Monday, July 4, 2011

Undertaking

Traveling from North Carolina in 1891, Mr. Neal Higgins eventually settled in the town of Guthrie, Oklahoma, working  as a part-time furniture salesman - part-time embalmer for Mr. W. L. Rhodes.   Guthrie,  which originated with the famous Land Run of 1889 into  Indian Territory, was settled by almost 10,000 people within only six hours time.   The furniture business was good, according to Higgins, since most of these people brought very few pieces with them to the Territory and they eventually needed to furnish the homes which they built.

Land Run of 1889

Higgins said he also did a lot of embalming early on.  He charged $50 for the procedure, which was generally done in the person's own home.  It was customary for someone to "sit up" with the deceased for one or two nights before they were buried or shipped back home to relatives.  His boss's wife didn't like this custom and insisted that no one sit up for her when it was her time.  When Mrs. Rhodes did die, Higgins said, the family caused quite a scandal in town by honoring her wishes and leaving her "alone" in the front room during the night.

Higgins believed his early embalming jobs were of the highest quality.  He noted that he had used "Mill's and Lacy's Embalming Fluid" in the early days, which resulted in bodies that looked alive.  In later years,  he had to use fomaldehyde.   While formaldehyde gave poorer results,  he said "patching up" the dead was better  than in the past.  Of the early days, Higgins said  "If a man had a bullet hole, we filled it with wax, but it was almost  white and showed up plainly."

I don't know which method Neal Higgins used when he was called to Babbs Switch Christmas Day, 1924.  Being the only undertaker in the area, he made the trek to the tragic site.  He said he was able to take 24 of the bodies from the school house fire in "one load" in his hearse.   The others, he said, were loaded on a truck that followed him up the road to the town of Hobart.   "That was the most tragic experience I ever went through," he said.


Hearse.com:  1920 Lorraine Hearse


Mr. Higgins had many other "undertakings," a couple of which are interesting to recount.   One rainy night he said he went to Downs, Oklahoma to embalm a woman's body.  He loaded her in his hearse  to bring her back to Guthrie, while her husband and his young helper followed behind on the muddy road.  His hearse, however, overturned on a slippery hill that night.  The man and the boy refused to get out and help him.  He ended up wading up the muddy road for about three miles to get a local cowboy and his sons to help pull the hearse back up on the road with their horses.

Higgins also recounted that they kept the body of one man for six months in the furniture store while they waited for relatives to come claim him.  He had been killed in a saloon fight in town.   They knew he was from somewhere in New York, so they placed ads in the New York papers and waited.  The furniture store was so crowded, that Higgins said he ended up having to stand the man up in the corner while they waited for someone to come claim him.   (That must have made shopping for a new table or sofa totally delightful!)  There was a law that bodies had to be buried within six months, so he took him down from the corner and buried him when his time was up.   Lo and behold, it wasn't but a month later that the man's sister contacted them inquiring about the advertisement.

3 comments:

Rob From Amersfoort said...

6 months without a cooling system? How did he do that? It looks like a scene from a horror movie, the furniture store of death...

mary said...

It seems really creepy to me as well. I can't imagine a six month old cadaver standing in the corner of my local furniture shop! I have learned that it was not so uncommon for furniture makers to be the undertaker as well. My husband's ancestors made furniture, conestoga wagons and coffins in North Carolina.

Merideth in Wyoming said...

Ah another history buff!!! Interesting posts, I will have to graze backwards I see! In Wyoming it was quite common to have to wait for the ground to thaw in the spring before you could bury someone. They often resided in the 'parlour' where no fire would be built till the resident had been buried.