As Mother’s Day approaches, there is always a debate between the angel on my one shoulder and the devil on the other about how or if to appropriately commemorate this holiday. I’ve done poignant tales of ghostly mothers and savage reports of monsters made by maternal influence. Today we look at a theoretically devoted son, somewhat prematurely ordering a lavish funeral for his mother.
COFFIN PLATE MADE
A YOUNG MAN ORDERS A FUNERAL FOR HIS MOTHER
Being Quite Well the Lady Declines the Attention—How the Youth Beguiled the Undertaker and What That Worthy Said About the Transaction.
Yates Vanderwerken, an undertaker of Williamsburg, N.Y., left his shop in Bedford avenue the other afternoon and started out to find a corpse that would fit in a handsome casket which he had made to order. The casket was ordered on a Saturday night by John H. Coe, son of the late Senator Coe, for his mother, who, he said, had just died at Belmar, N.J.
“Mother died suddenly,” said the young man, “and we want to give her a first class funeral.”
“Where is her body?” asked the undertaker.
“At Belmar,” said Mr. Coe.
“Do you want me to send for it tonight?” “No,” said Mr. Coe, “tomorrow will do. The local undertaker in Belmar has embalmed her and will ship the body to you Monday morning. Poor mother! She was a good mother!”
“Do you still live on Rodney street, near Bedford avenue?” asked the undertaker.
“Oh, no,” said Mr. Coe, “we left that house several years ago. Mother owned half of the property in the town of Belmar, so she went to live there. Poor mother! She was a good mother!’
“When would you like the funeral—what day?” asked the undertaker.
“Tuesday,” said Mr. Coe “we’ll bury her in Cypress Hills cemetery, and I want you to open a grave there. I’ll leave that to your own selection. I would like the side of a green hill. Poor mother! She was a good mother!”
“I know she was,” remarked the undertaker, “but here is the casket catalogue.” In a moment a choice was made.
“You have selected one of the finest,” said the undertaker. “That one will cost $350,trimmed.”
“Including a nice silver plate?”
“Yes,” said the undertaker, “including the plate.” “That one will do,” remarked Mr. Coe. “Now, I suppose you want a deposit. I’ll pay you one-third down on the funeral. Suppose I give you a check for $200. I need $50 to pay the Belmar undertaker for his work, so you take the check for $200 and give me $50 change. That will be paying you $150 on account for the funeral. Poor mother! She was a good mother!” It was getting late, and Mr. Coe said he had to hurry back to Belmar to complete the funeral arrangements. Then he produced a check for $200. It was drawn on the Manufacturers’ National bank and signed J.H. Evans. Undertaker Vanderwerken accepted the $20 check and gave young Mr. Coe two $25 checks in return with the understanding that the $50 was to be used for squaring funeral accounts in Belmar. Mr. Coe went away, saying he would ship his mother’s remains to Brooklyn on Sunday or Monday.
On Sunday Undertaker Vanderwerken, according to instructions, went to the office of the New York and Brooklyn Casket company and ordered the casket. It was sent to his shop on Monday, bearing a neat silver plate on which was inscribed the following:
“Hattie W. Coe. Died September, 1897. Aged 49 years.”
Not hearing from young Mr. Coe on Sunday, Undertaker Vanderwerken believed that the young man’s brother had decided to have the body of the mother kept at Belmar until Monday. All day Monday he waited to get further orders regarding the funeral, but he waited in vain. Then he turned his attention to trimming the casket. When this was done, he covered it with a black shroud and left it in his shop ready to be used.
On Tuesday he sent two of his men to Cypress Hills cemetery, where he had purchased a grave for Mrs. Coe, and his men paid $7 to have the grave opened. When his men returned to Williamsburg, the undertaker remarked that it was strange that he had not received a message from young Mr. Coe.
“They may be having trouble with a Jersey coroner,” said the undertaker. “I guess I had better go over to Belmar and ship the body here to Brooklyn.”
So he went to Belmar and driving to the Coe residence, rang the bell.
“I’m the Brooklyn undertaker,” he said. “I came to see about Mrs. Coe’s body.” “Mrs. Coe’s body!” exclaimed a young woman who answered the doorbell. “Mrs. Coe’s body! What do you mean?”
“I am to have the funeral,” said the undertaker.
“What funeral?” inquired the young woman.
“Mrs. Coe’s funeral,” replied the undertaker.
