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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Childhood memory resurfaces...in a cast-iron coffin


A guest blog today by a new friend, Ann Dupont from Shreveport, Louisiana.


        The story I am about to share is true, historical and — some might say — rather dark. The fact that it led me up the front steps to Shantybellum.com to ring the doorbell and ask about pictures of magnolia trees seems a bit funny now but I'’ll always consider meeting Elodie Pritchartt to be my personal legacy from a mysterious young woman who died almost 200 years ago.



        I was 9 years old, living in Monroe, Louisiana, in 1955. No one had ever heard of cell phones back then; no one carried a camera. Something happened one day that those who knew about firsthand probably never forgot, but nobody else ever knew anything about it unless they happened to read one account in the local newspaper. It happened one day and was pretty much over and done with the next, but the memory has haunted my thoughts for over 55 years.


        My father was working on the campus of what was then called Northeast Louisiana State College. Nearby a construction crew laying a water line to a home being constructed along Bayou DeSiard, off Lakeshore Drive, accidently hit a brick tomb or crypt and the entire enclosure collapsed, revealing a cast-iron casket which had a glass viewing window, protected by a removable cast-iron plate, over part of the top. The body inside the coffin was in perfect condition, so well preserved that even a wreath of magnolia blooms and leaves encircling her upper body was still intact.

        The coffin was taken to a Monroe funeral home the day it was unearthed where my parents, along with hundreds of others, went to view it that night.

        The petite young woman was buried in a black silk dress that was clearly visible as was a lace handkerchief and reportedly a diamond ring on one hand. Unfortunately the glass window was cracked when the bricks collapsed and the body began to show signs of decomposition, so it was hastily reburied in a Monroe cemetery the following morning.

        The ornate Fisk coffin still bore traces of orange and black paint. There was a sterling silver nameplate engraved, "St. Clair Wade" that listed the woman’'s age as either 30 or 39 and the date September 7, 1814. The nameplate was also damaged but there was a capital "H" and other small, indistinguishable letters before the St. Clair but no other information.

        A local historian named John Humble said he thought there was a good chance the woman could have been one of Benjamin Tenneile'’s four daughters. The Tenneiles had once lived on the property where the coffin was found.   It was part of the Magenta Plantation, which had been previously owned by Col. Frank P. Stubbs's’ family before the Civil War.

        In searching genealogy websites for information regarding the Tenneile family, it didn’t take long before I found a biography on genealogy.com for Benjamin Tenneile, born around 1750 in Prince William County, Virginia, who died June 30, 1811, in "Bayou de Siard, Monroe, Ouachita Parish, LA."

        Naturally I would find this tiny text around 11 p.m. but there was no mistaking what my tired old eyes were seeing in the last paragraph:

"In 1955, while workers were laying a water line for a home being constructed on Lakeshore Drive in Monroe, a brick tomb was accidently unearthed. On the casket was the name 'St. Clair Wade,' age 30 or 39, and the date September 7, 1814.

"The property had at one time belonged to the McEnery family and was called Magenta Plantation. It was thought at the time that the young woman may have been Mary St. Clair Morrison, wife of Joseph Wade. The connection with the Tenneile or McEnery families is not known."

        There is an early entry in the record books of Ouachita Parish in 1809 that reads, "The first marriage license to be recorded in Ouachita Parish was in 1809 when John Hughes, a farmer of Bayou de Siard, was authorized by law to celebrate the privilege of marriage with Mary St. Clair Tenneile."

        So, with that, I finally felt like I had found closure for the bits and pieces of a strange, mysterious story a 9-year-old child’'s impressionable mind would hold onto indefinitely, but the realization that this was but one such story of men, women and children buried in Fisk cast-iron coffins whose remains were later found to be perfectly preserved has led to a desire to learn more.

        So how did this story lead me to Elodie'’s front door? In researching the partial name "St. Clair Wade", one historian somewhere along the way referred to "St. Clara Wade". Elodie had posted beautiful old pictures of a young woman in Natchez named Clara Wade. Guess what Clara had in her front yard? Two huge magnolia trees. 

