Sonoma County Supervisors could not believe the offer: An undertaker submitted a bid to bury the indigent dead for just one cent each. Included in the price was a redwood coffin with lid, cloth lined and bottom padded. With pillow. They would even dig the grave and see that is was “properly filled in” (thank goodness) and paint a wooden marker. Our thrifty supervisors in 1912 did not hesitate to accept the bid.
(RIGHT: Broken grave marker in the Moke section of the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery, 2015)
The Press Democrat remarked one of the courthouse reporters had heard of a similar bargain burial rate in Denver, but that was apparently wrong – it was in Phoenix. A year before their board of supervisors opened bids to find one undertaker proposing to do the job for 14 cents and another bidding a penny – but even that was underbid by the Arizona Casket Company’s offer to bury the indigent dead for $.001 each. “The board generally likes to receive low bids for county work, but these, or the most of them, were too low and the bid of the Arizona Casket Company was, beside, embarrassing,” remarked the Arizona Republic. “How to make payment might become confusing. If the bidder should bury less than ten subjects in a quarter there would be no coin denomination of money with which to make payment.”
The penny price was a canny bet by the Lafferty & Smith funeral home in Santa Rosa. First, it applied only to those who died at the county hospital; if the dead person was elsewhere in Santa Rosa township they could bill 75¢. Judging by their previous contracts with the county and their competitor’s bid, the break-even cost for providing such a service was around $3.00 per body. Aside from the coffin – and redwood was then the cheapest wood available – the only real expense was the grave digging, and in 1912 simple manual labor like that paid only about a dollar a day. Nor were there a lot of dying indigents; that year only thirty went to the county cemetery on Chanate Road and some of those undoubtedly came from outside Santa Rosa, which a competitor handled for a higher price. So Lafferty & Smith didn’t risk losing a pile of money on their lowball bid.
And if they could locate a relative, they just might find someone willing to pay full price for a proper funeral and reburial of poor ol’ Uncle Joe. “It is well known that if not infrequently happens that an indigent dies with some well to do relatives or friends who are willing to pay the expense of a more costly funeral,” the PD observed in the same article.
We can’t be sure how often that happened, but there was an example just a few months earlier when members of a “distinguished Southern family” had Lafferty & Smith exhume a murder victim and replant him in the Odd Fellows’ cemetery. They even reunited the man’s head with his body, the skull having been used as an exhibit at the trial. That was a nice touch.
Lafferty & Smith might not have tried the discount gambit if not for another reason: There was a formidable new competitor in town. The Welti brothers brought along two decades of experience with Halsted & Company, one of San Francisco’s top funeral homes. And not insignificantly, as the PD noted, they were “in touch with the latest and most approved methods known to the profession.” Those up-to-date methods probably included the recipe for Halsted’s embalming fluid (see sidebar).
Undertaking was nearly entirely unregulated at the turn of the century; only eight states can be found that even required someone to have a license. Over the next two decades cities and states gradually passed requirements for a diploma, passing an examination or having years of apprenticeship in order to be trusted with handling the dead, particularly when it came to the dark art of embalming.
Even less controlled were the chemicals pumped into the bodies, which regularly killed embalmers handling the dangerous fluids. Arsenic and mercury had been primary ingredients since the Civil War and most undertakers probably had their own “secret sauce” mixing those with other ingredients such as aluminum, copper and zinc. Formulas could be found in every pharmacist’s manual and even in cookbooks and household references.
By the early 1910s seven states prohibited arsenic-based embalming fluid (California required any formula be approved by the state board of health, but did not ban arsenic outright until 1939). Commercial products using formaldehyde, such as the one shown here in a 1912 ad, became available but many funeral homes and hospitals continued to whip up their own, presumably both for cost savings and preference. It’s easy to find newspaper stories through the end of the 1910s about undertakers caught using homebrew embalming fluid, sometimes discovered when suspected poison cases had to be dismissed because the exhumed corpus delecti was contaminated with so much arsenic as to be corpus arsenicum. One formula called for 12 pounds of arsenic per body.
