It was a scandal that just could not be covered up.
At 9:30 p.m., Sunday evening July 20, 1884, a lady named Mrs. Peter Bradt died in the Hamilton City Hospital.
A friend and neighbour George Searle went to the hospital to see if he could arrange a funeral for Mrs. Bradt, but hospital staff on duty were not co-operative, and gave no details as to the timing of the burial as the lady would be buried at the city’s expense in a pauper’s grave.
On Tuesday July 22, 1884, Mrs. Bradt was buried in the section of the Hamilton set aside for those of limited, or no means to purchase a plot, Potter’s Field.
Even at the cemetery, friends and family sensed something was wrong and that Mrs. Bradt had not been allowed the dignity of a proper burial. Before the coffin was lowered into the grave, it was noticed that the lid of the plain wooden coffin did not appear to be screwed down.
The lid was lifted by one of the deceased’s neighbours who was outraged by what he saw.
The body was being buried without a funeral shroud, the corpse was naked.
The management of the City Hospital refuses to address any questions about the matter and tried to let the matter blow over without any negative publicity.
Faint hope that was.
Reporters with both Hamilton city newspapers were informed about the matter and soon everyone in Hamilton did.
Finally on Monday August 4, 1884, a formal investigation into the incident was held.
The full Spectator report of that investigation follows:
“The investigation into the charges against the hospital management for allowing a corpse to be buried without being dressed was commenced at the city hospital last evening before the hospital committee. There were present his worship Mayor Mason, Ald. Moore chairman, and Ald. McLagan, Stevenson, Blaicher, Allan and Bruce.
George Searle, the first witness, said : I live on Clarke avenue. I have to complain that Mrs. Peter Bradt was buried without a shroud on July 22. The lid of the coffin was not screwed down. The coffin was under a tree, and my little child lifted up the lid. Mrs. Bradt’s remains were perfectly nude. Mrs. Bradt died on Sunday night at 9:30. She was buried on Tuesday. When I saw her in the dead house, she had a sheet around her. The reason I came down to the hospital was in order that I might see about getting up a little funeral, but I could get no satisfaction as to time.
To Ald. McLagan – I did not use the spade to force the lid; there were no screws in the boards; Mrs. Bradt was my housekeeper. The caretaker told me that it was a sin to see anyone buried so, and that he would wait until I got some clothes. After I came back from the cemetery, I said to Dr. Woolverton that it was a shame to bury her so. He said “Why did you not marry her?” I said I could not marry her as she was a married woman. He said “You ought to have married her.” I said “I will let the newspapers know of this.” The doctor replied that I could go to hell and do it.
Dr. Woolverton here contradicted the statement, and asked to explain, but was requested to wait until called.
Mrs. Henry Searle was next called and said – I live on Ferrie street. The night before Mrs. Bradt’s death I brought her down a clean night dress. She asked me before she died to bring it. I left it in a drawer and told Mrs. Sloan it was to put on Mrs. Bradt when required. This was on Friday and Mrs. Bradt died on Sunday. I next saw her at the dead house. She had nothing on her except a sheet. I asked how it was she was not washed or dressed. A man – I think it was Mr. Young – said they did not wash or dress corpses until after the doctor had seen them. It was on Monday. I saw the corpse. I asked if I could get a dress and put it on her but he said no, that after the doctor had seen her he would attend to it. I never got the clothes back which I took.
To Ald. Blaicher – At the time I brought the dress I did not tell any of the officials of the institution that I left them, but the officials knew that she had clothes. The woman I told was a patient. Mrs. Bradt took two suits of clothes with her when she went to the hospital. When Mrs. Bradt died she had a new wrapper, two petticoats, a shawl and a suit of underclothes. Mrs. Turner was with me when I saw the corpse in the dead house.
