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Ghosts of the Pandemic, Part 3: Burial

Mt. Zion is a small cemetery outside of Newton, Iowa. For decades, farmers and their families have buried their loved ones there, allowing them to enjoy their eternal rest surrounded by the farm ground that they had spent their entire lives tending to.

Mt. Zion Newton
Mt. Zion Cemetery, Newton, Iowa. Courtesy of findagrave.com

It was one such burial that brought the gravediggers there that day. Taking a few moments, they found the plot of ground where the grave needed to be dug. Gripping their shovels in calloused hands, they began to dig.

The men soon fell into a steady rhythm and, bit by bit, the earth was turned away. the hole getting steadily deeper. When the shovel blade clanged against something hard in the ground only a few feet down, the men started, their rhythm broken.

Their first thought was that it was probably a rock. One of them leaned down and put their hand into the earth, searching. Feeling something smooth and hard, the gravedigger took firm hold, and began to pull. After a few moments, the object came free. Looking down, the man’s eyes widened. He was holding a human bone.

Had they made a horrible mistake and dug up someone’s grave? They quickly double-checked themselves. No, they were right. They were digging right where they should be digging. And yet, here was a body.

This incident was replayed more than once at Mt. Zion Cemetery. It didn’t take a genius to realize that there was something terribly wrong here.

The situation was investigated, and the answers were startling.

A few years before, the Spanish Flu had torn through the area, and many people had died. When this happened, the family simply did what they had always done. Taking the body, they went to Mt. Zion and buried them.

Unfortunately, they didn’t tell anyone what they had done. Now no one knew where all the bodies were. Someone had to figure out this mess, and the people in charge new just who to call

Roy Blackwood was a farmer who lived not far from Mt. Zion. He hadn’t wanted to be a farmer. He had trained to be an engineer, even earning his degree from Iowa State College. Then he met pretty young Ida Sanders.

The two fell in love, but Ida didn’t want to be an engineer’s wife. When he proposed to her, she told him that if they were going to wed, then she wanted him to be a farmer. Roy agreed, and settled back into the familiar life he had grown up in.

Roy had the skills that the caretakers of Mt. Zion needed. They asked if he would locate the unmarked graves at Mt. Zion and re-plot the cemetery. They didn’t mind if the people were buried there, but they couldn’t have their workers continually digging up random bodies, either. Roy agreed.

He spent hours going from house to house, asking if they had buried any of their kin in unmarked graves at Mt. Zion. One by one, the families told their stories took Roy out and showed him where the graves were.

Early in 1918, a new strain of flu like nothing anyone had ever seen before had emerged. It spread quickly, an invisible death that had travelled across the globe in a matter of months, leaving hundreds of thousands of dead in its wake. Worse still, nothing could stop it.

Not that scientists didn’t try – they did. And they tried hard. These were intelligent men and women who worked tirelessly to find something, anything, that would fight the disease. What they didn’t know is that the tools and skills that they needed were still decades away from being discovered.

Doctors and nurses tried different treatments, ranging from opioids to enemas, but they really did nothing. At the end of the day, all they could do was separate the sick from the healthy, make the infected and dying comfortable, and pray for their recovery.

If the well-educated medical professionals of the world were at a loss, then the average person was even more lost. This isn’t to say that they were completely ignorant. Some of their knowledge came from local doctors, while other skills came from the folk remedies and traditions that had been passed down to them from previous generations. The rest consisted of blind luck and hard-won experience.

News of the flu had travelled fast, whether that information came from newspapers or word of mouth. They didn’t want to see their loved ones suffer and die. Grimly, they planted their feet and prepared as best as they could.

Some people used things like red pepper sandwiches or special poultices, while others even resorted to magic talismans or potions. Unsurprisingly, these did nothing to stop the rapid spread of sickness through their families and the community at large.

Some people recovered, while others did not. If they recovered, then life simply moved on. If they did not, then all that was left to do was bury the dead. The Spanish Flu made that far too common an occurrence.

