Image: Michael Byers

IT’S SATURDAY NIGHT. AND FIRST AVENUE IS HAUNTED. Early evening traffic pours toward Belltown. Couples on date night weave through the crowd like conjoined twins. SUVs stop midblock in the manner of lost drivers everywhere. And, at the intersection where Pike Street runs into Seattle’s famous market, 17 people gather to hear about the ghosts of Pike Place.

A late February wind whips off the Sound and around the group as a tour guide chatters through a quick speech. “This is Dr. Linda Burfield Hazzard.” A woman with deep-set eyes glares out from a photo taken more than a century ago. “And this is one of her victims, Dorothea Williamson.” The victim looks like a skeleton in a dress. The guide explains that Hazzard, accused of starving her patients to death, had ties to legendary undertakers E. R. Butterworth and Sons. “And now we’re going inside the Butterworth Chapel.”

The chapel is the money shot on the Market Ghost Tour. In November 2010, KOMO 4 ran a news segment titled “Ghost Hunt,” filmed on location at Kells Irish Pub, which now occupies the ground floor of the former Butterworth funeral home. KOMO interviewed an internationally known paranormal investigator who said, “This place was the site of a very corrupt mortuary.” A KOMO newscaster spared no alliteration to elaborate. E. R. Butterworth and Sons, she said, were “accused of collecting corpses for cash.” The reference was to a book titled Cemeteries of Seattle, which reports that in the early 1900s undertakers raced each other to stockpile dead bodies, for which the city would pay $50 a head. The implication was that the Butterworths were among the hearse racers.

The claim makes for a good tale. But Bert Butterworth Jr.—E. R. Butterworth’s great-great grandson—says it ain’t so. “With all due respect,” he boomed through the phone on a recent afternoon, “you have no idea what you’re talking about.” The 63-year-old retired funeral director is good-humored about the ghoul stories associated with his family’s business. Reporters have been requesting interviews (usually around Halloween) since the late ’80s. But he puts his foot down when it comes to talk of corruption.

E. R. Butterworth and his sons were innovators. It could be argued, in fact, that they invented the American funeral as we know it. At the very least, they helped popularize the expensive rites (satin-lined open caskets, lavish limousine processions) we’re accustomed to today. And like so many world-changing innovators—Bill Boeing, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos—they did it right here in Seattle.

Was it messy? Sure. But to get the real story you have to go back 100 years.

 

STREETCAR NO. 23 CARVED through the afternoon traffic that clogged First Avenue. Model Ts, black as ravens, swerved off the path reserved for the electric trolley as it hummed northward, past the regal Grand Central and Brunswick hotels, across Columbia Street. Horse-drawn wagons—a rarer and rarer sight on the streets—lurched to the side as the conductor chimed the streetcar bell. Pedestrians darted left and right. Women’s ankle-length skirts, with accordion-pleated flounces, swayed below jackets made of white serge or black satin; soft felt hats, elaborately feathered numbers from which one half expected doves to emerge, balanced improbably atop the women’s heads. The men—almost universally moustached, their moon-white mugs capped with bowler hats—sported crisp collars and ties. Tucked under a few arms, the latest edition of The Seattle Daily Times, August 7, 1911.

Every few blocks clouds of steam escaped from beneath the street and lingered on the sidewalk like phantoms. The car crossed Pike Street, home of the new Public Market, and slid past Bartell Drugs and, on the left, the Butterworth Building, the last place in 1911 (or in any time) a Seattleite hoped to be destined.

If a rider were unlucky enough to have business at E. R. Butterworth and Sons, he’d jump off the streetcar just before 1921 First Avenue, where he’d be greeted by the building’s Greco-Roman arches, a passageway, of sorts, from this life into the next. There was nothing like it in the United States. Maybe nothing like it in the world. Five stories built for and dedicated to the business of death.

Edgar Ray Butterworth, 64, and his five sons, notably 39-year-old Gilbert, were the most successful undertakers in King County and were prominent among Seattle’s ruling class. E. R., as he was known, had served in the state legislature and chaired the Republican caucus. He and Gilbert were active in a number of masonic orders and regulars at the Arctic Club, the Third Avenue cognac-sipping and cigar-smoking salon where the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition was conceived.

It’s said that it sometimes took E. R. and Gilbert, either together or alone, an hour to walk three blocks on the city’s bustling streets. The elder Butterworth, instantly recognizable by the long goatee that flagged his chin, and his son, high cheekboned and handsome, were so well known and had put so many people to rest that the greetings, handshakes, and back pats were endless.

