A receiving vault (sometimes called a dead house) was a structure designed to temporarily store the dead during the winter months when it was too difficult to dig graves by hand. When William Wells was exhumed in February 1895 from his grave in Union Cemetery, it took local gravediggers William and Joseph Luke three hours of hard work to carry out the task. William’s body was needed in a police investigation, and several of the Toronto daily newspapers were on site to report on the exhumation and noted the difficult conditions,
Heavy drifts had covered the spot in 3 feet of snow and access was only secured by shoveling a pathway to the place and no interments had been made in this part for a month. The ground was frozen 2 feet deep and two gravediggers set to work with shovels and picks to clear away the stone and earth from the coffin.
The Globe, February 15, 1895
Receiving vaults would be used to house the dead during the worst months of winter until burials could happen again. The receiving vaults would sometimes also be used to house bodies waiting for transportation or to have a mausoleum built. In times of epidemics, the vaults were used to store bodies until the graves could be dug.
To date, I haven’t found evidence of the early receiving vaults at Union Cemetery, however Melissa Cole and I were given access in 2019 to the receiving vault below the Union Cemetery mausoleum. An Oshawa Daily Times article on the new mausoleum, dating from 1928, briefly makes mention of the vault, “An important feature of the Oshawa mausoleum is that the basement contains forty-two crypts forming the Union Cemetery’s receiving vault for winter use…”
Union Cemetery’s receiving vault is located in the basement of the main mausoleum. Access to the vault is through a door at the back of the mausoleum. Inside the mausoleum is a lift (now boarded up) which lowered and raised coffins as needed.
Images: left column, top to bottom: Casket lift inside mausoleum; View of lift from inside the vault. It is boarded up and no longer used; Some of the 42 crypts in the vault. Right: Coffin trolley underneath the lift in the receiving vault.
One of the first things we noticed was the small size of the 42 crypts, unsuitable for the much larger casket dimensions of today.
Today, the vault, like most others, is no longer in use. Once equipment such as steam shovels and backhoes came into use, graves could be dug in the winter, and receiving vaults were no longer needed.
Recently one of my colleagues shared news of a project she was involved in to honour the more than 700 people who succumbed to influenza in the Wellington Region of New Zealand. The 1918 Influenza Kaori Cemetery Project was a two year project to remember those who died in the pandemic by cleaning their headstones, tidying burial plots and researching the family histories. This project prompted me to think about Oshawa’s Union Cemetery and how many Influenza victims from the 1918 pandemic were buried in the cemetery.
In an earlier blog post about the Spanish Influenza, Curator Melissa Cole noted how the pandemic affected Oshawa. The Spanish Flu reached the United States in March 1918 and soon after Canada, through troop, hospital and civilian ships sailing from England to Grosse Île. The Ports of Montreal and Halifax soon became the main routes of infection into Canada, however by late June/early July the Flu spread across the country via the railway. It came in multiple waves. The first wave took place in the spring of 1918, then in the fall of 1918, a mutation of the influenza virus produced an extremely contagious, virulent, and deadly form of the disease. This second wave caused 90% of the deaths that occurred during the pandemic. Subsequent waves took place in the spring of 1919 and the spring of 1920. Between 1917 and 1918 the deaths recorded in Oshawa increased by 67 to 213 as compared to 146 in the earlier year. Still, the situation in Oshawa was better than for many communities. At the height of the pandemic, beds where placed in the armouries to treat the sick, and all churches and schools were closed to prevent it from spreading.
To see just how devastating the Flu pandemic was in Oshawa, I turned to the Ontario, Canada, Deathsand Deaths Overseas 1869-1948 database for the Town of Oshawa, for the months starting October 1, 1918 until March 31, 1919. Within this database I was able to search for any cause of death listed as “Influenza,” “Spanish Flu,” and “Flu.” I also looked for any case where the secondary cause of death was listed as influenza. In some cases, the coroner listed the cause of death as “Pneumonia” following a case of “Influenza.” If influenza was mentioned, I included the death. This was not in any means a scientific review of the data, however there were a few observations I was able to make.
