Construction workers made a macabre discovery May 2016 when they were renovating a garage for a home located in Sn Francisco.
Underneath a cement slab they unearthed a child's coffin measuring 3.5 feet, made of lead and bronze. Through two windows placed on the lid, a small, blonde toddler girl could be seen. She was perfectly preserved, dressed in a white dress and holding a rose.
Her elaborate, airless coffin had no markings or plaque to say who she was.
The home belongs to the Karner family who live in San Francisco's Richmond District, which in the late 1800s contained a number of cemeteries.
In the early 20th century, the city decided to develop the area and moved thousands of graves to Colma, but it seems that some were left behind.
During the year the child's coffin rested in a new grave in Colma, more information was ascertained about her, all in an effort to give her a name.
She wore a white christening dress with hand-stitched lace that would have dragged along the ground when she walked. Her blond hair had been laced with sprigs of lavender and a rosary of eucalyptus seeds lay on her chest.
She was believed to have died around 1870, when pinewood coffins sold for $2. Her elaborate glass and cast-iron vessel would have cost 10 times that much.
A clump of hair was plucked from the girl's bangs carefully, but not professionally, with hopes that the follicle tissue could provide samples of nuclear DNA which provides genetic information from both parents.
Within those thin shafts of hair lay a trove of useful information, said Eerkens, an archeology professor at UC Davis. "She has a pretty rare type of maternal ancestry," he wrote in an email. "We don't know a lot about it, but everyone living today, so far, who has this DNA signature is from the British Isles."
According to historians, when San Francisco was in its infancy, residents and businesses coalesced around San Francisco Bay. The dead were buried in what is now the financial district. But then came the Gold Rush of 1849, which flooded the city with new residents, new illnesses and death. Bodies in the financial district were exhumed and relocated west, closer to the ocean, to make way for the mass migration.
By the late 1880s, there were dozens of cemeteries in San Francisco, and most were full. Officials and developers deemed the burial grounds as more valuable to the living, and launched a decades-long campaign to evict the dead.
City crews and cemetery workers hauled hundreds of thousands of corpses south to what is now Colma. Today the city has about 1,500 living residents and more than 1.5 million bodies underground, including such historic figures as Wyatt Earp and William Randolph Hearst.
But Sederwall, a self-described cowboy from Texas who spends his post-law enforcement career solving centuries-old homicide cases, doubts all of the dead ever made it to Colma.
His research has found that workers simply dug straight trenches through the cemeteries and pulled out whatever bodies they hit along the way without minding maps or blueprints of the grounds to locate them all.
During a massive retrofitting project for San Francisco's Legion of Honor fine arts museum in 1993, the remains of more than 700 people were unearthed.
"What that tells me is you've got a playground that's probably got children under it. Houses with bodies," Sederwall said. He believes the mystery girl was one of those left behind.
Less than 100 yards from where the girl in the casket was found, a headstone for another man from roughly the same era was discovered, Sederwall said.
As he and his staff would come to learn, the area where the headstone and casket were found used to be part of the Odd Fellows Cemetery.
The Karner family has owned the home on Rossi Avenue since 1976. Growing up, the morbid history of the area was common knowledge, as was the possibility of unseen neighbors just below their feet.
"I had heard that during renovations that this does happen on occasion. But it's not something as a homeowner you're prepared to deal with," Karner said.
She and the family were vacationing in Idaho when workers tearing out the garage floor to build a new living room happened upon the casket.
They sent her photos and contacted the San Francisco medical examiner, who came, unsealed the casket, verified it was a real body, then left without taking on the case because officials decided it had been properly, legally interred 140 or so years ago.
"From a common sense standpoint, the city was the one that relocated bodies. They missed some. To many it seems like the city would still be responsible," Karner said.
Unsealed and exposed to the elements, the body began to rapidly decay. Suddenly, time was of the essence.
The city didn't help the Karners but did put in contact with an organization that would.
Elissa Davey of the Garden of Innocence, an organization that buries abandoned children, secured most of the funds needed to move and rebury the casket elsewhere.
