Work halted on San Francisco renovation after 19th century coffin is uncovered.
In San Francisco, where high-end property renovations are occurring all over the city at breakneck speed, even the dead are being pushed out by gentrification. Last week workers digging beneath a home in the Richmond neighborhood unearthed a metal and glass coffin from the 1870s that holds the body of a little girl.
We had no idea such items existed, but after doing a little research we discovered that ornate metal caskets, usually made of cast iron or lead, were popular during the mid- to late-1800s among the more affluent. A Providence, Rhode Island man named Almond Fisk was the first to patent them, which he displayed in 1849 at the New York State Agricultural Society Fair in Syracuse, and the American Institute Exhibition in New York City.
He called them Fisk Metallic Burial Cases, and they came in an amazing variety, including Egyptian style sarcophagi. The coffins were airtight, helping preserve bodies during an era when the embalming arts were not as advanced as today and a week could elapse before arrangements were made to bury a loved one and family gathered for the send-off. They were also welded shut, preventing grave robberies—a serious problem of the times, not only due to valuables that might be buried with bodies, but also due to the price a well-preserved corpse could fetch from unscrupulous medical schools looking for research cadavers.
Fisk's sales materials boast that not only could his burial cases be drained of air, aiding preservation, but—if one chose—filled with any type of atmosphere or fluid. Just a year after he displayed them at those New York exhibitions, former U.S. Vice-President and Secretary of State John C. Calhoun died and was buried in one. The publicity caused a wave of nationwide interest that prompted Fisk to license his expensive invention to other companies. Eventually, Crane, Breed & Co., of Cincinnati and New Orleans acquired a license, and made coffins sporting the types of viewing windows featured on the San Francisco discovery.
What will happen the little girl's body is still unknown. San Francisco ordinances make her the property owner's responsibility. Reburial has been mentioned by said property owner, but we'd be surprised if anthropologists didn't get a look at the girl first. Autopsies on bodies ofthat age have uncovered troves of data about diet, disease, and more. Afterward she can be laid to rest somewhere well out of the way of San Francisco's ongoing makeover into millionaire Disneyland.