Friday, February 7, 2020

You Can Take It With You - When Its Coffin Furniture

By Joy Neighbors
Furniture designed from caskets? Yes, it is a uniquely narrow niche but there are several furniture makers out there who are deadly serious about these grave designs.

One of the top suggestions for casket furniture is using your (some day to be) casket as your bed. The people who do this are converts and swear that they rest  …well, in peace. With no light filtering in and an air vent near the head, you can sink into a deep slumber any time of day or night.

A coffin as a coffee table is another option for those who want to get the most out of their money. Fill it with blankets and pillows for cozy movie watching. And never mind the butter stains on top from all of that movie-style popcorn. That’s just happy memories that you can take with you.

a Deadly Desk
The main buyers of coffins for furniture are Baby Boomers. Here’s a chance to shop for what you want - get the wood type, color and lining - and then plan on using it for years. That takes the final price down to pennies a day. That’s one thing casket makers don’t usually tout – ordering your casket and not being in a hurry to get it might help get the price down.

Other uses for coffins include building them into a window seat, a display case or bookcase. (Maybe for those true crime tomes.) 

How about an entire kitchen with a coffin theme?  Here are  coffin-shaped kitchen cabinets with enclosures for the microwave and fridge. Cute and saucy in a fun way.

Or you could relax on a couch coffin complete with a coffin coffee table and end tables to match.

There are even casket pool tables and death desks. The ideas are endless.

There are dealers on the Internet that offer coffin furniture. Check out Etsy for great pieces and smaller accent items. But there's also a possibility that someone in your area makes coffins and would entertain the idea of  "branch out."

A Bat Purse offers ten ideas for coffin furniture. And The Coffin Gallery at shows several pieces of furniture that just might be what you’re looking for. Bryan, owner of this site, is a professional cabinet maker who creates coffin furniture, jewelry, purses and storage boxes. And, yes, actual coffins for burial.
If you’re more of a DIYer, visit for a cool looking casket coffee table. It may not be considered furniture for the masses, but who says you can't use it now and take it with you?

(Photos from  and

Friday, January 31, 2020

Who Was Guy Fawkes?

By Joy Neighbors

Guy Fawkes Day is celebrated every November 5th throughout the United Kingdom to commemorate the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

Guy Fawkes was a member of the “Gunpowder Plot” – a group of Roman Catholic conspirators who plotted to blow up the House of Parliament in retaliation for Protestant King James’ refusal to allow religious tolerance.

King James 1
Thirteen men were in on the plot to kill King James and the attending members of Parliament. They hoped to reestablish Catholic rule in England by replacing him with his daughter Princess Elizabeth – third in line of succession.

The Eight Men Tried and Convicted
Someone betrayed the men and Guy Fawkes was discovered in the cellar with 36 barrels of explosives, ready to light the fuses. Fawkes was arrested and tortured to give up the names of his co-conspirators. He refused to name names but did confess that he was in on the plot. Fawkes was tried along with the others.  The jury found all guilty of high treason. And the punishment was severe.

Execution Day - January 31, 1606
During the sentencing, Attorney General Sir Edward Coke informed the court that each condemned man would be drawn backwards by a horse to his death with his head near the ground. Each would be hung slowly as their genitals were cut off and burnt before their eyes before their bowels and hearts were removed. Each body would then be decapitated and the dismembered parts displayed throughout the kingdom as a lesson to others.

Guy Fawkes was indeed executed on January 31, 1606, the last of the men that were convicted, but not he did not die in the manner prescribed by Coke. It is unknown if Fawkes jumped to his death or was aided by the hangman but he was decidedly dead before his body was mutilated.

That same year, Parliament declared November 5th a day of thanksgiving and celebration. Today, celebrations still held in the United Kingdom with parades and feasts. Bonfires are lit and effigies of Fawkes are thrown on to burn. Fireworks are also incorporated in the celebration as a reminder of the gunpowder that was never used by the potential arsonists.

A rhyme from the 18th century encapsulates the Gunpowder Plot:

“Remember, remember, the fifth of November
Gunpowder treason and plot
We see no reason
Why Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot….
’Remember, remember the fifth of November.’”

Friday, January 24, 2020

Carved Ivory Manikins – Mysterious Medical Marvels

By Joy Neighbors

Long before Burke and Hare’s body snatching business or resurrectionists began stealing bodies from the graveyard, medical doctors in the 17th century had an intriguing way to see inside the body using small anatomical sculptures carved from ivory.

