Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Abraham Lincoln and The Embalmer: Dr. Thomas Holmes

From: drvitelli.typepad.com

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1865 shocked a nation still recovering from four years of bloody civil war.   Along with the hunt for his killers and the uncovering of the assassination plot against the President and several other members of his administration, there was also the logistic nightmare of his funeral and the need to transport the President's body by train from Washington D.C. to his final resting place in Springfield, Illinois.   Since the funeral train would retrace the route that Lincoln had traveled to Washington following his election,  the body would be viewed by millions of mourners along the way during the numerous planned stops.   All of which raised the question of how to keep the body preserved long enough to reach its destination.   Considering the fact that funeral embalming was a relatively new development at that time, some very special arrangements needed to be made.

Enter Thomas Holmes, the "father of American embalming"...

After graduating from Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1845, Dr. Holmes developed a keen interest in the proper preserving of cadavers for dissection.  He was also openly critical of the chemical preservatives that were commonly used and the possible health risks that they posed to medical students.   Considering that many of the popular preservatives used arsenic and mercury, he was likely right.   In searching for a better way to preserve bodies, he discovered that European anatomists had already begun experimenting with arterial embalming, i.e.,  opening up an artery in the cadaver, flushing out the blood with water and replacing it with a preservative (typically alcohol).    Through his research, Dr. Holmes developed a more practical embalming solution that he patented and sold commercially. 

Still, it was the outreak of the U.S. Civil War and the problem of preserving the corpses of thousands of soldiers to allow them to be sent home for burial that gave Dr. Holmes the chance to test out his improved preservation methods on a broad scale.    Although the corpses were typically buried at the battlefield sites where they were killed, families often demanded that the corpses be disinterred so they could receive "proper" burials.   Considering the lack of proper refrigeration or hermetically sealed coffins, the delivery brigades charged with shipping the bodies turned to Dr. Holmes and his embalming methods to keep the bodies from decaying long enough to be reburied by their families.   

After receiving a commission as a captain in the Army Medical Corps, Dr. Holmes was assigned to Washington, D.C. and managed to impress President Lincoln enough that the Quartermaster Corps was mobilized to use embalming on a wide scale to return the corpses of Northern soldiers to their homes (the Confederate army never adopted embalming for their soldiers).   Setting up battlefield embalming stations, Dr. Holmes trained numerous embalmers in his new technique and a new profession, the "embalming surgeon" quickly sprang up.    It is hard to say how many corpses Dr. Holmes and his assistants prepared for shipping, (he later claimed to have personally embalmed more than 4,000 bodies but this is probably an exaggeration).   The demand for embalming services became so great that some unscrupulous embalmers actually competed for corpses on the battlefield (the army offered an $80.00 fee for the embalmed body of an officer and $30.00 for a soldier).   By 1865,  the problem had become so bad that the War Department put out General Order 39 to ensure that only properly licensed embalmers would be allowed to offer services to the families of the war dead.  Once the war was over, Dr. Holmes` numerous trained assistants returned home and put their skills to good use. 

Following President Lincoln`s assassination, Mary Todd Lincoln personally requested that Dr. Holmes be placed in charge of her husband`s embalming.    She had been familiar with his work after seeing how effective he was in preparing the body of  Colonel Elmer Elsworth, the first casualty of the U.S. Civil War.  The Lincolns had been impressed enough to have Dr. Holmes embalm the body of their son, William Wallace Lincoln, when he died in 1862.    Embalming the President`s corpse for the long funeral train  was probably the best possible advertisement for the new arterial embalming technique since thousands of mourners were able to see  for themselves how effective it could be. 

Not that there were any actual "embalming surgeons" left for long.  Within just a few years after the end of the Civil War,  embalming was largely left up to professional undertakers.   There was not much of an  organized funerary trade at first (many new embalmers gained their skills from correspondence courses and conducted funerals out of their own homes).  Still,  the next few decades saw a tremendous rise in the funeral industry including the use of open-casket funerals and "wakes" (as opposed to burying the body as quickly as possible).   Dr. Holmes'  embalming fluid and his patented fluid pump were in high demand as more and more people began demanding that their loved ones be embalmed prior to burial.    There were still health risks involved since even the Holmes embalming fluid contained dangerous levels of arsenic (which continued to be used for embalming corpses until well into the 20th century when formaldehyde was adopted).    As for Dr. Thomas Holmes himself, his role as the "father of American embalming" didn't provide him with much success in life. 

Although Dr. Holmes tried to distance him from the embalming trade after the war, the money that he made from selling his embalming fluid was likely the only real business success he ever had.   According to Mary Roach and her excellent book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers,  Dr. Holmes tried different ventures including opening a drugstore,  running at health spa, and launching a root-beer business although he eventually managed to exhaust all of his savings.     He also became, well, strange in his old age (possibly due to the effects of long-term arsenic exposure gained from his embalming experiments).  Not only did he never marry or have children, but he filled his Brooklyn home with some graphic examples of his embalming skill. 

Those few visitors with the nerve to enter his home often encountered preserved bodies in closets and heads sitting on tables in the living-room (he was also a fan of phrenology).     Perhaps not surprisingly, he spent a considerable amount of time in and out of asylums whiile continuing to research new and better ways of preserving corpses.   He was also determined to profit from the funeral industry any way that he could.   Just a few years before his death in 1899, Dr. Holmes took out ads in mortuary trade journals with his latest invention:  a canvas body bag that could also double as a sleeping bag.   Sadly, this last innovation never really caught on (pity there was no eBay back then) and the "father of American embalming", for reasons known only to him, specificaly requested that his body not be embalmed before burial. 

While not as well known as other scientific pioneers, Dr. Thomas Holmes helped launch the funeral industry and, in turn, helped change attitudes concerning death.  He may have also created one of the first industrial hazards of the modern era considering the popularity of his arsenic-based embalming fluid.    As embalming became increasingly affordable and popular, the demand for embalming fluid and its principal ingredient, arsenic, meant a steady rise in arsenic contamination of local water supplies as decaying coffins (whether made of wood or metal) allowed embalmed remains to leak into the groundwater.  

In many cases, the presence of an old cemetery often endangered the health of people living in the surrounding area.  Although arsenic was eventually phased out in favour of formaldehyde (which was already available in Dr. Holmes's time), the thousands of embalmed corpses still remaining in cemeteries across the country have been shown by researchers to carry dangerous amounts of arsenic.   Since arsenic exposure can enter the bloodstream in different ways, people working around old burial sites need to take special precautions to prevent health problems.

Which is probably not the lasting legacy that Dr. Thomas Holmes had in mind.


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