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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”