Friday, July 3, 2020

Worth a Trip: The Geode Grotto

In the small Southern Indiana town of Jasper resides an oddity well worth the trip – a Geode Grotto. Geodes are hollow mineral “rocks" found in limestone and shale  that is abundant in the region. The inside of the somewhat round rock is filled with inward-projecting crystals in a range of colors from deep purples, to lavenders to yellows to rich golds.

Geode Walls
At mid-century, Father Phillip Ottavi, an Italian immigrant, wanted to build something spiritual on the former grounds of the Providence House handball courts. He was seeking to construct something unique; a grotto similar to the one in Lourdes, France, but built from geodes.

Mother of God Shrine
Geode Fountain
The grotto was constructed over a ten year period from 1960-1970 using geodes from around the region including Heltonville. The stones were placed in limestone and plaster to form geode paths, a fountain, planters, and archways containing the Stations of the Cross. At one end is a shrine to St. Joseph, and at the other The Mother of God Shrine. Father Philip worked every day for ten years to complete the massive undertaking. The result is a grotto that covers four city blocks.

If you’re looking for awe-inspiring sites that offer a chance to get out and about, The Geode Grotto of Jasper is perfect. It is located at 13th and Bartley Streets behind St. John’s Cathedral. And be sure to take a camera, it’s worth the trip!
~ Joy

Friday, June 26, 2020

That Final Ride: Hearses

Written by Joy Neighbors

Hearses have been used to carry bodies for centuries, but not necessarily the type of hearse you may be thinking of. Our first hearses were hand-carried wooden or metal frames that the coffin was placed in and carried to the grave.Then came rolling carts for easier transportation over a distance.

In the 19th century came horse-drawn hearses, which were used until the early 20th century. Horse-drawn carriages are still used today for pomp and circumstance when royalty or famous people die.

With the invention of the automobile came the motorized hearse – a vehicle that could transport the deceased to the cemetery in style. But there are several other modes of transportation used to transport the body of the deceased.

When someone dies, a “first call vehicle” is sent out to collect the body and deliver it to a funeral home. Many times, the funeral home has a basic van for this purpose. In larger cities, there are companies that operate first call vehicles for delivery to funeral homes thereby saving the hearse for the actual trip to the cemetery.

There was also a combination car, which operated as an ambulance and a hearse. (Think Ghostbusters.) These combos were popular mid-century but fell out of favor by the end of the 1970s when vehicles were downsized to compact cars.

Motorcycle hearses may be equipped with a specialized sidecar to carry the casket, or in a tricycle formation so the casket rides behind the bike.

Rail cars have been used for transporting the deceased across the country to their final resting places. (Remember Lincoln’s funeral train?) During the 19th century, the City of Chicago had three trolley car that carried the dead on the elevated trains to cemeteries outside of town.

Modern hearses have an elegant look with padded interiors and a sleek design. In the U.S, we use luxury cars for the base of the hearse: mainly Cadillac, Lincoln and Mercedes.

Major hearse builders in America include S&S/Superior Coach Company of Lima, Ohio, and Specialty Hearse with locations in Alvarado, Texas and East Farmingdale, New York.

Hearses are also popular as collector cars and numerous hearse clubs throughout the U.S. hold shows and rallies each year. (Not sure what the plans are for this year with Covid. Check with the festival or rally before you head out.)

The National Museum of Funeral History in Houston Texas has a collection of rare historical funeral vehicles. Check out the video on their website showing a small part of their collection.

Regardless of how you feel about hearses, it will most likely be your ride to that final destination.
~ Joy

Friday, June 19, 2020

The Year Without a Summer

Summer at the Lake
Tomorrow, Saturday June 20th is the first day of summer – the Summer Solstice. And with summer comes thoughts of vacations, festivals, reunions and generally all-around good times. But this is the summer of Covid 19, of social distancing, of wearing masks and being responsible for ourselves, and each other. This may be a year many consider as not having a summer. And while that might be true figuratively, it won’t be what many suffered through in 1816, a time that went down in history as “The Year Without a Summer.”

Spring Becomes Winter
People talked about the spring of 1816 as being noticeable “odd.” What began as a normal spring changed abruptly as temperatures plunged into the low 30s and incessant rain made planting difficult for farmers. A dry “fog” had settled on the ground and remained there for most of the season into the summer and fall. People described it as walking through a gauzy veil. The fog helped keep temperatures cool and newly planted crops did not take root and grow.
            The year of 1816 was an agricultural disaster. In the Upper Eastern part of the country down into Virginia, temperatures stayed in the 30s for the month of May. In New York, snow fell on June 6. Frost killed off crops in New Jersey during the latter part of June. And in Massachusetts, frost occurred all summer right into September. Rivers and creeks throughout the Eastern US were filled with floating ice during this strange summer. 

