Death & Mourning in the Gilded Age

For the last several years, I’ve helped lead the Phelps Mansion Museum’s Death and Mourning tours. The tours are on Friday and Saturday evenings in October and guests can explore the material culture of late-19th century mourning culture, from embalming tables to hair wreaths. This year, I also helped rewrite & revamp the tour, which is now in its fifth year. You can see me below with our House Manager, Joe Schuerch, and our Board President, Mark Dickinson. That coffin, and everything else on exhibit, is from Mark’s personal collection!

Joe, Mark, and I in the parlor of the Phelps Mansion Museum. As part of the tour we hold a “funeral” for Hattie Taylor Phelps (in the portrait on the right), who actually had her funeral here in 1882.

One of the most fun things I researched this fall while working on the tour revamp was the story of the Phelps grave break-in. The eldest son of the Phelps family, Robert, had his grave broken into three years after his death following a messy court battle over the bill for his embalming. The family doctor, Dr. Ely, wanted $5,000 for his services. The surviving family instead had someone break into the vault to prove that Robert had not been properly embalmed. Dr. Ely allegedly promised to make Roberts body “smooth as white marble” and last forever. The family hoped they could prove that Robert hadn’t been properly embalmed and thus render Ely’s large bill moot.

The photo taken after the grave break-in in 1884.

The story of Robert’s break-in led me down a rabbit hole into other famous grave robbings in the late 19th century. President Lincoln had his grave disturbed in 1876. In 1878, the body of William Henry Harrison’s son was found in the basement of the Ohio Medical College. Closer to home, the body of NYC millionaire A. T. Stewart was stolen from his grave in 1878 along with all the casket’s silver hardware. The thieves demanded $250,000 from the family!

This year Binghamton University’s student newspaper, the Pipe Dream, stopped by for a tour. You can read their review, including an interview with me, here.

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