by Tim Gilmore, 5/30/2019
1. A Thousand Ways into the Story
The question is whether the story should begin with the bizarre love story or the gruesome case of the kidnapped corpse. That’s not true either. The question is not where the story begins. No story begins where it begins. I could as well begin with the question of why the current owners left caskets, personal funeral records and human cremains behind.
The question concerns whether I lead (or “lede” in traditional newspaperspeak) with the insurance company’s invasion of the funeral home or the marriage or the abandonment. The beginning of every story is the end of the last one. All the way down.
It was 2016 when the urban explorer who goes by the name Bullet crawled into the abandoned funeral home and found more than a hundred caskets discarded and homeless people sleeping in a hearse.
But I’ll go chronologically. More than a century back, 1913, dismemberment came before matrimony. So though it will still seem odd in the 21st century that funeral homes once operated their own ambulances, and though we’ll make jokes about conflicts of interest, at least it will look like a happy ending. For a moment. Until we go back further to the gunsmith undertaker and then forward to the wicker and wooden caskets, the embalming table, and the boxes of cremated remains the new owners of the old building abandoned in the middle of the city.
2. A “Gruesome Story in Dixie” and a Wedding
The case would take 15 years to work its way through the court system. Though the specifics looked immediately suspicious, the results seem profoundly unjust and the means positively medieval.
On the first of June, The Tampa Tribune referred to E.O. Painter as “one of Florida’s best citizens—a captain of industry and consistent Christian—a rare combination in these days of commercialism.” (The Baltimore Underwriter would later say Painter’s profession was “capitalist.”) The week prior, undertakers Harry Moulton and Samuel Kyle had fished him out of the St. Johns River. A friend who was with him at the time said Painter had “lost his balance” in “a fit of coughing” that flung him overboard. Friends saw him “struggling in the water,” and though they called him “a good swimmer,” he soon sank.
Painter, a printer and fertilizer manufacturer who’d taken over the Jacksonville newspaper Florida Agriculturist in 1886, carried almost $2 million in life insurance, nearly $52 million in today’s money. The “insurance men,” whose company the Tribune did not at first name, panicked. One headline said, “Insurance Companies Take Painter’s Body” and “Gruesome Story in Dixie in Dissection of Remains.”
“Cold in death in the undertaking establishment, and before the inquest was held,” the Tribune reported, “doctors representing insurance companies invaded the death chamber with knives, saws and surgical instruments, and literally cut the body of E.O. Painter to pieces.”
Insurance agents were desperate to find evidence Painter had either “suicided,” an awkward noun-verb confusion common at the time, or been murdered. They wanted a way out of paying up. Painter’s family and friends feared his body parts would be “doped” with poison on the way to Baltimore for analysis.
The story continued like a splatter film: “The skull of E.O. Painter was sawed off and his brain removed—his stomach was cut open and his intestinal organs removed—his chest was cut open and his heart removed,” and so on.
Acting Coroner Charles Abbott told the press that no law forbade any individual from dismembering a corpse. Though he expressed “great indignation,” Abbott said the law precluded the selling of corpses, but whether surgeons acting as agents of an insurance company could be arrested or prosecuted for stealing and mutilating a corpse seemed doubtful.
Smaller lawsuits spun off from the case. One went to the Florida Supreme Court. Companies settled for paying about $700,000, though as late as 1928, after Painter’s beneficiaries had died, the Fifth U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed Pennsylvania Mutual Life’s recovery of $100,000 from the administrator of the dead beneficiaries.
But all’s well that ends well. A month after the “Dixie Dissection,” on July 7th, in what The Florida Times-Union called probably the strangest wedding ever to occur in Jacksonville, John Stout of Ohio married South Carolina’s Eunice Whitcomb in the ambulance of Moulton and Kyle, Undertakers. Stout, “determined that [Whitcomb’s] illness not interfere with the culmination of a very romantic love affair,” married her en route from the DeSoto Sanitarium at West Fifth Street and Boulevard to the home of a Mr. E.M. Sikes at 1014 East Church Street.
The ambulance first made a stop at the Office of the Justice of the Peace on Clay Street to grab an officiant. Stout and Whitcomb had only been in town a short while, but had wasted no time finding each other and falling in love. Whitcomb had arrived from South Carolina “several weeks ago,” while the newspaper identified Stout only as “a traveling man, who came here from Ohio.”