There was little cause for back patting in the mortuary offices that Monday afternoon in August. For the second day in a row, the newspapers splashed headlines that put the Butterworth reputation in jeopardy.

Sunday’s Times, high above the fold: “Dr. Linda Hazzard Taken in Custody on Murder Charge.” The article detailed the case of a Kitsap County fasting specialist accused of starving one of her patients to death in order to steal the patient’s riches. Prosecutors suspected the Butterworths aided the ploy by removing the lifeless victim, Claire Williamson, from Hazzard’s sanitarium without a license—a charge to which one of the mortuary’s employees had already pleaded guilty. More disturbing were the whispers that the mortuary had, without authority, cremated Williamson’s body and replaced it with another, healthier-looking corpse to show her family.

The Butterworths spun into defense mode. “The whole thing is a result of the schemes of the political ring in Bremerton who are jealous of us,” E. R. complained to reporter Abram W. Smith on Sunday. Monday’s papers included more of the same, and Gilbert’s rebuttal to the reporter—“The postmortem on the body of Claire Williamson was performed after permission was given” by the coroner—did little to extinguish scrutiny.

The press casually referred to the Butterworths and Hazzard as friends. E. R. denied there was anything other than a series of business transactions between them. Caring for the dead, after all, was what E. R. and his sons did. And people trusted them. One only need look at the surrounding cemeteries where the Butterworths had, since 1892, laid down the bones of countless Seattleites.

In a way, the Butterworth story had always been about the bones. The family was in the business of interring bones. Or incinerating bones. And bones, well, bones were there at the beginning.

 

Image: Michael Byers

THEY LITTERED THE PLAINS for hundreds of miles, scattered as if buffalo had fallen apart while running. A tibia here, a femur there. Vertebrae on a riverbank. A skull in the gulch. The bleach-white remains baked under an unforgiving sun, the last hints that the land once teemed with the humpbacked beasts; millions had thundered across the prairie till they were hunted down with rifles and stripped of their hides.

And here came the bone collector, his horse-drawn wagon brimming with skeletal fragments. Even in southwestern Kansas in the 1870s this was a strange sight. But if there was one thing young Edgar Butterworth was, it was enterprising. The buffalo bones brought in $10 a ton. Manufacturers purchased the bones and ground them down for fertilizer. All Edgar had to do was gather the white gold off the plains and haul it 125 miles to the railroad.

Now in his early 30s, he had wandered the continent for years. He started early, when he left home at age 14 to join Mr. Lincoln’s army in the Civil War. Soldiers sent the boy back to his family three times, rejecting him because he was too young. His father, a millwright, moved the family from Massachusetts to Minnesota and back again. In Massachusetts, Edgar studied law, his sights set on becoming an attorney. In 1869, at age 22, he married Grace Whipple. A little over a year later Grace became pregnant and died while giving birth to Edgar’s first son, Gilbert. Perhaps in mourning, the young widower dropped his legal studies, bundled up Gilbert, and fled New England for St. Louis, where he took a job as a hatter.

Three years later, Edgar, newly remarried, moved to Kansas, where he dabbled in cattle ranching and selling buffalo bones. While searching for bison remains in his wagon he came across a sight he would never forget. Next to a prairie home, really just a dugout in the dirt, he met a grieving settler. The man’s wife and child had just died. In fact their bodies were lying right there. The distraught settler had no casket in which to bury his family.

Edgar knew what it was like to lose a spouse. He looked at his own wagon and back at the man. Then he took the wagon apart, plank by plank. After the carriage was dismantled and the parts were scattered about the ground, he began to methodically nail the pieces back together. When he stood back, he and the settler appraised the sight.

Edgar Ray Butterworth had just built his first coffin.

The peripatetic polymath soon found a place to set down roots, in the Western Washington community of Centerville (later renamed Centralia) where he opened a furniture store. During the spring of 1882, black diphtheria ravaged the town, and the spike in mortalities—eight children died in one day—spurred Butterworth into expanding his furniture business to include casket sales. Ten years later, with five sons in tow—including 22-year-old Gilbert—he relocated to Seattle and bought out Cross Undertakers, which he soon renamed E. R. Butterworth and Sons.

It was a good time to be in the business of death. There were so many ways for a Seattleite to meet his or her end—ways that would be unheard of 100 years later. Tuberculosis. Influenza. Cholera. The plague, transmitted to humans by rats, was still a real threat in the early 1900s—and Seattle crawled with the rodents. In 1907 alone, city workers trapped and killed 500,000 rats, and poisoned millions more. And disease was hardly the only worry. Of the 2,462 deaths in 1910, 35 were murders (compared to nine murders in one year exactly a century later).