Davey tapped her network of genealogists and grave hunters to join the effort.
An email in late June from a member of the network in Billings, Montana, explained why so many bodies were missed during the mass transport of graves to Colma a century ago.
"Bulldozers weren't involved in the removal process," he wrote. "The surface land was stripped bare at least seven years before actual digging began. The removal contractors placed string lines in an east-west orientation, spaced where experience told them the most graves would be intersected. Experts moved along those string lines, probing with hardened brass rods at set intervals. They could literally predict by feel and experience whether there was a casket, a collapsed grave, ashes or no grave at all below. Workers dug only where they marked and as deep as they marked. Everything was done by hand."
Using a cemetery map from 1900 and the headstone found near Karner's home as sign posts, the group concluded that the girl was likely buried in the Cosmopolitan section of the Odd Fellows Cemetery.
Thousands of burial records initially turned up dozens of candidates for the girl's identity, but they eventually lead to dead ends.
Nine people, including Sederwall in Arizona, a man in Seattle, a librarian in Ohio and an anthropologist in Berkeley, were all involved in the hunt.
Four psychics called and said they knew the girl's name. All four were different.
Amid the endless searching, the girl's decomposition accelerated because the casket was unsealed. In the end, Davey's and Karner's two young daughters decided to give the mystery girl a name, if for no other reason than to give her a proper burial.
On a gray Saturday morning, weeks after the casket was discovered, dozens of Bay Area residents, members of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and Davey's colleagues gathered at Greenlawn Memorial Park in Colma.
The group watched in silence as a new cherry wood coffin with the original casket enclosed within was lowered into the ground before a large, heart-shaped headstone made of granite.
One side of the monument had been etched with the name Miranda Eve and the partial epitaph, "If no one grieves, no one will remember." The other side of the headstone bore no words however.
It was kept smooth and ready for engraving. Just in case the mystery girl's true identity was ever discovered.
This came to pass on May 2017. Her name was Edith Howard Cook. The girl’s DNA was matched to that of a descendant now living in San Rafael.
Edith Howard Cook was born in San Francisco on November 28th, 1873. The daughter of Horatio Nelson Cook and Edith Scooffy Cook, she died of marasmus, a form of severe undernourishment on October 13, 1876, said Jelmer Eerkens, an archaeologist at UC Davis who analyzed Edith’s hair.
Marasmus is characterized by a severe deficiency in nutrients, particularly protein, and can be brought on by viral, bacterial or parasitic infections.
Chemical isotopes showed that in Edith’s last months, she essentially wasted away from malnutrition, he said. There was no evidence that doctors tried to use treatments popular at the time, such as morphine, mercury or cocaine.
First, the researchers needed a lead. The team had to find a map of Odd Fellows Cemetery that would show the layout at the approximate time Edith was buried.
A scale plan of the cemetery development in 1865 ultimately was found at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. Researchers overlaid the cemetery map onto the neighborhood where the casket was found.
The results narrowed the girl’s identity to two prime candidates. Thanks to the Internet and a culture of open records that existed from the 17th century to the 1960s, amateur genealogists were able to tap centuries of records of censuses, births, marriages, properties and deaths to trace up and down each candidates’ family tree. The whole effort took three people 3,000 hours, said Elissa Davey, who spearheaded the search for Edith’s identity.
Bob Phillips, a 65-year-old retired federal employee from Seattle, said he read about the casket’s discovery online and emailed Eerkens, the UC Davis professor, to volunteer his genealogy skills. Phillips traced Edith’s family back to the 1600s and then up to modern times. He found someone he believed to be a living grandson of Milton Cook, Edith’s older brother.
But the descendant, Peter Cook, 82, didn’t know his family tree on his father’s side back more than a generation. Some of the names Phillips mentioned sounded familiar, but there wasn’t enough to confirm that Peter Cook was related to Edith Cook, who would have been his great-aunt.
“In researching the family, particularly when we narrowed our focus down to Edith Cook and her family, you become kind of involved and you’re sort of rooting for it to be Edith,” Phillips said. “You can follow their family on through various articles and census records, and you get a kind of sense of who they were and what their life was like.”