50 – number of people who died as a result of the flu or an illness following the flu during the 6 month period
23 – deaths were reported in those 25 years of age or younger
2 months – the age of the youngest victim – Robert Starie
70 years – age of the oldest victim – Alvin Terry
30 – number of those buried in Union Cemetery
Week of October 27-November 2 – the deadliest week in the 6 month period with 16 deaths. The previous week saw 15 deaths due to influenza. These 2 weeks accounted for more than half the deaths reported in the 6 month period.
October 1918 – the deadliest month with 35 deaths, followed by November 1918 with 7 deaths, February 1919 – 4 deaths, December 1918 with 3 deaths. January 1919 reported only 1 death and 0 deaths were reported in March 1919.
Remembering some of the victims of the pandemic
Hattie Maud (Ham) Hewson lived on Ontario Street with her husband William when she passed away at the age of 39. Her official death record lists miscarriage and influenza as her causes of death. William passed away in 1960.
Alex Swankie was a Private with the 37th Battalion and fought in France with the 60th Battalion C.E.F. He was born in Scotland, November 11, 1891 and was a machinist by trade. According to his Attestation Papers, he signed up for the military in Niagara, June 10, 1915. He was discharged from the 60th Battalion in early 1917 as the result of a knee injury and was in outpatient treatment in Toronto until October 31, 1918. Alex died February 16, 1919 at the age of 27 of pneumonia and influenza.
Melville and Rose Babcock
Melville and Rose (Darlington) Babcock were married in 1900 and both died within one week of each other from the Flu. Melville was the first to pass away on October 21 1918 at the Oshawa Hospital after suffering from the Flu for one week and pneumonia for 3 days. Rose is listed as the informant for Melville’s death. Six days later, on October 27, 1918, Rose also succumbed to the flu at Oshawa Hospital. Rose is buried in Union Cemetery as noted in the death registry however there was no burial location noted. There is a good possibility he is also in Union Cemetery.
Influenza also touched the lives of two well known Oshawa families. Marjorie Gibson Hoig Lander was a young mother of at least 3 children when she passed away from influenza on November 7, 1918. Marjorie was the daughter of Oshawa’s Dr. Hoig, and she married coal merchant Elgin Vesta Lander in 1910. Lander was a successful coal and wood merchant, and the couple lived at 221 Simcoe Street North, just south of Parkwood. Daughters Alice and Virginia were born in 1913 and 1915 followed by son David in 1917. Marjorie was only 31 years old when she died. Her husband Elgin remarried in 1927 and died in 1976. Both are buried in Union Cemetery.
The year 1919 was not kind to the McGregor family. Daughter Gladys Mae died in February of the flu, aged 13. Her father Robert McGregor, a harness maker, died in June 1919 from Tuberculosis and mother Lucy Parish McGregor died in November 1919 of nephritis (swelling of the kidney). All three are buried in Union Cemetery. Robert and Lucy had other children who would have been left orphans by their parents’ deaths.
Oldest Section of Cemetery Grew up About Old Brick Church of Which the Rev. Robert H. Thornton, D.D., was Founder and Life Long Pastor – Board of Governors Now Handles Cemetery Affairs
Union Cemetery, west of the municipal boundaries on King west is the other Oshawa Oshawa – a forever silent city of the dead. Richly endowed by nature and adorned by skillful gardencraft, the solemn acres of the municipal necropolis couch their reminder of mortality’s common fate in stately beauty. Its thousands of memorials link the wilderness days of Ontario County with its modern development. The moss grown headstone of the pioneers are but a part of an empire which rules the hallowed dust of generations.
The best local authorities find that the oldest section of what is now known as Union Cemetery grew up about the old Brick church of which the Rev. Robert H. Thornton, D.D., was the founder and life-long pastor. St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church of the United Church of Canada on Simcoe Street is the existing body of that pioneer stronghold of Christian worship.
About 1875, however, a company was formed to lay out the cemetery adjoining the elder burial place. The company was known as the Union Cemetery Company, and functioned until 1922 when, owing to the beneficence of Mr. George W. McLaughlin, it and the older mortuary property were purchased and presented to the City of Oshawa, and along with that [part] went deeds to land which would provide for necessity of future expansion.
A Board of Governors was appointed and the financing of the cemetery on a perpetual upkeep basis was effected. This system provides a trust fund which draws a percentage from the purchase price of each grave, perpetually set aside to the upkeep of the graves and memorials, and beautification of the cemetery in general.
