Matthew Higgins earned a place in local history, but he had to give up his life to do it. His body was the first in Vicksburg to be embalmed by the current method.
And according to the Vicksburg Daily Herald on Saturday, Sept. 30, 1882, he looked “as fresh as a new blown rose.”
Though the Egyptians had mastered the science of embalming centuries ago, knowledge of the process had been lost. Consequently, funerals were usually held within a day of a person’s death.
When the Herald ran the story about Higgins, he had been dead almost a week. He had practically become a poster figure for John Quincy Arnold’s funeral home, for his body, in a wooden coffin, had been on display for all to see.
He was a pauper, “a man of large muscular development, about fifty years of age;” the Herald stated, “and accustomed during life to all sorts of rough treatment, and the severest physical tasks.”
He had died at City Hospital on Sept. 25 at 3 a.m. after a congestive chill. Dr. William T. Balfour was his attending physician.
Frank Fisher was the undertaker for John Quincy Arnold (Fisher later owned the funeral home). Fisher said he was proud of “Old Hig,” as he referred to the corpse, and he nonchalantly removed the lid to the coffin so the reporter could view the body.
“Here’s your stiff,” Fisher said, and then he encouraged the reporter, “Feel him,” which he declined to do. But he was curious: How could a body be kept so long in such warm weather? Fisher told him that he had just returned from a course in the new process of arterial embalming, and Higgins was his first project. The new embalming method had become popular the year before when the body of Pres. James A. Garfield was embalmed. He had been murdered in 1881.
“In the case of Higgins, the demonstration is perfect,” the reporter wrote. “The face has a glow about it such as is noticeable on the countenances of the dead an hour or so after death, and it wears a peaceful and quiet smile as though in sleep. The skin is soft and velvety, and the body is as cool as though it had been in a refrigerator. There is not the faintest suggestion of an odor of any kind arising from the body.”
The reporter said that Fisher had mastered the art of embalming and “is now ready to preserve dead bodies, and to ship them any distance, or at any season of the year. … Call and see his present subject.”
Fisher said he planned to keep the body on display for several more days and said he was confident it would remain in its present state for at least a year. In six or eight months he said, he planned to disinter it to make sure of the result.
A few weeks later Fisher had a chance to prove his ability again when a Mr. Judd from Dubuque, Iowa, died unexpectedly at a local hotel. A note in the Herald on Nov. 24, 1882, from Judd’s widow reported that the embalming and shipping the body home was a complete success.
Matthew Higgins was·buried in Potter’s Field in Cedar Hill Cemetery on Oct. 3, 1882, no doubt more famous in death than he had ever been in life.
The advent of chemical embalming greatly changed the role of the undertaker. He often went to the home of the deceased, especially in the country, with a portable embalming kit. He usually had in the buggy a portable “cooling board” on which to lay the body, and his home embalming case contained special instruments, embalming fluids, combs, razors, and sheets. He might also supply badges for the mourners: black for the elderly, white for the young, and a combination of the two colors for young adults.
Sometimes he provided coffins, though many were homemade and country stores usually kept a supply on hand. Traditionally, sawdust and wood shavings from homemade coffins were placed inside the box as superstition taught that if those bits of wood were tracked into the house, they would endanger whomever they touched.
Aunt Malena loved to tell the story of someone who died on the Hunt place in Campbell’s Swamp. A cooling board was placed, the end sticking through a crack between logs of the cabin, extending for a foot or more, and the other inside resting on the back of a straight chair. The body was placed on the board by the neighbors, who waited for Mr. Arnold to arrive. A courting couple, on the porch, sat down on the end of the cooling board, which caused the body and board to rise. Those inside the cabin fled the building. They had witnessed a resurrection!
The undertaker often had some shrouds on hand which were gown-like coverings made to be draped over the body to resemble a dress. Like a hospital gown, shrouds had no back, prompting my friend, the late Lenora McAlpin, self-proclaimed mayor of Grand Gulf, to say, ”l don’t want to be buried in a shroud. I don’t want to meet the Lord with the back of my gown out!”
Funeral customs have changed a lot since Matthew Higgins earned his place in history. It was probably the first time in his life he had been dressed up—and had nowhere to go.
Despite all the free advertising poor Old Hig garnered for the funeral home, the undertaker still charged the county $5 for the burial.