Belmont Casket Co. & The Penitentiary Fire of 1930: Columbus Walking Tour

Belmont Casket Co. & The Penitentiary Fire of 1930: Columbus Walking Tour

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I was walking near my apartment when I looked up to see the most remarkable old rooftop advertisement off Neil Ave. I did some quick Googling and turns out Columbus, OH was home to an empire of the death industry, Belmont Casket Co. They were incorporated in 1916 but the building was constructed in 1885. Apparently, they held a patent for the Cadillac of caskets called “The Masterpiece,” a handcrafted coffin with indestructible steel lid in which Marilyn Monroe was purportedly buried. Woman was clearly concerned about body snatchers.

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This real estate company now owns the building. It’s probably fun living/working inside an old casket factory. Their slogan really gets me.

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Also, this place has the craziest connection to the catastrophic Columbus penitentiary fire of 1930.fire.jpg(Credit)

320 inmates were left to burn alive in their cells after a fire started on the roof. It’s one of America’s deadliest fires next to the Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy. Because of proximity to the prison (not to mention available product), the casket factory became a temporary holding facility for hundreds of bodies when the morgue got too full.

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The above photo shows those departed lined up in Belmont brand caskets at the Ohio State Fairgrounds, where a mass funeral ceremony was held for the unclaimed. Not much information remains about the factory or how much money they likely made from the blaze, but the advertisement alone is my favorite thing I’ve discovered in the neighborhood so far. P.S. Hope your Autumn is off to a great start!

IMG_3995.JPG(Credit: Alysen Wade)

The Ridges: Asylum Cemetery of Athens, OH

The Ridges: Asylum Cemetery of Athens, OH

There are many factors that make an old insane asylum a hotbed for urban legends. At the height of Victorian-era mental health reform Ohio constructed a record-breaking seven psychiatric facilities including the sprawling 700,000 square foot campus nestled among rolling hills of Athens County known as the Ridges. I made the quick trip from Columbus to visit the site’s three cemeteries and was surprised to find much more than remnants of squalid horror.

151102_HIST_asylum.jpg.CROP.promovar-mediumlarge.jpg(Photo Credit: Ohio University Media Library)

Historic asylums like the Ridges bear an unfortunate record of inhumanity. Though the institution was built as a monument to the morality movement aimed at providing empathic patient care, it inevitably collided with the realities of overcrowding, understaffing, and containment of individuals who suffered from a vast array of misunderstood illnesses.

Views_In_and_About_Athens_Asylum_for_the_Insane_page_21_1893.jpg(Photo Credit: Ohio University Media Library)

Patients could be committed for anything from epilepsy and masturbation to vagrancy. Many were dumped off by destitute family members who were unable or unwilling to provide in-home care. The Ridges sometimes served as an arm of the penal system housing criminals who ranged from labor-union organizers to dangerous felons such as the infamous Ohio State serial rapist with multiple personality disorder who became the subject of a novel by Daniel Keyes, author of Flowers for Algernon.

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(Keyes’ book is also the inspiration for M. Night Shyamalan’s 2016 movie, Split)

The Ridges, or Athens Lunatic Asylum as it was first known, was a boon for the local economy. Offering free clinical services and housing for thousands of patients in an immaculately constructed building was no cheap task. The hospital generated revenue by producing milk, eggs, linens, and other necessities for the nearby town. Some of the more gruesome details of asylum life have been discredited as hearsay, but reports indicate that the workforce was exploited for free labor by over-medicating patients and performing controversial procedures like lobotomy.

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Egregious evidence of patient neglect can be found on an upper floor of the women’s ward. There the remarkably detailed silhouette of Margaret Schilling is forever set into the stone floor. Schilling was a patient in 1978 who went missing in early December. Staff launched a search party that retired after five days. Some 40 days after her disappearance a janitor discovered Schilling’s badly decomposed naked body face up with her entire wardrobe folded neatly beside her. Bodily fluids leeched so deeply into the concrete that no amount of scrubbing or surfactant can remove the stain.

schilling-1024x988.jpg(Photo Credit: Unknown)

Signs that the hospital was not the rehabilitative utopia it set out to be can also be found among its three cemeteries. Original building plans account for the first cemetery with the later two being hastily added after the hospital ran out of space to bury the dead. Information or locations of the first 62 patients buried at the Ridges has yet to be discovered and the remains of another 1,930 laid to rest are marked only by their patient number.