The T-U ended its story, “Little could be ascertained as to the reason for the strange wedding, as the entire matter was kept hidden as completely as possible.” Since we have to leave Whitcomb and Stout behind now, let’s graciously assume they lived happily ever after. Surely it happens.
3. The Mark and Sheftall Building for Moulton and Kyle
The brick funeral home that architects Earl Mark and Leroy Sheftall designed in 1914 for Moulton and Kyle, Undertakers, waits, the urban earth slowly subsuming it, and heavy chandeliers and armchairs and coffins and paper records a century old collect humid dust and mold. Every story is of the earth and the earth reclaims it quickly.
The building molders at the corner of Union and Main Streets, stranded between State and Union Streets, crisscross-expressways through Northern Downtown, and between the multi-block complexes of First Baptist Church, to the south, and Florida State College at Jacksonville’s Downtown Campus. Ferns and fungi grow from the dark red bricks. Bearded and disheveled men sit against the boarded-up brick garage that was added in 1926, drinking from paper bags.
This is the old building Harry Moulton and Samuel Kyle made their new headquarters just after their strange year with the corpse-napping and the ambulance wedding. It’s where Bullet flipped the light switch and found the electricity still working in 2016. It’s where he found Moulton and Kyle’s century-old George State Board of Embalming certificate and shelves holding a century’s worth of funeral records. It’s where he found a Coca-Cola vending machine pulled up alongside a coffin.
4. Rifles, Flasks and Caskets
How, anyway, should a story be told? Most of us want it chronological, want it to knock us off our feet right away but end neatly. We want, in this is Age of Addiction, what we want and have little patience to get it.
But what shapes of story tell it more truly? What if we graphed it across the landscape and not across time? What if the story, therefore, instead of a line or an arc from beginning to end, looks more like an asterisk? Or something much less orderly? What strange designs does a story depict across the land? You can walk this story all over Downtown.
To begin again, we could start this particular story with Calvin Oak. A Vermont gunsmith by trade, Oak came to Jacksonville in 1851. Ads placed the following year promised he and his son “prepared to manufacture at short notice any kind of rifle or other gun in a style unsurpassed by other manufacturers.” C. Oak & Son also sold “powder, shot, lead, percussion caps, flasks, pouches and belts,” and so on.
An extremely talented metalworker, Oak soon diversified his product offerings. Not only could you leave his shop on Bay Street just west of Ocean Street with a whiskey flask and a gun, but you could time your shots as well. Oak made watches, but also imported from the North a large collection of clocks, watches and silverware.
In 1856, he expanded the business to undertaking. Now you could buy a casket and a gun from Calvin Oak and kill two birds at once. He advertised “metallic burial cases and wood coffins” as well as “ladies’ and gentlemen’s roses,” with “embalming done when required.”
According to a 17-page 1937 booklet, Advertising of the Barnett National Bank’s 60th Anniversary, Oak “used to stand on the dock when Charleston steamers came in and with a tall rod gauge the height of the passengers as they left the steamboat. He would estimate the sized coffin needs for any he thought would not survive the Winter, then return to his shop and get them ready so there would be no delay when the time came.”
Charles and George Clark joined Oak’s undertaking establishment at 25 Laura Street. When Calvin Oak died in 1881, 30 years after coming to Jacksonville with tuberculosis and a prognosis of six months to live, his son Byron continued the business until his own death at 44 years old in 1889. The Clarks took over the business at 71 West Forsyth.
The brothers list as “marble cutters” and undertakers at Pine (Main) Street and Adams in 1887. By the 1890s, Charles Clark lived and worked at 50 and 52 West Forsyth, then 40 and 42, where he’d rebuild after the Great Fire of 1901. By that time, George had cofounded Clark and Burns, Undertakers, at 305 Main Street, and became Charles’s main competitor.
The year after the Great Fire reduced the core of the city to ashes, Charles Clark hired Michigan architect Thomas White to build the handsome three-story limestone building that stood for most of a century at 38 West Forsyth Street. A fanlight radiated from the wide sidewalk display window. Charles lived on the two floors above the funeral home, beneath the dentils of the metal cornice, the cartouche at the top of the building that said, “Chas. A. Clark,” and the decorative urn that rose appropriately from the top. Later, at Calvin Oak’s grave in the Old City Cemetery, I find the decorative urn toppled from his monument. As though Charles Clark were shaking my hand.
