Funeral after funeral has driven into Holy Cross Cemetery to be halted by the absence of the grave diggers, who swear they’ll get a raise if they have to strike for a year.
“We have to dig in all kinds of weather,” continued the Fernwood digger, Frank Pumley, who is married and has three children, including a daughter, 19 years old. “We dig in water up to our knees, and under a sun that drives the thermometers to 120. Below zero weather is also frequent.
“A grave digger digs two graves a day. He has a helper, and in the morning after the grave is marked out by the superintendent, he must dig it in four and a half hours. Some graves are harder to dig than others. Some cave in, some are rocky. Then the size of the grave makes a difference.
An ordinary grave is 7 feet deep, 30 inches wide and from 7 to 8 feet long. For two coffins, the grave is 9 feet deep. For three, we dig down 11 feet.
Graves are funny. Sometimes they behave and sometimes they don’t. I’ve known them to be fine until the funeral is driving through the gates. Then they collapse. I have known them to collapse after the coffin is lowered, too. Then we have trouble. The women faint, the men swear and everybody blames the grave digger. But we can’t help it. It’s all according to the nature of the ground.
“I speak from experience,” said Pumley, “because I’ve dug graves here for 23 years. Diggin’ two graves a day, and sometimes three, I calculate I’ve dug over 16,700 graves in my time. I never had a ‘vacation, ’cause grave diggers don’t get any. If they want a vacation, they take it without pay. A grave digger gets $2 a day, so you see I don’t have the money to take vacation,
“That’s why the men are striking. Who can live on $12 a week with a family, when things are so high? Meat’s high and loaves of bread are smaller.
Everything’s up but wages for grave diggers. I hear of the other workmen getting raises, but the grave diggers, no. We get no consideration at all. They must think we’re animals.
“The cemetery business is a good business. It costs a family about $8 for a grave, $13 if it is dug on Sunday. It used to be cheaper, but even graves have gone up. The cemetery has the grave dug in one morning by two men, paid $2 a day apiece. The grave costs the cemetery $2. About $6 profit on weekday graves, and $11 on Sunday work.
“The grave digger is not as mournful as people think. We whistle and sing and chew while digging graves. Why shouldn’t we? It isn’t our graves we are digging. We used also to have our little swig, but the cemetery officials cut that out. One of the diggers got drunk on duty and fell in a grave. So they cut it out. A drunken grave digger is funny all right,” the digger philosophized, leaning on his long-handled spade.
“Grave digging, though, is more nerve racking than you think. Sometimes the carriages drive through the gates and we’re only half finished. Then we must work like blazes. Everybody fusses. After the services, we lower the casket, four of us, into the grave. If it is rainy, the ropes or straps are slippery. The casket might slip or fall to the bottom. Also we might fall into the graves ourselves.
“I have seen both happen. Some time ago a strap broke. The casket fell with a thump and all the women fainted. Nothing was hurt. Another time two of the diggers fell over the edge onto the coffin. One of the diggers hit his chin on an iron-bound corner and knocked two teeth out. The woman then fainted, too.
“Once we were lowering a body when the side of the grave collapsed and we all fell in. The mourners were superstitious, and swore the grave was bewitched. But in all my life of grave digging I shall never forget an incident that happened 10 years ago. The hearse and carriages had just arrived. They were up on that hill yonder. The pallbearers prepared to take the coffin from the hearse. As one of the younger men put his hand on the rail of the casket to draw it out he fell dead. We took him away, held the services, and buried the pallbearer the following Sunday.”
Park and Cemetery and Landscape Gardening, Vol. XXVI, No. 3, May 1916 : pp. 78-79
In honour of the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, a story of an ordinary woman thrown into extraordinary circumstances and how she rose to the occasion: Elizabeth Thorn, known today as The Angel of Gettysburg.
A Woman’s Courage at Gettysburg.