So lucrative was the undertaking trade that E. R. could afford to build a lavish home on Queen Anne. At 19,000 square feet, the 12-room house, adjacent to Kinnear Park and with flawless views of Puget Sound and the Olympic mountains, was large enough for Butterworth to regularly host up to 300 guests at a time.

But it was the new funeral parlor at 1921 First Avenue that truly impressed the community. E. R. had hired British architect John Graham Sr.—who later designed the Roosevelt Hotel and four separate University of Washington facilities—to imagine the building. Graham sketched at least eight different blueprints before he and E. R. agreed on a Beaux-Arts style. Sandstone Greco-Roman archways formed the main entrance. Three stories up, on the metal cornice that capped the building, four sculpted lion heads looked out onto First Avenue. At the back of the building, a service alley led to the livery and stables on the ground floor, where hearses dropped off and picked up bodies. In the floors above, mahogany, ornamental plaster, stained glass, and bronze and brass hardware lent the interior the bearing of a Victorian mansion. It included a crematorium, a columbarium, an elevator for transporting bodies, and a casket showroom. A chapel, spacious enough for 200 mourners, contained pews made of Flemish oak, a choir loft, and a balcony. E. R. rigged the chapel with a system of light signals by which the paid choir could be cued to begin or cease singing.

The Butterworths also operated a sideline in ambulances (ferrying the injured to hospitals) and rented out one of two morgues, where the King County coroner and other licensed professionals often conducted autopsies.

For the first time, the services and rituals of death were combined in a kind of one-stop shop for the bereaved. An itemized Butterworth and Sons bill from the early twentieth century details the firm’s typical funeral package:

– Removal of body from residence to mortuary
– Bathing, embalming, dressing and all care of body
– Directing funeral at chapel and cemetery with assistants and arranging all details
– Notices in daily press, procuring doctor’s certificate and burial permit
– Gray cloth covered casket, crushed silk interior and fully trimmed
– Hearse service and two limousines
– Cut roses for interior of casket
– Ward’s air sealed vault
– Organist

Shortly after the building’s opening in October 1903, The Seattle Daily Times reported that the Butterworths “have the most complete establishment in the United States.” Writing about E. R. in History of King County two decades later, Clarence Bagley elaborated: “It is believed that he was the first to introduce the words mortuary and mortician in connection with the undertaking business.”

American obsequies had begun to differ from their European counterparts shortly before the Butterworths went into business. Prior to the Civil War, funerals in this country were conducted much like they were in the Old World. A person died, there was a wake and a church service soon after, and a burial. But in the war between the North and the South, the corpses of soldiers, separated from their homes by distance and military red tape, sat for days on the battlefield before loved ones could see the bodies. Using techniques not widely employed since the ancient Egyptians, enterprising undertakers drained the bodies of natural fluids, pumped them with formaldehyde, and charged the families $100 a pop just for the privilege of an open-casket funeral. The Butterworths made embalming the centerpiece of their services. Suddenly Seattle’s dead didn’t look dead. They looked exquisitely preserved.

And that’s where the Butterworths’ troubles began.

 

Image: Michael Byers

MARGARET CONWAY HAD NEVER seen a body like the one she beheld on June 2, 1911. The Australian was told it was the embalmed corpse of 33-year-old Claire Williamson, formerly of England. Conway had been Williamson’s nurse and handmaid since childhood. Claire and her sister Dorothea were patients of Linda Hazzard, the fasting specialist with an office in Seattle and a sanitarium in Olalla, a two-hour boat ride across the Sound.

As author Gregg Olsen reports in his 1997 book, Starvation Heights: A True Story of Murder and Malice in the Woods of the Pacific Northwest, Margaret Conway discovered that Claire had starved to death weeks earlier and that Dorothea was still in Olalla, wasting away. Prosecuting attorneys would later suspect that Hazzard had starved the British sisters in order to strip them of their wealth (Claire, weak and skeletal, had signed over her bank accounts to Hazzard shortly before her death.)

Worse, the body lying before Conway on the fourth floor of E. R. Butterworth and Sons, beautifully preserved as it was—What was it with these Americans and their obsession with pickling the dead?—was not Claire. At least it didn’t look like Claire. The sisters’ uncle, a Brit and also unaccustomed to embalmed corpses, didn’t recognize his niece either.

The discrepancy, according to Starvation Heights, would lead prosecutors to suspect that the Butterworths were in collusion with Hazzard, whom they charged with murder. Had the undertakers switched cadavers in order to hide the fact that Claire had starved? Or was it simply that embalming was so alien to the non-Americans that they didn’t recognize the remains of their beloved Claire?