Moulton and Kyle learned undertaking from the Clark Brothers, just as the Clarks had learned it from Calvin and Byron Oak. In 1913, we come to the strange stories that turned Moulton and Kyle’s ambulance into a wedding chapel and the funeral home in the Chas. A. Clark Building on West Forsyth into the most tasteless of horror movies.
5. What Dreams Did Come
The following year, when Mark and Sheftall, Southern Prairie style architects, protégés of Jacksonville’s Henry John Klutho, built Moulton and Kyle’s dark brick showcase building at Union and Main, the Chas. A. Clark Building became the Republic Theater. Moulton and Kyle continued George Clark’s business while Charles Clark traded funerals for movies. Where for years the dead had lain waiting for final goodbyes from their erstwhile family and friends, now dreams cast themselves on screens for the delight and wonder of the general living.
The Republic showed black-and-white silent movies to adults for a quarter and to children for a dime. Before he teamed up with Stan Laurel to form the most popular comedic duo in early film history, Oliver Hardy sang “illustrated songs” at the Republic. Accompanied by piano, a singer of “illustrated songs” stood alongside projections of glass slides, a dozen a song, which featured “mysterious” effects like blurring and shading and the dissolution and reappearance of ghostlike beings. It’s a longlost performance art.
The new art form, the moving picture, associated itself most closely with dreams. So came Theda Bara, the Original Vamp, to the Republic. With her dark and fulsome locks and dark eye makeup, she mesmerized audiences. The very dream of sex and death as one, she appeared in promotional materials wearing white pantalettes and crawling across a supine skeleton, the victim of her vampirism, her long and lush hair falling into his emptied ribcage.
In 1928, six years before the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code’s “moral standards,” the Republic showed the scandalous new movie The Road to Ruin, “Adults Only,” advertising in newspapers around the state. The movie critic for Variety magazine complained that despite its wholesome morals, it was “crude and hotly sexed.” The story follows the life of 16 year old Sally as she begins to smoke and drink and sleep with older men. After being arrested for playing strip poker, Sally gets an infection from an unsanitary abortion and ends up on her deathbed. With her mother holding her hand on one side and her father at the other, Sally says, “It seemed like such a beautiful road, but it was only the road to ruin,” and dies.
While Moulton and Kyle, ensconced in their new building up on Union Street, prepared the finished bodies of prominent citizens for their families to see one last time, honorable merchants dealing in death and the dead, down in the Chas. A. Clark Building on Forsyth, as many as 700 guests immersed themselves in new worlds of flickering dreams, astounded at the skipping shades of men and women seemingly projected directly from the imagination.
Hamlet himself must have wandered, years before, through the funeral home at night, foreseeing the “moving picture,” and soliloquizing, “To die, to sleep—to sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub, for in this sleep of death what dreams may come!”
Now connect these dots: In 1936, Moulton dies and Moulton and Kyle becomes Kyle-Swanson until Swanson dies in ’38 and Kyle-Swanson becomes S.A. Kyle, Inc. until, more than two decades later, Samuel Kyle partners with Samuel McLellan, and in ’61, S.A. Kyle becomes Kyle-McLellan, which it remains until long after Kyle dies at the end of 1969.
Meanwhile, by 1940, back in the Chas. A. Clark Building, the Republic Theater becomes The Roxy, but not that Roxy, not the Roxy renamed the Roxy Follies on Beaver Street that showed pornography. Nor did this Roxy become the Ellwest Stereo Theater, shut down in 1980 by the Sheriff’s Office and a five-year campaign against pornography led by the city’s ruling Baptist preachers. The Ellwest Stereo, a 24 hour porn theater and store where illegal acts occurred in confined booths, stood on West Adams Street where the Duval County Courthouse now stands.
In its last years, the Roxy, formerly the Republic, formerly Charles Clark’s funeral home, contained a “juice restaurant” and a franchise of the music store chain called The Record Bar.
In the early 1990s, the gloriously storied building was demolished to make room for a parking garage for the Jacksonville Landing shopping mall. The garage was never built, just an asphalt parking lot. The Clark Building, of course, is gone forever, a total waste of dreams and stories and history and architecture. At least the historic Florida National Bank and Bisbee Buildings still stand across Forsyth Street.
