January 15, 1908: Challenges of the Aftermath: Finding Morgues and Undertakers, Identifying Bodies for Burials


By Margaret Leidy Harner from her book One Day at a Time: A Social History of Boyertown, PA.

January 15, 1908: Temporary morgues have been established at the business places of the three undertakers in Boyertown, James J. Brown, Harrison Houck and James Brumbach, all on East Philadelphia Avenue. With 170 cadavers to prepare, more help was desperately needed. Coroner Strasser wired Reading and Pottstown, asking for assistance and dozens responded. It was reported that 55 volunteer undertakers prepared the corpses, working non-stop.

When the three undertakers’ morgues were filled, Washington School was opened to hold the overflow. The bodies were placed on boards laid across the desks in the four first floor classrooms, each one described on the blackboard.

Using embalming to preserve a corpse was a relatively new technique in Boyertown and it was tremendously important after the Opera House fire, when the meticulous process of identification prohibited quick burial.

They were completely wrapped in cotton sheets, tightly tied with string and numbered. Any clothing or possessions were given the same number and bagged, placed on the floor with their owner. It was those possessions, a scrap of fabric, a piece of jewelry, garter, a fur cape, shoes, keys, etc. that provided the identification. By 3 AM Wednesday, all were embalmed and prepared.

It was not until 10 AM that relatives were allowed into the morgues and only four at a time, keeping people waiting for hours in some cases. The coroner had set up an identification process that was rigorously followed, to the great frustration of the families who were eager to retrieve their loved ones and quite upset with the delay. After a body was identified, the coroner issued the death certificate. Burials began the next day. Twenty-five victims were never identified.

In preparing the bodies, it was believed that a female was dressed in male’s clothing. This created a sensation in all the newspapers, until several days later when she was identified as Rosa Diamond, a 14i-year-old girl who had definitely attended the show dressed in her own female clothing. Her parents recognized her jewelry. It was then supposed that the clothing of a man’s body piled on top of her had been fused to her clothing in the intense heat.

Another female corpse had already been identified as Rosa and buried in Philadelphia, so she had to be disinterred and returned to Boyertown before the Coroner would release Rosa’s body. 

Undertaker Houck had the heavy burden of looking for the charred remains of his missing son Russell, age 9, whom he finally recognized by the suit he had been wearing, which his mother had just made for him. Houck prepared 13 cadavers for burial, including his son’s. He was 72 years old at the time of the fire.

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