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10 April 2009

History in the Obituaries

Call me a morbid historian, but I have always been interested in old cemeteries---there's a civil war cemetery close by and I stopped one day when city docents were hosting tours.

The group had put together a booklet with the actual obituaries on some 25 of people who were buried there. This interesting booklet recorded the lives of the pioneers and soldiers and everyday folk who lived outside of San Fransisco in the late 1800's.

As one reads, it is easy to feel the joys and the sorrow the successes and failures, the dreams and tragedies of people we will never know. Newspaper obituaries of the time were surprisingly uncensored in their accounts of the worth of the person, the way they died and how they were grieved---or not. There was no such thing as political correctness, that's for sure. These obituaries are preachy, prejudiced, judgmental, sentimental, and heartfelt. Deaths were described in graphic detail as were the personal habits and personalities of the recently demised. There were a lot of wagon accidents, shot gun "accidents/suicides/murders"--(it's hard to determine which was which sometimes) and tuberculosis deaths. There was usually a comment and opinion on you as a person--good or bad, virtuous or fast-living:

"Mrs. Underhill's death-age 64, died 1893. After a brief illness lasting less than a day, the soul of Mrs. A. Underhill took its flight to its long home last Thursdays evening....a woman of kindly impulses and an affectionate wife...the funeral was expectantly large..."

"George Green-Age 50 plus, died 1894...Was it suicide? Body of George Green found floating in the bay...George green was inclined to be taciturn and reserved in his habits...an old friend says he has no doubt that it was a clear case of suicide and that the reports of the man's wealth ($35,000) were greatly exaggerated."

"China Charley--Age 59, died 1913--The son of a Chinese woman and a father from Italy...he was well-liked and did not associate with, or recognize little brown men."

"Mrs. Martha McGrew-age 65, died 1893..."In our last records, we learned of the accidental death of Mrs. A.O. McGrew, from her husband, in regard to this sad mishap...the accident took place about 4pm...Mrs. McGrew was holding her little granddaughter, age 2, when the sitting in the back seat of the the rig...when the seat broke short off and fell in the road. Mrs. McGrew was struck on the back of the head and ruptured a blood vessel, she was immediately unconscious and remained so until her death at 7:15 that evening. The rig was hired from Solen's livery and it is said that only two weeks before, the same vehicle collapsed and injured some ladies who were riding in it...the combined weight Mrs. McGrew and of all others in the surrey would not have exceeded the recommended 550 pounds...."

"Little Walter Eberle, age 5, crushed by cruel wheels--The little fellow climbed onto the trail wagon of Sampson Bros. and in some way, getting on or off, both wheels of the heavily laden wagon passing over his head, crushing him beyond recognition....."

It's hard not to post more of the obituaries there are so many tales of human interest, triumphs and defeat...but at the turn of the century, it seems like the less your neighbors knew about you, the more there was to write...headlines like:

"Joseph Bissell, age 66, died 1896. Was there a history?" Joe was one of the twin brothers who lived in seclusion in the woods. Both men are well-liked and respected but no one knows their story...."

This lack of information bothered everyone, including the newspaper. When Joseph Bissell died, a description of the interior of their empty cabin was supplied in the obituary, but no detail on how he died was given, just that "it was a sad sight to witness the silent parting scene between the brother who was called away and the one who is quietly awaiting the his own final summons. It is quite likely that the two were inseparable while living and will not remain long separated....the remaining brother is already 70."

Lastly, there's the death of John G. Wunder, age 42, died 1903...his obit read:

"Romance or tragedy?...Which? Strange Career of John G. Wunder Closed by Death. "

John died after a short illness at the boarding house where he lived. Little is known of him other than that his parents are still living and of well-to-do circumstance. He was a linguist, well-educated and a man of more than ordinary ability. Why he should have chosen a life of tough toil as a cook was never explained ....because he was unusually reticent about his affairs...he was married but if his wife is living or dead is a secret which he did not divulge. An idolized daughter survives to whom he sent presents...he was a favorite at the boarding house."

I could go on, but the are too many interesting tales in my obit booklet. Soooo many stories. Clearly, I want go back and offer justice where there should have been some. Saloon girls working at the "OK" saloon were clearly too often murdered and the killers let go...claiming the bad, troubled girl committed suicide. On the other hand, some of the descriptions of the gun fights sounded like gang warfare of today, only police at the turn of the century were likely to catch and legally "lynch immediately" all of those involved.

There is history in the obituaries...someday, I'll post about what I learned while studying the old cemeteries of New Orleans. Fascinating people. Fascinating stories!

Fellow authors, any story ideas come something you've read in an old (or new) obituary?

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7 Comments:

Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Wow Kathrynn what a fascinating little booklet that is. I have often looked at the obituaries and wondered what adventures were represented in the rather clinical words we write about the dead these days.

I've always been fascinated with those books about "how they died" and I know I will include some of it in a book one day.

6:44 PM  
Anonymous kathrynn dennis said...

Thanks, Louisa. The booklet was put together by Jean Cloud, a Historic Union Cemetery preservationist in Redwood City, CA.

9:22 PM  
Anonymous Jane O said...

The start of one of my favorite obits (from an English paper, the Guardian, I think):

"David Muffett, who has died aged 88, applied the skills he had honed when dealing with cannibals in colonial Africa to battling education ministers and teaching unions in his role as chairman of Hereford and Worcester County Council education committee."

6:47 AM  
Blogger Joanna Waugh said...

Great article, Kathrynn! There's a lot of fascinating stuff to be learned in a cemetery, and not always as straight forwardly as your little obit booklet. When I was researching my husband's family tree, I stumbled across a small, private late 19th century cemetery where a line of headstones told a heartbreaking story. At the head of a line of stones stood the husband and wife, but next to them stretched eleven smaller ones, all children who didn't live to see the age of five. Year after year children were born, only to be snatched away. Here an infant, there a toddler. Heaven only knows what took them. I couldn't help but wonder about the poor parents. How did they cope? Therein lies a story that needs to be told.

7:01 AM  
Anonymous kathrynn dennis said...

Jane O! Fabulous obit..thanks for making me smile. I would loved to have know Mr. David Muffett (though not as an education minister or teaching union memeber!).

10:04 AM  
Anonymous kathrynn dennis said...

Oh, Joanna, how heart-breaking. Eleven children buried! I sincerely hope the poor couple had at least some that survived and just weren't buried in the family plot.

10:06 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a fascinating piece of research, Kathrynn! All sorts of tantalizing stories and possible questions contained in those brief words. When I was in third grade, our class took a field trip to the Gold Country. In addition to panning for gold and visiting Colombia (which I adored because it let me pretending I was in an historical novel :-), we visited an old cemetery where the ancestor of one of our classmates was buried and did rubbings of the grave stones. Even just the information on the gravestones was enough to raise all sorts of questions in my mind about the lives behind them (I already thought like a writer then).

7:33 PM  

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