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Arizona Pioneer Cemetery Research Project

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MARCHING TO THE GRAVE

NEWS ITEMS ABOUT DEATH FROM PRESCOTT, ARIZONA NEWSPAPERS

1901 THRU EARLY 1909

 

By Kathy Block

 

While researching Yavapai County history, we found an intriguing website, “100 Years Ago in Yavapai County.” This site listed various news items from first the Arizona Daily Journal-Miner and later the Prescott Weekly Courier, from 1901 thru April 1909.  Some of the stories gave a look at “marching to the grave” - dying, deaths, obituaries, mortuary practices, and burials in these early years of Prescott's history.  Here are some fascinating stories, extracted and paraphrased from these accounts.

 

The funeral service industry is relatively new in the United States. Until the 20th Century, funerals were organized usually by family and neighbors, and held at home. Burials were often on family property until communities such as Prescott became larger and more established. At that time, cemeteries began to be used. Funeral homes were later established to deal with logistical and practical matters presented by a death.  Neal Du Shane mentioned that in small towns in the mid-west, in the 1960s, mortuaries were often on the second floor of hardware stores. Most of the Death Certificates for the early 1900s don't list a mortuary or undertaker, as they were copied from later records and much information was omitted. Some news stories recorded the establishment and changes in “funeral parlors” and their proprietors.

 

“Undertaker” refers to the person who “undertook” responsibility for funeral arrangements. Many early undertakers were furniture makers, as building coffins and caskets was a logical extension of their business.  Before1950, there were over 700 companies making caskets in the U.S. OVER fifty percent of the caskets were made of cloth-covered wood or cardboard. Metal caskets began to gain favor.  They required a more sophisticated manufacturing process that could only be provided by larger companies and consolidation began.

 

Do you know the difference between a coffin and a casket?  A COFFIN, almost always made of wood in the early days, has a hexagonal or octagonal shape with six sides showing in a cross section, and a fitted one-piece lid. A CASKET is rectangular with 4 sides and a split lid.  Wooden coffins decayed faster than a casket, allowing faster “skeletonization.”  One news item from February, 1905, described a “divan couch” in which one side of the casket dropped down and when the top was raised, it looked like a couch!  In March, 1905, a “metallic coffin” was shipped to Jerome to use for one of the victims of a mine disaster, where five miners were killed by an explosion. A Prescott undertaker needed a casket for his “professional duties” in Jerome, in May, 1905, so one was loaded in his wagon to put on the train to Jerome.

 

Replica of an early coffin

 

Embalming originated with the ancient Egyptians and their famous mummies. In the U.S. It began during the Civil War when preservation of bodies of dead soldiers became necessary for shipment home. The first mention of embalming in the news was in March 1902. A doctor died at a mine and his body was brought to Prescott and embalmed for shipment to his former home in Delaware.  No mention of embalming appeared again until August, 1902, when the body of a man who died of consumption was embalmed for shipment east on a train, accompanied by his “sorrowing widow and child.”  Embalming is not legally required in Arizona unless, as in these examples, a body is shipped to another state. Sometimes if a person died from a contagious disease, embalming was strongly recommended before a public viewing, in the belief it would prevent spread of disease. The Territorial Board for Embalming was created in 1909, a few months after the end of the news items; it became the State Board in 1913,  and is now the Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers, established in 1945, for “licensing and regulating businesses that care for and dispose of deceased persons.”

 

Many of the early news stories referred to shipping the deceased on a train to other states or transporting coffins and caskets to and from outlying areas near Prescott. Here are some examples: In April, 1902, a woman died in Skull Valley and a coffin was “sent down on last night's train” for the funeral in Skull Valley.  Also, in November, 1902, a casket was sent out by the undertaker in Prescott on the morning train to Huron and the body was brought back to Prescott on the afternoon train for burial!  Finally, in April, 1903, an undertaker took a southbound train to Fool's Gulch, bringing a coffin for the remains of a man who died in that camp. The next day on the morning train the remains were returned to Prescott and taken directly from the train to the Catholic Church where the services were held. The train seemed to be the main way to transport the remains of the deceased in coffins and caskets.

