Embalming Surgeons / Undertakers
By Kimberly J Largent
Surgeons & Pharmacists cash in on the War
Prior to the Civil War, embalming was performed mainly to preserve the body for the purpose of medical studies; however, there were no specific guidelines for the embalmer. It was performed by those with a medical background and usually involved the use of toxic chemicals. The only other two means of preservation included ice (in the form of a refrigerated coffin that housed an ice chamber on top and a drainage system below), and encasing the body in an air-tight receptacle—both could delay composition for an extended period of time.
Although embalming dates back to ancient Egypt, it didn’t become popular in the United States until the Civil War, when there was a need to preserve the dead for the long journey home—if that was indeed their fate. If a body wasn’t properly embalmed, legally it couldn’t be transported and would often end up buried in a shallow grave on the battlefield.
A surgeon, Thomas Holmes, established himself as the father of modern-day embalming. The son of a wealthy merchant, he graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in 1849. Prior to the war, he spent years researching a safer means to preserve cadavers for medical schools across the country; there were too many medical student deaths being attributed to contact with the toxic embalming solution during dissections. It wasn’t until the late 1850s that he stumbled upon what was then believed to be a safe, non-toxic embalming fluid that contained about four ounces of arsenious acid (arsenic) per gallon of water—a solution that immediately killed or halted the microorganisms responsible for decomposition—and immediately sold the product to undertakers throughout the country.
Holmes gained instant notoriety in 1861 with the death of Union colonel Elmer Ellsworth, a good friend of President and Mrs. Lincoln, who had once served as an apprentice lawyer in Lincoln’s law office. Lincoln was so deeply affected by Ellsworth’s death that he planned a special service for the colonel at the White House. Secretary of State William Seward commissioned Holmes to embalm the body and prepare it for the journey to the White House. During the funeral, the appearance of Ellsworth’s body brought the comment from Mrs. Lincoln that he looked “…natural, as though he were only sleeping.” Holmes’ services were now in high demand. He charged $3.00 per gallon for his concoction. Some embalming fluids, considered trade secrets during that time, contained creosote and even mercury.
Holmes accepted a commission as captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps and performed his trade first in Washington, DC, and then directly on the battlefield. After battle, he would erect an embalming tent and tend to the dead. His embalming table was crude and often consisted of a wooden door resting upon two barrels. Embalming was performed by squeezing a rubber ball that would pump the embalming fluid into the deceased’s artery (in the area of the armpit). This process took a couple of hours. There was rarely a need to drain blood, since that occurred naturally on the battlefield. When the embalming was complete, the body was then placed in a wooden box that was usually lined with zinc. On the lid appeared the name of the deceased along with his parent’s names. Inside were his personal belongings.
Holmes’ fee for embalming was $50 for an officer and $25 for an enlisted man. As the war continued, and embalmers were in high demand, those figures rose to $80 and $30, respectively. Feeling he could make even more money if he worked in the private sector performing the same duties, Holmes resigned his commission and began to charge $100 per embalming.
As surgeons and pharmacists became aware of the profits to be made from embalming, they traded in their instruments for that of an embalmer’s and followed the troops into war. After the battle, the embalmers would converge on the scene and quickly find dead officers to embalm, knowing that the family of an officer would be grateful and able to pay the embalming fee. One embalming company went so far as to try to obtain a government contract to embalm all Federal dead. A bill was even introduced to allow the creation of a corps of military undertakers for each division. It was never passed. To market embalming, a Washington, DC embalmer showcased an embalmed soldier in a display window for days.
Richard Burr, a Union surgeon who served with the 72nd PA Volunteer Infantry, became an embalming surgeon when he saw the profit to be made. Known for severely inflating the price for embalming services, he created and distributed handbills after the battle of Antietam offering “Embalming for the Dead.” The handbill invited the curious to watch the procedure.
By the end of the war, the War Department issued General Order #39 Order Concerning Embalmers: …“Hereafter no persons will be permitted to embalm or remove the bodies of deceased officers or soldiers, unless acting under the special license of the Provost Marshal of the Army, Department, or District in which the bodies may be. Provost Marshals will restrict disinterments to seasons when they can be made without endangering the health of the troops. Also license will be granted to those who can furnish proof of skill and ability as embalmers, and a scale of prices will be governed.” That Order was the precedent for today’s funeral director’s licenses.
Holmes claimed to have embalmed approximately 4,028 bodies during the Civil War. His supposed non-toxic embalming solution was indeed toxic and to this day continues to contaminate the soil in older cemeteries. Those who practiced embalming during the war returned to their hometowns and continued to perform the service in lieu of returning to their former trade. As for Dr. Holmes, prior to his death in 1900 he requested that he not be embalmed.