I wrote a few articles in preparation for the release of Rest in Pieces, but the one I most enjoyed was about a nineteenth century Seattle madame, Mother Damnable, whose corpse is said to have turned to stone. Mother D (also known as Mary Ann Boyer or Mary Ann Conklin) has been fascinating me for a few years, and I’m glad to have had a chance to tell some of her story. Read it at The Stranger.
I’d like to thank John LaMont, Special Collections librarian at the Seattle Public Library, for his help tracking down key documents for the story. John provided me with the 1884 article that describes the discovery of Mother Damnable’s corpse, which I’m including below.
“Removing the Dead.” August 22, 1884. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
A reporter of the Post-Intelligencer called upon Mr. O.C. Shorey, the contractor for removing bodies, monuments and stone work from the old city cemetery to the new burying ground, adjoining the Masonic cemetery, and asked him for anything of interest in connection therewith that has so far come under his observation. Mr. Shorey said: “I have been at work about three weeks, and have removed so far 120 bodies together with most of the monuments and stone work, and have, I think, over half of the work done. I have been laying off for a few days, waiting for the Catholics to get their grounds in readiness for the reception of the bodies of those of that faith. I have also delayed some in order to give all friends of deceased persons an opportunity to select new lots, and to give all such friends an opportunity to be present during the removal of the remains of their friends and loved ones.
“Last week among the remains taken up and removed were those of Mrs. Mary Conklin, who died and was buried eleven years ago, at the age of 70 years and 10 months. During her life she was known by the old settlers as ‘Mother Damnable,’ and many will remember her by that name. We discovered that the coffin was very heavy, weighing at least 400 pounds and it took six men to lift it out of the grave. On removing the lid to the coffin we found that she had turned to stone. Her form was full sized and perfect, the ears, finger nails and hair being all intact. Her features were, however, somewhat disfigured. Covering the body was a dark dust, but after that was removed the form was as white as marble and as hard as stone.
When we took up the coffin under the headstone marked “William Carnes,” who will be remembered as a large butcher, who died some ten years ago, we found the form of a small, delicate woman, with her clothing on and watchchain about her neck. The way I account for this is as follows: Some time after Carnes died, his friends had a stone made to mark his grave, and the parties employed to set the stone placed it over the wrong grave.
When the remains of James McKay, the tanner, who died ten or eleven years ago, were taken up, they were found well preserved, though the features were unrecognizable. All the graves, at certain seasons of the year, are full of water and the coffins float in their boxes. The action of the water has turned most of the bodies black. In a greater number of the coffins there is nothing but a few bones. The coffins are mostly sound, and before removing them we place them in new cedar boxes. So far we have found nothing of an offensive nature so far as smell is concerned, most of the bodies having been buried so long that the flesh has either all turned to dust or been eaten by the worms. I shall take up and remove all the bodies that can be found, including those who sleep in unmarked graves within the Pottersfield, but shall not interfere with the Chinese graves, as the Chinamen desire to take up the bones of their dead and ship them to the Flowery Kingdom.
Many graves have been sadly neglected, and I fear that some will be consequently overlooked. I wish you would tell the people again that I am anxious to hear from all those who have friends buried in the old cemetery, and have them point out the graves to me, especially those that are unmarked. A forest fire ran through the cemetery two years ago, and burned up a number of wooden grave marks, which adds to the difficulty of finding some of the graves. The new cemetery is located on a fine site between the two lakes, and can be made a beautiful burying ground with proper care and attention.”
For those who’ve been asking, the book comes out on March 12. A pretty little website is being buffed and shined, but for now there’s plenty of information on the publisher’s page and on Amazon. To stay up to date on the book and related events (coming to Seattle, NYC, and San Francisco this Spring), like the book’s page on Facebook. Thanks so much for all your love and support, deathlings!
I’ve recently been chastised for my absence from this blog (I won’t name names), and just when I thought no one was paying attention! I think all internet-enabled writers know the difficulty of juggling their paid work, creative projects, and social media efforts, which ideally overlap and cross-pollinate, but also distract from one another. Also, it’s hard to sit in a chair for more than ten hours a day. Nevertheless, I’ve been remiss in keeping all of you updated. Here’s a bit about what I’ve been up to:
I appeared on the CBC Radio Show Day 6 with Brent Bambury, my first Rest in Pieces–related radio interview. Since I’m a dual citizen (US/Canada), I was tickled that the Canadians were the first to record a segment with me about the book. That day I also had the pleasure of meeting author Simon Winchester, whose new book (and app) Skulls is obviously right up my alley.