IMG_3852.JPG(Photo Credit: Alysen Wade)

IMG_3851.JPG(Photo Credit: Alysen Wade)

Despite ostensible misery that accompanied institution life, the city of Athens has developed a palpable bond with and solemn remembrance for those who died at the asylum. NAMI’s local chapter restored military honors to those veterans interred at the Ridges and many surviving family members have gone through the process of gaining special permission required by the state of Ohio to identify loved ones. Some of the hospital-issued markers have been replaced with proper memorials and recently placed flowers dot the hillside graveyards that look like rows of broken teeth.

IMG_3854.JPG(Photo Credit: Alysen Wade)

Today you can visit the Ridges, which is in use by Ohio University. The main ward has been turned into an art gallery although most of the massive structure is sealed off. The university offers rare tours during autumn months and you can take scheduled or self-guided walks through the cemetery grounds. It’s humbling to see a failed social experiment that began with such lofty and well meaning goals and it’s no wonder that the Athens Lunatic Asylum, a.k.a the Ridges is such an important part of regional lore.

IMG_3853.JPG(Photo Credit: Alysen Wade)

Reference: Ziff, Katherine. Asylum on the Hill. Ohio University Press, 2012.

 

Dogs in Heaven: Pet Cemeteries, History and Culture

Dogs in Heaven: Pet Cemeteries, History and Culture

Stephen King said of his 1983 book-turned-movie blockbuster, Pet Sematary, that it was his darkest work. Few of his other iconic tales so closely mirrored events from the author’s real life. The novel derives its plot from King’s own experience living near a remote pet cemetery in Orrington, Maine. On a Thanksgiving Day in the late 1970s, King laid to rest his grief-stricken daughter’s cat “Smucky” after it was hit outside of the family’s home. Drawn to the quiet retreat, King often sat in a lawn chair among the makeshift headstones penning the macabre story of pets and people who would become demonically reanimated after burial there.  Pet Sematary.jpg(imdb.com)

To be honest, I didn’t know pet cemeteries actually existed outside of the film until a recent acquaintance mentioned the local abandoned gem near the Columbus regional airport. Turns out, pet cemeteries are fairly common and have been throughout antiquity. Smithsonian Magazine reported the discovery of a 2,000-year-old Egyptian pet cemetery containing roughly 100 carefully preserved cats, dogs, and a few monkeys in 2016. Many were unearthed wearing elaborate jewelry and placed inside decorative urnsMummy.jpg(The History Blog)

Several zoological gravesites have also been excavated in recent past, such as the Ashkelon Dog Cemetery in Israel where thousands of ancient canine remains were discovered in a series of sprawling terraces. Researchers hypothesize that because dogs were revered in many ancient Persian traditions, the elaborate burials within a sacred part of the city could indicate that the animals were temple dogs for a widely practiced puppy-loving cult. Iconography depicting a Zoroastrian deity found near the remains suggests that the dogs of Ashkelon served as religious healers of the sick and injured by licking wounds for a fee. This is not altogether astonishing considering that canine saliva has been shown to contain mild antibacterial properties.

IMG_3541.JPG(Photo: Alysen Wade)

In the modern world there are still a number of operating pet interment facilities, including the Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques (Cemetery of Dogs and Other Domestic Animals) founded 1899 in a Parisian suburb. It contains remains of over 40,000 companions including the internationally famous, Rin Tin Tin. The American counterpart is the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in New York built in 1896 containing over 70,000 interments. The International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories estimates there are over 600 currently in-use pet cemeteries throughout the United States. The total number of pet cemeteries is likely to be much higher considering private burial grounds and sites that are no longer interring animals, like the Columbus Pet Cemetery.our pet.jpg(by Alysen Wade)

The Columbus Pet Cemetery (officially registered as Brown Pet Cemetery) is a bit of a hike but well worth the drive. A Google search will provide you with an address that is actually a warehouse. Park instead at the 94th Aero Squadron restaurant and walk to the far left of the property facing away from the building to the woods across the highway. In a clearing that extends all the way down to the riverfront you will find wistfully overgrown miniature headstones and endearing epitaphs replete with more cute cat pictures than you can handle.IMG_3528.JPGestablishing.jpg(by Alysen Wade)

The headstones range from early 1920s through 1990s, the oldest located at the back of the property. According to county records, local veterinarian, Walter A. Brown, founded the not-for-profit cemetery on June 9, 1941. The Capital Area Human Society received funds for its upkeep from a late son of Dr. Brown (also a vet) until he passed away. The Society now attempts to care for the land with limited resources but their primary focus is to provide welfare for non-deceased animals. This has left the grounds in a significant state of disrepair. As reported by the Columbus Dispatch, the cemetery stopped operating around 1997. At this time I am unsure of who legally owns the land.IMG_3540.JPG(by Alysen Wade)

