I’m wrapping up my visit to Birmingham, Ala.’s Oak Hill Cemetery this week. I’m sure there are many stories I’ve missed but all good things must come to an end.
This week, I came across the story of two brothers, both doctors, whose lives each came to a sudden end but several years apart. It wasn’t until I started pulling up obituaries that it came to light. Then there’s the Birmingham undertaker whose early years were rather colorful.
Tale of Two (Medical) Brothers
The story starts with Dr. Elias Davis and his wife, Rhoda Georgia Anne (seen sometimes as Georginna) Latham. I don’t know where Elias studied medicine but apparently his father was also a doctor. The couple were married on Sept. 24, 1857 in Jefferson County, Ala. Their first child was John Daniel Sinkler Davis, born on Jan. 19, 1859 in Trussville, Ala. Son William Elias Brownlee Davis came into the world on Nov. 25, 1863.
Sadly, the boys would not know their father for long. Dr. Davis enlisted in the Confederate Army on June 4, 1861. The list of engagements he was present at is quite long and he was eventually promoted all the way from private to first lieutenant.
The back of the monument for Elias and Georgia Anne states that “Dr. Elias was killed on Aug. 21, 1864 while commanding sharpshooters of the Tenth Alabama Regiment and is buried in Petersburg, Va.” So he’s not actually buried at Oak Hill. After Georgia Anne died on Nov. 22, 1899, she was buried there beside their shared monument.
Both John and William pursued medical degrees, like their father and paternal grandfather before them. Tutors and a year of school in Montevallo, Ala. provided John with his pre-med education. He graduated from the Medical College of Georgia (Augusta) in 1879 and came home to Alabama to set up a rural private practice.
William earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Alabama, was briefly a school teacher then studied medicine at Vanderbilt University and the University of Louisville. He graduated from Bellevue Hospital Medical College in New York City in 1884.
Soon after, William joined his brother in his new Birmingham practice and the siblings began two decades of medical achievements involving clinical work, research, and education. One of their earliest projects was a professional journal: the Alabama Medical and Surgical Journal, first published in July 1886.
The Davis & Davis Private Infirmary
Using the Holmes Sanitarium for Diseases of Women in Rome, Ga. as a model, the brothers opened the Davis & Davis Private Infirmary for female diseases and surgical cases in 1894. That same year, the Davis brothers were two of nine physicians who founded the Birmingham Medical College, which opened on October 1.
John was married on July 15, 1897, to Birmingham author Margaret Elizabeth O’Brien. She died on April 1, 1898 at the age of 27 following an operation. He never remarried. On August 12, 1897, William married local schoolteacher Gertrude Mustin. The couple had two daughters, Margaret and Mary.
In 1902, the infirmary moved to a new four-story building. John taught surgery while William taught gynecology and abdominal surgery. The school’s financing was dependent on student fees, which were never enough to develop its resources compared to state-supported medical schools. Despite improvements in facilities and changes in governance, the Birmingham Medical College graduated its final class in May 1915.
Tragically, William was killed in an accident at a railroad crossing in Birmingham on February 24, 1903. He was only 39. Sculptor Giuseppe Moretti was commissioned to create a large bronze statue of Davis, which stands today on the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) School of Medicine campus in front of the former Hillman Hospital buildings on 20th Street.
In July 1903, when Hillman Hospital opened, John Davis and surgeon Lewis Morris provided funds needed to furnish the two operating rooms. John served as president of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama (MASA) in 1928. Davis was among many people suggesting a state-supported four-year medical school, which finally opened in Birmingham in September 1946. It is now the UAB School of Medicine.
Another Tragic Accident
Sadly, John was struck by a cab while crossing the street, sustaining a broken arm, broken leg, and internal injuries. He died two weeks later on May 16, 1931 at the age of 72. He is buried with his wife, Margaret, at Oak Hill Cemetery near his parents and brother.
William’s wife, Gertrude, never remarried. She raised their daughters and watched them marry. She died at age 79 on June 8, 1953. Her marker, which is at the base of William’s grand monument, is so small and worn that I didn’t even notice it when I was there.
The Colorful Undertaker
If you are like me and got a glimpse of the Erswell vault at Oak Hill, you’d think quite an esteemed family was interred within. You would be right. But as I uncovered the story of the Erswells, let’s just say things got interesting (and sad) pretty quickly.