I also just returned from a packed trip to New York, where I finally got to meet the fantastic team working on my book Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses. We shot a little interview, which you should hopefully be able to see in a few weeks. I’m also planning events in NYC for the book’s release in March (and possibly other cities), so stay turned for details, as well as a website, trailer, and Facebook for the book. (Psst: you can pre-order it here.)
I also got to hang out with the entirely excellent curator and blogger Pam Grossman, whose blog Phantasmaphile you should definitely peruse if you’re into fantastical, surreal, or occult art (or just general awesomeness). I’ve also heard word that Pam is cooking up an occult-themed conference at NYU, so stay tuned for news on that.
Other cultural treats on this trip included getting a sneak peak at Sophie Blackall‘s illustrations for The Nine Lives of Alexander Baddenfield, a childrens’ book she’s working on with John Bemelmans Marciano (I’ve helped with research for some of John’s books for adults). If you appreciate Edward Gorey and Lemony Snicket, this book is going to be a real treat.
The Order is about making death a part of your life. That means committing to staring down your death fears–whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety and terror of modern culture are not.
I’ve been working on editing a few projects for the Port Townsend publishers Feral House, including a fantastic forthcoming encyclopedia of black metal by Dayal Patterson. It’s got everything you want to know about the controversial genre, from the origin of corpse paint to the 70s glam metal band that inspired most of the Norwegian second wave. Feral House, of course, are the same folks who previously published Lords of Chaos, which both disturbed and fascinated the 18-year-old me.
Last but not least, congratulations to the curious and wondrous Atlas Obscura, the world’s most awesome travel-related website, on their re-design! You can see my spotlight on Einstein’s brain in their “Objects of Intrigue” series.
If you made it to the end of that, you get a gold star. Or maybe a skull in a jar, like the beautiful one (made of netting?) I saw at ABC Carpet & Home during the trip. More news, and skulls, soon!
Over the past few months, I’ve been spending rainy Seattle evenings reading accounts of our local haunted history. According to the shelf of books about ghosts in the Seattle Public Library’s Seattle Room, my town is full of the spirits of gamblers, prostitutes, thieves, murderers, murder victims, even pets. A s a result, a friend (Meg van Huygen) and I have begun an ongoing, just-for-fun project called A Field Guide to Seattle’s Ghosts. In honor of Halloween, I thought I’d provide the text I’ve written so far about my favorite local spirits.
A note: I’m agnostic about ghosts. I’m not interested in whether or not they’re real; I’m interested in what they inspire, what they stir up. For me, the most interesting thing about ghosts is the way they stay rooted to a particular place. Ghosts tell stories that never appear in tourist brochures, the dark secrets that local developers would rather keep hush-hush. But mostly they tell us about ourselves, how vulnerable we are, and sometimes, how much we want to believe.
1) The Japanese Dancer
Habitat: Mutual Life Building, 605 First Avenue at Yesler. Often seen: Around September 10. Distinguishing characteristics: Covered in white rice powder, nearly naked. Behavior: Writhing, floating. What he wants: To finish his dance.
Yoshiyuki Takada became a ghost while pretending to be a ghost. He was a member of the Tokyo dance company Sankai Juku, whose members performed in the creepy, controlled style known as Butoh. The troupe was known for suspending themselves—almost naked, shaven, and covered in white rice powder—from the tops of tall buildings, in a piece called “The Dance of Birth and Death.” Takada once explained his performances by telling the Los Angeles Times, “Our main theme is life and death, so we try to realize the situation of death and the state of just being born.”
On the afternoon of September 10, 1985, Takada had just begun one of his performances on the top of the Mutual Life Building in downtown Seattle when his rope snapped. He fell eighty feet, curled up in a ball until he hit the pavement below. Some members of the audience thought it was part of his performance. It wasn’t. He died at Harborview Medical Center soon afterward, and some think his spirit is still trapped in Pioneer Square. Every year around September 10, people claim to see a twisting, turning figure suspended in the air. The apparition lasts for about a quarter of a minute, before fading into the autumn air.