Two heads are better than one but that’'s not saying much when two women who have probably watched too much Law & Order try to figure out what "St." could be an abbreviation for or why Clara Wade would have been in Monroe.

        It’s been interesting and fun putting the puzzle pieces together and I am so happy to have gotten to know Elodie.




As I was searching for photos to go with this story, I came across a few stories about similar mysterious cast-iron coffins.  You can read one here.    Also, if anyone has any information on what the "H" or the "St." in St. Clair Wade is, we'd love to hear it.  ~ Elodie

14 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing this childhood memory.

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  2. Ms. Dupont,

    I e-mailed you a few days before with what I knew about the coffin (a facebook friend linked this blog on his page). I just remembered that several years ago, I wrote an article for the News-Star about several iron coffins found in Northeast Louisiana. Here is the paragraph I wrote about Monroe's Iron Coffin:

    "Researchers at the time noticed a deteriorated nameplate attached to the coffin. They could see the name St. Clair Wade" and an age of either 30 or 39. There was also a date of September 7, 1814 inscribed. After a little research, it was determined that the woman was Mira St. John Tennille Hall. Mira was the eldest daughter of one of Ouachita's Revolutionary War soldiers, Benjamin Tennille. It was thought that the flowing script on the plaque could be mistaken for an H, W or M. The Tennilles were rich and could afford the iron coffin. St. Clair was also a common name in the Tennille family. For many years this identification stood. Within the last couple of decades, a new identification has been put forward by Historians.
    Mary Catherine St. Clair Morrison was born September 7, 1814. She was the daughter of John McCagg and Sarah Ginn Morrison. She was married to Joseph F. Wade but had no children. When she died, she was buried in the Morrison family cemetery on the grounds of Magenta Plantation. Over time the gravestones deteriorated and crumbled away. Homes and businesses were built on top of the cemetery. The plantation home known as Magenta disappeared as well. There Mary slept in peace till her rest was disturbed in 1955. Misidentified for forty years, she now can be identified properly."

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  3. Lora,

    Thank you for commenting. In case, Ms. Dupont did not get your email, I'll forward this to her. Also, if you'd like to email me, I can be reached at epritchartt@yahoo.com.

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  4. Dear Lora and Elodie,

    Neither of you truly has any idea how much I admire and appreciate your interest in and knowledge of our regional history. I feel honored both to have been invited by Elodie to compose a story for Shantybellum and also to Lora for sharing her dedication to finding and recording facts that so few ever knew as new generations come along who may never know enough about these special stories to ask questions.

    Thank you both.

    Ann

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  5. I too wrote of this story a few years back in connection with the finding of a Fisk coffin in another state. I went to Mulhearn funeral home a long with many others to see her. Glad to know more about the incident I'll never forget.
    Tom Boyte
    El Mirage,AZ. formerly of Monroe

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  6. Thank you for visiting the blog and for your comment, Tom. Ann tells me she's remembered more about this story. If and when she adds to it, I hope you'll be able to find us again.

    You might want to click "follow" on the blog. Otherwise, if you'd like to send me your email address, you can reach me at epritchartt@yahoo.com.

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  7. How wonderful and how strange so many people are looking into this now. I am from Lakeshore, I remember My father telling me this story as a child. I believe the residents then were the Matthews on Lakeshore Drive. I could be wrong about the family that lived there at the time. My Father also had 3 houses in the Lakeshore subdivison over a 50 yr period. For some reason this morning I woke up obsessed by trying to remember this story. I am currently living in Alaska. Thank you for the information..

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  8. The coffin made of cast iron is something different,I never saw this type of thing before..I had read the story you shared,it is quite interesting..

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  9. civilwar@dancrone.comAugust 29, 2013 at 12:33 PM

    I love the story. And I loved the photographs that assisted with setting the mood. I loved the story so much, I went snooping on ancestry.com. I googled it. I read the theories and I remain unconvinced of the latest theory. All accounts have the date Sept 7, 1814. Latest theories say its a birth date, not a death date. Some accounts mention only 'St.Clair' not 'St. Clair Wade'. To fit Mary St.C Wade, 35 in 1860 you have to suppress data that conflicts with this theory. Maybe she was the wife of C.H. Morrison, listed as the head of household. However, in the 1870 census, Mary Wade is still alive at the age of 44. Also, consistent across both censuses is that her birth year was in 1825 or 1826. This is 10 year mistake. So, if Mary St. Clair Wade Morrison was in the coffin she died after 1870 and would have been at least 56 if you accept the 1814 theory. It just doesn't fit. I have screenshots of my research if you would like them.

