The Short-Lived Trade of Embalming Surgeons

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Embalming Surgeon at work in the field during the Civil War.

Most of the United States was still a wide open wilderness when the Great War between the states broke out. Young men who knew little about life beyond the borders of their own farm’s fence rail were suddenly far from home and doing what was previously unthinkable.  

While some boys came home with doctoring skills, others brought home the lucrative specialty title “Embalming Surgeon.” Those who were willing to abandon their post (and could stomach it) were hired away from the armies of both sides by the booming embalming service businesses.

Field embalming could be completed in about two hours, with a minimal investment in chemicals. These gruesome entrepreneurs followed behind active battles with their tents and supplies. They employed men as “pickers” to glean blood soaked fields in search of freshly dead and mostly intact men.

“Runners” were used to contact the agents whose territory included the deadmen’s hometown. With such a streamlined system in place, the embalmer’s agents often delivered the grievous news before the official Army telegrams were dispatched. No time was wasted in the rush to sell devastated loved ones services for preservation and shipping of their soldier’s remains.

By railroad rules, only embalmed corpses would be accepted for transport. No spoiled (foul smelling) cargo of any kind was allowed. At the beginning of the great conflict between the states, bodies were packed and crated in straw and ice. However, as the war continued, delays and detours became common, and iced corpses could putrefy beside other cargo before reaching home.

When Pickers ran out onto a new battlefield, officers’ remains were favored over enlisted men. Their families were likely to be wealthier. With fees around $50 for an officer, and $25 for an enlisted man ($2500 and $1250 in today’s money) there were fortunes to be made. The service’s price included packing the remains in crudely made wood transport coffins lined with zinc against leakage.

Of course there were some Agents who were just plain cheats. These swindlers set a price upon seeing the dead soldier’s home; sometimes demanding outrageous fees at large homes with the threat of discarding the body; effectively ransoming the corpse to loved ones.

After President Lincoln’s body made its fourteen day farewell tour by train, the public in all parts of the country embraced the previously rare practice of routine embalming. Still, the market for Embalming Surgeons quickly evaporated. Undertakers at home were already set up with profitable furniture and coffin making shops. They had digging crews and fancied-up funeral hacks called “hearses” to tote the departed in.

For hometown undertakers, adding this service was an easy moneymaker. Some Embalming Surgeons found work with established undertakers; most turned to farming or whatever trade they’d left off with before the war.

Can’t find an old photo of an event relevant to your Family History? Check out the Library of Congress Image Collection. You can search by collection, events, or key words. In most cases, usage availability is noted. A few will suggest a search before using the image for publication or display (like on a blog or publication). Their cache of available photos and other forms of imagery is incredible–make it a part of your writing and researching toolbox!

Schmoozing and Boozing

My, my…how fancy and devilish!

Schmoozing and Boozing
the Night Club my Grandparents owned

‘John Dillinger Drinks Here’ could be the subtitle on this old business card.  My Grandparents owned this bar, reportedly frequented by gangster John and his band of guys and their ‘Molls’ who were “Wild and Woolly and Full of Fleas.”

So who lives in your family tree?  Most of us don’t really have a famous relative, but you can bet that every branch has had a little brush with fame or scandalous rogues somewhere along the line! Think about that “one” story always itching to be retold. You know, the one that gets passed around the Thanksgiving Dinner table each year. Once the heavy carbohydrates and Turkey-tranquility begin to take effect, the stage is set for storytelling time. Waistbands get loosened, dessert is served with a second (or 5th) glass of wine. Guards are lowered and tongues start wagging…Have your pencil sharpened and in ready position!

 The movie star Frances Farmer used to come into my Aunt’s dry cleaning store. Imagine that–right here in the heartland of farm crops and auto racing. I wrote a bit about how Aunt Mitz did Movie Star cleaning and pressing in another post written about my Uncle Joe. Frances had her own whale of a tale in general. If you aren’t familiar with what this poor woman suffered in the wake of Hollywood glitz, read her biography. It’ll rival most nightmares Tinsel-Town could ever conjure.

And if it be nightmares you seek~ are there any connections between your family and a famous crime…

…or victim

or perpetrator…

…or unsolved “doing”

that went on near enough to your world giving you all the heebie-jeebies?

 A lot of my dad’s family was out working the carnival and county fair circuit with Sylvia Liken’s parents the summer the teen was brutally tortured to death by a woman they paid to watch over their daughter while they were working out-of-state.  Oh, and the real “kicker” if you aren’t familiar with the sad, sick tale was that Sylvia’s “caretaker” Gertrude also included  a bunch of the neighborhood kids in the crime. Gertrude invited them in to practice judo moves, do cigarette branding and urinate on the poor girl.