 

Along with notes on transporting the deceased, there were many “flowery” obituaries, reflecting the writing styles of the times. Some obituaries were humorous; many reflected tragedies; a few were somewhat critical of the deceased.  There were interesting tales of “last words” while dying! Most were more personal than today's standard obituaries. A poignant one was about a man who died in Jerome of pneumonia, in April, 1902. He was convinced he had but a short time to live, “no reasoning could overcome this belief that his death was near.” He supposedly called his wife to his bedside and requested that as soon as she thought “good taste would permit”, that she marry a good man who was a total “abstainer” and that personal appearance “was not to be taken into consideration!”  The death of a young child was often mourned.

 

A little boy about one year old died of “congestion of the brain” in May, 1901. He'd been “exceptionally bright for his age”, never been sick “an hour”, and had been out riding that afternoon. That evening he showed signs of drowsiness, finally “lapsing into a slumber from which they could not wake him” and the next morning he “breathed his last.” In February, 1902, a “bright little 11-year old girl” before dying had requested that she be buried beside her mother who had died several years ago. The father took his daughter's body to California “to comply with his daughter's wishes.”

 

Occasionally, gruesome causes of death were mentioned. In October, 1906, a brakeman was killed by cars. His body was “a mangled mass of humanity, his legs dangling from the waist in a sickening manner, the bones protruding and the flesh torn away.” Other obituaries unflinchingly described suicides. In July, 1903, a 55- year- old man, living in Wagoner, committed suicide by “blowing himself up with a giant powder.”

 

Critical comments included these: A  45-year-old man who was buried in the Jerome Cemetery in May, 1901, had been in Arizona only a short time and “had been on a protracted spree for several days before his death.”  A 60- year- old janitor and former cook had been an “industrious, good hearted man, but had a weakness for strong drink.” This caused his death in November, 1902, “as he had been drinking heavily for several days”. In January, 1907, a member of the “Tenderloin district” in Jerome pulled a pistol from her skirt pocket with the intention of “shooting in” the New Year. Instead, she shot herself in the chin, the bullet passing thru her brain caused death seven minutes later. She'd indulged in an “overdose of intoxicating beverages, celebrating the dying of the year 1906.” Finally, a 50-year-old mechanic was found dead on the floor in a building where he worked, in July, 1907. He was “strongly addicted to the use of liquor.”  Every Saturday night he became intoxicated and “rarely became sober enough to return to work before the following Wednesday.”  He'd complained of pain from a weak heart during his sprees. “In his sober times he was recognized as a first class mechanic.”

 

Race was specifically mentioned in some news items. A few were “Colored” and others were “Chinks”. From July, 1901: “A well-known colored man,” a long time resident of Prescott was run over by a train and instantly killed. “His body was very badly mangled.”  At the funeral of another colored man, who was murdered in Prescott, a trio of his male friends “discoursed music at the grave” and many people “followed the remains to their last home.” His death was “very much deplored” as he had “an excellent name among all.”

 

Several Chinese deaths and burials were described in elaborate detail. One, in February, 1908, stated: “Chinaman found dead on Chink New Year.” The coroner's jury decided he died from alcoholism. “It was whispered among the Chinese element that Charley, true to tradition and the ways of the yellow people in the land of the dragon” had drank himself to death, unable to pay off his obligations before the New Year. Opium may have been mixed with the alcohol. He was a 49-year-old gardener and familiarly known among the “white population” as “the Chink who wore glasses.” The other from July, 1907, described “Weird Ceremony over Chinese Suicide.” There was an elaborate ceremony in front of the “Joss house” of an aged Chinese merchant who'd committed suicide. The rites were by the Chinese Masons and marked by “all the Oriental splendor” similar to when “a mandarin cashes in his checks and starts his voyage to the Great Beyond.”  There were delicacies at the foot of the coffin such as roast pig, noodles, tea, and chop sticks for use “of the spirit”. On a carpet spread on the street beside the table, the dignitaries from the lodge, clad in all colors of the rainbow, offered, on bended knees, roast pig, noodles and teas to the Deity as they “chanted in their native tongue their respective parts of the funeral ceremony.”