“Why, Mrs. Coe is not dead,” answered the young woman. “She’s here in the house entertaining some friends from Williamsburg. I’ll call her out if you wish to speak with her.”
The undertaker turned pale, but requested that Mrs. Coe be produced. A few minutes later she was talking with him in the reception room. He explained the object of his visit. Then Mrs. Coe fainted. Her friends escorted the undertaker to the railroad station. He telegraphed back to Williamsburg and got a message saying that the $200 check given for the funeral had been returned by the bank stamped “N.G.” Then he decided to remain at Belmar for the night in the hope that he would get material for a Coe funeral before leaving there.
“If I succeed,” he said, “all I need to do is to have a new plate made for that casket—one that will read, “’John H. Coe Cashed In his Last Check.
“If I get hold of him,” said the undertaker, “he’ll need a quicker funeral than that which he ordered four days ago.” New York Sun.
Kalamazoo [MI] Gazette 1 October 1897: p. 7
Heart-warming stuff… And it gets better. Coe disappeared for a few weeks, then was spotted fishing on Jamaica Bay by detectives and arrested. His wife, Minnie, and two daughters were reported as living in destitute circumstances.
Young Coe had a colorful criminal history for the son of a New York State Senator. He was sued in 1887 at age 19 for breach of promise. He was arrested multiple times for passing worthless checks. He failed to support his wife and children. We may get a glimpse of one of the reasons for his stunning lack of character in the following vignette. A boy’s best friend is his mother…:
CALLED A SCAMP BY THE COURT.
John H. Coe, a Senator’s Son with a Forgiving Mother, Judicially Denounced.
None of the men who made charges of grand larceny against John H. Coe, a son of the late State Senator, John W. Coe of Kings county, was present yesterday in the Lee Avenue Police Court, Williamsburg, when the prisoner was arraigned. It transpired that Coe’s mother, who lives at Belmar, N.J., and whom Coe falsely represented as dead in the early part of September, and thereby secured $50 from an undertaker fraudulently, had settled with all the complainants. When he was arraigned and Justice Kramer saw that none of the business men who had accused him was on hand, he said to Coe: “I am very sorry for your mother, but I haven’t the slightest sympathy for you, because you are a scamp. You’ll keep on in this way until you’ve ruined your good mother, and then your end will be in prison, anyway. I am satisfied that you cannot keep out of trouble.
Coe is 26 years old. His wife and three children live at 213 Heyward street. When he was discharged he left the courtroom smiling.
The Sun [New York NY] 30 November 1897: p. 7
Three weeks later Coe’s wife Minnie was dead, ostensibly of consumption. Her doctor stated publically his professional opinion that she died of grief over her husband’s disgrace.
At some point Coe drifted out to California where he missed fulfilling the judge’s prophecy of death in jail by falling down a flight of stairs. A bartender claimed to have seen the fall and that Coe was “very drunk.” While the coroner assumed Coe’s fractured skull was the cause of death, he sent the stomach to the San Francisco city chemist as a “precaution.” The chemist found “Muriatic acid” in Coe’s stomach “in quantity sufficient to kill.” How the acid got there was not stated. [San Francisco (CA) Chronicle 29 March 1904: p. 15]
I’ve not been able to find much sympathy in my heart or an actual death date for Coe’s enabling mother, who is Elizabeth G. Coe in the 1880 census; Hattie W. Coe on her untimely coffin plate; and Elizabeth A. Jackson Coe in the Wikipedia entry on Senator Coe.
I’ve collected a number of examples of mortuary scams like this—there is a story in The Victorian Book of the Dead about an ingenious young swindler who played the part of both the undertaker’s assistant and the fiancé of a deceased young woman in order to scam the cost of her funeral from undertaker and bereaved father alike. There was also a genre of practical jokes played on undertakers, where pranksters summoned multiple morticians to non-bereaved homes, to the consternation of all involved. [Another post, another day.] I believe Coe’s Premature Burial is the first version I’ve found where the prank was perpetrated by a family member.
I think that I’ve seen pre-planning funeral services advertised as the perfect Mother’s Day gift, although I can’t put my finger on an example. I suppose the sentiment could be construed as “love ya, Mom!” as opposed to “wish you were dead!” but most of the mothers I know would prefer dinner out or some good chocolates. And, ideally, children who don’t have the undertaker on speed-dial.
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.