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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,286


This is the grave of Thomas Holmes.

Born in 1817, Holmes grew up wealthy, the son of a prominent merchant. From the time he was young, Holmes was interested in becoming a doctor. It’s an interesting time in medicine, since going into it was like a return to the medieval period. People were just starting to figure out how the body worked and Holmes would see in life the complete transformation of medicine. He wasn’t exactly involved in that, but he was most certainly central to the aftermath.

Holmes probably graduated from the the medical school attached to Columbia University, probably in 1845. By 1847, he was definitely a practicing doctor and surgeon. But Holmes’ real interest was in the dead. Basically, he became obsessed by the terrible preservation practices for bodies. This sounds morbid, but it was awfully hard to study actual bodies to understand was what going on in there if they immediately decayed after death. Time was needed and if time was necessary, so was a way to stop time in the dead. Moreover, what preservatives there were poisoned the medical students and doctors working on the cadavers. I mean, just pumping lead and zinc into bodies, yeah, one can see how that would be a problem. Given that exposure to such metals and whatever other poisonous substances was an everyday occurrence for the working class, there was hardly any reason to see the conditions of the medical profession to be any safer.

Now, Holmes, he was a modern man and that meant he engaged in all the sciences. That included phrenology, which you can call a pseudo-science if you want, but like eugenics was not considered so at the time. I don’t think it does any service to science or its practitioners or society at large to just claim that science is all the good legit stuff and all the ridiculous awful evil or dumb stuff is somehow in a different category. These were all questions to find out what was going in society. If the questions they were asking were filled with falsehoods, well, welcome to humanity. In any case, Holmes got super into phrenology, not as a hobby, but as central to his practice. And lest you think this all had no value, as part of it, he studied the heads of Egyptian mummies. In doing so, he was amazed by the preservation practices of ancient Egypt. This inspired Holmes to believe that there was a way to preserve bodies in the present that was better than what the nineteenth century had. Feel those heads boys, who knows what you will come up with.

Holmes wasn’t the only person working on this, but he was the most prominent and committed American. Borrowing from the Europeans working on the same thing, he developed a solution that one could inject into the arteries. This was basically the invention of modern embalming. And did Holmes have the right timing? Oh yes he did because this was right before the Civil War, where one of the side effects over the nation going to war over the future of slavery was that there would be a lot of corpses doctors could experiment upon.

Now, the Civil War was the introduction to the Gilded Age, the national rush to make as much money as you possibly could. That very much started during the war, with John D. Rockefeller starting to gain control over the nation’s oil supplies and Jay Cooke assuming that when he sold bonds to fund the war, whatever was in his personal interest was also in the nation’s interests. Holmes was ready to take advantage too. The mid-19th century, steeped in European romanticism, was obsessed with the idea of The Good Death. That meant dying surrounded by family and friends in your own bed. It most certainly did not mean dying alone on a battlefield. The aftermath of the Civil War caused a massive crisis in the North, as the natural sadness of losing your loved ones in war was exacerbated by this idea of the misery of their deaths and the deep desire to communicate with them. This explains a lot about the rise of those who claimed they could speak with the dead while what they were really doing was knocking underneath the table. People really wanted to communicate with their dead.

Give Holmes some credit here–he may have been a phrenologist, but he wasn’t making claims of running seances. No, his grift was different. He volunteered for the U.S. Army’s medical corps and went to work on the battlefields. Word of his magic skills got out. Families asked him to embalm their dead boys and send them back to them in one piece for a burial that would replicate what was appropriate in northern Victorian society. Holmes was totally fine with this–if the families paid him $100 for his services. That was real money at the time, but also families often sent a member or representative to the battlefields in desperate attempts to find some evidence of their dead, so that was a reasonable cost for him to pay. He definitely had a market. Eventually, word of this scheme got back to Abraham Lincoln, but he was cool with it. Lincoln was nothing if not a good Victorian after all. He gave approval to the plan and let Holmes (and presumably people working under him) the green light. Over the period of the war, Holmes embalmed thousands of bodies and sent them back north to paying families. His claim was to have embalmed 4,028 people himself. Hard to say if that’s true or if he was bragging.

There’s an additional story here of how Holmes got Lincoln on board. On May 24, 1861, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, a personal friend of the president, was shot and killed while taking down a Confederate flag hanging over a hotel in Virginia the military had occupied. Some sniper got him. Holmes rushed to the scene and embalmed him and showed him to the public. It worked. Lincoln was super interested and glad to see his friend one last time, even if dead.

Well, bilking desperate families of their money made Holmes super rich. Moreover, his embalming efforts were in demand nationwide and he made a ton of money off it. Due to the ability to embalm, the modern funeral industry began to rise. The idea that we could see our deceased friends and families one more time before laying them in the ground became normalized and expected, with it considered a tragedy if the cause of death was so awful as to make that impossible.

Things got pretty weird for Holmes in his later years. He started a root beer business in addition to his embalming liquid business and sold them out of the same shop, which may not have been a great idea. He stuffed his own house with embalmed bodies and body parts. He also invented a sleeping bag that could double as a body bag, so you could just take your own body bag with you I guess???? In any case, this was not a super popular invention. In fact, it seems that mental illness set in, perhaps a result of being around so many weird chemicals of this time and his trade.

Holmes died in 1900 in Brooklyn. He was 82 years old. Holmes had one request before his death: he did not want his body embalmed.

Thomas Holmes is buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other people involved in the history of American death and its rituals, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Speaking of embalming the dead, I turn 49 today. Henry Laurens, the Revolutionary War officer and president of the Continental Congress, was the first white person who wanted a modern cremation in the United States and is in Moncks Corner, South Carolina. The pro-cremation nineteenth century minister and wonderfully named Octavius B. Frothingham is in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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