While this plan of financing works automatically only in the newer development, families interested in the older parts of the cemetery are permitted to endow their plots under the upkeep plan. Many have taken advantage of this scheme, and it is expected that before very long only the very oldest sections of the united cemeteries will have their upkeep provided for out of community resources.
In 1924 the Union Cemetery Mausoleum was erected. This beautiful citadel of death provides vaults for above-ground interment, both individually and for groups, even up to private rooms. It has a central chapel through the stained glass window of which the sun’s light falls in a colourful benediction. The basement of the mausoleum is the cemetery’s receiving vault for winter funerals.
The Board of Governors for 1927 include D.A. Valleay, chairman; A. J. Stalter, A.A. Crowle, and C.J. Wilcox. The city being represented by the mayor by virtue of office.
The Oshawa Museum is pleased to partner with Union Cemetery in offering historical walking tours on the first Saturday of the Month, May to August, starting at 2pm. For more info, please contact the Museum.
In almost every town there are those people who are known by their behaviours or actions as eccentrics. In Oshawa, the Terwilliger sisters were certainly regarded as somewhat unusual, and maybe even eccentric.
For much of its history, Oshawa, Ontario, has been known as an industrial hub and was often referred to as, “the Manchester (England) of Canada.” However there was a time during the 1840s when the town gained notoriety as one of the centres for the Millerite craze. During the winter of 1842-1843 many people were captivated by the teachings of William Miller, an American farmer and evangelist, who preached that the Second Advent of Christ would occur shortly. His followers believed Christ would appear in person to claim his earthly kingdom, and the world would be destroyed by fire. Stories of Oshawa farmers giving away all their livestock and farm implements were locally reported. One of the most interesting stories connected with this period concerns the Terwilliger sisters, Sarah and her older sister Clarissa.
Clarissa (sometimes known as Clara) and Sarah were daughters of local farmer Abraham Terwilliger. They lived in a beautiful brick mansion on the main road in the east end of town. Their family was among the earliest settlers in the area, arriving from New York State in about the year 1816. The sisters were said to be clairvoyants and became quite notorious in the Oshawa area for hosting free séances at their father’s home. Local resident and amateur historian Samuel Pedlar attended one such séance with a party of unbelievers and noted, “that while some (of the party) may have been impressed with startling noises and rappings, others could see nothing in them but something to excite a subdued merriment.”
Sarah so fervently believed in Miller’s vision that on February 14, 1843, the evening before the predicted end of the world, she made herself a pair of silk wings and jumped from her father’s porch with the expectation of departing this world ahead of the fire and flying to heaven. Thomas Conant, in his 1898 book Upper Canada Sketches, gives an account of what reportedly happened next:
…falling to the ground some fifteen feet she was shaken up severely and rendered wholly unfit to attend at all to the fires that were expected… The wings were made of silk. Though in the picture, they appear to do their work, they did not prevent the wearer falling to the ground about fifteen feet, and suffering the result in a broken leg.
The incident, as one would expect, garnered quite a lot of excitement in town.
Unfortunately, other than this story of blind faith, the historical record does not tell us much more about the Terwilliger sisters. While Sarah’s burial place remains unknown, Clarissa was said to be buried in Oshawa’s Union Cemetery. Often overshadowed by her “flying” sister, I was determined to find out more about Clarissa in order to shed some light on her story. I always felt sorry for Clarissa, partially because of the family’s notoriety even 175 years later and partly because I believe no one’s story should be lost to history. After much research, I found Clarissa’s gravestone in the South Presbyterian section of the cemetery, located near one of the old access roads. The upright stone features a small tympanum with a weathered carving flanked by graceful scrolling to the shoulders. A floral wreath enclosing a delicate carving of clasping hands adorns the upper part of the memorial. A few flowers additionally grace the side of the stone. The stone reads, “In Memory of Clara Terry, Died.” All in all, it is a fairly typical gravestone of the time, except for two things: the lack of any other information, including a death date (even though there is a spot for one) and the phrase at the bottom of the stone which reads “Erected by Clara Terry.” Why would someone go to the trouble to make sure everyone knew that she erected her own gravestone? Perhaps more research would shed some light on the mystery. It was back to the archives I went to uncover more information.
