A Pioneer of Embalming

Before the Civil War, embalming was rarely performed–people died at home or on their farms, were quickly put into caskets, then buried. The Civil War greatly increased the volume of premature death, and it drove people to retrieve bodies from far away battlefields, often weeks or even months later. Further, in a cultural sense, people of the era were deeply interested in the appearance of the body after death, whereas the practice of cremation today has vastly diminished people’s interest in post-mortem preservation and appearance.

One of the most significant meetings of Sadie Bushman’s life was her encounter with Dr. Benjamin Franklin Lyford, a U.S. army assistant surgeon who toggled between amputations and embalming. In that era, the practice of embalming was not performed by undertakers or morticians but by doctors. The practice was almost entirely unregulated, and doctors frequently came up with their own mix of chemicals to use in their practices. Doctors also set their own prices after battles and, in many cases, were considered unscrupulous. One Union doctor told a reporter the following:

I would be glad to prepare private soldiers.  They were wuth a five dollar bill apiece.  But, Lord bless you, a colonel pays a hundred, and a brigadier-general two hundred.  There’s lots of them now, and I have cut the acquaintance of everything below a major.  I might, as a great favor, do a captain, but he must pay a major’s price.  I insist upon that!  Such windfalls don’t come every day.  There won’t be another such killing for a century.

Dr. Lyford apparently did not suffer from such a reputation. San Francisco County biographers noted the following of his service:

During the march on to Mobile a torpedo exploded and landed a soldier in the top of a large tree. Dr. Lyford found both arms and both legs broken, with one or two compound fractures. During the Grand Army reunion in San Francisco a veteran soldier pressed through the crowd and hailed the Doctor as the man who had taken him out of a tree, and by his matchless skill given him his life and each limb of his body.

Though Dr. Lyford was definitively at Gettysburg, the only service record easily found shows that he served the 68th US Colored Troops from 1864 through the end of the war. At Gettysburg, while Sadie helped him with at least one amputation, a photographer framed Dr. Lyford with Dr. C B Chamberlain in the practice of embalming:

Dr. Benjamin Lyford stands at the left of the arch of the embalming tent; Dr. C B Chamberlain stands at the right. If the “corpses” look a bit too lifelike, it may be that the photo was staged with living soldiers, according to one source.

Dr. Lyford had plenty of practice during the war, and he continued innovating after the war. He became renowned for his skill, as the San Francisco County biographers noted:

He has invented, or rather, discovered, the chemicals to use in a process for embalming bodies, that has been put in practical operation a number of years, and been pronounced by scientists a positive protection against decomposition–lifelike in expression. To this effect Dr. Lyford has affidavits sworn to, which space prevents giving. One of which, in part, is as follows:

“I left San Francisco with the remains destined for Ferres Morlaas, France, at which place we arrived April 4, 1868–the remains in the same perfect and lifelike condition; even the position of the body had not in the least changed. We had the inexpressible pleasure to again look upon the kind features of our departed friend, perfect as in life, natural in color and exactly in the condition in which Dr. Lyford had placed him nine months since.”

In fact, the preparation was thought to be so remarkable in France that space was given for it in a Catholic church, where it remained for four months upon exhibition, meeting with general surprise from the press, scientific bodies and hundreds of others who were attracted by curiosity. The friends of the deceased desired to return thanks to Dr. Lyford for the efforts he had made to show them, as he did in perfection, the features of their beloved friend; and they were greatly comforted with the hope that by means of the process adopted by the doctor they could, any time, remove the body from the vault and again behold the features of the deceased, intact.

In his personal life, Dr. Lyford proved to be something of a wanderer who lived from coast to coast. He was born in Quebec, Canada, to Nathaniel Lyford and Sarah Rogers. His service in the Civil War took him all over the midwest and the South. After the war, he settled in Tiburon, California, where he married Hilarita Reed, the daughter of wealthy landowner John Thomas Reed and his wife, Hilaria Sanchez.

His success in his practice coupled with her inherited land holdings made the Lyfords prominent figures in the community. Hilarita was involved in causes related to Mexican immigrants; Dr. Lyford planned to form a healthy utopian community that he called Hygeia. It is likely this property where Sadie Bushman spent her final years. As noted in the Hawarden article, she and Lyford reconnected years after the war and discovered that they lived only fifteen miles from each other. Sadie had fallen on hard times owing to her husband’s poor health. Dr. Lyford placed her in a small cottage on his property where she lived out her days.

Dr. Lyford passed away before Hygeia could gain any traction. Today, the Lyford house still stands, though in a different spot, and is owned by the National Audubon Society. And Dr. Lyford is remembered as a pioneer in embalming.

Back to Sadie Bushman from All Angles

%d bloggers like this: