Education: Johnstown Flood Museum

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Primary source: Report

The Care of the Dead

Rev., Dr. David Beale

The dawn of the day after the flood disclosed the wide scene of its terrific disaster. The survivors, after the night of infinite horrors, beheld that which, even in the retrospect, is so overpowering that they are amazed at the retention, is so overpowering that they are amazed at the retention of their sanity. By the grace of God upholding the faith of those who knew Him, and by the necessity of immediately grappling with the problems that confronted us, we were saved from despair and dementia. One of those pressing problems was the recovery and identification of the bodies of the drowned. Bodies of men, women and children lay scattered over the street, in the wreckage and along the water-courses, many of them bruised and mutilated, and some of them partially buried in the mud, half concealed amid the debris, or bruised beyond recognition. Thousands from different homes were thus by remorseless flood washed together in the agonies of death, the victims of the common catastrophe.

While our noble and gentle women addressed themselves to the care of the children and other rescued sufferers, some of the men at once began to recover the bodies of the dead; not only to lessen the perils which would ensue from putrefaction, but for the purpose of identification, that friends might reclaim their dead and give them decent burial, and also to secure personal effects or valuables that might be found upon their bodies.

In the prosecution of the morgue work, the Fourth Ward school-house, the Presbyterian church, the Millville school-building, the Catholic church in the borough of Cambria, a saloon in Morrellville, and a private residence on the corner of Napolean and South Street, were converted into houses for the dead. For a short time, the Pennsylvania Railroad Station, the Peelorville school-house, the Grand View cemetery chapel and the Dibert soap factory were employed for the same purpose. At Ninevah, the bodies were laid out upon the greensward for identification. Owing to the piled-up wreckage and the swollen streams, for nearly a fortnight the multiplication of morgues was a necessity; but as soon as practicable they were all consolidated at the central one – Millville school-house – the only building in that borough left on its foundation.

Unlike the authorized and regularly constituted morgues in our large cities, these extemporized ones were destitute of the commonest conveniences, and of means of protection against intrusion and morbid curiosity. We had no record-books, not even paper, on which to make our records, and had to use with great economy that which we gathered amid the debris or happened to have in our pockets. Upon this we wrote the names of those we identifies and descriptions of the unrecognized.

We were obliged to employ all comers, even when we entertained fears of their efficiency or were suspicious of their honesty, to gather up the dead and carry them into the morgues. Delicate and responsible as this work was, it had to be done as speedily as possible before identification was rendered impossible, and before thieves could rob the bodies of what was upon them that was valuable. Besides, we had no means of satisfying ourselves concerning the helpers, for many were outsiders and strangers to everybody. We learned later, when Pinkerton’s detectives arrived, that a number of volunteers were noted corks and criminals from other cities. We only realized that, in this most awful and solemn work, we were unconsciously giving notorious thieves the opportunity of robbing our dead. It revealed to us the black depths of infamy to which the heart of man can sink....I was compelled to eject many of them [intoxicated mean] forcibly from the morgues.

Our anxiety may be imagined from the fact that we had no bank, no protected place, no safes where to deposit money, jewelry, watches and other valuables found on the bodies. These, of course, were a sacred trust, committed to us as superintendents of the morgues. Their preservation was for more than ordinarily important, for the friends to whom they would be delivered had lost everything, and these would not only be valuable as relics, but might enable them to purchase food or other necessaries.

Professional thieves would continually pass through the morgues, ostensibly to identify alleged relations and friends, but really with a view of claiming the valuables. At times, the only protection we could give them was to keep them about our persons, and then we were in fear of personal violence. Night after night I have sat or reclined in the effort to sleep, with $2,000 and valuables under me, so that the necessity of eating our sandwiches and drinking our coffee in the midst of the dead, some of whom were mutilated and otherwise offensive.

To him who appreciates a tithe of the meaning of these statements it must be apparent that no other department of the sorrowful labor forced upon our uninjured survivors was so difficult and delicate of performance as was ours in the morgues. And more care, courage, kindness, patience and firmness were necessary in this situation than in any other.

From Through the Johnstown Flood, Rev. David Beale, pages 204-207

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