The Chicago Undertakers who Turned Bodies to Stone
Former site of the Boydston Brothers Funeral Home on Cottage Grove Avenue
In late Victorian Chicago, Cottage Grove Avenue ran through one of the most fashionable districts in the city. Among the local businesses serving the posh residents of the area was the funeral parlor run by the Boydston Brothers, one of the most respected and busy funeral homes on the south side.
Funeral homes had enjoyed a booming business since the American Civil War, when families looked for a way to preserve their dead sons long enough to be shipped home and "waked" before burial. For grieving military families whose hopes for reunion were so quickly and heartbreakingly lost, a final view of an intact loved one was a small but necessary comfort. Later, in 1865, when Chicagoans and other mourners along the route of President Lincoln's famed funeral train paid their respects to the assassinated leader, the body had been "touched up" many times along the route, as the embalming lost its hold, but it was enough to convince millions that preservation after death was desirable.
An embalmer preserves a soldier's body on
the Virginia battlefield during the American Civil War
The Boydston brothers enjoyed their popularity with the Victorians in large part because of their cutting edge practices. Along with providing the very latest in caskets and burial arrangements they also conducted their own experiments in embalming, right in the basement of their Cottage Avenue funeral chapel. In December of 1898 a reporter paid them a visit and discovered that the brothers had been keeping two bodies in the building which had been deceased for some four to five months. The corpses were the subject of experiments to find a method of "petrifaction"--a way to actually turn human bodies to "stone."
According to the reporter, the woman in the basement had been brought in for preparation in July but then remained unclaimed by family or friends. The brothers took the opportunity to experiment on the corpse, injecting a "peculiar fluid" at intervals as the weeks passed. Though the death had occurred in the hot summer months no decomposition or even darkening of the skin was observed. As the months passed, the brothers noted a "hardness of the body . . . and none of the usual falling of the features, which are as full and round as they were during life."
The second body in question was that of a 16-year-old girl. The girl had perished in August, some four months before, appearing as fresh and alive as the day of her death. According to the brothers, relatives of the girl continued to visit the body and bring flowers and trinkets to place in the casket.
As it turns out, the Boydstons had been experimenting for quite some time. Earlier that same year, they had made the headlines when it was discovered that a woman who had died in 1896 and was allegedly buried at the Dunning cemeteries had actually been lying in the Boydston's embalming chamber for two years. The burial record of one Julia A. Clerc was declared a fraud and it was expected that the Coroner's office would give order to disinter the body in the Dunning grave.
The Boydstons explained that the woman had been sent to their parlor when she died after surgery for peritonitis. The Boydstons had prepared the body with a new embalming method they were working on and waiting for someone to claim her--but no one did. They decided to keep the body, rather than selling it to a medical school, in order to observe the effects, which were apparently astounding.
Amazingly, it was the pastor of a south side Spiritualist church, Georgia Gladys Cooley, who identified the body as Clerc's, claiming she had received the woman's name via "spiritualistic communication" when she and several other south side pastors proposed to pay for a funeral for the unclaimed woman. Soon after, Cooley was arrested for shoplifting when she was charged with stealing a bolt of lace veiling, which she claimed she was going to use for the dead woman's funeral.
The Boydstons' state of the art "ambulance," c. 1903
At the opening of Cooley's shoplifting trial, just as attorney William P. Black arose to make his opening argument in defense of Cooley, nearly 100 square feet of plaster fell from the ceiling upon the court, including Cooley, whose forehead was badly scratched. Several women fainted and had to be carried out. Cooley was eventually acquitted, after ten weeks of hearings.
Despite all the unrest, the body from Boydstons was eventually interred at Oakwoods Cemetery. It is unknown whether the mysterious grave at Dunning was ever opened.
Nothing more is known about how the Boydstons' embalming experiments proceeded, though apparently they did not pan out. A few later appearances in the local papers don't speak about their methods. In 1903, they prepared the bodies of five victims of the devastating Iroquois Theater Fire. In 1904, a man walked in their chapel to make funeral arrangements for a "friend" who had committed suicide and, moments later, shot himself in the funeral parlor bathroom. And in 1908, the Health Department asked the county to suspend their license for cremating a body without a permit at Graceland Cemetery.
One wonders what plans they had for the method if it succeeded. Perhaps they imagined a futuristic cemetery, with preserved corpses in glass cases; perhaps an addition to the funeral home where bodies could be displayed in a sort of "museum of the dead." Perhaps they hoped to offer families the option of installing their loved ones back in the family home, delaying burial indefinitely.
In any case, the Boydstons' strange moment in Chicago history still lives on, a testament to the excitement and innovation of the 19th century funeral industry.