Dr. White said : I did not see the corpse. Dr. Woolverton telephoned me that Mrs. Bradt was dead, and asked me if I wished to hold a post mortem examination. When post mortem examinations are held it is customary for the corpses to be laid out on the table wrapped in a sheet. Post mortem examinations are sometimes made by the resident physician or by medical students. The records are made and kept.
Mrs. Elizabeth Turner, No. 2 Eliza street, said : I knew Mrs. Bradt who died in the hospital; saw Mrs. Bradt while she was sick, and again on Monday morning in the dead house. She was stripped, but had a sheet across her. She was not washed. Mrs. Searle was with me and asked if she might get some clothes put upon the corpse. I was with Mrs. Searle when she brought Mrs. Bradt a night dress and chemise. When Mrs. Searle brought the clothes, she left them on the bed and did not tell any one about them. The man in the dead house said the corpse would be dressed after the doctor had seen it, if there were any clothes belonging to the deceased. Mrs. Searle told him that there were clothes in the drawer. Mrs. Bradt went by the name of Mrs. Searle.
Mr. Young, an attendant, said it was customary to wash patients after death and take them to the death house wrapped in a sheet. I saw the corpse of Mrs. Bradt washed on Sunday evening by one of the nurses. On Monday two women went to see her. They said they had permission from the doctor to go in. They asked about her being washed and dressed. Mrs. Bradt was clean but was not straightened because it was impossible to get her limbs straight. I usually dress corpses the day after death. I told the woman who offered to dress her that I would dress her after the doctor had seen her. They told me that there was clothes for her in the hospital, but did not say where. I made no inquiries about the clothes as I do not generally dress female corpses. He did not tell me anything about this one. I never knew of a case where anyone was buried without a shroud on. I was uptown on a message for the doctor when the corpse was taken away. The first I knew of the corpse without a shroud on was by hearing the patients talk of it after Mr. Searle had been to the hospital. I did not believe it.
Mr. Blachford, undertaker, said : I have the contract for burying all patients from the hospital; have had it for about five years. I do not provide shrouds. We place the corpses in coffins if such is not already done. We usually bring the coffin down just in time for the funeral. The corpses are generally clothed before we arrive. I have never known corpses to be buried naked except Mrs. Seale or Mrs. Bradt. That was on July 22. My assistant and myself put the corpse into the coffin. It was in a decomposed state. Mr. McMichael pointed out the body to us. It was pinned in a sheet. We took it out of the sheet and put it in the coffin without speaking to Mr. McMichael about it. The body was so discomposed that I considered it best to remove it as it was. The body was too much composed to be handled, and to be put into the coffin had to be lifted in the sheet. The lid of the coffin was firmly screwed on and I do not know how it got opened. I did not say that a man was drunk at the grave but at the hospital. I did not go to the cemetery with the corpse.
John Howick, Mr. Blachford’s assistant, said : I buried the corpse of Mrs. Searle. It was buried naked. I never knew a corpse to be buried naked before. Mr. Blachford and I screwed the lid on. The body was clear from the lid and could not press it open. When I got to the cemetery, Mr. Craig told me to leave the corpse beside the grave till he finished burying another corpse. I did so, lifting the coffin out of the hearse by myself. When I left it there was no one around; the lid was still firmly on, and I do not believe that a child could open it.
Alexander Craig, caretaker of the cemetery, said : I buried the corpse of Mrs. Bradt or Searle – she went by the name of Searle. The lid seemed to be firmly on. When I was going to get some men to help me I saw Searle going into the free grave yard. When I went back I met Searle who told me that the coffin lid was loose and the corpse was in a nude state. The screws projected above the coffin lid and must have been raised in some way either by the lid being pried up or by some one trying to lift the coffin by the cover. I knew of one other case where a body was buried in a nude state; it was in last May. Searle was very much excited but was not under the influence of liquor. I made no remark to Mr. Searle about getting clothes and did not offer to keep the body till Searle got the clothes.
Mrs. Pringle, night nurse, said : I remember Mrs. Searle. She died at 9:10 o’clock Sunday July 20. I washed the corpse and Mr. Young and Mrs. Steward took it away. I washed the entire body.
