The Phonographic Funeral of Baby Burr

In the latter half of 1895, newspapers around the United States relayed the startling news that a phonograph had just conducted a funeral service in place of a live clergyman.

The very idea of putting a machine to such a use grated with some critics’ sensibilities, and even the Phonoscope, a trade journal ordinarily eager to promote new applications of the phonograph, dismissed the reports as patently unbelievable:

A New York paper recently published an account of a Phonograph Funeral, which was greatly garbled by the writer’s ignorance of the working of a Phonograph.  There is nothing intrinsically impossible in the idea of having the funeral oration and service delivered through the horn of a Phonograph, but so far it has not been attempted, and it will surely take some considerable time yet before even our matter of fact fellow-citizens will stand a mechanical flow of eloquence and piety at the grave side of any of their friends.[1]

The barriers against phonographic funerals were not so much technological as cultural, the argument went: surely nobody would want a loved one to have to make do with a “mechanical” funeral!  The Phonoscope editor was not alone in this opinion.  An article of 1898 imagines the funeral of a miner in Red Gulch Canyon being conducted by phonograph because “the only clergymen within fifty miles is above timber line hunting for bear”; the author represents the words of the service as “hoarsely recited by the machine” and the music as “the solemn funeral march from Beethoven (with enough omitted to make up for the shortness of the cylinder).”[2]  The voice would be jarring, the music eviscerated.  Another detractor dwelt on the machine’s “characteristic Punch and Judy tones” and commented of the phonograph funeral idea: “If anything was lacking to complete the gruesomeness of the last sad rites this would supply it.”[3]

Still, times were changing, and others supposed that the use of the phonograph in funerary rites was just as likely to catch on as cremation or the presence of automobiles in funeral processions.  In 1900, one person was quoted trying to imagine the funeral of his friend who had just prepared a phonographic will (another marvel of the modern age): “his remains will be conveyed to a crematory in an electrically propelled hearse escorted by horseless vehicles carrying the friends and mourners, and on arrival at the destination an excellent Phonographic reproduction of one of the great masterpieces of eulogy will be heard, followed by choral music of the highest class rendered in the same mechanical manner.”  Instead of making snide comments about the phonograph’s “hoarseness,” this commentator emphasized the “excellence” of its voice, welcoming the prospect of mechanized funerals as just another step forward in an “age of progress.”[4]  

And, despite the Phonoscope’s protestations to the contrary, the story about the phonographic funeral in 1895 appears to have been true—at least, we can verify that the principal characters really existed, and multiple reporters described the event, all of which speaks against it having been a journalistic hoax.

*          *          *          *          *

Abraham E. Stillwell, deputy coroner and undertaker at Gravesend, New York, was said to have prepared the necessary cylinders sometime that spring: “He has purchased an instrument, and has had a funeral sermon recorded on it by a local clergyman, together with religious exercises, and several hymns by a good quartet.”  He assured a reporter that “the effect is serious and impressive” and explained that he had been motivated by “the trouble I have occasionally had in securing the services of a clergyman, especially in the summer time.”[5]  For Gravesend is on Coney Island, a place associated in the popular imagination with unfettered entertainment, and hence also with irreverence and immorality.  Everyone qualified to conduct a funeral service hastened to leave the area during the summer, Stillwell noted: “They think that so much devil comes to Coney in the hot months that there is precious little use for them.”  One local minister had agreed to speak the service into the phonograph “just before he went on his vacation,” but he swore Stillwell to keep his identity secret: “No, I won’t tell you his name.  I promised him that I never would.”[6]  A journalist commended him for being “more thoughtful than all the rest,”[7] but he was still delegating some of the religious authority vested in him to a machine and might have been unsure what people would think of that.

The service had been captured in wax as a precaution rather than for any specific event, and Stillwell had been waiting eagerly for a chance to try it out.   He had been prepared to use the whole prerecorded service for the funeral of George Pettit of Sheepshead Bay on 3 August 1895, “but the clergyman was on hand and his part of the services was not needed,” so Stillwell had used the machine only to provide music, “a phonographic quartet appropriate to the ceremony.”  This had been mildly disappointing, but Stillwell claimed it was only a matter of time before he could put his larger plan into action: “The opportunity will come for me to use the phonographic service, and I expect to do it with success.”[8]  According to one account, Stillwell was concerned primarily about the burial of unidentified corpses that washed up on Coney Island, for which no religious observance was ordinarily provided: “It has been his duty to bury bodies that might come in from the sea without any special ceremony, and he was considerably worried over it, being a good Methodist.”  Thus, he announced his plan specifically to “work off the services on the next body that floats ashore.”[9]

Stillwell’s opportunity came within a few days, but it did not take quite the form he had anticipated.  The name of the deceased was Augusta “Gussie” Burr—age fifteen months.