It goes without saying that loading up a dead body with lots of heavy metals and then shoving it deep underground is not environmentally sound, and it was known shortly after the Civil War that cemeteries were public health hazards, often with tons of poisonous materials leaching out of the coffins and contaminating groundwater. (More information here, although some of the regulatory details are wrong.) But short of digging up all the historic cemeteries, there’s nothing to be done now.
Frank and Charles Welti were not elbowing their way into Santa Rosa’s undertaking trade; they bought a well-established business from H. H. Moke, Longtime readers of this journal have bumped into Mr. Moke many times handling the funerals of some of those profiled here, as well as dealing with his own tragedy. On the morning of the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake he lived with his family above the funeral parlor at 418 Fourth st, where his wife, 10 year-old daughter and sister-in-law were killed, presumably when the next door Haven Hardware store exploded, demolishing much of the block between B and A streets. He remarried a year later, his new bride also an undertaker.
The funeral home was rebuilt at the same location, but not before the couple had one of the oddest experiences in Santa Rosa history. On July 4, 1908 Mr. and Mrs. Moke were apparently entertaining friends at their temporary location on Third street when an exhibition parachutist, jumping from a hot air balloon, drifted off course and smashed into the skylight above them, raining broken glass on the frightened undertakers. “I’m not a dead one just yet,” quipped the jumper once he realized the nature of his landing spot.
With the sale of his business to the Welti brothers, Henry Herbert Moke apparently retired (the newspapers called him Herbert but he used his first name in the city directories, which is a bit unusual). Although he was only 41, he started learning the undertaking trade when he was thirteen and bought the business twenty years later. Besides money from selling the funeral parlor, Naomi Moke had recently won her lawsuit against an insurance company over the destruction of her late father’s drug store in the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake. The Mokes also had real estate; if you live on the north side of Benton street between Glenn and Morgan, it was once his property. Henry stayed busy with his many club memberships and Naomi became president of the Woman’s Improvement Club, the most important civic organization in town.
Remaining behind to work with the Welti brothers was John P. Stanley, 76 years old when the business changed hands in 1911. Not much was known about him personally until a little 1913 article about his new house in Sebastopol appeared in the Santa Rosa Republican. It seems Mr. Stanley was an art and antique collector, designing his bungalow to best show off his stuff.
Moke and Stanley are storied names to anyone interested in the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery – which is probably damn near everyone who reads this blog. Stanley bought over five acres (the entire east side) from the Fulkerson family in 1884. Except for a teardrop-shaped section in the northeast which was occupied, he sold the rest in 1907 to his employer, Moke. (A map showing these sections is on the kiosks found at both entrances to the cemetery.) When Moke signed over the cemetery land to the Weltis most of it was still available, Moke having sold only about fifty lots. In 1944 Frank Welti sold those “three acres, more or less” to the county for the new Indigent Cemetery, even though it was unimproved lowlands next to Poppy Creek and prone to flooding.
Rural Cemetery aficionados know its Twentieth Century history is mostly unhappy. The place was increasingly neglected as no one, including the city or county, took any responsibility for maintenance. By midcentury the place was so overgrown it was considered a serious fire hazard and the county did a 1951 controlled burn that turned out to be not-so controlled, destroying irreplaceable wooden markers.
(LEFT: The newly uncovered tombstone of William Fowzer)
Tombstones lost to fire, vandalism and accident are just part of the old cemetery’s woes. Moke and his predecessors didn’t keep track of who was buried where; historic maps used by the undertakers only marked which lots were available to sell. Since then there have been efforts to assemble a list of all burials with mixed results.
Last summer a group did a pilot survey using a small portion of a map drawn by a volunteer in the 1960s, presumably from his own observations and historical records research. Of the approx. 110 names shown on that section of the map, we could find no markers for 21 of them. That’s an unacceptable failure record of 23 percent.