For many years in America, either the family of the deceased took care of their loved one or a designated group of women from within a given community would travel to the deceased home and prepare the body for burial. Laying the body out on a flat surface, such as a table or bed, the loved one was bathed and dressed.

After this was finished, the bodies were then laid out in the parlor of the family home for viewing before burial. During this time, family and friends could come and say their final goodbyes. During the 18th and 19th centuries, home builders even installed special architectural accommodations for this.

For example, some homes had what was called a “death door.” This was an outside door placed in the parlor through which a coffin could be removed from the home. This practice started in part from the belief that the dead should not use any of the same doors as the living.

From a more practical side, I’m sure that it was much easier taking a coffin out through a specially built door into a waiting wagon rather than navigate any sharp turns or inconvenient furniture in the home.

Often, the deceased would lie in state in the parlor until the grave was dug and the body was ready to be buried. This also provided the opportunity to make sure that the deceased was really dead and weren’t accidentally buried alive.

After everything was prepared, the deceased was finally removed from the home and taken for burial.

All of these factors, from preparation to burial, could vary widely depending on cultural beliefs, religious affiliations, and family or regional traditions. Regardless, the preparation of the dead was generally performed by locals and loved ones in a familiar setting before being buried relatively close by.

This “hands-on” approach began to change with the onset of the American Civil War.

Over 600,000 men died on the massive battlefields of the conflict. For the most part, bodies were left where they lay, left in the elements to rot. If they were buried, it was usually in large pits in mass or in a hastily-dug shallow grave. With so many dead, there was little to no time to give individual care to the deceased.

While the generals in charge had to move the living troops to fight an ongoing war, the parents and family members of a deceased soldier didn’t have that concern. They wanted their loved one back for a proper burial. That meant, if they had the financial means, that the family would pay to have the deceased solider shipped back home.

Soldiers had come from all over the United States to fight in the war, and even the fastest travel methods could take several days to speed a body along to its destination. This most likely meant that the body would be in an advanced state of decomposition by the time it reached the family for burial. To prevent or at least slow this process, people began to turn to the practice of embalming.

Embalming had existed since the days of Ancient Egypt. For thousands of years, the practice had been used and refined in various parts of the world. With most bodies being buried shortly after death in the United States, with the family living more than close enough to travel and see the deceased before burial, there hadn’t been much a need for it. Now there was.

Using a method called arterial embalming, embalmers during the Civil War would remove the blood from a corpse and replace it with a special preservation agent.

For the most part, bodies were embalmed on the battlefields. Many of the embalmers were amateurs, which led to varying results in the quality of a body’s preservation. Like so many things, the work of some embalmers worked well, while others turned out very, very poorly.

surgeon-work-soldier-body-American-Civil-War
Embalming a body during the Civil War. Courtesy of Britannica.com

Still, there was a high demand for embalmers. There had to be some kind of quality control for the trade. Eventually, the United States Government issued General Order 39, which declared that any and all embalming of a soldier had to be performed by a government-licensed individual.

The high casualty rate of the war brought about other changes in the way American’s buried their dead.

Coffins needed to be made for the bodies, and skilled artisans such as carpenters, cabinet makers, and furniture makers began to supplement their income by building caskets. With so many being needed, it generally proved to be a very lucrative endeavor. Livery drivers also began to profit from the delivery of bodies to homes and to cemeteries.

When President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, it was decided that he would be taken from Washington D.C. by special train and buried in Springfield, Illinois.

Lincoln’s journey was going to take days, with several stops along the way. More importantly, he was to lie in state at each stop in order for the people to pay their final respects. It was almost a foregone conclusion that he would have to be embalmed.

Initially, eyewitness accounts describe Lincoln’s appearance to be almost uncannily lifelike, almost as if he was just sleeping in the casket. Unfortunately, the effect didn’t last, and after a time Lincoln began to look, well, more dead. Still, for a populace that had only ever seen the natural processes of decay take effect in their loved ones from the very outset of death, the results made quite a positive impression. Embalming had found a larger place in the American way of death.