*          *          *          *          *

Gussie’s father, Frederick B. Burr had been born in 1859, the son of Smith Burr of Comac (1803-1887), a prosperous Long Island horse breeder and trainer.  Frederick’s eldest half-brother, Carll S. Burr (1831-1916), had succeeded to the family business, but Frederick himself—as the youngest of some fourteen children—had been left to shift for himself as a day laborer.  In 1879, he had married Adelina Pedrick, the fifteen-year-old daughter of a local farm worker, but she probably died young, since he had remarried about 1889.  This other wife, Mary, had immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1880 and was Frederick’s junior by just a few months.[10]  Gussie, their second daughter, had been born towards the end of 1893 and had soon caught the attention of the public, as the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported under the headline “A Heavy Weight Infant”:

The accompanying picture represents Augusta Burr, who was born at Comac, L. I., 10 months ago and now weighs a plump 70 pounds.  The picture does Baby Burr justice in most respects, but the camera was new to her and she regarded its operations with a solemn and wide eyed stare which is very different from the merry look with which she stuffed her fat fingers into her mouth and grinned the other morning when an Eagle reporter saw her.  The baby was then sitting on the floor of her father’s home at 263 Stockton street and seemed as healthy and happy as a child of normal size.  That she is in good health is shown not only by her bright blue eyes and the firm quality of her flesh but by the certificate of Dr. Cohn of Sumner avenue, who examined her recently and found her in good condition and with as good a chance to grow up to a happy womanhood as a child of one-third her weight.  Mr. and Mrs. Burr only removed from Comac a fortnight or so ago and Mrs. Burr says that Gussie stood the hot weather well and that she is what all mothers know as “a good baby.”  That is, she is not fretful or peevish or wakeful, as many thin children are, but eats and sleeps and sits on the floor in a normal and contented way.  She doesn’t creep yet, but she pulls chairs around when she can reach them in a way which shows that she has unusual strength in her fat little arms….  There is nothing in the family to account for Gussie’s great size.  Mr. Burr is a young man who tips the scales at perhaps 150.  Mrs. Burr is a slender German woman, weighing perhaps 110.  Dora, the other child, is 3 years old, is flaxen haired and blue eyed like Gussie, but is a thin, wiry little thing, rather tall for her age and active.  At 7 months old Gussie had outstripped her sister in weight by ten pounds.[11]

Unfortunately, Gussie was not “to grow up to a happy womanhood” as predicted.  The New York Times published her obituary on 11 August 1895:

The well-known “fat baby,” to see whom thousands all over the country have paid a dime or more each, died in its little tent on the Sea Beach Walk, Coney Island, yesterday, of paralysis of the brain.

With the exception of a little trouble now and then from growing teeth, the baby was in perfect health from the day she first came into the world, until Thursday night, when she was suddenly seized with spasms.  Dr. Hill tried all in his power to bring the valuable infant around, but she continued to grow worse, having convulsions the greater part of the time, until yesterday, when death relieved her.

The little one in private life was Gussie Burr.  She was born at Castleton, Staten Island, fifteen months ago, and for several weeks after her birth attracted the attention of the medical fraternity on account of her abnormal size.  Gussie had been exhibited for the last year by Frank Griffin.  Her salary was $100 a week.  She appeared at the Summer resorts, county fairs, and museums in all parts of the country.  She was the only “fat baby” in the country.  At the time of her death she weighed ninety-two pounds, and doctors who examined her said she was “as solid as a rock.”[12]

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported the baby’s final weight as ninety-three pounds rather than ninety-two and attributed her death to pneumonia,[13] but whatever the facts may have been, the job of burying her fell to Abe Stillwell.  The family was inclined to economize: “As the relatives were non-residents, they desired a modest and speedy funeral, and being poor they wanted it to be cheaply conducted.”[14]  At the same time, the baby’s mother did not want to dispense with a service altogether:

She told Mr. Stillwell…that she would not be satisfied unless her daughter was buried as she wished.  “All the ministers are away,” explained the undertaker, “but I’ve got a religious phonograph which can go through the service without a hitch, for I’ve tried it.  No hemming and hawing and turning of leaves, either.  It just begins right off and goes through without a break.”[15]

Stillwell later recounted that he had “explained it all to the baby’s mother, and she said that she would like the plan first rate.”[16]  Three different published reports of the program have turned up, as follows:

“Mr. and Mrs. Stillwell and the Funeral Phonograph.” Illustration from “Sermons by Machine,” Steubenville Daily Herald (Steubenville, Ohio), Nov. 5, 1895, p. 2.