7. The Story Where All Roads Meet
At least Mark and Sheftall’s building for Moulton and Kyle still stands. For now. Though it cries out for a savior.
Inside, Bullet stepped across red Persian carpeting beside a beautiful redbrick fireplace. One chandelier hung overhead and another had fallen partially through the ceiling and dangled just above the floor. Golden shadowed leaded glass windows stared into an empty vestibule in the chapel where broken boards and a snowstorm of paint chips covered the century-old wooden pews.
I speak with Robert Peeples, owner of Peeples Family Funeral Home, by phone, ask him if I can meet with him for as short a visit as 15 minutes. I tell him I’m interested in the long history of the business, from him back to Calvin Oak in 1851. He says he doesn’t understand what I’d want to talk about. I make my case as best I can, express my fascination with history and my belief in its importance. He says he has nothing to say. It doesn’t interest him at all.
Bullet doesn’t know why the Peeples family abandoned the old funeral home the way they did, “but,” he says, “they left behind people’s personal belongings and a lot of personal information.” When Bullet explored the building and photographed it in 2016, he found “funeral records dating back to the early 1900s, boxes of cremated remains, and file folders full of the personal information of the people they buried.”
Though Kyle-McLellan traced its history back to Oak’s, calling itself the oldest business in the city, Peeples Family Funeral Home, which bought Kyle-McLellan in 1992, has severed the connection. Bullet assumes Peeples Family Funeral Home abandoned the Mark and Sheftall building to focus on their name and not be associated with the previous business. The Peeples family, which opened their first funeral home on Soutel Drive on the Northside in 1968, moved 12 miles north of Downtown near the airport in 2013.
Whether or not the Peeples family respects the history and architecture they’ve subsumed, Bullet does his UrbEx, or Urban Exploration, he says, with deep respect. If that contrast is ironic, it’s because Bullet’s a Romantic. He sees the beauty in ruins, in the perpetual return of the humanmade world to the earth, and thinks of the stories that enacted themselves, most now lost to our knowledge forever, in once grand structures.
“I haven’t had many people criticize me for trespassing,” Bullet says. “I’ve had police officers compliment my work and how I go about showcasing it.”
He was worried when he first scouted the old funeral home, but quickly found a way in. “There were so many homeless people inside,” he says. One person was asleep inside in a hearse. On the automobile turntable in the boarded-up garage, someone else was “hanging on the underside of a truck.” Others hid in a room on the upper floor.
The electricity still worked, so Bullet turned on the lights. In addition to thousands of private personal records and boxes of cremated remains, he found a glass embalming table, at least a hundred caskets of all sizes, old photographs, bottles of fluids marked poisonous and fatal if swallowed, and obsolete funeral equipment.
The cremated remains of Mildred Josephine Pittman have waited here in a wooden box marked “This is only a temporary container” since 1948. Ultimately, everything’s temporary, so the statement’s still true. Mildred’s ashes had come to Moulton and Kyle from Southern Crematorium and Columbarium at 323 Riverside Avenue, where Park Street touches the St. Johns River.
The Office of the Duval County Medical Examiner tells me that as long as the remains have been processed, it’s no crime to leave them behind. I wonder how Charles Abbott would square that fact with the legality of dismembering a corpse a century ago. At least it’s no Howell’s Morning Glory Chapel, where authorities found more than 70 unprocessed and unidentifiable corpses and body parts on the Eastside in the summer of 1988.
Even in its current state of terrible disrepair and decay, the old funeral home is exquisite. Its decline makes Bullet sad. When he posted his photographs at abandonedsoutheast.com and abandonedflorida.com, they made news as far away as England. He included them in his book Abandoned Jacksonville: Ruins of the First Coast.
A month ago, Peeples finally listed the property for sale, Watson Realty, $599,000. Surely someone has both the vision and the means. The entrepreneur who opens a brewery here, a restaurant, a bakery, architectural offices, a museum, or art studios will have saved both a building and an entire mythos.
That visionary will connect new ventures to the oldest business in the city. Calvin Oak will lend his long experience and expertise. Mildred Josephine Pittman will be sure to attend. Theda Bara, the Original Vamp, will devour a male victim to illustrate a song for Oliver Hardy. The hearse could house a wedding chapel, the funeral chapel a full bar. We could call it “The Road to Ruin,” although, truth is, all roads lead right here, and that’s the shape of this story on the landscape. So, somebody, step up.