Over the course of the late 19th century, undertaker became a more popular profession. To help make them seem more professional and esteemed, embalmers could earn training certificates from salesman selling embalming fluids.

By the time of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, undertaking had spread throughout rural and urban areas, making funerals and burials less home-based and much more professional. However, there were many rural areas that still took care of the dead in the time-honored traditions that they always had.

Unfortunately, no one in the industry was fully prepared to deal with the sheer amount of bodies that the flu produced. Embalming, even if corners were cut and the process sped up as fast as they could make it, still took a certain amount of time.

Funeral homes only had so much space for body storage, so flu victims were sometimes stacked up inside hallways or even inside the undertaker’s home. All the while, the undertaker embalmed one body after another, hoping that, at some point, the steady flow of corpses left in the wake of the flu would slow down.

In areas where the family or community took care of preparing and burying the dead, things were just as bad. A whole family could lie inside a home, sick, dying, or already dead, with no one being well enough to take care of the living, let alone the dead. Neighbors who would normally be more than willing to lend a helping hand stayed away, terrified that they might get the flu and take it home to their own families.

Burials also became problematic. Gravediggers were not immune to the flu, so if they were sick or dead, there might not be anyone to take care of preparing a grave. Many times, cemeteries carried on the best they could with fewer people. In some places, however, there were so many dead that local authorities had to conscript workers from whoever they could find that was healthy enough to hold a shovel. This included anyone from city employees to seminary students.

In other places, even these temporary, makeshift workforces weren’t available and people had to take care of burying their own dead.

Between World War I and the ever-increasing numbers of flu deaths, casket manufacturers quickly became overwhelmed. Some families converted cardboard boxes or wooden packing crates into makeshift coffins. Others had to simply inter their dead without even a shroud.

Public visitations and funerals were completely banned during the pandemic in several places. Services were often limited to immediate family within a home, with one clergyman performing the service. There was no special music, no flowers, no elaborate cards.

However, there are exceptions to every rule.

Scottsbluff, Nebraska was, like so many other cities during that time, struggling against the flu. Public gatherings and venues were banned. If there were any funerals, they were usually held inside the home.

While the family sat inside, grieving while the minister gave the last rites, a local celebrity was often seen outside. He sat at a portable pump organ, playing and singing hymns to accompany the funeral going on inside.

His name was Hubert C. Bishop, but he was known all over Scottsbluff as Miss Claire Bish.

Born in Aurora, Nebraska in 1890, Bishop had worked in various retail shops in the area. Eventually, he and his mother ran their own drapery business together.

When he was a young man, Bishop caught the entertainment bug. He liked to sing and perform, and, somewhere along the way, decided that he would do so as a female impersonator. The reasons he did this are unknown, so we are left only with conjecture.

Ms. Claire Bish
Ms. Claire Bish. Courtesy of Scottsbluff Star-Herald

Given the time period and the open and often encouraged homophobic sentiments during that era, it might come as a surprise that this practice wasn’t frowned on. Like so many things, there were societal conditions.

Cross-dressing for both men and women was limited to the entertainment industry, especially the popular vaudeville shows. The practice had originally started in theatrical productions, where male actors would dress as women because there were few, if any, women in their troupe. Over time, the practice became a way to make fun of established gender stereotypes of the era.

Some of these acts became incredibly popular, and the impersonators more than a little convincing.

In the late 1800’s, a woman named Annie Hindle was perhaps one of the most successful male impersonators of her time. She was able to convince not one, but two different women to marry her.

As a comedic entertainment act, cross-gender impersonation was widely accepted. They were playing a role for effect, as long as they confined themselves to appropriate societal norms off-stage.

So, when Hubert C. Bishop began sewing his own dresses and performing, no one really thought much of it, other than to see how good his act was. Judging by his popularity, it must have been pretty good.

It’s thought that his first performance was as early as 1909. Going by the name of Miss Claire Bish, Hubert Bishop sang his way into the hearts of Nebraskan’s across the state.