2) The Fire
Habitat: Northernmost tip of Alki Beach Park. Often seen: around April 14. Distinguishing characteristics: flames, burning smell. Behavior: flickering, disappearing, reappearing. What it wants: to be remembered.
Luna Park opened in West Seattle in 1907, billed as the greatest amusement park in the Northwest, our very own Coney Island. People came from across the state to ride the Giant Whirl and the Figure-Eight Roller Coaster, dance at the Dance Palace, swim in the pools of the Natatorium, and drink at the “longest bar on the bay” (especially drink).
But Luna Park lasted only five years, closing in 1913 after a moral panic about underage women carousing on the grounds. The pools remained open until an arsonist’s fire burned them down on April 14, 1931. At very low tide, you can still see the stubby concrete pilings, which is all that remains of the park today. But every year around April 14th, people in Seattle call up the fire department to report the tang of smoke, and the sight of flickering orange flames across the water.
3) Mother Damnable (a.k.a. Madame Damnable, or Mary Ann Conklin)
Habitat: Southwest corner of First and Jackson. Often seen: When she feels like it. Distinguishing characteristics: Apron full of rocks. Behavior: Whispering curses in people’s ears. What she wants: for you to go away.
Mother Damnable, born Mary Ann Conklin, ran Seattle’s first hotel, which was also supposedly one of its first brothels. Her accommodations were clean and comfortable, but it was her colorful personality that made her a local celebrity. It’s said she could swear equally well in English, French, German, Chinese, Spanish, and Portuguese, and that she was prone to throwing rocks or wood at people she didn’t like.
After she died in 1873, she was buried at the old Seattle cemetery, now Denny Park. Legend says that when her body was exhumed in the late 1800s, her corpse had turned into more than a thousand pounds of stone. The heavy coffin led to rumors that Damnable had been buried with her gold, but when workers opened it, they found only her body, perfectly preserved. Though she is now buried in Lakeview cemetery (probably), some say her spirit returns to protect her old property. Watch out for flying rocks.
4) Princess Angeline
Habitat: Pike Place Market, Bainbridge ferry. Often seen: On rainy mornings, or after the market’s shops close at night. Distinguishing characteristics: Blue eyes, red scarf, cane. Behavior: Walking slowly down the street, carrying woven baskets, disappearing on the ferry before it gets to Bainbridge. What she wants: To go home.
Princess Angeline was Chief Seattle’s daughter. Her given name was Kikisoblu, but she was re-named “Angeline” by one of the white settlers, who called her “Princess” in honor of her father’s status. She ignored the rules that said the Native Americans had to leave the city to live on reservations, and instead lived out her days in a cabin on what is now Western Avenue, doing laundry, digging clams, and selling baskets to the Old Curiosity shop. Edward Curtis took amazing photographs of her, for which he paid her $1 each (she preferred photo shoots to clam digging).
Angeline is said to be one of Seattle’s most frequently-seen ghosts, appearing late at night or early in the morning, her pale clothes swirling around her like mist, her body transparent except for her luminous blue eyes. If you see her, don’t be afraid: she doesn’t seem to mean anyone any harm. Though personally, I’d forgive her if she did.
5) Jimmy Durante
Habitat: Rendezvous Theatre, 2320 Second Avenue. Often seen: In the projection room. Distinguishing characteristics: That nose. Behavior: Turning on the projectors, locking the doors. What he wants: Unclear.
Several ghosts are said to haunt the Rendezvous. There’s a female presence that carries a waft of sweet perfume, and a dark energy that prowls that basement, sometimes erupting in loud banging and clanging. In the 1940s the building was used as a movie theatre, and some say the projectionist never left. But others sense Durante, who is said to have been busted for playing cards in the building’s basement speakeasy during Prohibition.
Habitat: Annex Theatre, 1100 East Pike Street. Often seen: at various times. Distinguishing characteristics: blue-and-white jumper. Behavior: stealing things, messing with the lights, vanishing. What he wants: we don’t know.
The building that now houses the Annex was once an auto repair shop, and some believe a mechanic died there while working underneath a car. An unnerving male presence is frequently sensed in the theatre, playing innocent and not-so-innocent pranks. Workers have nicknamed the presence “Frank,” although one late-night séance also picked up the name “Robert.” He often appears as a shadowy figure in the control booth.