These tiny manikins are believed to have been carved in German during the 1600s. Each is a reclining figure between 4 to 8-inches long with removable abdominal walls and internal organs. Most manikins are of the female body, which could have assisted in the explanation of pregnancy and childbirth. Use of the manikins waned in the 18th century and was replaced with wax models and cadavers. Over time, these once state-of-the-art medical images became rather bizarre trinkets and collectors items for the rich.

Little has been known of their origins until recently when researchers using micro-CT identified that the material used was ivory. Before the tests it was thought they might have been carved fro a combination of wale bone, deer antler and ivory.

Today, the largest collection of ivory manikins can be found at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina where 22 of 180 known manikins are kept. Purchased by Duke thoracic surgeon Josiah Trent and his wife in the 1930s and 40’s – years before the ivory ban of 1989 went into effect – the fragile artifacts have been stored in the library’s vault.

The manikins are extremely life-like and hinged, which would have made them beneficial in the study of various diseases during the late 1700s.

Not only are the manikins a look into the medical practices of the 17th century, but today the ivory dolls are also viewed as artistic creations.

Other locations for the rare manikins are The New York Academy of Medicine Library, which is home to seven manikins, including a rare male and female pair. And at least one female manikin from the Special Collections and Rare Books at the University of Missouri Libraries.

(Photos from Special Collections and Rare Books, University of Missouri Libraries)

Friday, January 17, 2020

Juliette Gordon Low – Founder of the Girl Scouts

This year celebrates the 100th anniversary of women being granted the right to vote. During the year, we will explore the lives and deaths of some of the more well known women in American history.
By Joy Neighbors

Juliette Gordon Low

It was summer in England in 1911 when Juliette Gordon Low joined the Girl Guide movement. The group was based loosely on British general Robert Baden-Powell’s Boy Scout troupes. At the time, the Boy Scouts had more than 40,000 members in England and the U.S. Later that year, Low organized a girls group in Scotland in a similar vein and called it the Girl Guides Patrol. Members were taught how to spin wool, care for livestock, and read a map. Girls also learned how to do drills and how to set up a camp. By the end of the year, Low had formed two more groups in England.

When Low returned to the United States in 1912, she decided to form a U.S. Girl Guide troupe in Savannah, Georgia. With 18 members, she searched for ways to teach girls practical skills and independence. Low felt this would be an organization that would help girls build character and self-reliance.

There was competition in the form of the Campfire Girls. When Low invited the group to merge with her own, the leader, James E. West refused citing the Girl Scouts were teaching females to do gender-inappropriate things.

In 1913, the Girl Guides became the Girl Scouts. In 1915, official paperwork was filed and the name legally became Girl Scouts, Inc. Low served as the first president to a group of more than 2,400 girls.

By 1920, Low had stepped down as president of the Girl Scouts so she could continue working to get the group worldwide status. Low worked tirelessly to make the Girl Scouts an organization that promoted a girl’s self image and gave her the skills necessary to succeed in life.

In 1923, Low was diagnosed with breast cancer but kept it a secret. She tried numerous treatments and had several operations but all were unsuccessful.

Juliette Gordon Low died on January 17, 1927 in Savannah from the final stages of breast cancer. She was 66-years-old. Her casket was escorted to the church and graveyard by an honor guard of Girl Scouts. She was buried in her Girl Scout uniform with a note tucked into her pocket that read, “You are not only the first Girl Scout, but the best Girl Scout of them all.

In 1979, Juliette Gordon Low was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. 

On May 29, 2012, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Girl Scouts, Low was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama for her “remarkable vision.” The medal also celebrates “her dedication to empowering girls everywhere.”

Peak membership in the Girl Scouts was recorded at 3.8 million in 2003. Today the number is roughly 2.6 million.


Friday, January 10, 2020

The Children’s Blizzard of 1888

By Joy Neighbors

It began on the wintry Thursday afternoon of January 12, 1888 in the Great Plains. For the past several days the weather had been snowy with brutally cold temperatures but it appeared a reprieve had been granted.  Temperatures were on the rise. Just a few hours out in the warmer weather would be a welcome relief before the next storm was due to hit later that day.

According to the Weather Bureau forecast that day. "A cold wave is indicated for Dakota and Nebraska tonight and tomorrow; the snow will drift heavily today and tomorrow in Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin.” Today, forecasters would call this the start of an Alberta Clipper.

Children had walked to school in the warmer weather and farmers took to the fields to see what damage the last storm had done. But by mid-morning, the snow began to fall again in the Dakotas. By noon, another storm had rushed in and temperatures had fallen so fast many teachers had already used up their allotment of wood for the day. With a blinding blizzard there was no way to get more. Desks and chairs were tossed on the fire in an attempt to keep frostbite at bay until help could arrive - and no one knew how long that would be.