Mrs. Eby, day nurse in the women’s ward, said : Mrs. Searle brought two night dresses with her to the hospital. I knew nothing of Mrs. Searle’s burial. I found a parcel in Mrs. Searle’s drawer, but did not open it, as I had received no instructions as to what it contained. Never knew a patient to be buried without being properly dressed. The porter generally dresses the patients, except when it is done by friends. He applies to the nurses for clothes if they are not supplied. The parcel is still my care. I always take charge of the clothing which patients bring in a put in the wardrobe. I take a record of all effects and the steward takes the list for my book.
Mr. McMichael, steward, said : I never knew a corpse to be buried naked from the hospital. I remember when Mrs. Searle died. I and the porter carried the body from the ward to the morgue. I never saw the body. The undertaker usually puts the corpses in the coffins. I was at the morgue when the undertaker came to get the corpse., and told him which one to take. I did not know that the corpse was put into the coffin naked. Corpses are always dressed in a shroud. I saw the sheet pinned around the corpse, although it is generally thrown over the body after the clothing is put on.
A long discussion here arose as to the duties of the nurse and steward of the hospital, and as it promised to lead to a review of the entire by-law as well as an investigation into the duties of the officials of the institution, Mr. Blaicher objected to the chairman investigating the duties of Mr. McMichael, and asked that the committee keep to the main question.
Dr. Woolverton was next called, he said : I never knew a corpse to be buried without being dressed properly. I heard that Mrs. Searle was buried without being dressed. Mr. Searle came down and told me, I said, I did not think it was so, to which he replied that he knew it was so as a child had seen it. I again said I did not believe it to be so, but would see about it. I asked him why he did not come and see me about her. I did not tell him to go to hell, although he was very insolent. He said he would put it in the papers, and I said he could do as he pleased about that. I made inquiries at the hospital, but no one seemed to know anything about it. The next day I told the porter to ask Mr. Blachford about it. He did so and told me that Mr. Blachford said it was so. I asked Mrs. McMichael, but she said it was the nurse’s duty to see that the body was properly dressed and delivered to the undertaker. In case of post mortem examinations I always instruct the porter to wash the body. If there is no post mortem, the body is left up after being dressed until the undertaker takes charge. It is the nurse’s duty after a death to hand the patient’s clothes over to the steward, unless some friends claim them. On the day of the funeral, I instructed Mr. McMichael to look after the funeral. The porter was uptown at the time of the funeral. I did not send, but someone must have.”
The inquest ultimately found no one to blame for the incident and no penalties or reprimands were assigned to anyone at the hospital or the cemetery as a result of the unfortunate occurrence.
In the court of public opinion, however, there were many findings of guilt. Even in Toronto, the case was reported with damaging comments about the management of the Hamilton City hospital.
A poem on the case was published in the Toronto World:
"Owed – By the Managers and Officials of Hamilton City Hospital”
J. Keyelle in Toronto World
She was only a woman, hardworking and poor,
Who, in the long feud with the wolf at the door,
Was beaten. At last, by sickness o’erborne,
She crawled to the hospital n’er to return.
What matter – now death has her fast I his clutches,
Dump her into the coffin – who cares for such wretches?
Naked came she to earth, naked let her go,
We’re believers, and go by the scriptures, you know.
Bare was the mute face, bare the soft female frame,
Not a rag once spread o’er her for pity or shame;
Thrown in like a dog, in the rude box they made her,
With the lid loose above – in the field thus they laid her.
Was there no one around, fifteen cents could have spared,
For three yards of cotton, at five cents a yard?
Just to swathe the poor body that so late was – a woman;
For though she was poor, unlike you, she was – human.
God! Are there no Christians in Hamilton “town,”
Must economy so your best feelings grind down,
That the poor, who through life are by poverty tried,
Must of a Christian burial too be denied?