Clarissa’s “attempting to fly” sister, Sarah, died about the year 1869. Shortly thereafter, Clarissa married the much younger (by as much as 10 years), John Terry, a medicine peddler and farmer of East Whitby. In the 1871 Census of Canada, Clarissa and John lived in East Whitby Township with a young woman (possibly household help) named Harriet Young, then 23 years old. Sadly, John and Clarissa’s union appears to have ended; by the 1881 census, John Terry is living only with Harriet, and they have a six-month-old boy named Frederick. Clarissa is still listed as living in East Whitby, but she appears to have moved closer to her parents, Abraham and Alma Terwilliger. I’ve often wondered if the end of Clarissa’s marriage prompted her to place the inscription about who was responsible for her gravestone, almost as if she was declaring her independence for all eternity. Unfortunately, unless new information is unearthed, we will probably never know. We do know that in 1891, Clarissa is living with Chauncy Terwilliger, likely a relative. The 1901 census lists her as boarding with Alfreda Chatterson.
Clarissa passed away in Oshawa on July 17, 1905 — which begins the second mystery. Although her gravestone is present in Union Cemetery, official cemetery records show Clarissa is not actually buried there. No birth or death dates are listed on the stone. It can be surmised that, for whatever reason, Clarissa was buried in a still-unknown location. She may have ultimately been laid to rest in another local cemetery with her parents.
Hopefully, this is not the end of Clarissa’s story. It’s unfortunate that even 175 years after her sister jumped from the porch in a religious frenzy, the Terwilliger sisters are still associated with this eccentric act. I think it is important to separate Clarissa, the daughter, sister, wife, and friend, from the story of one of Oshawa’s most notorious episodes. Her gravestone with the “Erected by Clara Terry” inscription is a reminder that she did not always conform to Victorian society’s expectations of women and did things her own way.
An earlier version of this article appeared in The Association for Gravestone Studies Quarterly in Spring 2017
Most of the grave markers in Union Cemetery are made of marble or granite, however scattered throughout the cemetery grounds are distinct bluish grey monuments. Although referred to as white bronze, the monuments were made of a refined zinc which was referred to as white bronze to distinguish it from dark or antique bronze. Manufactured the Monumental Bronze Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut beginning in 1875, the stones were at their most popular in the 1880s and 1890s.
An 1885 issue of Scientific American detailed the manufacturing process of the white bronze monuments. Initially designs were modeled in clay and reproduced in plaster of Paris from which a cast is taken. This procured a perfect metal pattern from which the monument was moulded and cast in ordinary way. The different parts of the monument were joined together by pouring molten metal of the same material as the castings. Finally the monument was given a sand blast which gave it its beautiful appearance and, according to the manufacturer, much better than copper bronze which becomes black once exposed to the elements.
Although the white bronze monuments were all manufactured in Bridgeport, Ct., the final assembly work was done at subsidiary plants in the United States and in Canada at the White Bronze Company of St. Thomas (Ontario). Monuments could be ordered through sales agents or catalogues and came in sizes ranging from a few inches to almost 15 feet in height. Embellishments such as flowers, crosses, name plates, figures and symbols could be added to personalize the monument at no cost. A monument could be purchased relatively inexpensively with prices ranging from a few dollars upwards of $5,000.
The White Bronze Company advertised their monuments were almost indestructible due to their composition and were impervious to the ravages of frost, moss, and lichen and would not change colour. The raised lettering remained legible and the removal tablets made customization easy. Scientific American proclaimed the refined zinc was “so well adapted to monumental purposes that it will ultimately supersede all other materials.” Of course these claims elicited strong opposition from the marble and granite dealers and carvers who claimed the bronze monuments would not hold up to the ravages of climate and in fact looked like cheap imitations of stone. Some cemeteries even banned monuments not made of stone due to pressure from the stone industry.
True to their claims, the white bronze monuments are a researcher’s friend as they have legible lettering and have held up well to the elements.
By 1914 metal had become too valuable a commodity due to the war and the White Bronze Monument Company ceased production of monuments, although they still produced name plates and embellishments for many years after.
In Union Cemetery there are 13 white bronze monuments as well as 5 smaller flat laying footstones.
Stayed tune for our exciting new Union Cemetery tour featuring the white bronze monuments coming next summer!