In Minnesota, temperatures were just above freezing early that afternoon and many stepped out to enjoy the welcomed break. Around 3:00 clouds began furiously rolling in to the area and the wind increased quickly. By 3:30 one of the worst blizzards on record was already loose upon the state. The somewhat balmy afternoon had turned deadly cold with temps plummeting 50 to 60 degrees in a just minutes. They now registered in the negative 40s and 50s.

When teachers realized the severity of the situation, most kept children in the classrooms and schoolhouses. Those who had already ventured out were facing dire consequences.  The children in Nebraska and South Dakota fared the worst with an official death toll of 235 people – mostly children caught out in the storm who froze to death. Some reports said the number killed was closer to 500 people considering some folks in the country were not missed until the spring, and some bodies were not discovered until later in the year when all of the snow had melted. Not only was the human death toll high, the toll on livestock caught out in the storm was also extensive.

The storm took down Western Union telegraph lines, which stopped warnings from reaching other states in the path of the storm. Trains were stopped where they stood.  In the nine states and territories including Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, and Iowa, it was one of the worst winter storms to ever hit that area.

The weather the next day dawned clear and cold with snow drifts up to five feet tall and 30 feet wide in some places. The Children’s Blizzard was the tail end of six years of extreme weather for the region, which began in 1882. Forecasters had dubbed the freak weather, “The Little Ice Age.”

Friday, January 3, 2020

Four Great Genealogy Conferences to Attend in 2020

By Joy Neighbors

If your New Year's resolution is to attend more conferences and seminars this year; congratulations, that's a perfect way to make connections and stay up on what's happening in the world of genealogy. If you’re searching for genealogy conferences with the most bang for the buck, here are four recommendations to consider.

February 26-29, 2020

Let’s start with the largest genealogy conference in the world held right here in the U.S. Each year, Rootstech has a theme and this year will be about The Story of You. Celebrating its tenth anniversary, RootsTech offers an amazing line-up of presentations, events and technology. And this is one conference that’s aimed at you, regardless of if you’re new to genealogy, have some experience, or if you're a certified genealogist. There’s something for everyone with more than 300 breakout sessions, gala events and a Family Discovery Day on Saturday, February 29th.

If you’re searching for the latest, greatest technology in the genealogy world, this is your go-to place. Take time to wander the Exhibit Hall and get your questions answered by experts in the field.

One thing to note: Get your lodging reservations in soon. Some attendees reup their rooms from one conference to the next; so don’t wait to book a room. Salt Lake City is easy to get around in and with Uber and Lyft available, travel time is minimal to and from the Salt Lake Palace.

(Full disclosure, I will be speaking twice at RootsTech. One session is about Forgotten Records of Death, and the second is a one-woman performance on The Victorian Celebration of Death.) 

April 29 – May 2, 2020
This is another conference I have had the pleasure of speaking at and it is always educational, and delightful. This year’s theme is Unlocking the Pieces. Although as a state conference it is somewhat Ohio-centric, speakers and presenters cover a wide range of materials that appeal to the genealogist in all of us including national law in regard to genealogy, tracing African American ancestors and record analysis.

The OGS website offers attendees the chance to filter presentations by day, track or speakers so you can always be up-to-date on what is happening during the conference.

A member of the National Genealogical Society, the Ohio conference will be held at the Kalahari Resorts and Convention Center in Sandusky, Ohio. This is a family-friendly location with the Midwest’s largest indoor water park. There are plenty of restaurants and shops to explore between sessions without ever leaving the resort.

May 20 – 23, 2020
National Genealogical Society’s (NGS) Family History Conference is about Echoes of Our Ancestors. This conference is held around the country but this year it will also be in Salt Lake City, just one block from the Family History Library.

The NGS offers a fabulous opportunity to network with more than 2,0000 genealogists. Attendees have the chance to attend more than 150 presentations, many given by nationally recognized speakers. The Exhibit Hall offers a chance to discover the latest and greatest in the genealogy world from more than 80 exhibitors.

Salt Lake City is a friendly city with plenty of access to the other genealogy sites around town. Most downtown lodging is within an easy distance of public transportation, and for the hale and hearty, walking is always an option.

November 13-15, 2020
The Texas Genealogy Society will hold their 60th annual conference in November. Their theme is Remembering Your Heritage. More than 300 speakers will enlighten and encourage attendees in DNA technology, records and research, ethnic research topics and much more. 

Again, while Texas-centric in some sessions, this conference also offers topics that will resonate with everyone.

The conference will be held at the Omni Mandalay Hotel Las Colinas in Dallas.