So who was Edward E. Erswell? Many things, it appears. A native of Cuyahoga County, Ohio, Erswell was the son of British parents Charles Erswell and Mary Snow Erswell. He grew up in Cleveland before entering Baldwin University in Berea, Ohio but only for six months. He joined a wagon train crossing the plains, making it as far as central Nebraska before sickness forced him to return east. He pursued a variety of activities over the next several years, including stock trading, book sales, patent medicines, and some time at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. He also learned the cabinet making trade along the way.
I wonder if Erswell’s future clients in Birmingham knew that for a time, he worked as the assistant of a magician in Baltimore, Md. called “Professor Collins.” But the true eyebrow raiser for me was the notation that Erswell somehow acquired (with the supposed permission of the U.S. government) a party of Native Americans that he took to state fairs throughout the South.
While in Kansas, Edward married Catherine “Kitty” Smith in 1872 and the couple settled in Birmingham, perhaps he had visited during his state fair tour. He returned to the cabinet-making trade and during cholera/yellow fever outbreaks, he concentrated on making caskets due to the demand. He continued to sell them along with other furniture. It wasn’t until the 1880s that he became a full-time undertaker, which he advertised in the April 17, 1889 edition of The Evening News, a Birmingham newspaper.
No Children Survived
Edward and Kitty had five children over the course of their marriage, but none lived past the age of 30. The first to enter the Oak Hill vault was their third child, Eddie. Only six, Eddie was playing at his father’s furniture store when he took a fatal fall on Sept. 4, 1885.
The year 1900 brought two deaths to Edward and Kitty. Their son, George, born in 1886, died at age 13 on April 9, 1900 of an undisclosed illness. Only two months later, son Henry, 17, was recovering from a second bout of pneumonia when he committed suicide on June 21, 1900 in his room above his father’s business. Some of his friends said he was upset after being rejected by a young lady.
Nellie, Edward and Kitty’s second child, was born in 1876. The newspapers reported her marriage to Samuel Kirkman on March 22, 1893. The marriage was without her parents’ blessing and she was only 17 at the time. However, the newspapers reported all was forgiven and Samuel assisted Edward in his business. Nellie gave birth to daughter Aileen (“Chuggy”) Kirkman Larkin in 1895, who lived a long life. Nellie died in a sanitarium in Savannah, Ga. of tuberculosis on Nov. 30, 1903. I’m not sure what became of Samuel after her death.
Maude, the first Erswell child, was born in 1874 and died last. She attended the Birmingham Business College in 1897. On July 16, 1901, with her parents’ blessing, she married mining engineer Henry Geismer. The couple settled in Pratt City and welcomed a son, Henry, on May 7, 1902. The boy died two months later. Sometime in January 1904, Maude had her appendix removed. She never quite recovered and passed away at the age of 30 on March 21, 1904.
Opening Woodland Cemetery
Despite the deaths of his children, Edward carried on. He moved up in the ranks of the local lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF), eventually attaining the rank of grand treasurer of the grand encampment of Birmingham. He ran for coroner in 1891, although I don’t know if he won. He also established Woodlawn Cemetery (now known as Greenwood Cemetery) sometime in the late 1880s. It is located next to the Birmingham airport but at the time of its inception, this was a rural area.
From what I can tell, the cemetery got off to a good start but suffered financial difficulties even when Edward was still alive. It would become a predominantly African-American cemetery in later years. Three of the four young ladies (Addie Mae Collins, Carol Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley) killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on Sept. 15, 1963 are buried there. For a time, Greenwood was in a very neglected state in the 1990s but from what I can tell, is now being taken care of with help from the city.
Edward died on Jan. 28, 1910 at age 63 after a long illness. His funeral and burial at Oak Hill was held with much ceremony, with all the highest funeral rites of the IOOF and many of his fellow lodge brothers in attendance.
Kitty died on Sept. 29, 1930 at age 76. It is rumored that she never wanted the family be interred at Oak Hill but preferred to be at Elmwood Cemetery because it was more fashionable. Some say you can hear whispers and muttering coming out of the vault late at night because Kitty is still complaining about it to Edward.
A Fine Farewell
Sarah and I enjoyed exploring Oak Hill Cemetery. But it was time to get back on the road and head toward Mississippi before dark. I hope you’ll join me on our next stop on the 2019 Okie Road Trip.