Perhaps I was a curator at the Body World exhibition in a previous life, but one of the categories of stories that fascinates me is that of people who cannot let the bodies of the dead be decently buried. These enthusiasts are discovered keeping corpses— mummified, skeletonized, liquefied, or shrink-wrapped—in freezer, sitting room, bed, or garden. There are, of course, a variety of rationales for this behavior: mental illness, denial, a belief that the dead will be resurrected, social security checks to be cashed, or a crime to cover up. One woman, whose husband’s body lay in their house for nine months after his death said that he had told her that he wanted his corpse to be eaten by birds. There was no word about whether she had left the bedroom window open to facilitate this wish.
This corpus is by no means complete: I’ve omitted the distasteful story of Karl Tanzler/Count Carl von Cosel, and tales of those spouses embalmed and kept in the drawing room due to some mythic clause in the will about enjoying property as long as the dead spouse “remains above ground.” I’ve left out religious rituals like this Indonesia festival and the story of Hannah Beswick, “the mummy of Birchen Bower,” whose mummification and storage in a clock case was dictated by her fear of being buried alive.
The motives of the corpse collectors in this post are more obscure; perhaps due to what is now defined as “complicated grief,” where the bereaved are incapacitated by sorrow and cannot move forward.
In our first case, a heartbroken father took extreme measures to keep his dead children with him.
A FATHER’S VOW
He Declares That His Dead Children Shall Never Leave Him
He Has Their Bodies Embalmed, and the Casket Placed in a Room Where He Keeps Them for Twenty Years.
A funeral took place in Palmyra, N.J., on Tuesday last, which furnishes the sequel to one of the most remarkable cases ever known. The bodies of three embalmed children, which had been preserved by an eccentric father for twenty years, were interred in one grave, the father having died three months before, and the remaining members of the family being unwilling to perpetuate his singular ideas, in violation of common custom.
In 1859 Henry Coy lived in a comfortable old-fashioned dwelling, on the northeast corner of Front and Cooper streets, Camden. His family then consisted of himself, a wife and two children—one a girl of five years and the other a curly-haired, handsome boy of two. Mr. Coy was a surgical instrument maker, engaged in business in this city, on Eighth street, near Walnut, and afterward in the neighborhood of Second and Dock streets. He was regarded as a skillful man at his trade, and was said to be worth money, but his reticent disposition and disinclination to mix in society prevented any specific inquiry as to his exact financial standing. People who knew him in a business way, however, were content to spread the rumor that he was a man of no inconsiderable wealth. His entire time out of business hours was spent with his family, to whom he appeared devotedly attached.
THE FATHER’S STRANGE CONDUCT
Soon after the war began, Mrs. Coy died, after giving birth to another child—a girl. She was buried, and after that the father seemed more than ever in love with his children. The little daughter was rather a delicate child, and in 1862 she was taken ill and died after a few weeks’ sickness. Unceasing attendance at the little one’s bedside, and the constant loss of sleep, seems to have strangely affected the fathers mind. He would not permit any of the neighbors to touch or even look at the dead body, and declared that it should never leave his sight while he lived. And the eccentric man then went to work to accomplish that purpose. With the assistance of a mysterious stranger the little corpse was subjected to an embalming process and then incased in an air-tight casket and carefully deposited in one of the upper chambers of the dwelling. Old-time residents of Camden remember well that it was a popular superstition that the spirit of the child used to regularly appear at the windows in a supplicating attitude, and the house was said to be haunted. All attempts to see the mummified corpse or to learn the truth of the queer story were fruitless, and in a few months there were not many persons who gave it credence. Some time between the latter part of 1863 and the summer of 1864 observing people noticed that the baby had disappeared, and the previous appearance of a physician’s chaise at the door a dozen times during the week led to the believe that the infant had died and had been embalmed, as the first one had been. The doctor was a strange one, and nothing could be gleaned from him. Just when the boy died is not known, but it is supposed that he followed not long after the second death, and was also put in a casket and laid alongside his brother and sister.
MOVING THE BODIES
In 1866 the story of the mysterious embalming was renewed, and for some unexplained reason it was whispered about the upper part of Camden that Mr. Coy was a Mormon; that he had a dozen or more wives concealed in the house, and that every night prayers were said over the bodies of the dead children. There appeared no just foundation for these stories, for the father was rarely seen on the street, and during his brief absence form home the dreary-looking old house seemed entirely deserted. The upper stories were never opened, and cobwebs collected over the windows and under the eaves. The man became such a thorough mystery that all efforts to ferret out his secret were abandoned, and the gossips were obliged to build their startling stories of ghosts and uncanny noises by night purely from imagination. Mr. Coy left Camden for a time, and, it was popularly supposed, took the bodies of his children along with him; but nothing definite was known of his movements nor of the truth of the rumor, until five or six years later, when he moved. It was then noticed that three oblong boxes were carefully packed in a wagon, and the father drove away with them.
