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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Childhood memory 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 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 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