He performed in elaborately sequined gowns, accentuated by pearls. Locally, he appeared in theatrical productions and even church plays. People loved him.

When the Spanish flu came in 1918, several people across the country were terrified to go near anyone or any place where flu victims were. But not Bishop. He must have loved music, and must have understood how much it could mean to other people during some of the worst times of their lives.

Undaunted by the very real possibility of infection and subsequent death, Bishop took his travelling organ and went to homes where funerals were being held. Respectfully, he sat outside and sang hymns to help comfort the family.

Eventually, World War I came to an end. The pandemic passed, and life moved on. Eventually, Bishop gave up the stage and lived a quiet life in Scottsbluff, passing away in 1975.

Some, however, think that he’s still performing.

In 2009, Billy Estes was the manager of the Midwest Theatre, a local venue in Scottsbluff. People claimed to have seen lights turning off and on without anyone near the switches. They also said that sometimes the phone would ring at the theatre, but when someone picked it up, no one was on the other end. Others have said that formerly closed doors would later be found open, with no one having gone near them.

Estes was informed that the theatre was haunted by three different ghosts, one of whom was a man wearing a red feather boa. Estes was convinced that it was none other than Hubert C. Bishop.

In 1918, the Spanish Flu burned through the world, killing millions in its wake. It touched nearly every continent, defied the most advanced technological and medical advancements of the day, and even changed history.

Many people lost loved ones: fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, children. Memories of a happy past and a tarnished, unfulfilled future were buried in cold earth hundreds of thousands of times over.

Back in Newton, Iowa, Roy Blackwood was eventually able to locate all of the unmarked graves and have the bodies reburied in a proper order, marked and labeled on a map. Mt. Zion was put to rights, and all was well.

However, unmarked burials weren’t isolated to a small rural cemetery in Iowa.

In 2015, a mass grave was discovered in rural Pennsylvania. Road crews were in the area working on widening Route 61 made the grisly find. A torrential rain had washed away part of a highway embankment, revealing a large number of human bones.

An archaeologist working with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation found that the area had been used as a burial ground during the Spanish Flu. Just as at Mt. Zion, locals would bury their dead there in unmarked graves.

Officials decided to take the remains that had been disturbed and reinter them, leaving what could have been hundreds of others to rest peacefully in the field.

This is far from an isolated incident. Unmarked graves continue to be found across the United States.

The ghosts of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic are all around us. In some cases, their earthly remains might be interred right beneath us. The memory of their experiences still dwells on city streets, cemeteries, theatres, and homes all across the nation. Their spirits haunt our history.  And sometimes, where the veil is perhaps a little thinner, they reach through into our modern world and touch the living.

 

Sources

North American Funerals: History of U.S. Traditions. www.thefuneralsource.org

Skovronek, Terry. The History of Home Funerals: From Family Tradition and Back Again. National Home Funeral Alliance, www.homefuneralalliance.org

Ionescu, Diana. Funerals During the 1918 Flu Pandemic. Funeral Industry News, www.connnectingdirectors.com, 4/6/2020

Walsh, Brian. When You Die, You’ll Probably Be Embalmed. Thank Abraham Lincoln For That. Smithsonian Magazine, 11/1/2017

Klein, Christopher. How America Struggled to Bury the Dead During the 1918 Flu Pandemic. www.history.com, 2/12/2020

Oregon Trail Pathway. www.nps.gov

North, Irene. From the Archives: The Story of The Great Miss Bish. Scottsbluff Star Herald, 2/16/2017

Riley, Kirsten. From female impersonation to drag. Wellcome Collection, 9/24/2019

Conger, Cristen. How Drag Queens Work. www.howstuffworks.com.

Klein, Christopher. Construction Worker Finds 1918 Flu Pandemic Mass Grave. http://www.history.com , 3/7/2019

Lawrence, Tom. Wanna hear some ghost stories? Gering Courier, 10/29/2009

2 Comments

  1. Cyndy Bauer
    Cyndy Bauer June 17, 2020

    Another good story. You put so much research into your articles. Thank you.

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