Nothing more was heard of Coy until his recent death was announced, and then the story of twenty years ago was either forgotten or deemed too incredible for revival. The triple burial at Palmyra on Tuesday, refreshed the strange tale in the minds of a few, and it was shown that the rumor had been correct.
The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 6 May 1882: p. 10
Henry Coy is buried at the Epworth Methodist Church Cemetery under a stone which reads “Henry – Sarah Coy and Family.” I wonder if the house has survived and still has a haunted reputation?
John Speaks of North Carolina was equally heartbroken when his young son ran off to join the Army and died in France two years later. He refused to bury the corpse and built a special room for the boy’s coffin.
KEPT FROM THE GRAVE.
DEAD SOLDIER NOT BURIED
VICTIM OF THE GREAT WAR
COFFIN AT A FARM-HOUSE
PARENTS’ FOUR YEARS’ VIGIL
After a four years’ vigil over the remains of his soldier son, Mr. John Speaks, of Iredell County, North Carolina, still refuses to bury the body, which is lying in state in a little annex to his farmhouse. Although a poor man, he has persistently refused to accept the $10,000 insurance which the Government is ready to pay on the life of the dead soldier. He will not take compensation for the life of his son, who was killed by a German shell.
Thomas Boyd Speaks, the son, was 15 years of age when he volunteered for service overseas, without the knowledge or consent of his father. The latter was distressed, and made efforts to secure the release of the boy, but without success. Two years after he had enlisted in the “Iredell Blues,” at Statesville, Thomas Speaks was killed in action near the Argonne Forest, a little over a month before the armistice was signed. He was buried in France, but in 1921 the body was sent to the United States with thousands of other Americans who had fallen in battle.
For seven months John Speaks slept every night in the same room with the flag-draped coffin, and when this became known to the county physician, the sheriff, and the welfare superintendent, acting on reports of neighbours, called on the farmer. They found, however, that the presence of a metal coffin was neither dangerous nor obnoxious to the public. In deference to public opinion, however, the father agreed to the removal of the body from the family living room, and constructed a small building in the garden to shelter it. There it has rested ever since.
The building is only 8 ft. square, is neatly weather-boarded, and has small windows at each end, with a little porch across the front. Pots of flowers and shrubbery adorn the entrance and sides. The coffin is wrapped in the Stars and Stripes, and rests on the box in which it was sent from Europe. The following inscription is on the coffin plate: —”Thomas Boyd Speaks, bugler, Company E, 18th Infantry.” On the walls of the room hang a hat and cap and several other articles of apparel formerly worn by the boy. A clothes brush and a plank on which letters were cut by him with a jack-knife before he enlisted are among the other relics in the room. The parents also carefully preserve a letter from the young bugler, in which he told them how much he wanted the terrible war to come to an end, and how anxious he was to return and tell them of his adventures.
John Speaks, who is 53 years of age, and is a serious-minded man, is surprised that his action has caused any concern.
He declared that any money from the Government for his son’s life would burn his fingers. He does not belong to any church, believing that they are all wrong, but he reads his Bible. Asked why he did not bury his son’s remains. Mr. Speaks said he felt certain it would not be long before the Resurrection of the Dead, and he also mentioned that his son had already been buried once, and he considered that was sufficient. New Zealand Herald, 27 February 1926: p. 2 and Charlotte [NC] Observer 25 October 1925: p. 4
Thomas Boyd Speaks who was only 17 when he died, now lies buried with his parents at Smith Chapel Cemetery in North Carolina.
Another devastated mother of a soldier kept her boy’s corpse in a glass-topped coffin until they could be buried together. It took thirty years.
THIRTY YEARS UNBURIED.
A Mother and Her Mummified Son Laid in the Same Grave.
Louisville, Ky., Feb. 8. A remarkable funeral took place at Rock Island, Tenn., yesterday, that was the talk of the whole county. The dead were a mother and her son, and the most remarkable feature of the event was that the son had been dead and unburied for thirty years. The truth of this is vouched for by responsible parties, who have seen the body at various times.