Places like the Columbus Pet Cemetery are lingering facets of history that have contributed to the impressive growth of a commercial pet funeral economy. While such memorial parks saw their peak and decline during the 1970s and 80s, many other thriving sites continue to inter the furry departed. Animal lovers from all over the world now drive a $100 million industry. It’s easy to brush pet cemeteries off as a frivolity for the upper class—and make no mistake the $1,000+ price tag is not something that everyone can afford (the most expensive pet funeral on record cost $733,000 for a Tibetan mastiff).michigan-gladstone-pet-casket-factory-tour.jpg(http://hoeghpetcaskets.com/site/)

Modern pet cemeteries also serve as important sites to negotiate social acceptability and practices surrounding grief and death. The very invention of pet cemeteries was due largely to strict legislation that does not allow humans and domesticated animals to share interred space. Many have challenged and overturned these laws recently. Some adamant pet lovers forgo the regulations entirely and instead commit their own remains to pet cemetery plots with their beloved animals.Only little boy.jpg(By Charlie Wilmoth)

Most importantly, pet cemeteries reveal different sides of the human psyche. In them we see our great depth of humanity and care for small fragile things. Yet we also see how this kindness seems to extend only to certain species and groups. Pet cemeteries allow us to examine our sense of mortality and cope with the complexities of death. We have simply replicated human cities of the dead by scaling down the headstones and imbuing the animals beneath with our own traits, personalities, surnames, and religious affiliations (by the looks of it, all dogs go to Christian heaven). While some may not agree with how a person chooses to confront the challenges of losing a pet, I think we should appreciate why pet cemeteries continue to exist.IMG_3533.JPG(by Alysen Wade)

Shop Update: Now Open!

I finally added an item to my shop! Right now it’s just the one item, but my NY resolution is to get serious about setting up more craft shows. I currently have a small army of cemetery terrariums, but I worry about their ability to withstand shipment. For now, enjoy these little dudes by visiting the shop. Thanks for supporting my weirdo hobbies!

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What a Way to Go: Endocannibalism

Let this post officially serve as the start of a new gross-out series. While it is true that my affinity for the macabre is slightly above average, I think it is important to observe the darkest parts of human death in earnest. I landed on this particular topic after reading the popular non-fiction, Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. The book offers a wealth of fascinating information, so I don’t know what it says about me that this was a big sticking point. I’d apologize for my garish affinities, but then here you are reading this as well. Quick caveat, I have no interest in “otherizing” non-Western/Eurocentric ways of death. Instead, I hope to gain a better understanding for the wide range of funerary practices that make up the whole picture of how different cultures deal with death.

Eats04_R1.jpg (Photo: https://www.history.org/Foundation/journal/Winter07/jamestown.cfm/ “Cannibalism in Early Jamestown” by Theodore de Bry, 1592)

Endocannibalism is an anthropological term used to describe the ritualistic practice of consuming one’s dead. This tradition is usually passed down among generations and can be divided into two forms: endo- and exo-. The difference being if the person cannibalized was from within the social circle (i.e. family member, tribesperson) or from an outside group (exocannibalism=enemy, rival). 

The important thing to remember is that among traditional acts of endocannibalism, there is an expression of veneration or consumption for the purpose of recuperating some intangible force, like a person’s wisdom or soul. The most recent and well-documented account of this practice comes from the Fore peoples of Papua New Guinea. 

Here, endocannibalism was a solemn gesture that involved all members of the deceased’s family. There were prescriptive practices as to who could feast upon what portions of the body based largely on gender roles (men would eat the sinewy parts while women and children consumed the brain). Also important was the aspect of grief. Consuming a loved one served the purpose of alleviating memories, transforming the body, or extenuating notions of life-after-death. 

Granted the practice isn’t so tender when considering the counterpart to the equation, which is eating someone out of competition or hate. However, factor in the context of survivalism in regions where food sources are far more scarce and you get a better picture of how lines of ethics are not always cut and dry (see the Donner Party). 

The problem in my view is not that this practice existed (and still does) but more that it stands out as a means of social control whether explicit or implicit: Explicitly in the sense that humans have used myths or actual practices of cannibalism to inspire fear in their rivals (the Aztecs as one example); implicitly in that such behavior has often been used as a justification for labeling certain groups as barbaric or uncivilized. 

The field of anthropology has made significant contributions in identifying various forms and causes for cannibalism. There is argument among scholars about the origins and necessities of humans eating other humans including survivalism, idealism, and religious affiliation. Besides, the Christian practice of Communion isn’t terribly far off. 