The team met Peter Cook at his home in the fall and took a saliva swab for his DNA.
Because the girl was in a casket for more than 140 years, only about 10% of the DNA sequenced from the hair belonged to the girl. The rest was mostly fungus or other organisms.
The comparison between Peter Cook’s DNA and Edith’s turned up a 12.5% match along unique genomes that can be identical only along direct descendants.
Edith was the first daughter and second-born child in the Cook family, who was prominent in San Francisco in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Scooffy family, on Edith’s mother’s side, was among the first pioneers to arrive in San Francisco at the height of the Gold Rush, said Phillips, the amateur genealogist who helped find the girl’s identity.
Edith’s grandfather was Peter Scooffy, an oyster merchant who immigrated to the U.S. from Greece through New Orleans. There, in 1845, he married Martha Bradley, whose family lineage traces back to the earliest Virginia settlers. The couple moved to San Francisco, where they eventually had Edith’s mother.
On her paternal side, Edith’s grandfather, Matthew Mark Cook, hailed from England and her grandmother from Nova Scotia. The couple had seven children and moved to San Francisco years after the Scooffy family.
Among their children was Edith’s father, Horatio Cook. Together, Matthew and Horatio Cook established the family business, M.M. Cook & Son, a leather belting and hide-tanning business. After Matthew died, Horatio Cook continued to run the company with his sons (Edith’s brothers,) Milton and Clifford, and renamed the business H.N. Cook Belting.
The company remained in existence until the 1980s, when it merged with Hoffmeyer Belting and Supply Co. in San Leandro. The new business was then bought by San Diego Rubber Co. Inc. in 1994 and renamed Hoffmeyer Company Inc.
Though Edith wasn’t around to see it, her family became part of the “jet set” crowd in San Francisco in the early 20th century, Phillips said.
Edith’s younger sister, Ethel, was born after Edith died, and she grew up to become a San Francisco socialite.
In the book “Inventing Elsa Maxwell: How an Irrepressible Nobody Conquered High Society, Hollywood, the Press, and the World,” about a middle-class woman’s climb into the social strata, the author recalls a news clipping about Ethel Cook’s “secret” marriage to a prominent New Yorker.
The news clipping described Ethel Cook as the “reigning bell of San Francisco,” who once was “made famous by Grand Duke Boris of Russia, who drank a toast with champagne out of one of her slippers at a banquet and declared that she was the most beautiful American woman he had ever seen.”
Today, the family continues to thrive, according to Peter Cook.
Cook has eight children, 13 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. Already thoroughly knowledgeable about his wife’s and mother’s families, the phone call he received last fall regarding the mystery girl buried in San Francisco only expanded his family pride.
“I tried to trace my father’s side, and I got to my father and that was it,” Cook said. “All of a sudden they came with information on divorces, my grandfather went back to France on the USS Normandy. … Oh I think it’s fantastic. Jelmer [Eerkens] has got me back into the early 1700s. That really makes me feel good.”
Since Edith’s identity search began, the remains of three other people buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery location have been discovered and need to be identified, Davey said.
Little Edith's Ghost
At least twice in recent years, Ericka Karner said, she and her husband have heard the inexplicable sound of children’s footsteps running in the home. The couple have two daughters, but the children were sleeping or not where the steps were heard in both cases, she said.
Even after Edith’s body was found, disinterred and moved, the spooky steps still could be heard, Karner said. “We had a couple of contractors, on separate occasions, who thought they heard footsteps,” Each time, the contractors walked through the house looking for a child — possibly a wayward kid who had run into the house from a park across the street — and both times, the contractors found nothing.
“I’m not sure where I stand on where the soul goes, but my hope is … if she was still hanging around here figuring out where she needs to be, that her being identified will give her a little peace and she’ll potentially go off and be with her family, where she needs to be,” Karner said. “We felt that if anything, she was a friendly spirit. If she wants to stay and play, we’re totally OK with that!”
source LA Times
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by Marlene Pardo Pellicer