7) The Little Red-Haired Girl
Habitat: Kells Pub, 1916 Post Alley. Often seen: When the bar is quiet and empty. Distinguishing characteristics: Long red hair. Behavior: Pulling out chairs, sliding glasses, laughing. What she wants: A friend.
Kells Pub is part of the famed Butterworth building, constructed in 1903 as the Butterworth funeral home. While a succession of businesses have failed on the upper floors, Kells—on the bottom where the garage and stables used to be—is always packed with locals and tourists.
But when it’s quiet, staff say they can hear a little girl chuckling to herself. One woman who came to Kells for a job interview was frightened out of her wits after her daughter reported playing with a red-haired girl who wasn’t there. The ghost girl is known to give her favorite playmates crudely-made rag dolls.
Habitat: Lakeview Cemetery. Often seen: randomly. Distinguishing characteristics: is a horse. Behavior: clomping. What he wants: carrots?
Buck was a cattle horse so beloved by his owner, one Irving Wadleigh, that when the animal died Wadleigh had him buried beneath an eight-foot monument in Lakeview Cemetery on Capitol Hill. Supposedly, a 1901 newspaper article about the horse’s burial infuriated the locals, and so Buck’s marker was moved—but not his body. When Wadleigh died, he was secretly buried next to Buck in an unmarked grave. Today, some report a glowing white horse nibbling at the grass between the gravestones, forever looking for his master.
On Sunday, the New York Times ran an opinion piece I wrote about Halloween, famous body parts, and the benefits of contemplating your own mortality. I’ve been honored by the response! Read the piece here.
The relic thieves have struck again! According to German news outlet The Local, police are seeking thieves who stole a mummified “liar’s hand” from a church in Legden, North Rhine-Westphalia. (Gruesome photo at the link.)
To be clear, the hand isn’t the relic of a saint—in fact, it’s not clear who it originally belonged to. The Telegraph explains, “Known as the ‘perjury-hand’, local legend dictates that it was severed from its owner when he or she broke an oath, and to serve as a bloody lesson to anybody else contemplating straying from the truth. But nobody knows the real history behind the hand other than that it was discovered preserved in lime during the demolition of an old fortified town in 1905.” In fact, locals had just raised enough money to send the mysterious item to Düsseldorf University for tests to determine its age and the sex of its owner.
The world has been plagued by a spate of thefts of mummified body parts—and their accessories—over the past year and a half. This past March, the 900-year-old heart of 12th century Irish saint St. Laurence O’Toole was stolen from a church in Dublin. In February, also in Ireland, a burglar stole a valuable shrine that normally contains part of cheekbone of St. Brigid. (The bone was out at the cleaners; hat tip to Christine Quigley for news of that theft.)
(Then there’s the Czech whack job who claimed this past summer to have plundered the Vienna graves of composers Strauss and Brahms, but that’s a different story.)
There’s a long history of relic thefts in the Catholic Church, though for a variety of reasons. In the Middle Ages, owning a fragment of a major saint—their tongue, say, or a scrap of their cloak—could establish your church as a must-see pilgrimage destination, providing a steam of both pilgrims and revenue. Eventually, relics became scarce enough that towns and churches began stealing them from one another—under the cover of night or in all-out assault.
According to medieval historian Patrick Geary, such thefts were known as “sacra furta,” or holy theft, and they weren’t seen as an ethical problem. Because the relics were viewed as the representative of the saint on earth, the bones, tongues, or bits of cloth were thought to have their own personalities. If they didn’t want to be stolen—or “translated”—they wouldn’t allow it. A successful theft meant the saint wanted to come with you.
Two of the most famous thefts of the Middle Ages concern Saint Mark and Saint Nicholas. In 828, Venetian merchants smuggled bones supposedly belonging to Saint Mark from Alexandria to Venice; the story goes that the relics were covered in a layer of pork to prevent the local Muslims from interfering. In 1087, sailors from Bari (now part of Italy) stole Saint Nicholas’s bones from Myra (now Demre, Turkey). The perfume of his “manna,” or “bone oil,” was said to be a sign that the saint approved of his move.
The first in what I hope will be a series of short columns in Seattle Met magazine on the darker side of local history is now online. This story profiles the Inscape building, once a local immigration processing center and prison, now remade as artists’ studios. Read it here. Next month: Congressman Marion Zioncheck and the suicide (or murder?) that haunts one of my favorite places to drink downtown.