During the civil war the woman’s son, then a mere lad, enlisted in the Confederate service and was killed at the battle of Murfreesborough. He was an only son—his mother’s idol—and the shock completely prostrated her. She passionately declared that she would never part with her son while she lived, and that when death claimed her also both should be buried in one grave. She had an air-tight cedar casket made with a glass top, in which the body was laid. This was placed in a room assigned for the purpose, where the mother often repaired to commune with the dead. The body did not putrefy, but gradually became mummified. Thirty years it lay there. At last it was removed, and the devoted mother and her son were buried side by side in one grave.
An immense procession followed the bodies to their resting place. New York Times 9 February 1893: p. 1
In a less fraught story, this gentleman, like some very public Bluebeard, kept his first wife to hand in a box.
TWO WIVES BUT NO QUARRELS.
One of the Women is Petrified and Kept in a Box.
J.N. Rickles, the proprietor of a carriage establishment at Chanute, Kan., enjoys the unique distinction of having two wives who do not quarrel, although they are frequently in contact. He was visited recently by Mr. Broadhead of St. Louis. While the two men were talking in Mr. Rickles’ office Mrs. Rickles came in and was introduced.
“This is my wife—that is, one of my wives,” said Mr. Rickles. “She is wife No. 2. My first wife is over there in the corner.”
Mr. Broadhead considered the remark a most unusual one. Noticing his perplexity Mr. Rickles volunteered to explain. He led the salesman to a pine box in one corner of his establishment. Lifting a lid off the box he displayed to the astonished salesman the form of a petrified woman. The form was perfect and the features almost as natural as one could expect to see in life. Mr. Broadhead says that Rickles explained to him that his first wife had died nearly a quarter of a century ago, while he was living in what is known as the “bad lands” in North Dakota. Several years later he had the body exhumed for removal and found that it had turned to stone. He then concluded to keep it in his possession and since then has taken the body with him wherever he went. In this instance Mrs. Rickles No. 2 is not the least bit jealous of having Mrs. Rickles No. 1 in the house. Marshall [MI] Statesman 4 May 1894: p. 6
In this next article, the daughter who so carefully buried her mother and sister in the basement gave an excuse rarely heard in 1913: The two dead women had been afraid of having their bodies snatched.
BODIES OF TWO WOMEN UNEARTHED IN HOUSE
Daughter in Hospital, Held Pending Investigation.
Tells St. Louis Police She Buried Mother and Sister Because They Feared Cemeteries.
St. Louis, Mo., April. 22. The bodies of Mrs. Ernestine Kommichau and her daughter, Selma, were unearthed this afternoon in the basement of a building at 2412 South Broadway. Marie Kommichau, another daughter, confined in the City Hospital with a broken leg, is under arrest and will be held pending an investigation. The three women occupied the house three months ago. Three weeks ago Marie said her sister had died and the mother had taken her body to Illinois for burial.
Albert Stuhr, owner of the building, early today visited the premises and reported the peculiar odor to the authorities. Detectives located the newly-made grave and the bodies were found partially encased in concrete.
Marie Kommichau, whose broken leg resulted from a fall down stairs, is 49 years old. She declared at the hospital this afternoon that her mother had died of senility and her sister of heart trouble caused by excessive use of headache powders. She explained that with her mother and sister she had conducted a notion store in the front room of the house at No. 2412 South Broadway for nearly twenty years.
Afraid of Cemeteries
“My mother and sister were afraid of being buried in cemeteries,” she said. “They were afraid their bodies would be stolen and also afraid that they would be buried alive. That was the only reason I did not have their bodies attended to in the usual way.
Before my mother died, she made sister and me promise that we would not take her body out of the house, so the undertakers could get her,” said Miss Kommichau. “We had no doctor for her—there has not been a doctor in our house for ten years, and a doctor could have done mother no good.
“We put her body in a showcase which we took from the notion store and poured plaster of Paris around the glass and cracks to keep the air out. We kept the showcase containing the body upstairs in ta rear room. No one knew for none of the neighbors had paid any attention to mother and they did not inquire about her.
“When sister died I knew that people would ask about her and that if neighbors found out I was keeping her body they would ask about mother too. So I told the neighbors that mother had died and that Selma had taken her to Illinois for burial.
Buried Both Bodies in Basement
“Then I took both bodies into the basement. I laid them on the basement floor and poured plaster of Paris and cement over them.”
Marie said that she needed help in removing the body of her mother from the showcase and called in a German woman who was passing the store and whom she never saw before.
