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Thomas Holmes—the “Father of Modern Embalming”—had an unusual way of advertising his services throughout the American Civil War. During one of his many excursions to the front, the surgeon plucked the body of an unknown soldier from the battlefield and brought it back to Washington D.C. There, he washed the corpse and injected it with his patented “safe” embalming fluid, which he claimed was free from toxins. He then dressed the soldier in a fine set of clothes and put him on display in his shop window for all to see.

Prior to the mid-19th century, embalming was used chiefly to preserve specimens after dissection. Surgeons and anatomists often used arsenic when creating dry mount displays from cadaverous remains. Mixtures of arsenic and soap were sometimes used to bathe the insides of a specimen in order to prevent decomposition and insect infestation. In 1838, the French chemist, Jean Gannal, introduced a new method for preserving human remains which called for arsenic to be injected directly into the carotid artery. This allowed anatomists to dissect corpses or prepare anatomical specimens without worrying about putrefaction or decay. By and large, it worked, though many anatomists suffered arsenic poisoning as a result.

2The nature of embalming changed when the Civil War broke out in 1861. Suddenly, there was an enormous outcry for the bodies of fallen soldiers to be returned to their hometowns so that families could say a proper goodbye to the dead. It was during this period that the foundations of the modern funeral industry were laid, and the embalmer—as a professional—began to emerge.

The trend began when a captain in the Army Medical Corps (and close friend of President Lincoln) became the first Union officer killed in the Civil War. On 24 May 1861, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth (left) was shot while removing a Confederate flag from the roof of a hotel in Virginia. The flag was so large that it could be seen from the White House.

News of the shooting traveled quickly back to Washington. Holmes offered his services to Ellsworth’s family, and the captain’s embalmed body was taken to the White House, where it lay in state in the East Room for several days. Afterwards, his preserved remains were taken to New York City, where thousands lined up to view the funeral cortege. Along the route, a group of mourners displayed a banner that declared: “Ellsworth, ‘His blood cries for vengeance.’” [1]

Lincoln was so impressed with Holmes’s work that he asked the surgeon to train others so that Union soldiers killed-in-action could be safely preserved and sent back home to their grieving families. Setting up battlefield embalming sheds (right), Holmes trained numerous surgeons in his new technique, and then sold them his “safe” embalming solution for $3 per bottle. Soon, embalmers were pitching tents close to the front, and performing demonstrations of their methods for soldiers, who were then offered a chance to pre-pay to have their own bodies embalmed should they die in forthcoming battles.

The procedure was relatively simple. Embalmers rarely needed to drain blood from the battered bodies of dead soldiers since most of them bled out when injured in battle. By squeezing a rubber ball attached to a tube, surgeons pumped the corpses full of embalming fluid, typically via an artery located in the armpit. The bodies were then placed in zinc-lined coffins (to prevent further decay), with the names of the deceased and their parents prominently displayed on the lid. [2]

While embalmers offered families a chance to reclaim the bodies of their fallen fathers, sons, uncles and brothers, the public in general grew increasingly uncomfortable with the “commodification of the dead.” [3] Speaking to a Yankee reporter, one embalmer remarked:

I would be glad to prepare private soldiers. They were wurth [sic] a five dollar bill apiece. But Lord bless you, a colonel pays a hundred, and a brigadier-general pays two hundred. There’s lots of them now, and I have cut the acquaintance of everything below a major. I might, as a great favor, do a captain, but he must pay a major’s price. I insist upon that! Such windfalls don’t come everyday. There won’t be another such killing for a century. [4]

The high prices weren’t the only problem.

Because of the lack of federal regulations governing embalmers, there were several cases of fraud and attempted extortion. For instance, in 1864, Timothy Dwight of New York made an official complaint against Dr Richard Burr (below), a prominent Washington embalmer, claiming that Burr tried to extort money from him by holding his son’s body to ransom. Allegedly, Burr took possession of Dwight’s son after he died in battle. Without the family’s permission, Burr embalmed the body and brought it back to Washington, where he then contacted Mr. Dwight, demanding $100 for its release. [5]

Dwight wasn’t the only person to complain about the nefarious actions of this new breed of funeral professional. On 9 January 1865, General Ulysses Grant responded to the chorus of grievances by withdrawing all embalmers’ permits and ordering them beyond the lines. In March 1865, the War Department issued General Order Number 39, entitled “Order Concerning Embalmers,” which allowed practitioners to act only under a special license, and made provisions for regulating prices. But by then, the war was nearly over.

Holmes’s continued to offer his services till the bitter end. By the time General Lee surrendered at Appomattox on 9 April 1865, the surgeon had embalmed approximately 4,000 soldiers. The war—or more accurately, the terrible death toll of the war—had made Thomas Holmes a very rich and famous man.

Ironically, before his death in 1900, Holmes requested that his own body would not be embalmed.

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1. Owen Edwards, “The Death of Colonel Ellsworth,” Smithsonian Magazine (April 2011).
2. Kimberly Largent-Christopher, “Embalming Comes in Vogue During Civil War,” The Washington Times (April 2009).
3. Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008), p. 96. I’m hugely indebted to Faust for information found in this article, and highly recommend her book to anyone seeking further reading on this subject.
4. George A. Townsend, Rustics in Rebellion: A Yankee Reporter on the Road in Richmond, 1861-1865 (1950), pp. 121-22. Qtd in Faust, This Republic of Suffering, p. 96.
5. Faust, This Republic of Suffering, p. 96.