Corpses on the river


“Truth is stanger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”
Mark Twain, Following the Equator, 1897

The lore of the Mississippi River is steeped in the macabre.
Take, for example,
two river towns — Hannibal, Mo., and Alton, Ill. — that harbored corpses long past their appointments to become, once again, one with the earth.
A mile or two downriver from Hannibal is a natural limestone cavern where Sam Clemens, later known as Mark Twain, played as a boy.
I toured this “intricate tangle of rifts and chasms” — as Twain described it in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer — during a visit to Hannibal last week and heard the tale of Dr. Joseph McDowell, an eccentric St. Louis surgeon who owned the cave in the early 1840s when Twain was a boy.

Dr. McDowell

“The cave was an uncanny place, for it contained a corpse — the corpse of a young girl of fourteen,” Twain wrote in his autobiography. “It was in a glass cylinder inclosed in a copper one which was suspended from a rail which bridged a narrow passage. The body was preserved in alcohol and it was said that loafers and rowdies used to drag it up by the hair and look at the dead face.”
The unfortunate damsel was the daughter of McDowell, who believed that the cave’s constant temperature of 52 degrees Fahrenheit would help preserve the body of his child, who died of pneumonia. Twain doesn’t say whether he was one of the “loafers and rowdies” who disturbed the rest of Miss McDowell.
It’s hard to believe that his mischievous nature wouldn’t get the better of him during his frequent visits to the cave. But the body may no longer have been in the cave when Clemens reached the age of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in his best-known novels.
The corpse caused such a kerfluffle in Hannibal that McDowell moved his daughter’s body after about two years to the family mausoleum in St. Louis.
In Alton, my hometown, just upriver from St. Louis, a corpse belonging to a riverman named Deaf Bill Lee resided as a “permanent guest” in a local funeral parlor for more than eight decades — much of that time propped upright in a closet.
When I was growing up, a peek into the closet at Deaf Bill’s leathery, mustachioed mummy, attired only in a sheet wrapped around his midriff, was a welcome distraction from solemnity for bored kids attending the wakes of deceased relatives.

Downtown Alton in the time of Deaf Bill Lee

When Bill was alive, he fished the river to eke out a paltry existence. Other times, he might have been found drinking or brawling in waterfront taverns or preaching fiery, rambling sermons on downtown street corners.
He was befriended by Bill Bauer, owner of Bauer Funeral Home, who signed him into the Madison County Poor Farm when Deaf Bill’s health began to fail. He died there Nov. 13, 1915, at age 52.
Rather than have Bill buried in a pauper’s grave, Bauer accepted the body and embalmed it.

Madison County Poor Farm at Edwardsville, Ill.

Bill was rumored to have relatives across the river in West Alton, Mo. But no family members ever claimed the body and Bill stayed on at the funeral home througout a succession of owners.
Finally, in June 1996, Alton paid its final respects to Deaf Bill Lee.
The funeral home contacted the Rev. Michael Sandweg, pastor of the Catholic churches in West Alton and Portage des Sioux, just across the river in Missouri.
“Sandweg checked church records and cemeteries and learned that Edward Lee, who died in 1884 at age 4 1/2, was buried in St. Francis of Assisi cemetery,” said a story from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on July 5, 2006. “Sandweg wasn’t sure whether the boy and Bill were related, but he heard that both had parents named Thomas and Sara.”

St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church

Bill, wearing a turn-of-the-century tuxedo and a black string tie, was laid out in a donated casket of varnished poplar with gold trim. Several hundred Altonians came to view him one last time and six members of the Knights of Columbus Council 460 in Alton served as pallbearers.
The body was taken across the river to Portage des Sioux and buried on June 24, 1996, in the cemetery of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church near the grave of an Edward Lee.
An Associated Press story at the time quoted John Dunphy, a writer and bookstore owner who had researched Bill’s story, as saying that the burial showed that “our community is acquiring a social conscience.”
“We no longer believe that human beings should be subjected to such exploitation,” Dunphy said. “I think it represents tremendous personal growth for the city of Alton.”

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5 Comments

Filed under Americana, History, Journeys, Travels

5 responses to “Corpses on the river

  1. Jim,
    Very nice post about this happenings in Alton and Hannibal. Both places are close to my heart as I lived in St. Louis for about 10 years and I have visited both of them on more than one occasion. I used to drive to Alton and sometimes even take the ferry to cross the river.

    The topic of your post definitely caught my eye. While it has not a thing to do with your post, I have heard that corpses were set off into the Ganges with a hot coal in the mouth. I am not sure if this is simple a myth or real but when I saw the title of your post that’s what came to my mind.

    Peace 🙂

    • Chandra,
      Thanks for looking at my blog and for the nice words. What were you doing in St. Louis? By the way, I’ve also read your blog. Take care
      Jim

      • Jim, You are most welcome!
        I worked in St. Louis from 1999 till 2008. I worked for a few employers there. I moved to DFW for my current job!
        Take care.
        -Chandra…

  2. Grateful

    Jim,

    I just found your blog and lo-and-behold the third post down was of Alton. I did a lot of living in Alton in the short time I lived there. I was 16 then. I worked at the motel at the foot of the Lewis & Clark bridge and lived in an efficiency in one of the grand old river homes that had long since been converted into apartments. Two years prior, just before my 14th birthday, I had “run away from home”, (in Meadowbrook), due to an extremely abusive stepdad, (circa 1959). I traveled the country, working and surviving, and then came back to Alton in ’61.

    You may know Andy Yaktis, a writer for the Alton Evening Telegraph. A few years my senior and not long returned from Korea, he befriended and mentored me on basic life and intellectual skills. His acquaintance came at a pivotal moment in my life and set the course for for my future, which now in retrospect has been an amazing and successful journey through this realm.

    I’m glad I found your blog. I’ll bookmark it and stay tuned. I’m an avid cyclist, at 66, and so hope to do some touring someday.

    Blessings,
    Dr. Grateful G.

  3. Dear Dr. Grateful G.,
    Thanks for your note and for reading my blog.
    Yes, I knew Andy Yakstis when I worked for the Alton Telegraph part-time when I was a student at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. I’ve noted that he — and Jim Kulp, whom I also knew when I worked there — stayed with the paper for many years. I doubt if they would remember me.
    I visit Alton a couple times per year, as one of my sisters still lives there. In fact, I’ll be in Alton over Labor Day weekend for a 50th reunion of the Marquette High School Class of 1960. The week before, I plan to ride the Katy Trail in Missouri from Clinton to St. Charles. Again, thanks for reading the blog. Please accept my apologies for taking so long to get back to you.
    Jim Peipert

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