“In 1901, a death in a small town was a community event, and in a town with only 1800 people, death was a big event.”
That’s one of about three dozen amazing tidbits I learned about funeral customs during my conversation with Marty Mitchell, Funeral Director of Mitchell Funeral Home in Marshalltown, Iowa. Marty has a special interest in early 20th Century burial customs, and has an amazing collection of artifacts from that period.
A social slap in the face to the community.
“The funeral of this young wife of the town’s most prominent citizen would have been a very elegant and elaborate affair,” he told me. “Addie’s sudden death would have captured the whole town’s interest, and everyone would have turned out for the viewing and then later, attended the funeral. The lack of a proper funeral for this 29-year-old woman – who died so suddenly – would have been a social slap in the face to the community.”
Mr. Mitchell couldn’t understand how all this could have transpired in less than eight hours.
“It would have been totally unacceptable for a community to wake up the next the day and find out, ‘Enoch’s wife died last night and Addie’s already in the ground.’ The immediate burial – dead at 2:00 a.m., and buried by 10:00 a.m. – would have been quite a scandal. People in town would have been wondering what in the world was going on.”
Diphtheria equals fast burial? Not really.
I asked about the claim that a communicable disease prompted the fast burial. Mr. Mitchell made the point that a century ago, it was contagious disease that usually took the lives of children, and yet they were not tossed into the ground immediately and unceremoniously. In fact, their funerals were also fairly elaborate affairs with embalming, wakes, viewing, and finally a burial. Typically, a Victorian-era funeral spanned about three days, from death to interment.
Arsenic and old lead.
In 1901, embalming fluid was made with arsenic and lead, and it was a powerful disinfectant.
“The funeral director would never even have questioned the family about the embalming, like we do today,” he told me. “They just would have set up the embalming fluid and started right in. And there’s a fair chance he wouldn’t have even asked about the cause of death.”
Addie’s black shoes.
As I suspected, Addie’s black dress shoes were also a point of interest.
In 1901, a woman’s shoes were removed when their body was prepared for burial, and “burial slippers” were then placed on their feet. Mr. Mitchell explained that burial slippers were made of CLOTH, not leather, and they would not have endured through the years.
Remembering the remnants of black leather lace-up shoes found in Addie’s grave – with their 1-1/2″ heel – I asked Mr. Mitchell, “Is it possible that burial shoes would have had a heel?”
His reply was, “No, there was no heel. In fact, these shoes didn’t have soles, like you’d find in a pair of everyday shoes, but just cloth bottoms. And the bottoms were just a piece of fabric that was sewn on. These slippers had a type of elastic band so you could slip them easily onto the deceased’s feet.”
“Your aunt must have died in those black boots and was then carried right out to the grave,” he told me, “because if a funeral director was involved in preparing her body, those shoes would have been removed, and the burial slippers would have been put on her feet. She would not have been buried in walking shoes. There’s just no way.”
Addie was murdered.
The black shoes prove that Addie was murdered, and that old Enoch didn’t even have the decency to give his young wife a proper burial. If Addie was sick, those shoes would have been removed when she went to bed. If her body was prepared for burial, those shoes would have been removed and burial slippers put on in their place.
Ah, but there’s still more.
“Addie should have been buried in the best casket that was available,” he told me. “From what you’ve described, it sounds like an oak coffin, which was not the best. Mahogany and cypress would have been higher end. It doesn’t sound like Addie’s coffin was either one of those, because they don’t rot.” (All that remained of Addie’s coffin were small slivers of wood inside the sterling silver coffin handles.)
“And if Enoch was claiming that diphtheria was the cause of death, her casket should have been either metal or cast iron. And I’m sure that a funeral home would have recommended a vault for someone of Addie’s prominence.”
According to Mr. Mitchell, vaults were widely used in this time period, commonly made of metal or brick. Less commonly, pre-formed concrete slabs were inserted into the grave. The vaults had no bottom, just sides and a top. They were expensive, so it was the well-to-do who had vaults for their loved ones.
And what about Addie’s shallow grave? Mr. Mitchell explained that traditional grave depth was planned to provide a minimum of three feet of earth atop the casket. Adding in the casket’s height and a domed vault, created a grave depth of about six feet.
When I told him that Addie’s remains were found at 34″, he said, “Wow, that’s a very, very shallow grave.”
He explained: “One of the reasons that we make sure there’s three feet of earth on the casket is because of animal intrusion. Given the other facts in this burial, I almost wonder if that was intentional. Once animals invade a grave, they’ll divide up the body and carry it off. Our funeral home is right in the middle of Iowa, and years ago, we had a grave with a crushed lid, and the animals dug into it and they took everything off in different directions. There was nothing to re-inter. I almost wonder Enoch buried her in a shallow grave intentionally, thinking that animals would deal with her remains.”
In conclusion, I think Mr. Mitchell is right. I think an animal did deal with Addie’s remains, but it was the two-legged kind.
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