Those 21 grave markers might have disappeared in the last half century but it’s more likely many were never there at all – it’s not terribly unusual for someone to purchase a cemetery plot and not use it. Or maybe some of the tombstones are still there but long buried themselves. Just last month (Sept. 2015) volunteers removing the ivy and weeds in the back corner found three long-forgotten gravesites from the Moke and Welti eras including the fallen tombstone of William Fowzer, a Civil War Union soldier who was at the battles of the Wilderness, Williamsburg, Antietam and Gettysburg. The old graveyard still has many secrets to yield.
The good news is that the Rural Cemetery is probably now in its best shape ever – thanks to Bill Montgomery and a crew of volunteers (whom you are WELCOME TO JOIN, on the third Saturday of every month at 9AM). And in 2017, a comprehensive directory will be published listing every known burial. Archivists Sandy Frary and Ray Owen currently have compiled over 5,200 names – including 178 who were previously unknown – using primary sources such as obituaries, Coroner’s Death Records and discovered tombstones viz. Pvt. Fowzer. About the same number have been removed because they were listed in error or the person found to be actually buried elsewhere. For many the listing will include details on how they lived and died, and the book will even include the 350 long-forgotten souls down in the floodplain. Once finished, it will be the most important reference book on Santa Rosa ever written. I cannot wait.
WILL BURY THE INDIGENT DEAD FOR ONE CENT EACHSurprisingly Low Competitive Bid of Lafferty & Smith Is Accepted by the Board of Supervisors Here Monday
For one cent each Lafferty & Smith, the local undertakers, have contracted to bury the indigent dead who die at the county hospital and farm.
The bids for the burials were opened on Monday by the Board of Supervisors. When Clerk Felt broke the seal of the envelope and read the bid offering to provide the casket, etc., for one cent, there was a look of surprise. But Dan H. Lafferty of the firm offering to do this, was on hand, and there was no mistake.
For the one cent the firm agrees to provide a clear redwood coffin, planed on both sides; with lid; two coats of a dark color stain; interior of casket lined with mhite muslin, bottom padded and with pillow. They will also place a headboard painted and lettered over the grave. The grave in the county cemetery will also be dug, five feet deep, and properly filled in.
The city of Denver and the county of Sonoma are the only places in the United States where they have burials that cost one cent. In Denver the one cent bid came as the result of the liveliest competitive bidding. The undertaking firm, like Lafferty & Smith here, give a bond for the faithful carrying out of their contract.
For several years Lafferty & Smith have had the contract for indigent burials, the last bid being for $2.85 each. Yesterday they also put in a bid for the burial of the indigent dead outside of the county hospital and farm in Santa Rosa township for seventy-five cents each. This bid was also accepted.
The next lowest bidder, Welti Brothers, also of this city, offered to bury the indigent dead at the county hospital and Santa Rosa township for $3 each. Their bid for the burial of indigents in other parts of the county was $15. The firm of Lafferty & Smith did not bid on this business and Welti Brothers’ bid of $15 was accepted.
“The contract to bury the dead at one cent will be carried out to the letter, and each will be given a decent burial just as our bid reads. We bid knowing that we were bidding in competition, that is all,” said Dan H. Lafferty Monday evening.
It is well known that if not infrequently happens that an indigent dies with some well to do relatives or friends who are willing to pay the expense of a more costly funeral than the county allows. In consequence on such occasion the firm is able to make up for the small remuneration their usually low bid offers. It can readily be seen that the question of profit as represented by the figures of Lafferty & Smith’s bid has no mention.
The one cent bid give a surprise in Court House circles onn Monday. Among the most surprise were the newspaper men present, one of whom had heard of the one cent bid accepted in Denver. And with it all comes the assurance that there will be the same care and attention the firm has given the indigent burials of the past.– Press Democrat, July 9, 1912BODY OF CHISHOLM’S VICTIM TAKEN FROM POTTER’S FIELD
From an unhonored grave in the Potter’s field the remains of Van Lear Kirkman Droulliard, the man of distinguished Southern family who was cruelly murdered by L. C. Chisolm in a lonely tent on the ocean front near Fort Ross, have been exhumed and are now resting in a tomb in Odd Fellows’ cemetery. The last resting is also marked with a monument.