Mrs. Peter Thorn, of Gettysburg, lived in the house at the entrance of the borough cemetery. The house was used as headquarters by General 0. 0. Howard. Mrs. Thorn’s husband was away from home at that time (serving in the 148th regiment of Pennsylvania volunteers, and stationed in Virginia), leaving her with two [actually three] quite young children. During the first day of the fight General Howard wanted someone to show him and tell about different roads leading from Gettysburg, and asked a number of men and boys who were in the cellar of the house to go with him and point them out. But these persons were all fearful and refused to go. Then Mrs. Thorn showed her courage and patriotism by voluntarily offering to show the roads. This offer was at first refused by General Howard, who said he did not wish a woman to do what a man had not the courage to do. Mrs. Thorn persisted in her offer, saying: “Somebody must show you, and I can do it; I was born and brought up here [a misunderstanding, perhaps–Elizabeth and her husband were German immigrants.] and know the roads as well as anybody.” Her offer was accepted, and with the general and his horse between her and the fire of the enemy, Mrs. Thorn went from one spot to another pointing out the different roads. When passing along the line of troops the general was greeted with: “Why do you take a woman for a guide? This is no place for her.” “I know it,” said the officer, “but I could not get a man to come; they were all afraid.” This answer to them started cheers for Mrs. Thorn, which lasted several minutes and showed that our soldiers admired the courage shown at such a time. The Popular History of the Civil War in America (1861-1865), George B. Herbert, 1885
General Howard wrote of Mrs Thorn in his autobiography: “After the battle Slocum, Sickles, and I took our headquarters on the ground near the gatekeeper’s cottage. Mrs. Peter Thorn, whose husband was a soldier, with her daughter [this is inaccurate—her daughter was not yet born] was caring for the cottage. I had been all day from breakfast at sunrise without food and was nearly famished. Mrs. Thorn, before we had time to ask, brought us some bread and cups of coffee. Those refreshments have never been forgotten.” Autobiography of Oliver Otis Howard, Major General, United States Army, Oliver Otis Howard, 1907, p. 419
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It is interesting, yet disheartening to see that these are the anecdotes most often told about Mrs Thorn, 20 years after the close of the American Civil War. The story of her pointing out the local roads appears in multiple publications during the 1880s, yet the General, whom she guided, only mentions her “refreshments.” Let us look more closely at Mrs Thorn’s extraordinary story.
Elizabeth Thorn and her husband, Peter, as well as her parents, lived in the gatehouse of the Evergreen Cemetery at Gettysburg. Her husband enlisted as a soldier, leaving her with three small children—ages 7, 5, and 2. She was six months pregnant when she volunteered to show General Howard the Gettysburg roads.
Her obituaries say merely that she witnessed the Battle of Gettysburg. Occasionally they mention that she assisted the General, or that she was Superintendent of the Cemetery in her husband’s absence. The papers are silent on her condition. They did not report how she did her duty in the aftermath of the battle. Working almost entirely without help, in the heat and storms of that July, among the rotting corpses of men and horses, she dug graves in the rocky soil and buried over one hundred soldiers.
Mrs Thorn herself somewhat understated the trauma as she spoke in her memoir of scrounging supplies, baking bread to distribute to the troops, and returning to find her household and livestock destroyed. Here she recounts her memories of those days, beginning with the first day of the battle, July 1, when the family took refuge in their cellar:
I wanted to go upstairs once more to see if our men gained, but when I came on the stairway a shell had cut in the window frame, then jumped a little, then went through the ceiling, so I would not go up any more… Soon one of General Howard’s men came and ordered me to have supper for Gen. Howard. I complained I had no bread, for I had given it all away in the morning. But I said I could make cakes, and he said they were good enough for war times. They did not come for so long, it was near twelve o’clock. It was Gen. Howard, Gen. Sickles, and Gen. Slocum. The house was so full of soldiers that the boys had to lay on the floor in the kitchen, on feather beds. And as they saw the children lying there, they said it was very sad. After they had had some supper and I found they were going to leave I asked them if they thought I should leave the house in the night. Gen. Howard rubbed his forehead and said: “Leave the house? Leave the house?” Then he looked towards the others and said: “Comrades, I say stay.” Then he said we should take our best things and pack them up and in two hours he would send two men to carry them to the cellar. Then he smiled and said: “I guess you call all best.” But I said: “Some I call better than others.” He said they would begin hard fighting about day-break, near four o’clock, and then we should go to the cellar. About two hours after they left the men came and took the things to the cellar. Gen. Howard said: “When I give you orders to leave the house, don’t study about it, but go right away.” About four o’clock we went to the cellar. There were seventeen of us (other civilians)…We were in the cellar about two or three hours. The noise of the cannonading was terrible. At last the door flew open and someone said: “This family is commanded by Gen. Howard to leave this house and get as far in ten minutes as possible. Take nothing up but the children and go.” They said we should keep (to) the pike, where the soldiers could see us, and that would save us. When we were a little way down the pike a shell bursted back of us, and none of us were killed, but we commenced to walk faster…
Near midnight [this would be on the second day of the battle, July 2], when everything was quiet, my father and I undertook to walk home to the Cemetery house. As we left the [neighbor’s] house we had to pass through a room where the Union soldiers were sleeping, lying in two rows, with only one candle to light the whole room. About the middle of one row a man raised himself on his elbow and motioned me to come to him, my father signaled I should go to him, and he took a picture out of his pocket and on it was three little boys, and he said they were his, and they were just little boys like mine, and would I please let him have my little boys sleep near him, and could he have the little one close to him, and the others near him? And so, he took them and had them lying by him….
