Today I’m opening up a new section to Bookishness and Other Beauties. “Can These Bones Live?” will be a place for remembrances of faded photographs and crumbling stones; to speculate on those secrets that inch ever closer to unknowable as the years grow long; to muse about the nature of legacies.
This first story comes with a content warning. Sensitive readers, once you know, you can’t ever unknow.
This is a story about the creepiest moment I ever spent in a graveyard.
My great-great-great grandmother had a brother named George Isaman, described as “a large, muscular, good-looking young man, with a broad, intelligent forehead.” On September 4, 1885, when he was twenty-three years old, he and his sixteen year old cousin Melvin Youngs were struck by lightning in a barn in Hinsdale, New York.
The September 10, 1885 edition of The Olean Democrat (Ancestry.com subscription access required) gives the story of “Two Young Men Killed” under a prettily phrased sub-headline, notable for its breathtaking disregard for the bereaved families: “Sent to Eternity in the Twinkling of an Eye.”
The article explains that George and Melvin, along with another fellow named John Flynn, were working at the farm of George Besucker, preparing the threshing machine for its first use of the season. By noon, the men were finishing up their task. They drove the separator into the barn and stabled and fed the horses. Just about then a severe thunderstorm blew in and it began to rain. The young men leaned about the barn resting while Mr. Besucker went to check on lunch.
The article reports:
At about fifteen minutes past twelve there was a vivid flash of lightning, followed by a deafening crash of thunder. This was the fatal bolt that so suddenly sent to eternity [without] pain and without warning, two of this group of three young men, just in the exuberance of life.
The lightning struck the west gable end of the barn at the roof, and apparently followed the rafters of the roof in both directions. The bolt then followed a post down the side. Against this post stood [Isaman], who sank down on the floor, dead. The bolt also passed down the corner post, against which Youngs was leaning, and he fell back upon the stable floor, also dead. Then it passed into the ground through a piece of steel shafting which was leaning against the outside of the barn. The ground was torn up to a depth of ten inches at the foot of this steel bar. Flynn was knocked over upon the stable floor, dazed and partially senseless. He came to very quickly.
Mr. Besucker sent for Coroner Bascom and undertakers Sigel and Sturm of Olean. Bascom determined that an inquest would not be necessary. Sigel removed the bodies to the home of my great-great-great-great grandfather, George Isaman Sr., who lived toward Hinsdale in a spot called Woodchuck Hollow, where they held the funeral two days later.
On the same page of the newspaper in a follow-up article printed just below this report, a tragic story turns macabre. The secondary headline reads: “Afraid of Burying Him Alive.”
Friends of George Isaman requested that Undertaker Sigel hold up the burial for a doctor to examine his body. The article states:
“It appears that somebody had imagined, while the corpse was on view at the church, that they had seen the lips move. This coupled with the fact that beads of perspiration stood upon the forehead of the remains led some to believe that the body was yet alive.”
Mr. Sigel agreed and allowed the coffin to be opened even as it rested on the cross pieces over the grave, and it was left so for almost an hour. However, no doctor came, and no further movements were seen, and since the undertaker explained:
“… that perspiration upon the face of a corpse was a common thing, and that even there might have been a slight twitching of the lips without indicating life, the remains were lowered into the grave, and the coffin covered with earth.”
My first reaction, upon discovering this disturbing pair of news items, was to Google the question, “Can corpses sweat?” I thought I might learn of some medical oddity to set my mind at ease, but if there is any such oddity, I didn’t find it. I only hope that George Isaman never woke up.
I knew about this story when I visited the Hinsdale Cemetery (also known as the Maplehurst Cemetery) in 2009. I have quite a few ancestors buried there, so I worked my way through, starting in the back and working my way forward. I found the Isaman plot with relative ease. I saw the graves of George Isaman Sr. and his wife Sarah. Beside them, I found a rectangle stone lying face down in the dewy grass.
Since I’d seen what I came to see, I worked my way toward the gate. As I walked, I saw many broken and toppled graves in the older section of the cemetery. I thought how in a small town like Hinsdale, one undertaker might have served a whole generation, and I tried not to notice that at Maplehurst, gravestones lying face down on the ground are a common thing.