We take for granted that narratives of barbarism are true and not fabricated by those in power as a way of demonizing groups that have been subjected to Western expansion. In fact, everyone’s favorite imperialist colonizer, Christopher Columbus, first used the term in his diaries from the 15th century after his crew was told to avoid certain areas of the New World because they were inhabited by “savage flesh eaters” that were never proven to exist. 

It’s interesting to identify how the term has become so taboo. Indeed, there are lots of good reasons not to eat your neighbor or your aunt (have fun reading about a disease called kuru and never sleeping again). In any case, this cultural phenomenon is one that contains all the complexities of modernity, colonization, global perspective taking, and religious awareness. 

Thanks for reading this much text, feel free to go search all the graphic pics. I felt like I had to stop myself somewhere.

Footwear for the Afterlife: A history of shoes and burial

Feet and shoes are common metaphors for life and death. For the living, shoes signify journey, social/physical mobility, and good taste. In death shoes also serve as meaningful representations of transcendence or transference from one stage of existence to the next.

I have seen the occasional decrepit old boot or ladies heel littering cemetery landscapes and wondered if some tenacious digging creature made off with a slipper here or there for its shiny buckle. Because they are such rare sightings I hadn’t put much thought into shoes as items of gravesite remembrance until a recent trip to New Orleans:shoes.jpg(St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery, Photo Credit: Alysen Wade)

The city’s aboveground cemeteries are fascinating in their own right for an elaborate cityscape of crypts and natural cremation process. Because of the exceedingly high water table, human remains must be laid to rest inside thick stone tombs that become oven-hot in the region’s subtropical climate. Over a period of about a year the increasing temperatures disintegrate bodies into ash. Only after the bones have sufficiently decomposed can the remains be swept into a small opening at the bottom of the structure and used to house other remains. Tombs are decades old and can house several members of an extended family.New Orleans.jpg(St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery, Photo Credit: Alysen Wade)tomb.jpg(St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery, Photo Credit: Alysen Wade)

New Orleans cemeteries certainly live up to their image as “Villages of the Dead,” and my shoe sighting was a delightful and evocative find. Per usual, I was lead down a rabbit hole of shoe and death meanings that I’ll share briefly:

Different cultures have held varying beliefs and customs surrounding what should be done with the deceased’s shoes. There is a widespread Jewish custom of throwing out or burning footwear in order to curb the spread of disease. Superstitions about death and shoes abound, including cautionary tales of bad luck associated with wearing a dead man’s shoes secondhand. Even today most bodies are prepared for burial without shoes or outfitted with cloth slippers.

For the more stylish and affluent, burial slippers were something of a fashion statement after a company called The Practical Burial Footwear Company headquartered in my current city of Columbus, Ohio revolutionized a line of chic stretchable funereal footwear during the mid-20th century. The fad has since died out (cashing in my once-per-post-pun).burial slipper.jpg(Photo Credit: http://www.1860-1960.com/xs0248p0.html)

Dating to antiquity, The Sumerians offer what I found to be the first recorded instance of shoes left at the burial site. Boot shaped vases have been discovered by archeologists and assumed to assist in the burial rites of prominent Sumerian men and women.unspecified.png(Photo Credit: http://www.persee.fr/doc/antiq_0770-2817_2002_num_71_1_2493)

Similarly shaped grave inclusions continued for the Greeks during the 3rd millennium B.C. with discoveries of terracotta boots that were thought to aid the deceased in the Underworld. Boots were either left for the departed themselves to use while crossing the treacherous terrain, or left as an offering to the Underworld gods who could assist the dead in their passage.
terracotta boots.jpg(Early geometric period cremation burial of a woman, 900 BC. Ancient Agora Museum in AthensPhoto Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AGM_Ancient_Greek_Pair_of_Terracotta_Boots.jpg)

In other contemporary archeological findings, shoes have been discovered at interments dating from 1824 to 1842 in a more inexplicable fashion–left neither at the gravemarker itself nor on the feet of the deceased, but instead placed on the lid of the coffin or casket just before being lowered into the earth. Archeologist James M. Davidson argues that these nineteenth and early twentieth-century rituals represent, “a creolized practice, combining an African cosmology and belief in the liminal state of the soul after death with a European and especially British Isles tradition of shoes as magical objects and potential traps for evil.” Apparently a single shoe covering the casket would ward off the devil or keep the fragile soul safe during gradual transition to the spirit realm. Another interpretation of this practice could have been fixing the restless spirit to the coffin in hopes of prventing it from haunting the living.book.png(PhotoCredit: http://users.clas.ufl.edu/davidson/Proseminar/Week%2015%20cosmology,%20spirituality%20and%20religion/Davidson%202010%20grave%20charms%20final%20version.pdf)

The placement of shoes at burial sites has a rich and idiosyncratic history. It’s difficult to encounter such a familiar object in such a strange context and not feel instantly curious about the wearer: where did their shoes take them on life’s journey and what have they left behind?