First the Lord’s prayer was rendered on the paragraph [sic], with a solemn emphasis that took away all the suggestion of mechanical effect.  It impressed the mourners.  Then a record by the Mozart quartet of the hymn, “Nearer my God to Thee,” was given on another cup and after that the verses of Scripture usually given at funerals and beginning with the words, “Man, who is born of woman,” etc., were rendered with full emphasis.  Then a solo, “The Sweet Bye and Bye,” recorded by Miss Loreen Williamson of Gravesend was repeated.  The closing portion was the committal service used by the Reformed church denomination.  The remains were then conveyed to the town cemetery, where they were interred without further ceremonies.[17]

*          *          *          *          *

First, the phonograph played in a strong, pure-toned voice.  A sharp, ringing voice then announced that the American Quartet would sing “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”  The music was finely sung, and the slight metallic ring which it had gave the effect of voices sounding from some dim cathedral choir loft.  Then came reading of the Scriptures.  “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes” and then another hymn by the choir.  There was a brief sermon, the body was committed to the grave and then came the words of benediction.[18]

*          *          *          *          *

Mrs. Stillwell conducted the service.  She changed the cylinders five times, and from the opening to the close it was just thirty-five minutes.  An extra “loud needle” was used, and the voice from the machine, as clear as a bell, penetrated to all parts of the room.  Those who attended the funeral sat with bowed heads, and never looked up as the cylinders were changed.

Had a stranger been listening at the door he would have thought that a minister stood beside the coffin and spoke the words which rang through the double parlor.

First was the Lord’s Prayer, recited in a slow, impressive manner.  At the sound of the familiar words a spirit of calm seemed to come into the room.  Then a shrill voice, unlike the other, announced that the Amphion Quartet would sing “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” and four well blended voices sang the anthem.

Then a passage of Scripture announcing that all flesh is grass was heard.  There was a buzz of the cylinder, and then a deep voice pronounced the words committing the body to the grave.

“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord,” were the words which rang out with greater distinctness than the rest, and then followed the benediction.

The mother silently wept and the friends bore the body away to its last resting place in old Gravesend Cemetery.[19]

These accounts differ in some particulars (was “Nearer, My God, to Thee” really the work of the American Quartet, Mozart Quartet, or Amphion Quartet?), but the structure of the program was plainly modeled after that of the live funeral service.  Some of the mourners “thought that it was strange at first,” Stillwell admitted, “but they got used to it.”[20]  He himself had been nervous about the reaction his experiment would provoke: “I confess I felt a degree of trepidation when the service began, but when the inanimate machine, with its whirring accompaniment, began the solemn words, they seemed invested with a feeling of comfort, and touched everyone present.”[21]  Even the “metallic” quality of the reproduced sounds was construed positively as invoking the architectural acoustics of a cathedral.  One newspaper reported that the guests were “affected even to tears” and expressed hope that Stillwell’s innovation would help to reduce funeral costs while simultaneously improving the aesthetic character of the services:

If funerals can be packed away on a shelf and be sold or rented for a matter of only $2 or $3 it will go far toward relieving the people of the results of extravagance in funerals generally.  It will secure eloquence and good singing where under the usual circumstances there would be only a formal reading and no eloquence, and discordant singing, if there was singing of any kind.[22]

In promoting his own personal phonograph as appropriate for use at funerals, Stillwell emphasized that he had never used it to play “irreverent cylinders,” and that it had “never said anything ribald,” unlike the coin-operated phonographs for which Coney Island was better known—his wife would never have allowed the machine in the house otherwise.   “That phonograph,” he told a reporter, “has never said a cuss word or sung a gay song.  Why shouldn’t it be all right to go through funerals and such?  Someday if this world keeps on progressing, they will be using them for weddings, and, after all, I don’t see why there should be so much difference.”[23]

Despite Stillwell’s protestations about the strict piety of his own phonograph, he did in fact use it to play sounds of a less “reverent” sort.  On 23 January 1896, he participated in a phonograph exhibition at Gravesend in which he announced the selections while a local restaurant and dance hall proprietor named Louis Stauch operated the machine:

A summer day at Coney Island was reproduced with selections from Gilmore as well as Sousa, a scene on the Sheepshead Bay race track, with the shouts of the spectators, and the music by Lander’s band was also reproduced, and the cries of the sausage vendors at West Brighton, with the appeals of the photographers and the concert hall barkers were so well given, the audience could almost catch the mingled aroma of beer and frankfurters.[24]

Regardless of this display, a reporter asserted again in the fall of 1896 that Stillwell’s phonograph had never been used for irreligious purposes, claiming even that it was “kept alongside the family Bible, with a decorous crape [sic] band depending from the flaring trumpet” when not in use.  Its acoustic peculiarities were once more construed as an advantage rather than a drawback: “The effect is very solemn, for the far-away sound of the sonorous voice seems somehow to intensify the meaning of the service.”  By this time, Stillwell was said to have conducted “several” funerals with the phonograph, setting a strong local precedent for its use: “The inhabitants of Gravesend have become quite used to the phonograph and say it is just the thing for them.  Some of the older villagers, who make a point of attending all funerals in the vicinity, say that a funeral would not seem like a real funeral without ‘Abe’s’ machine.”[25]


This article first appeared in The Antique Phonograph 29:4 (Dec. 2011): 7-12.


