Saturday, July 02, 2011
The death and embalming of U.S. Grant 1885. The problem with his body was that it did not look good no matter what they did.
President/General Grant was in a bad way in early 1885. He was suffering from cancer of the throat and he was broke. Not slightly down on his luck, completely out of funds and assets. He was approached by Mark Twain to write his autobiography. This it was figured would bring a good sum of money back into the family which was in bad straights. So while dying, Grant did the impossible, he rallied his strength and wrote a two volume account of his life. Now granted the last part of the book was done by assistants and notes and drawings done by Grant. As the ability to speak had left him. Also he was having trouble writing much at all by July 1885. But the books were done in mid July of that year and Grant was pleased and happy to know that the books would save his family.
He had also written one of the most interesting and well prepared books on military history. His ability to recall was amazing and his memory seemed dead on. But at this point Grant was fighting his last battle and one he could not win. The cancer was most severe and blocked his throat and also made him constantly chocking on his own saliva. It was a horrible situation. By no fault of his own he looked terrible.
By mid July the cancer was winning and he could no longer eat or clear his throat. On July 23, he finally and fortunately died. He was a wasted man by this point. Weighing in less than 100 pounds and his features were dreadful. As one could expect.
By no fault of his own he looked terrible. The cancer had taken his body, his looks, his ability to work. But till the end it did not kill his spirit. That was the last to survive an allowed him to go on and finish his book.
His body was embalmed at the cottage and put on ice afterwards. The main problem that was not realized at the time was Grants cancer had so invaded his head and neck that the blood vessels were not ready to transfer embalming fluid to his head. So while the embalming took a long time as Grant had wanted his body embalmed and put on display all over. It was not a body that would hold up well, specially in the hot weather of July. His head started from the beginning to look pretty bad.
This was taken from the August 1999 edition of the American Funeral Director on the embalming of President Grant.
Within hours of Grants death, the local undertaker, Ebenezer Holmes, proprietor of Holmes & Co. on Church Street in Saratoga, was summoned to the cottage. The Grants also called upon the services of the Rev. Stephen J. Merritt, a New York City clergyman/undertaker undertaker to celebrities and Manhattans upper classes. However, until Merritt's arrival, Holmes was the undertaker of the hour. He brought with him his selected ice refrigeration casket, which he designed and had patented in 1878. The patent title of his invention read, the Improvement in Corpse Coolers or Caskets. Grants body was placed in the ice casket until it was embalmed. Since the late 1870s, Holmes had used his special casket in the Saratoga Springs area with great success. The casket was an oak-framed rectangular table on a wicker platform and below that, a lead-lined receptacle to hold ice.
Along with Holmes and his ice casket came his young apprentice, the cabinet-maker and aspiring undertaker, William Burke. As a carpenter, Burke had worked on the construction of the Grant cottage. For a brief time, Burke was Holmes partner. In 1893, Burke founded his own funeral business, William J. Burke & Sons, which was operated by his direct descendants until the last of the line, James Burke, died in 1987. To this day, the business remains in operation on Broadway in Saratoga Springs.
The earliest Burke archives include Holmes records. A call book has on page 50 the generals name, age, and date of death recorded in immaculate Victorian script. The funeral home also has a collection of antique coffin hardware, prototypes of those used on Grants coffin. Among the other artifacts is antique embalming equipment, which is stored in an old brown leather satchel that looks like an over-sized doctors bag.
Grant left explicit instructions. He wanted his body embalmed so the funeral would not have to be rushed because of the intense summer heat. And that summer was inordinately hot and humid, even in the Adirondacks. A little more than two weeks would pass between the day Grant died, July 23, and the final service in New York City on Aug. 8. The need was urgent to use every and all resources available to keep the body from decomposing. Holmes & Co., under the supervision of Grants doctors, performed the embalming, which took two days. Grants body lay in state at the cottage until the funeral service there on Aug. 4. From a newspaper account of the day, Ebenezer Holmes was quite proud of his handiwork and reported that the deep lines and furrows on Grants face disappeared after the process. One of the doctors trumpeted, the body is in a wonderful state of preservation and will retain it in a very natural condition... In subsequent newspaper interviews, the embalmers boasted of longer preservation time, one said the preservation would last up to six months. After embalming, the body was placed in the ice casket as an extra measure. The polished red cedar coffin, which was being shipped by rail from Rochester, would not arrive until July 29.
After the viewing and services at the Mount McGregor cottage, Grants body was transported by train to Albany. At the state capital, there was public viewing for three nights and two days. Another train brought the body to New York City, where on Aug. 8, the third and final service was conducted. Historically, there was always controversy surrounding Grants embalming. It was reported that two of the generals brothers were unnerved by the body's appearance when they viewed it in Albany. In the Victorian era, a time commonly thought of as prim and austere, it was interesting to read contemporary newspaper stories that reflected the publics morbid concern over rumors of the body's rapid decomposition. Some of those published newspaper stories were quite graphic and detailed in describing the state of the body surprisingly clinical in an era when one might think such indelicate topics would not be fodder for polite public discourse.
After the body arrived in New York City, Merritt worked to quell growing rumors about its deterioration. He invited reporters to a private viewing to prove the body was in good condition. However, on the same day of Merritt's published assurances, another newspaper story ran counter to it. It stated that the flesh looked puffy and the skin took on loosely...the nose contracted slightly... dark rings are readily observable about the eyes...the temple shows signs of discoloration...a few slight touches with a stick of paint along with white powder hid the discolored spots immediately but did not obliterate them. Apparently there were problems with the procedure right from the outset. The primitive electrical lighting in the cottage was poor when the embalming was done and the generals skin appeared discolored. The upstate embalming team had to apply bleaching solution on July 30 before the body was initially placed on public display in the cottage.
Nearly a century later, a rumor persisted that Holmes & Co. had blundered in mixing the embalming chemicals and caused the former Presidents skin to turn black. At the time of the incident, the East Coast press picked up on this rumor and wrote a series of scathing articles about the embalmers. These stories were subsequently circulated nationwide. The public was scandalized that its war hero and former president could be so desecrated in death. Merritt quickly did a bit of touching-up while in Albany, especially after the Grant brothers discomfort. It was reported that the train ride had somewhat disheveled the body. But perhaps Merritt had to do more than the newspapers reported.
Finally, after much ceremony and pageantry, the Hero of the Civil War was safely ensconced in a temporary tomb near the construction site of his final resting place. Alas, the general was to wait another 12 years before the proverbial Grants Tomb in Manhattans Riverside Park was completed and his long journey finally ended. Apparently the furor over the embalming that dogged the entire Grant affair erupted into litigation. Holmes and Merritt became embroiled in a lawsuit over the payment of a bill for $68. The outcome was not made known. Whatever happened during the Grant affair may be left to speculation. Who, if anyone, was at blame? Maybe it was just a matter of nature still having an edge over the unrefined embalming process when, unfortunately, the eyes of the world were watching.
In an era when grave-robbing was not uncommon, the Grant family was also concerned about securing the generals remains. Another upstate company owned by a Patrick Cregan of Troy, had recently patented a ghoul and burglar-proof metal air-tight burial vault. The Grants immediately purchased this 19th century state-of-the-art technology to safeguard the generals coffin.
The President's first tomb in which he rested till 1897.