One of Marc Houseman’s favorite old photos in the vast collection at the Washington Historical Society is the sepia-toned image shown here on this page.
He doesn’t know the date or occasion of the photo, but he recognizes many of the men in it who were prominent Washington residents. “Some of the leading men in Washington,” it says on the back of the photo, along with several of their names:
John H. Thias, Henry Krog, Theodore Muench, John L. Calvin, one of the Busch brothers, Dr. Mallinckrodt, Helmuth Mayn, Charles Miller, Mr. Brix and Mr. Stumpe.
One name on the back, however, has long stood out to Houseman, mainly because he hadn’t ever heard anything about him — Dr. Alexander Werth. He’s standing in the center of the photo, just behind the table to the left, the stocky man with a white beard.
“A lot of these guys, we know their stories, or as best we can, but Dr. Werth was a little mysterious to me,” said Houseman, who started doing a little research to find out who he was and in the process, discovered that Dr. Werth’s cremated remains had been sitting on a shelf in a St. Louis crematory unclaimed since 1911.
Houseman, who had worked as a funeral director for many years before becoming the executive director for the Washington Historical Society Museum, also is a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Lodge in Washington.
One of the four main tenets of the Odd Fellows is to bury the dead, and several years ago the Missouri’s Odd Fellows opened a columbarium in Washington at the Wildey Odd Fellows Cemetery, which Houseman and the other Washington members oversee.
The columbarium currently holds the unclaimed cremated remains of around 1,600 people, a significant increase over the last year.
In his research, Houseman came to learn that Dr. Werth spent a good part of his life in Washington. Dr. Werth married Maria Walter in January 1866 in St. Louis, but the marriage record says they were both residents of Washington, Mo. They had two daughters.
He had a home on Fourth Street that has since been torn down, and he practiced medicine here from roughly 1885 to 1900, when he presumably retired and moved to St. Louis. In 1897, Dr. Werth served as one of the pension examining surgeons in Washington.
At some point, Maria must have died, because Dr. Werth married a second time, a woman named Mary in 1887 in Franklin County, said Houseman, noting Mary was a widow with children from her first marriage.
“He led a productive life in retirement, but he somehow broke his leg and it got infected, they had to amputate it, and he passed away April 7, 1911,” said Houseman.
Dr. Werth was cremated at the old Missouri crematory, which quite a few years ago was bought out by Valhalla Crematory and Cemetery in St. Louis. His second wife outlived him, so it’s a mystery why his remains went unclaimed, said Houseman. After she passed 15 or 20 years later, she was buried at Valhalla.
Houseman and his fellow Odd Fellows member, Paul Annable, who is the state coordinator for the Missing in America project “to locate, identify and inter the unclaimed cremated remains of American veterans,” learned that Valhalla was willing to release Dr. Werth’s remains to them, and a few weeks ago, Annable picked up Dr. Werth’s remains and brought them to the columbarium in Washington.
That might have been where he remained, but Houseman learned that Dr. Werth, during his time in Washington, had actually purchased an eight-grave lot in the Odd Fellows Cemetery, and that his first wife’s parents are buried there.
Houseman said he suspects Dr. Werth’s first wife also is buried there, but there is no headstone or records to confirm that. So now rather than leave Dr. Werth’s ashes in the columbarium, plans are to bury him in the Odd Fellows Cemetery.
“That just excites me to no end,” said Houseman. “We have since learned that Dr. Werth was a Civil War veteran. He immigrated to this country from Germany right in the middle of the Civil War. He was in New York when he enlisted.”
The reason that is important is because veterans are able to receive a free headstone. But first, the Odd Fellows have to prove that Dr. Werth was a veteran.
“His obituary says it, and there is a census record where he says he’s a veteran, but so far we have been unable to prove it to the Veterans Administration,” said Houseman. “I have two people working on finding a military record that will satisfy the VA.”
Regardless of that, the Odd Fellows will hold a funeral to honor and bury Dr. Werth Saturday, Nov. 30, at 10 a.m. at the Wildey Odd Fellows Cemetery, 1123 Wildey Way, Washington. The public is invited and encouraged to attend.
“I think we need to recognize him as an important person in Washington’s history, and what better way than to have a funeral for him,” said Houseman, who expects the ceremony will last about 30 minutes.
Skeletons to Be Buried
That same day, as part of the same ceremony, the Odd Fellows also will bury several human skeletons in their possession. They don’t know the names or backgrounds of the people, but in following the Odd Fellows’ mission, they feel that burying them is the right thing to do.
The Washington group acquired the skeletons seven or eight years ago from an Odd Fellows lodge in Central Missouri that was moving to a new location.
As an organization, the Odd Fellows customarily used skeletons as part of the initiation of new members, Houseman said, explaining part of the initiation scene is a mock funeral. This goes back to the group’s tenet to bury the dead.
“A lot of Odd Fellows lodges in the old days would have a casket to use for this scene and they had the option of using a papier-mache corpse or papier-mache skeleton,” he said. “And some lodges would get real human skeletons from the medical schools.”
If members of the Washington Odd Fellows hadn’t accepted the skeletons from the other lodge, Houseman said he isn’t sure what would have happened to them. They might have just been thrown away, he commented.
“We felt like we need to do something with them,” said Houseman “So we have three temporarily stored in the columbarium, and we have one in our lodge room. We have used him for some of the recent initiations.”
All of the skeletons are male, that much is known from the pelvic bones. The age of each one, however, is only a guess, based on other factors.
One of the skeletons came with a beautiful antique coffin that Houseman said dates back to the late 1800s. Another that has a coffin he puts at being around 75 years old. One of the skeletons had been autopsied because the skull cap is sawed off.
Two of the skeletons are fully articulated, meaning they have been wired so that the bones can be positioned and moved easily. Two are just loose bones that were stored, one in a box and the other in a crate.
One of the Odd Fellows took it upon himself to make a coffin for the skeleton stored in the cardboard box, out of respect. Other members plan to make a casket for the other skeleton stored in the crate, said Houseman.
All of it brings peace to his heart.
“This has been weighing on my mind,” said Houseman. “What is the right thing to do with them? These were human beings.
“And even though Odd Fellows lodges used skeletons, which seems like an oxymoron . . . we’ve decided we are going to bury them. We are going to pick a grave in the back (of the cemetery) to bury them.”
Plans are to have a clergy lead the ceremony.
“We want to do it up right,” said Houseman.
“These were human beings, and they’ve been above ground all this time, moved from place to place to place. It’s time to put them to rest and as an Odd Fellows lodge, we feel that is the right thing to do.”