Friday, August 30, 2019

The Mad Gasser of Mattoon

Mattoon Illinois in the 1940s
Small towns across the country have their share of odd stories and urban legends, and Mattoon Illinois is no exception.  Located in the central part of the Prairie State, Mattoon is bordered by a sea of corn on the north and timberlands to the south. But in the 1940s, it became known for its “Mad Gasser.”
"Anesthetic Prowler" on Loose
 It all began the night of Friday, September 1, 1944 when Aline Kearney and her three-year-old daughter Dorothy Ellen were awakened by a sickening sweet smell. When Mrs. Kearney tried to get out of bed to investigate, she discovered that her legs and lower body were paralyzed. When her husband returned home from work at midnight, he saw a man prowling around the house and gave chase. Mr. Kearney reported that the man was extremely thin and dressed all in black. The next day police said that apparently a burglar was attempting to anesthetize his intended victims before breaking into their homes. Two other homes had also reported similar incidents that night.
Mad Gasser of Mattoon
Another resident, Urban Raef reported the next day that he was awakened by an odd smell in his bedroom on the night of August 31. Raef woke his wife who thought that maybe the pilot light had malfunctioned on the gas stove. When she tried to get out of bed her legs would not move. Raef was unable to help her because he became physically sick. Both attributed their problems to the strong smell.
Each night more incidents occurred and the next morning the local paper carried more stories about the “Anesthetic Prowler,” later dubbed the “Mad Gasser of Mattoon.”
 By September 5th, evidence was supposedly found. A Mattoon woman discovered a piece of white cloth on her porch that had an odd odor and caused her mouth and nose to burn when she inhaled it. That same night, another resident reported that gas was blown into an open bedroom window awakening them.
The symptoms of the attack were always the same: vomiting, a burning sensation in the mouth and nose, lightheadedness, problems breathing, and temporary paralysis of the legs.
The following Wednesday, September 6, seven more families had been gassed. By September 10, another half dozen residents had experienced the Mad Gasser’s attacks. Officials said that by the description of the smell, they thought that ether or chloroform was being used.
Reports were now coming into police headquarters at a fast pace and local police had no ideas what was happening or how to stop it. Their only clues included the white cloth, cut window screens and a woman’s footprints found outside some of the windows. Roadblocks were set up and armed patrols scoured the neighborhoods where the attacks occurred. Vigilante groups took to the streets in search of the culprit but no one was ever caught.
Police were baffled and claimed the incidents were the result of mass hysteria caused by the original news reports. The police chief suggested that any gaseous fumes could be coming from the Atlas Imperial Diesel Engine Plant in the city. (However no employees of the plant reported any of these symptoms during this time.) Police, tiring of the media frenzy, threatened that they would start arresting anyone who reported a gassing and then refused to submit to a medical exam. Only one more report was filed.
The final call came on Wednesday night, September 13 when a woman told police that she had seen a female dressed in men’s clothing skulking outside her house. However, there was no report of any odors. 
In all more than two-dozen people reported being disabled by gaseous fumes sprayed into their homes within the two week period.
Was there really a “Mad Gasser” in Mattoon during the late summer of 1944? Or was the theory of mass hysteria correct? University of Illinois psychology student Donald M. Johnson published a paper in 1945 suggesting that since the incidents occurred during the war when the men were off fighting, it could have been caused by mass hysteria brought on by paranoia, fear and delusions.
Others pointed to local resident and university student Farley Lewellyn who was studying chemistry. Lwellyn had been shunned by the small community for the suspicion of being a homosexual. Many suggested that the attacks were based on his “mental instability and pent up anger.”
Another theory is that residents reading the war news from Europe may have thought that the Nazi’s were attempting a poisonous gas attack in the heart of the U.S. – an area that was supposedly safe from attack.
Botetourt County, Virginia
It is curious to note that similar events occurred in Botetourt County, Virginia from mid- December 1933 until February 3, 1934.  There too gas was used to immobilize residents and make them ill. Dubbed the “Anesthetic Prowler,” a man dressed in dark clothes was reported to have flooded several homes with an unknown gas that caused victims to choke, gag, experience weakness, headaches, dizziness and breathing problems. For unknown reasons, the gasser then moved to Roanoke County where the incidents continued from February 7 to February 12. Police received 19 calls within that six-day period, but again, no one was ever caught and the entire episode was listed as the result of mass hysteria. Was Mattoon's gasser a copycat?
To this day, no one has ever arrested for being the Mad Gasser. Who and what caused the illness of more than two dozen residents of Mattoon during those two weeks in early September 1944 remains unsolved.
~  Joy