 The spring plantings of corn, oats, wheat and barley were killed by the unprecedented frost and snow. Tree leaves took on a singed appearance from sudden freezing temperatures. Grain prices soared, and farmers suffered a year of intense hardship. Across the US, Canada and Europe food prices skyrocketed, and famine was reported. Outbreaks of a new strain of cholera and typhus plagued citizens in Europe, China and the United States taking millions of lives.
            The dismal cold, wet dreary weather led author Mary Shelley in Europe to pen her famous horror story, “Frankenstein.” 

Mount Tambora
Many blamed divine retribution for the bizarre weather conditions but 20th century scientists who have studied the event say the eruption of the Mount Tambora volcano in Indonesia is probably to blame. Erupting in April 1815, the violent blast sent sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere creating a volcanic winter across the world. Ash clouds filled the skies. It was the largest volcanic eruption in the past 2,000 years, and the most intense of the 19th century. Tens of thousands of people died but few people outside of the area knew much about it due to limited methods of communication. Mount Tambora had rose up 12,000 feet before 1815. After the explosion, one third of the top had been blown away. The magnitude of the explosion is difficult to ascertain. It took a year for the ash clouds to reach North America creating a devastating effect.
Tomorrow as you prepare to enjoy a summer that will be different from those you recall, remember those residents of 1816 who muddled through that Year Without a Summer. We are a hardy lot, and we will persevere. Have a happy summer!
~ Joy

Friday, February 21, 2020

Finding the Forgotten in an Insane Asylum’s Graveyard

When this country was founded, those who suffered from mental illness were accused of practicing witchcraft and being under demonic possession. Many of them were left untreated at home or sent to poor houses, imprisoned, or as with the Salem Witch Trials, put to death.
The first insane asylum in the U.S. was located in Williamsburg Virginia. Founded in 1773, Eastern State Hospital was built to deal with the “lunatics of society.”
In the 1800s, these facilities housed those who suffered from melancholy, dementia, female complaints including "suppression of menses,” masturbation, hysteria, epilepsy and chronic mania could land you in an institution for the insane – “for their own good.”
Patients/inmates were placed in rooms that were basically cells if they were deemed to be dangerous. Treatment could include restraints, shock water treatments, bleeding, strong drugs, insulin coma therapy, electroconvulsive therapy, and lobotomies.
Central State Hospital for the Insane
Insane asylums became popular in the mid-1800s and their acceptance continued until the early 1960s. In 1955, more than 560,000 patients were living in a state mental institution. It was not until President John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Centers Act of 1963 that funding was allocated to create new mental health facilities around the country. By the 1970, the number of patients at mental institutions in the U.S. was decreasing, and by 1977 only 160,000 remained institutionalized. Democratic President Jimmy carter established the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980. This act restructured federal health care centers in communities throughout the nation by strengthening ties between local, state and federal groups.
In the 1980s Republican President Ronald Regan’s sweeping budget cuts severely cut assistance for the mentally ill and most funded hospitals and group homes were closed. As states saw this funding disappear those who suffered from mental illnesses were turned out on the streets to fend for themselves. Today 20 % of prison inmates have been diagnosed with a mental illness. The national trend of moving patients out of mental hospitals and into community care has come with a price. With insufficient funding for community-based care and residential programs, the mentally ill have nowhere to go for services. This is the reason so many are now ending up in jails and prisons – facilities that are not equipped to deal with these problems.
Today, most institutions are closed, left abandoned as relics of a sordid, and at times inhumane history. And few are willing to tell the stories of those who lived there, in an attempt to pretend this era of mental health didn’t exist in our country. But some former insane asylums are trying to make reparations and educate the public about his dark time in our history. 
The Old Pathology Building
In Indianapolis Indiana, Central State Hospital for the Insane officially closed its doors in 1992 after more than 100 years of operation. The Indiana Medical History Museum, located in The Old Pathology Building on the hospital grounds is working to humanize the patients of Central State. Research is being done to attribute personal stories to those who lived in the hospital. The vast collection of brains and tumors seen floating in glass specimen jars filled with formaldehyde were removed from deceased patients and used to advance the research and understanding mental illness.
Unveiled last summer, the project is known as “Rehumanizing the Indiana Medical History Museum Specimen Collection.” A card accompanies each specimen that tells a more personal story about the patient; things like where they came from, when they were admitted and what for, and what they died of. The museum hopes this will help visitors connect with the humanity of these patients, understanding that these are not just specimens but stories of lives that should to be told about this questionable era.
The Indiana Medical History Museum is also working with Ball State University’s Applied Anthropology Laboratories to locate the missing graves of residents who lived at the institution from 1896 to 1905. Using ground-penetrating radar (GPR), students are finding the graves of patients buried in the hospital’s first cemetery located northwest on the grounds, adjacent to the Old Pathology Building. Grave markers for the cemetery were removed in the 1950s so ground crews could care for the property in a more efficient manner but the identity of hundreds of patients has been lost. A fund has been set up to assist with the cost of locating, identifying and memorializing those who were buried here.
~ Joy

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)