The “Murder” at Shy Mansion: Embalming in the Civil War

 Dr. Richard Burr at work in his embalming tent

Dr. Richard Burr at work in his embalming tent

In 1977, during the restoration of the Shy Mansion in Franklin, TN workers noticed a disturbance in the estate’s family cemetery.  A grave had been opened, a hole cut in the cast iron case, and a body lay half out of the grave.  When they called the authorities in, the sheriff determined it to be a recent homicide where the culprit had attempted to hide the body in the older grave.  He sent the body to Nashville for examination by Dr. William Bass.  Bass noticed that the clothing on the deceased was not made of any synthetic fibers and the coat was in an older style.  When testing the tissues, he found that he was examining a body that had been embalmed with arsenic.  The man who lay on the table before him was Colonel William Shy in a perfect state of preservation 113 years after his death at the Battle of Nashville.

The process of embalming bodies by injecting chemicals into main arteries came into practice in the 1840s, and was relatively new when the Civil War broke out.  Dr. Thomas Holmes, known as the “Father of Modern Embalming,” brought the process to public notice when Abraham Lincoln contracted him to embalm Colonel Elmer Ellsworth after his death in May 1861. 

During the war, surgeons followed the armies and advertised their services to soldiers and communities back home.  They would set up in tents, barns, or other structures near battlefields or hospitals and often received business from family and friends arriving to locate remains for transport home.  If the body was recovered from the field quickly, then the surgeon could perform arterial embalming and send the body home in a good state of preservation.  If the body was already in a state of decomposition the surgeon would remove the internal organs and disinfect the body to get rid of any odors (the railroads would not accept bodies for transport if there was odor coming from the coffin). 

Bodies were transported in coffins or caskets supplied by local undertakers that were lined with sheets of metal and 3 or 4 inches of charcoal, straw, or sawdust at the bottom.  When the body was laid in, it was covered with more charcoal, straw, or sawdust and soaked with preservative chemicals before the coffin was sealed for transport.  Bodies could also be transported in cast iron burial cases, as in the cases of Ellsworth and Shy.  The best known of these cases were the Fisk burial cases patented in 1848 and produced starting in the 1850s.  These cases were in a mummiform shape with an upper and lower shell that fit together with a groove that was filled with a sealing compound to make the case air tight.  Family could view the deceased through a thick plate of glass over the face.

Estimates claim that 10,000 to 40,000 soldiers were embalmed during the Civil War, at prices that varied from most commonly ranged at $25 for enlisted men and $50 for officers.  The families of officers were more likely to pay for embalming and transport home because most American families did not have the money to pay all the costs of disinterring the body, embalming, and transportation.  For most soldiers, burial on the field or eventual removal to National and Confederate Cemeteries would be their final resting place.

Further Reading:

Lowry, James W. Embalming Surgeons of the Civil War. Ellicott City, MD: Tacitus Publications, 2001.

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated from Siena College in May 2010 with a B.A. in History and a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies.  She earned her M.A. in History from West Virginia University in May 2012.  Her thesis “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate.  She is currently pursuing her PhD at West Virginia University with research on mental trauma in the Civil War.  In addition, Kathleen has been a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park since 2010 and has worked on various other publications and projects.