musings while allatsea

Musings of a curious individual

The girl from the past

Some time ago a strange story popped up in my radar, one that drew me because of the strangeness of it, and the other because it was such a poignant story that really had a satisfying ending.

On 9 May 2016, a contractor uncovered an old metallic coffin with windows set into it while working at the home of a family in San Francisco who were having their house renovated.  The old coffin was still sealed and contained the remains of a young girl who was seemingly perfectly preserved. 

The vast grindstone of bureaucracy pondered on the issue and declared vast amounts of money would be required to rebury her. At that point in time nobody could even put a name to her, or understand why she was there in the first place. As things go the story did not end there. In fact it dropped off the screens for a period, but all of us who had read it originally were asking the same questions: what happened since then? And, what did she look like? It was obvious that she dated from the Victorian era because the history of the town pretty much nailed down when there was a cemetery in the area, although it was cleared in the 1890’s; the remains exhumed and re-interred in a city called Colma. Colma is considered the city of the dead as it has 2 square miles of cemeteries. The clearance happened at least 10-15 years after Miranda was buried and our little time traveller had been left behind, undisturbed until she was rediscovered over a century after being laid to rest.

At this point I can only point the reader to one source that can tell the story better than I can, and it really makes for fascinating reading for those who have an interest in history, forensics and a good old fashioned sad story.  The primary source that I use is http://www.gardenofinnocence.org/miranda-eve-childs-casket-found-under-home.

It was decided that the home owner that had this abandoned coffin in her home would have the gift of naming the child.  She in turn asked her 4 and 6 year old daughters what they would like to name a little girl and they said her name will be Miranda. It is under that name “Miranda Eve” that she would be buried although it was hoped that a positive identification would be possible. 

An organisation, known as Garden of Innocence had decided to take on her reburial. The organisation provides dignified burials for abandoned and unidentified children, and this girl was definitely one of those.  A suitable casket was hand made with as much care as if she was the daughter of everybody involved in the project. Miranda was destined to undergo a second funeral, this time by the hand of strangers, but with the well wishes of large portions of the internet to accompany her in her new grave. 

On the 4th of June 2016 she was laid to rest once again, inside her original coffin that was placed in a wooden casket. She was seen off by over 100 strangers who had been touched by this girl from the past. Strands of her hair has been taken so that it could be analysed to shed light on a possible cause of death. DNA was also extracted and it would be used to compare with any possible family members that would be traced assuming that a tentative identification could be made. Garden of Innocence provided the headstone and memorial service for “Miranda Eve” as she was still unidentified. One side of her headstone was left blank in case they could eventually identify her

The house where she was found had been built in 1936 on what was the “Odd Fellows” Cemetery in the family plot in the Yerba Buena section, and that had “been cleared” in the 1890’s when the city of San Francisco decided that the dead were taking up too much space, and voted to have all burials stopped in the City and close the cemeteries. Approximately 300 000 bodies had to be exhumed and moved but the question does arise: how many other sets of remains are still buried underneath the neighbourhood? And how did she slip between the cracks and remain undiscovered when the house was being built? 

After long days and months of detective work, she was finally identified as being Edith Howard Cook; the second born child and first born daughter of Horatio Nelson Cook and Edith Scooffy Cook,  Born on the 28th of November 1873 she was just over 2 years and 10 months old when she died on the 13th of October 1876. Her identification was made possible by using old maps of the original cemetery and overlaying it with maps of the area, then finding a plot that was in the space where the house where she was found is. That would have yielded up a grave number and using records would yield a name. In total 3 children had been identified as “possibles”, and by taking DNA samples of possible relatives a positive match was made. Miranda now had a name. 

What did she die of? Thanks to the hair samples and records we know that she died of “Marasmus“, in short it is caused by a severe deficiency of nearly all nutrients, especially protein, carbohydrates, and lipids. Her family were relatively well off, so her nutrition would have been adequate, but we can only speculate as to what triggered this condition in the first place. It is possible that she was suffering from something else that caused her eating to tail off. We will never know because she did not end up on the autopsy table. What we do know is that she was buried with love, dressed in a long white christening dress embellished with elaborate lace work and wearing ankle high shoes and tiny purple “false indigo” flowers were woven into her hair and on a long necklace, similar to a rosary.

An image of her was taken and subsequently created as a “Fairy Tale Portrait”, by graphic artist Jennifer Onstrott Warner of Fairy Tale Portraits in Newport Beach and it turned out beautiful. To the best of my knowledge no untouched images of her were released, maybe that’s a good thing? Although I am still very curious about this little sleeping beauty.  

While reading this story I naturally turned to Google and the image search, and while I saw many iterations of that image I also saw many images of vapid celebrities and selfie’s posted to social media by the self absorbed and what a contrast it was.

And what a story this turned out to be.  In our modern mad world we were touched by a girl from 1876 who was forgotten and who lay undisturbed for over 145 years. Her own parents and siblings are long gone too, possibly even exhumed from the same cemetery? The question of what was the underlying cause of the Marasmus will never be answered, although in the 1870’s children led very precarious lives, and a simple childhood disease could be a killer. Modern medicine was still a long way into the future, although in our modern world there is a condition similar to Marasmus called Kwashiorkor, and it is still found in many third world countries. 

Miranda Eve rests in Greenlawn Memorial Park in Colma, her new headstone was unveiled on 10 June 2017 and it bears her name and date of birth and death, and a simple epitaph:

“I once was lost

but now I am found”. 

Rest in Peace Edith. 

Acknowledgements:

Garden of Innocence for what they did.  Image of headstone from their facebook page

Jennifer Onstrott Warner of Fairy Tale Portraits for the wonderful image that she created.

The many people who helped identify Edith and who “brought her home”

And the others who made her their own. Many pages made for fascinating reading especially the SF Weekly.

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