Prior to their reinterment, the remains to which was added the skull of the dead man exhibited as mute evidence at the trial of his slayer in the Superior Court of this county, were enclosed in an expensive casket.
The devotion of the heartbroken widow provided the means whereby the body was taken from the county cemetery and given decent burial. Mrs. Droulliard at first contemplated coming to Santa Rosa to look after the disposition of her husband’s body. She was prevented from doing so, and intrusted [sic] the mission to Lafferty & Smith, the local undertakers. They carried out all her wishes in the matter. The body was exhumed several days ago, and reinterred as stated in Odd Fellows’ cemetery.
[..]– Press Democrat, October 15, 1911MOKE & WARD HAVE DISSOLVEDBusiness Will be Continued by Mr. Moke in Future
H. H. Moke and W. B. Ward, who have been conducting the well known undertaking establishment on Fourth street under the firm name of Moke & Ward, have dissolved partnership, and in the future Mr. Moke will be the sole proprietor. Mr. Ward has not yet decided just what he wil do, but will still continue to make his home here.– Santa Rosa Republican, September 20, 1910HERBERT MOKE SELLS BUSINESSFrank and Charles Welti Succeed to Same
H. Herbert Moke, who has been in business here for many years, disposed of his business on Wednesday to Messrs. Frank Welti and Charles Welti. The gentlemen will take charge of the business on Thursday and will become permanent residents of the City of Roses. For some time past the Messrs. Welti have been desirous of coming to Santa Rosa, believing it to be the best city on the entire coast, and they wished to secure a location where they could have the advantages of good climate and be prepared to enjoy life.
Both of the gentlemen who have succeeded to Mr. Moke’s business are experienced undertakers, and they will conduct the business along the modern and approved lines which Mr. Moke has maintained. Mr. Frank Welti will remain here in active charge of the business, and his brother, Charles Welti, will remain for a brief time in Napa. Frank Welti has been with the Halsted Undertaking parlors in San Francisco for a number of years, and has been engaged in the undertaking business for the past twenty years. He is an expert in his line, and his association with the Halsteds, the leading parlors of San Francisco, has kept him in touch with the latest and most approved methods known to the profession. The wife of Frank Welti will be the lady attendant at the parlors. Charles Welti will be here from Napa on Thursday for a brief visit, and he and his wife will become permanent residents of this city just as soon as they can dispose of business and personal interests in Napa city and county.
Both of the gentlemen come highly recommended and are of the genial disposition that makes hosts of friends. J. P. Stanley, who has been with the Moke undertaking establishment for many years past, will continue with the new firm as will also Carroll W. Baker, who has been here for a number of years with Mr. Moke. With these two gentlemen remaining, the new firm has a strong team.– Santa Rosa Republican, November 1, 1911WILL OCCUPY NEW BUNGALOWMr. Stanley Moves into Cozy Sebastopol Home
Friday J. P. Stanley moved to his new bungalow at Sebastopol. For some time past it has been under construction, and was completed several months ago, but he did not want to move during the rainy season. Now that it is real summer he will make his home there, going back and forth every day to be at his work with Welti Brothers.
It is a cozy home, planned by himself, and his ideas were carried out in every respect. There is one large living room, arranged specially for his art treasures, and those who know him are aware he has a collection well worth seeing. They have all been collected since the fire. At that time he had many treasures, but lost all. Together with his paintings, he has numerous pieces of antique furniture and bric-a-brac, which will be displayed to advantage.
Mr. Stanley wishes it announced that he has not in any way severed his connection with Welti Bros. but will be found there as usual.– Santa Rosa Republican, June 27, 1913