Moving Along…

Mr Penney (as in J. C. himself) once stepped in during a busy lunch time shopping rush and helped my aunt ring up customers.  When Steve McQueen was a kid he lived with his mom and grandparents around the corner from some of my kin.  And yes, John Dillinger hung out at and loved Granny Kate’s hot stew from her Wooden Shoe Tavern.

Abraham Lincoln and my Great Uncle Jimmy were law partners, or at least classmates in “lawyering school.”  Well, that’s how the story went for years until I started doing some math and blew that tall tale all the way to China. The truth can be a bitter, bitter pill for some. And of course, my husband’s birth-brood (along with every other old South family) is related to Daniel Boone AND Davy Crockett 🙂

Then there are the ones I haven’t chased down yet–Like our familial claim to Warwick Castle. Or the one about some sort of half Royal love child with Franz Josef Hapsburg, or maybe it was his heir Franz Ferdinand, you know, the guy with the whole Sarajevo/1st shot fired in WWI thing.

Why not shake up your Family Tree with a little something spicy and exciting? Take some time this week to recall the lore and to tell about the famous and the famous near-by. Those who you may claim as your own or those who may be mingled-in-with your ancestors can be a very juicy spit of a story. Big connection, made up, misinformed or one heck of a stretch, all of them are a thread in the tapestry of our own family story

 Maybe someone should write that down…




Honest Abe and Too Many Jimmys

PD_0153Today’s date is 12-12-12.  If we weren’t all being consumed with Christmas Shopping and the looming end of the Mayan Calendar, we would probably be a bit more frothed up about this.  It’s a heck of a day for marriages (as I hear the Las Vegas quicky chapels are doing big business today).  Apparently lots of C-section babies are scheduled for today too.  I’m kind of excited because it’s my real Birthday. However, that also means that my driver’s license expires in a few hours.  Whoops!

Which brings me to my point.  Last month during our write-a-thon, the theme for November 10th was family “Legends.”  I was also reminded that this year commemorates 100 years since the sinking of the unsinkable Titanic.  So, have you looked into any of those “legends” in your family story stash?

In my own family, Uncle Jim was a Lincoln Lawyer.  Meaning, that he had learned “lawyering” as an apprentice.  Not from a formal education.  Also, it was cool because Uncle Jim was reported to have been in  practice , and perhaps though not a partner, a contemporary of Honest Abe.  He was not assassinated like the President, so Jim was able to practice well into his 80s.  He used to scare the B-Jeebers out of any boy brave enough to go to Sunday dinner with my family.  Invariably, Uncle Jim would get the kid cornered, furrow up his profuse wiry white brows and query : “Young man, what sorts of plans have you laid out for your life?”  With his courtroom voice and icy stare, I don’t think a shotgun would have made him any scarier !  Jim retired just shy of 90 and died a few years ago barely missing his 100th birthday.

So, in circling back, yes it is my birthday today.  I won’t say how old I am, but I will admit to flirting with 50.  I thought that Uncle Jim’s story was fascinating all of my life.  Until one day, as I happened to do a bit of math.

Jimmy was sharp as a tack and still practicing law when he met and interrogated my husband in 1980.


I called my Mom.  “Are you sure Uncle Jim knew Abe Lincoln?”  She assured me that it was true, and that she knew that having been told by “everyone” in her family.  In fact, “everyone” knew this about Uncle Jim.


So, in 1980 while he was questioning my eventually- to- be husband, he was 80-something.  Abe had been dead for more than a hundred years.  But, “everyone”  knew that Uncle Jim had been practicing forever.  I remember my head swimming with cyphers.  I gave up trying to understand and just laid his file off to the side.  Of course I had to be wrong.  “Everyone” knew the Lincoln link.  And please note that this all happened long before anyone considered that Abe Lincoln was a Vampire Slayer.

One evening while helping my son with his Social Studies homework, my curiosity was peaked once more.  There in the Civil War Chapter I saw the date of birth, date of death and other stats of ol’ Abe.  The next day I dug up Uncle Jim’s folder and took another run at the conundrum.

Turns out that my Great Uncle Jim was named after his Great Uncle Jim, who was an attorney, who did clerk his way into law, and was a cohort of Abe in that they were born 2 states apart in roughly the same year 🙂

I’m not saying it was a popular ending to the story, but at least now “everyone” knows which Jimmy they’re talking about.


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