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  10. civilwar@dancrone.comAugust 29, 2013 at 12:40 PM

    There is a famous civil war grave robbing incident that took place in the 1960's. The body was thought to have been preserved with arsenic, and was temporarily mistaken as a homicide victim before realizing it was the interred. So, it may have been in this case. Iron caskets were not uncommon for the wealthy. Here's an incident from earlier this year when an iron coffin was exhumed by grave robbers. http://www.thetruecitizen.com/news/2013-04-10/Front_Page/Grave_robbers_hit_cemetery_at_Old_Church.html

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  11. civilwar@dancrone.comSeptember 1, 2013 at 7:10 AM

    Update. Adding obituary for Col. Morrison's sister, who I believe this to be.
    I believe this is Colonel Charles Henry Morrison's sister. He was a plantation owner. He led 'Morrison's company', also known as Company K of the 31st Louisiana Infantry, CSA. After the war, he was active in politics, and, for a time was Speaker of the Louisiana House. A timeline:

    1841 Mary Morrison married Joseph F. Wade. No further information about J.F. Wade.
    1850 Census she appears as Mary St. Claire Wade (gives age as 26)
    1860 Census she appears as Mary St. C Wade (gives age as 35)
    1870 Census she appears as Mary Wade (gives age as 44)

    She died Dec. 9, 1874.

    The Ouachita Telegraph
    Friday, December 18, 1874
    Page 3, Column 1

    Mrs. Mary Wade died on the 9th inst., at the residence of her brother Col. C.H. Morrison. Mrs. Wade had endeared herself to a large circle of friends, by whom her many virtues will be held in lasting remembrance.

    1876 Oct 18 Col. Charles Henry Morrison dies at 56 of pneumonia.

    The birth date reported to have been incribed on the coffin does not seen to match the census.

    Here is an actual newspaper account. Biloxi Daily Herald, Friday, Feb 04, 1955
    Find Woman's Body Buried 140 Years - Monroe, LA (AP) - Workmen digging a water line unearthed the preserved body of a 30-year-old woman believed buried more than 140 years ago. The inscription on the glass covered coffin was dated Sept. 7, 1814, and identified the woman as Mrs. St. Clair Wade.
    Clothed in a black silk dress and clutching a lace handkerchief in her hand, the body was surrounded by magnolia blossoms and cypress leaves in the cast iron coffin.
    The casket was taken yesterday to a Monroe funeral home. Workmen discovered the casket, encased in a lime and sand vault, about a foot below the earth.

    Iron coffins were in use 1848-1888 by the well-to-do.

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  12. Thank you for this story!! When I was little, my parents told me this story. They grew up in Haile, near Sterlington, so they had heard the account second hand and I don't think that they really believed it. My mother passed away some years ago but my dad was delighted to hear that the story was true. I shared this link on my blog. I usually write about Union Parish history but I do love Monroe area!! Thanks again!

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  13. My father worked for Ouachita Parish Sheriff's department when this was found and he too got to go and see the lady. I wish I had been born when this took place. So Fascinating. Thank u for sharing this story!! Glad I found it and could bridge the gap of information that I was told as a child...

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  14. Great story, being a huge history buff, I am always intrigued by firsthand accounts. However, I'm not exactly sure when the advent of metallic coffins came to be used, but I do know that the Fisk cases were not patented until at least 1848. Is it possible that the date may have read 1864? Sometimes the script used in 19th century and prior tend to be more of a flowing nature versus an accurate depiction of the letters themselves. Here in Milledgeville, GA a Fisk casket was discovered during the restoration of an old family crypt, and even more intriguing, the striped dress of the occupant could still be discerned through the viewing window located at the head of the casket. Creepy, awesome and always entertaining, history will always hold a place in heart.

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