References
Note: I’ve added links to some sources that are readily available online with no paywall.  In other cases, an item I cited from one newspaper in the original version of this article also appeared in other newspapers that may now be found more readily in digital form online than the one mentioned.  I explore some of the issues raised here further in my later article, “Rise and Obey the Command”: Performative Fidelity and the Exercise of Phonographic Power, Journal of Popular Music Studies 24:3 (September 2012): 357-395.

[1] “Phonograph Funerals,” Phonoscope 1:1 (Nov. 1896), 11.

[2] “The Faked Records,” Massillon Independent (Massillon, Ohio), 12 Dec. 1898, p. 12.

[3] “Phonographs at Funerals,” New York Times, 9 Nov. 1902, p. 6.

[4] “Talked His Last Will and Testament.  Wax Roll of the Phonograph in Lieu of Paper,” Phonoscope 4:1 (Jan. 1900), 5.

[5] “Funeral Services by Phonograph,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 5 Aug. 1895, p. 7.

[6] “Funerals by Phonograph,” New York Recorder, 20 Oct. 1895, in Thomas E. Jeffrey, ed. Thomas A Edison Papers: A Selective Microfilm Edition (Frederick, Maryland: University Publications of America, 1985—), henceforth “TAEM,” 146:986, or the digital edition at edison.rutgers.edu, henceforth “TAED,” SC95058B; the same text appears, with illustration, as “Sermons by Machine,” Steubenville Daily Herald (Steubenville, Ohio), 5 Nov. 1895, p. 2.

[7] “Phonograph Burial,” New York Herald, 18 Aug. 1895, p. 6.

[8] “Funeral Services by Phonograph,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 5 Aug. 1895, p. 7.

[9] “Phonograph in Place of Preacher,” Chicago Tribune, 6 Aug. 1895, p. 2.

[10] See the 1900 federal census entry for “Fred’k B. Burr,” age 41, in Northport, New York; “Obituary Notes,” New York Times, 8 Apr. 1887, p. 5; “The father, Frederick Burr, is a son of Smith Burr of Comac and Carl [sic, Carll] Burr, the owner of trotting horses, is his half brother” (“A Heavy Weight Infant,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 9 Sept. 1894, p. 11).

[11] “A Heavy Weight Infant,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 9 Sept. 1894, p. 11.

[12] “Gussie, the Fat Baby, Is Dead,” New York Times, 11 Aug. 1895, p. 9.

[13] “A Funeral by Phonograph,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 18 Aug. 1895, p. 24.

[14] “A Funeral by Phonograph,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 18 Aug. 1895, p. 24.

[15] “Phonograph Burial,” New York Herald, 18 Aug. 1895, p. 6.

[16] “Funerals by Phonograph,” New York Recorder, 20 Oct. 1895 (TAEM 146:986, TAED SC95058B).

[17] “A Funeral by Phonograph,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 18 Aug. 1895, p. 24.

[18] “Funerals by Phonograph,” New York Recorder, 20 Oct. 1895 (TAEM 146:986, TAED SC95058B).

[19] “Phonograph Burial,” New York Herald, 18 Aug. 1895, p. 6.

[20] “Funerals by Phonograph,” New York Recorder, 20 Oct. 1895 (TAEM 146:986, TAED SC95058B).

[21] “A Funeral by Phonograph,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 18 Aug. 1895, p. 24.

[22] “Funeral by Phonogragh [sic],” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 19 Aug. 1895, p. 6.

[23] “Funerals by Phonograph,” New York Recorder, 20 Oct. 1895 (TAEM 146:986, TAED SC95058B).

[24] “Phonograph Entertainment,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 24 Jan. 1896, p. 7; “Louis Stauch Dead; Pioneer at Coney,” New York Times, 5 Apr. 1929, p. 19.

[25] “Instead of Preachers,” Atlanta Constitution, 1 Sept. 1896, p. 8; also found as “New Sort of Funeral,” in Davenport Daily Republican (Davenport, Iowa), 11 Mar. 1897, p. 4; both times cited as reprinted from the New York Journal.

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