The next day Mrs Thorn and her family fled to the country, going to a farmhouse where the wounded were being treated. She wrote of seeing the amputated limbs tossed into a corn crib and removed by the wagonload.
We were down the country four days and the fifth we went home. On the way home we met Mr. McConaughy. He was the president of the Cemetery at that time and he said to me: “Hurry on home, there is more work for you than you are able to do.” So we hurried on home. When we looked at the house I could only say “O my!” There were [sic] no window glass in the whole house. Some of the frames were knocked out and the pump was broken. Fifteen soldiers were buried beside the pump shed. I went to the cellar to look for the good things I had put there on the first night. One chest was packed with good German linen, others packed with other good things. Everything was gone, but three featherbeds and they were full of blood and mud. After I had dragged them out of the cellar I asked an officer who was riding by, if I would ever get any pay for things spoiled like this. He asked me what it was, and I told him bed clothes that were in the cellar, and he said in a very short way: “No!” So as soon as the pump was fixed I sent for three women and we washed for four days before we got them clean.
Then I got a note from the president of the Cemetery, and he said: “Mrs. Thorn, it is made out that we will bury the soldiers in our Cemetery for a while, so you go for that piece of ground and commence sticking off lots and graves as fast as you can make them.” Well, you may know how I felt, my husband in the army, my father an aged man. Yet for all the foul air we two started in. I stuck off the graves and while my father finished one, I had another one started. This lasted for days, until the boys sent word, if I couldn’t get help at all I should telegraph to some of my friends to come and help me. Two came, but one only stayed two days, then got deathly sick and left. The other stayed five days, then he went away very sick, and I had to pay their fare here and very good wages for their work. By that time we had forty graves done. And then my father and I had to dig on harder again. They kept on burying the soldiers until they had the National Cemetery ready, and in that time we buried one hundred five soldiers. In front of this house there were fifteen dead horses and beside the Cemetery there were nineteen in that field. So you may know it was only excitement that helped me to do all the work, with all that stench. And in three months after I had a dear little baby. But it was not very strong, and from that time on my health failed and for years I was a very sickly woman. In my older days my health has been better, but those hard days have always told on my life. Gettysburg [PA] Times 2 July 1938, p. 3
In the battle, nearly everything the family owned had been destroyed or stolen. For her efforts, Elizabeth Thorn received no extra money beyond her husband’s salary of a little over $12.00 per month and she and her father were criticized as unpatriotic for daring to ask for compensation for their substantial losses. President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address from a platform in Evergreen Cemetery on 19 November, 1863. One wonders if Mrs Thorn, her new daughter in her arms, heard the President speak? Peter Thorn survived the war and returned to the cemetery. He and Elizabeth died within months of each other in 1907 and are buried at Evergreen.
You may see more photographs of the statue of this intrepid woman here. The sculptor hid a Civil War relic—a minie ball—in the base of the image.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.
The Bodies of Pauper Infants Disposed of by Being Placed in Coffins Containing Corpses Which the Undertaker Had Been Called Upon to Attend to—Six Pauper Children Said to Have Been Buried in One Grave.
Chicago, Nov. 11. Englewood, recently a suburb of Chicago, but now embraced in the city, is greatly wrought up over the revolting charges that are being made against Undertaker Millard F. Rodgers. Citizens whose deceased relatives were buried by the undertaker are apprehensive that the graves of their loved ones have been desecrated, and a number of people have announced their intention of exhuming their friends’’ remains and satisfying themselves that they are not the victims of the repulsive practice of burying pauper infants in the coffins of deceased adults. Three weeks ago the remains of an Englewood man were exhumed shortly after being buried by Undertaker Rodgers and the body of a pauper infant was found between the feet of the corpse. Rogers claimed at the time that he was the victim of a conspiracy inspired by his assistant, C.F. Norman.
Another Revolting Discovery.
Tuesday, however, another case came to light. Disturbed by rumors the friends of the late James P. Tansy, who died eighteen months ago, had him exhumed and the remains of an infant were found under the satin trimmings at the foot of the coffin. The remains of Mr. Tansy were interred Mount Olivet long before Norman went to work for Rodgers, and this fact has convinced most of the friends who believed the undertaker’s tale that there is more in the charges than they supposed. Among the staunchest friends were the Masons and Odd Fellows, of which organizations Rodgers is a member. He proclaimed that they would stand by him, but Tuesday evening it was decided in the Englewood lodges of both orders to make a full investigation and a member of the Masonic fraternity admitted that if the charges were substantiated Rodgers would be expelled.
Six Children in One Grave.
The citizens have thoroughly organised for an investigation of the charges and the attorney for the prosecution stated Tuesday evening that he had satisfied himself that Rogers had buried In one grave at Oakwoods cemetery the bodies of six pauper children. As none of the children had relatives able to stand the expense of exhuming the remains and as there Is nothing In the statutes pronouncing such action criminal the matter will not be pushed further in this direction. But other cases will be pushed. Some time ago the father of Mr. Sylvester, an Eaglewood expressman, died and the remains, after being prepared by Rodgers, were shipped to Wisconsin (or burial. Soon after some alarming rumors were spread, but were not credited, and until the recent charges were made Mr. Sylvester did not trouble himself about them.
Will Make an Investigation.
Lately he commenced an investigation, and the other day induced the man who assisted Rodgers at the time of the burial to make a confession. This man, whose name is Foskett, pretended to know but little, but admitted that on the day the remains were prepared for burial a woman connected with Rodgers’ establishment left the undertaker’s shop with the body of a child in a shawl which she carried. She went to the Sylvester residence and when she left, it is alleged, she failed to bring the infant’s body with her. Mr. Sylvester will at once have his father’s remains exhumed by the Wisconsin relatives. Foskett further admitted that while he was with Rodgers the body of an Infant was placed In the coffin of a woman who lived near the corner of Sixty-first street and Stewart avenue. He declares he cannot remember the name.
A Remunerative Practice.
Still another suspicions case now being investigated is that of the infant child of Officer W. H. Harris of the Englewood Police station. It was remarked that the casket furnished by Rodgers was very large for an Infant’s remains. The coffin will probably be exhumed.
“The practice of burying Infants in adults’ coffins could be made very remunerative to one who did Rodgers’ large business,” said an Englewood physician Wednesday. “The interment fee of $6 is charged in each case, and if the undertaker has but one grave dug Instead of two he can make a pretty penny in the course of a year, especially when he does business for a couple. of foundlings’ homes and orphan asylums.”
Alton [IL] Evening Telegraph 12 November 1891: p. 1
It was a common practice to bury still-born children into the gap at the foot of an adult grave.
IN CIGAR BOXES
Many Little Bodies Find Nameless Graves.
“We have many people bring us little babes in boxes, ranging in size from a cigar box to a coffin a foot or so long,” said a sexton. “They hardly ever leave instructions, so we just put the boxes at the bottom of some grave we dig for a grown person.”
Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 31 January 1892: p. 9
The practice of “filling in” a gap at the foot of an adult grave with a child’s coffin, was a source of much pain to bereaved pauper parents. They much preferred that their babies be buried in a plot with other children.