“She was clumsy,” continued Marie, “and was no help. I told her she needn’t mind about staying. I never saw her again and I don’t know whether she ever told anyone.”
Marie said that one man, Adam Almeroth, living here, knew of the deaths.
“He is a very religious man,” said Marie. “He has called on us now and then for a long while. He said prayers over mother’s body and over sister’s body. I don’t think he knew the bodies were buried in the basement, for I don’t remember ever telling him.”
Marie asked the police not to allow the bodies of her mother and sister to be removed from the house.
Mrs. Ernestine Kommichau was 79 years old and Selma was 50 years old.
The bodies were so disintegrated that identification was difficult. From the neck of each was suspended a crucifix. At the feet of each was a porcelain urn of the kind sometimes used to hold holy oil. The graves were decorated with two small cedar trees, a wire cross and a mussel shell. Under the corpses was a layer of quick lime. Dallas [TX] Morning News 23 April 1913: p. 2
In 1945 the mummified body of a woman, found in her daughter’s bedroom, caused a sensation in Washington D.C. when it emerged that mummy dearest had died in 1912 and had exacted a strange death-bed promise.
UNDERTAKER SPREADS SOME LIGHT ON MUMMIFIED BODY FOUND IN CAPITAL
Pittsburgh, April 23. Edgar E. Eaton of Wilkinsburg, Pa., veteran undertaker, cast some light on the grisly story of Mrs. Mary E. Woodward, whose mummified body was found in Washington, D.C., this week, more than 32 years after her death. The perfectly-preserved body was found in an ancient casket in her daughter’s bedroom by investigators. The daughter, also named Mary E. Woodward, died two days ago at the age of 79.
Eaton said the eerie situation began in March,, 1912 when Mrs. Woodward died in St. Louis
“There may have been some trouble over burying the mother in St. Louis, but I don’t know,” Eaton said.
“The first I recall is that her body was brought here on March 30, 1912—17 days after her death. We re-embalmed it April 15.
“Miss Woodward asked us to keep the body here and took rooms in Wilkinsburg. We fixed a room, and every day she would come and sit there.”
Eaton said Miss Woodward always brought along a large cat and believe it to be the mummified cat which the investigators also found.
“We were told that she had promised her mother on her deathbed never to be parted from her in this life.
“The body stayed here until the Board of Health told her it would have to be buried, although it was perfectly preserved. We shipped it to Washington on Aug. 23, 1912,” Eaton related.
Eaton said he heard nothing more of Miss Woodward until a Philadelphia embalmer told him of a strange case of a daughter who had kept her mother’s body and brought it to him.
The Charleroi [PA] Mail 23 April 1945: p. 2
It is often found that, in many of these stories, the beloved corpse is either abandoned or kept in less-than-hygienic or respectful conditions. In a notorious recent case in San Francisco, a hoarder daughter kept her mother’s corpse for five years in a house seething with vermin. This father kept his child’s coffin under the porch:
KEPT A CORPSE IN THE HOUSE
Dead Child of a California Man Unburied for Five Years.
Los Angeles, Ca., July 2. For five years past “Whistling” Davis, of Long Beach, has kept the corpse of his dead child in a little coffin in house at a locality known as the Willows. The neighbors have at intervals remonstrated and threatened without avail. He has stubbornly refused to bury the body or permit any one to have it interred. Lately the neighbors became excited about the affair, the coroner was notified, and is about to commence an investigation, it being held that there is a law making it illegal for a person to thus retain the body of a deceased human being. Officers went to the beach to arrest the man. On going to his house they found the little casket containing the body under the porch. They took it in charge, and upon opening found in it the little dried skeleton. An inquest will be held tomorrow. Daily Inter Ocean [Chicago, IL] 3 July 1895: p. 2
In a similar story, from 1904 Kentucky, a child’s corpse was abandoned at the local undertaker’s establishment for eleven years. The infant was at long last buried when it was found that the parents—a local doctor and his wife—had disappeared.
Ruminating over the psychology of corpse-collecting, I have to wonder if there is an as-yet-undefined psychological condition to explain it. It is well-known that hoarding is often triggered by a loss or bereavement. Is there a form of hoarding, that involves a corpse, rather than used tin-foil and cottage-cheese containers?
Alternate theories? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
A chapter titled “Bone of My Bone: Collecting Corpses, Relics, and Remains” in The Victorian Book of the Dead tells of other mourners who just could not let go. The book also tells of a gentleman who lived in his wife’s tomb so he could gaze adoringly at her body in her glass-topped casket.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.