Above all, seeing shoes left graveside is a hopeful reminder that while they serve a basic survival function,  shoes also impart a sense of humanity and perspective taking. Never is the old adage about walking in someone’s shoes more salient than when considering our own journey ending in a shared human fate.shoes too.jpg(Photo Credit: Alysen Wade. Allegheny County Cemetery, Summer 2016)

Reference Cited:

Davidson, James M. “Keeping the devil at Bay: The shoe on the coffin lid and other grave           charms in nineteenth-and early twentieth-century America.” International Journal                 of Historical Archaeology 14.4 (2010): 614-649.

(Free PDF here).

Remember, you must die: Memento Mori Photography

I’m spending a lot of time on Pinterest these days in preparation for my Handmade Holiday Onslaught 2k16 (so many crafts!), and by some wonderful fortune my feed is healthily populated by a collection of memento mori photography. If you’re not familiar with the genre, these photos are often referred to as “Victorian Death Photography.” Memento mori in Latin literally means “Remember you must die.” A phrase with so much gravity has its own special creep factor if we consider the deceased to be the subject of the photograph subverting the gaze of power and directing it instead at you, the audience member: “Hey you! Remember that you, too, will meet this end.” This idea of remembrance is especially captivating for me considering time of year, a season basically orchestrated around the celebration of commodified remembrance. Anyway, the historian in me found this tradition fascinating and I thought it was worth sharing the review:

dead_people_19(Unknown photographer Ostrobogulation.com)

Memento mori, the phrase itself dates back to legends about The Romans who would welcome their generals home after battle with a parade to honor the men of victorious strength. In order to avoid seeming arrogant the generals would station a slave in their court who would call out to the officers during the ceremony, “Respice post te. Hominem te memento (Look behind you, and remember that you are human [e.g. you’re going to die like the rest of us]).” The veracity of this tale not withstanding (see Mary Beard’s book), art and writing with this theme of remembrance became popular after the fall of the Roman Empire as it related to Ars moriendi (“The Art of Dying”), a common motif in medieval art and literature.

janson_chapter_7-381351899651504(A stone depiction of a Roman Triumph ceremony on the Arch of Titus, located in Via Sacra, Rome [SE of the Roman Forum] photo from Studyblue.com)

According to Simon Thomas, a librarian for the Bodleian Library of Oxford, Ars moriendi was first and foremost a popular 15th century tract distributed by prominent Christians who intended to offer “comfort and practical instruction to the dying man and his family.” There were two versions of the text, one dating to 1415 and the other c.1450. Thomas makes clear that the popularity and widespread circulation of the texts was a response to the devastation of the Black Plague in 14th century Europe.

unspecified(A page from the original Ars Moriendi housed at Oxford library)

Ars moriendi was eventually translated into most European languages and normalized the brutal imagery of death because it reflected the macabre reality of the time. Ars moriendi tracts themselves served as memento mori, or constant portable reminders of impending death that were fairly easy to reproduce and could be consumed in the private sphere. Religious iconography of the Reformation and Catholicism also proliferated in the Ars moriendi style:

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(The Lamentation by Scipione Pulzone , 1593, photo from The Met.com)

Items such as the Gutenberg printing press and the rise of deathbed portraits gave the garrish theme stronger footing in popular culture from the 1600’s onward.

jan_jansz-_de_stomme_-_kinderlijkje_groninger_museum(Example of 18th century deathbed portraiture from the Netherlands, where it was common for wreaths to be placed around the heads of children, photo from Wikiwand.com.)

This kind of physical memorialization of the dead became common practice (I’ll be writing about things like hair jewelry and lachrymose, stay tuned!). When in-home use of photography became available around 1839 it probably was not considered that weird to take photos of your dead loved ones. These items also became treasured family heirlooms because access to commercial photography would have been something of an expensive luxury only available to certain classes.

So, there’s a brief history of memento mori photography. Taking photos as a means of loving remembrance certainly makes it difficult to forget about your own death. Creepy in its own right but makes more sense when followed through the wasteland of human suffering, religious influence, and technological advancement.

I still can’t get over the open eyes… Anyway, Happy Crafting if that’s your thing and thanks for the read.

858d4e352ce5b62354e579c926e91635.jpg(play your own game of “guess who,” photo from Pinterest.com.