 

In spite of the seeming racism in these news reports, a thesis by Rhonda Tintle described the history of Chinese immigration into the Arizona territory, specifically Prescott, from 1860 to 1911. She rejects the idea that racism was responsible for the dramatic out-migration of Chinese from Arizona after 1900. In fact, the influx of Chinese immigrants into the mountains of Northern Arizona transformed the regional culture. There was a thriving Chinatown in Prescott that was a “hub of activity for Chinese and non-Chinese alike”. There was a “constant cultural exchange between ethnic groups.”  Non-Chinese people encouraged and supported Chinese residents, flouting prevailing conventions of anti-Chinese racism. Chinese owned land and businesses, and participated fully in cultural and social activities before and after the Exclusionary Acts of the 1880s. Supposedly, “the citizens of 19th century Prescott were fascinated by the Chinese and their culture.”

 

After a person's death, news items often outlined the financial aspects of an estate. For example, in April, 1902, “the Workmen had just paid the widow $2,000, the full amount carried on the life of her husband. The promptness with which fraternal orders are meeting their obligations here is recommending them to those who desire insurance.” The premiums were favorably compared to those of “old line companies.”  In July, 1902, the estate of a well-known sheep man, who'd died in Phoenix two years before, “had been whittled down from $37,000 to $14,000 by litigation and various expenses.” 

 

“Potter's Field” at Citizen's Cemetery

Most of the readable stones are from 1900.

 

The “Marching to the Grave” of the people described in the obituaries was often to the Citizen's Cemetery in Prescott. This large, historic cemetery was founded in early June, 1864, with the burial of Colorado legislator John Woods.  It was established on public land and known by various names. The name “Citizen's Cemetery” first appeared in print in January, 1872. The U.S. deeded the land to Virginia Kock in 1876. After her death, it was purchased by two men and their wives. Then, on October 13, 1884, the land was transferred to Yavapai County.  Burial lots were leased for 99 years at a cost of $2.50. The burials continued until 1933. The closure of the cemetery to burials was because a local funeral home complained to the county that every time they dug they came upon rotting wood and bones. (Remember the wooden coffins.) Then, only people who had already reserved space were buried. There are at least 2,500 people buried here, with about 600 markers, and many unknown or unmarked burials. Wide spectrums of individuals who settled and developed the Prescott area during the late 19th and early 20th century are buried here. The first news article, in January, 1901, mentioned burial in Citizen's Cemetery. Poor people were often interred in the “Potter's Field” and more well-to-do were given elaborate monuments over their graves.

 

Elaborate monument for Sarah E. Taylor, Wife of John E. Taylor

June 29, 1904. Age 66

 

Some of the news items specifically mentioned friends taking up a collection for burials of people without funds.  An old prospector died in the hospital from injuries received in an explosion on Big Bug Creek that fractured his skull. His friends at Poland raised “a subscription to give him a decent burial” in June, 1903.  An “unknown Mexican” boy killed in Crown King in April, 1904, by “a Negro” was buried as “a county poor” because his father, who supposedly lived in San Antonio, Texas, hadn't been located. Finally, a man buried in September, 1904, had died of TB in the county hospital. When his relatives were contacted, they answered “they were too poor to defray the expense of bringing him home, so he was interred at the expense of the county.”

 

A final pair of news articles tell an interesting story. The first, from September, 1905, says, “DEMENTED BRIDE FINDS RELIEF IN DEATH: Sad Ending of Romance of Pretty Italian Girl.”  The girl had traveled 10,000 miles from Italy to marry a saloon keeper in Poland, Arizona. After a marriage of only a few weeks, she was declared insane and sent to Phoenix to be “confined to a madhouse” and “suffered only a short time.” While her husband, who was also Italian, buried his wife, his saloon in Poland was burglarized.  Thieves had broken into the cellar and carried away “all of his reserve stock of liquors and cigars.” The Death Certificate said that she'd died of “acute mania” in the Asylum and was buried in Rosedale Cemetery in Phoenix. 

 

In summary, many news items about people who died in the Prescott area from 1901 thru early 1909 give a glimpse of a time when transportation was largely by train, and members of a small community seemed to genuinely care about the deceased. A final news item, from October, 1902, about the death of a 12 -year-old boy, shows the concern. The boy, who died from” malignant typhoid fever,” was of “robust physique and an intelligent and bright boy” until his illness. His sudden death “cast a gloom over the public school which he attended.” His classroom was dismissed “in order to permit the pupils to attend the funeral.”

 

All Photographs courtesy Ed and Kathy Block.

 

Arizona Pioneer Cemetery Research Project

Internet Presentation

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n.j.dushane@comcast.net

 

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