It didn’t help that Butterworth employee O. C. Gove pleaded guilty in a Kitsap County courtroom to illegal removal of Claire’s body. (“Gove was a fool to go over there and plead guilty,” E. R. groused to a reporter.) Adding to the confusion, Hazzard’s high-powered defense attorney, George W. Gregory, was one of Gilbert Butterworth’s best friends.

The undertakers were never charged with a crime in relation to the Hazzard case, but they were named as codefendants in a $25,000 lawsuit filed against the fasting specialist for desecration of the body.

A lengthy murder trial in the winter of 1912—which garnered international attention—found Hazzard guilty of manslaughter. Prosecutors suspected her of at least eight similar deaths, but were unable to obtain enough evidence to charge her. In fact, she was implicated in two starvation-related fatalities that occurred after the trial, as she awaited a state Supreme Court appeal, before being sent to the penitentiary in Walla Walla.

The connection to Hazzard, however tenuous, must have stung the Butterworth family, which prided itself on its ethics and charity. E. R. was in the middle of spearheading construction of a new community hospital. So the public relations black eye was an unnecessary distraction.

Heck, Gilbert hadn’t even been arrested yet.

 

THE ELDEST SON, whose mother died when he was hours old, stood apart from his half siblings as the unquestionable heir to his father’s necrological empire. And all available evidence suggests he relished the role. No one in the family attracted more media attention than Gilbert. Sometimes that attention was embarrassing, like when he divorced Ellen, his wife of six years and mother of his three children. He did so at the behest of his lover, Anna Blackburn. Anna then divorced her own husband and married Gilbert two days later. The new marriage lasted all of five weeks, and Gilbert soon found himself the target of a $25,000 lawsuit, from Joseph Blackburn, Anna’s previous husband, for the “alienation of the affections” of Anna. Gilbert learned later that he’d been the Blackburn couple’s mark. “The suit is simply the consummation of a plan laid months back to take money from my pocket,” he told the press. (A judge threw the case out of court, but not before the Times dedicated several column inches to the love triangle.)

Sometimes the media attention brought praise to the family, as did the story of the afternoon of December 16, 1906. A funeral procession of automobiles and horse-drawn wagons trickled out of Lake View cemetery and along 15th Avenue on Capitol Hill. Gilbert rode in a carriage with another passenger and her son. The driver, sitting atop the carriage box, lost control of the horses; the animals burst into a gallop, dragging the carriage down the street.

The coach teetered back and forth as it sped along the avenue, narrowly missing telegraph poles. Gilbert swung into action. With the carriage moving at top speed, he exited the door and climbed on top of the carriage.

The driver was still seated, but unresponsive. Gilbert looked up to see Madison Boulevard, cluttered with automobile traffic, straight ahead and approaching fast. He slammed on the carriage’s brake pedal, bringing the horses to a halt just seconds before reaching the intersection, avoiding serious injury or death for everyone in or on the carriage.

By the time World War I broke out in 1914, Gilbert was leading the mortuary outright. Although E. R. retained the honorary title of president, Gilbert was listed as manager and ran the day-to-day operations. Again, it was a good time to be in the death biz.

Toward the end of the war Seattle was in the grips of the global Spanish flu pandemic, exacerbated by the prevalence of world-traveling soldiers and sailors stationed around the city. Victims would first experience cold symptoms (runny nose, sore throat) that rapidly developed into flu symptoms (fever, muscle aches, nausea). In some cases blood dripped from their ears. To tamp down the spread of the airborne illness, all public gatherings were banned in Seattle and no one was permitted on the streets without wearing a six-ply gauze mask.

Despite the precautions, 1,003 Seattleites perished from influenza by the end of 1918. The flu was particularly deadly at the University of Washington’s Naval Training Station, where germs spread unchecked.

The Navy, obligated to cover the funeral bills, entered into a contract with E. R. Butterworth and Sons. The military would pay up to $100 for each sailor’s casket and shipment of their bodies, and Butterworth would invoice the government.

It was a match made in hell.

A U.S. Marshall arrested Gilbert on Saturday, October 19, 1918. The charge: defrauding the families of deceased sailors. Federal prosecutors said that Butterworth had double-dipped, billing families full price for caskets and then pocketing the government payouts. Indicted on 43 counts of fraud, the undertaker faced five years in prison.

Gilbert recruited his lawyer pal George Gregory as part of a four-man defense team. Gregory, a former University of Michigan football lineman, weighed around 250 pounds and could be a hothead. Five years earlier, at a hearing in defense of Linda Hazzard, he almost came to blows with the prosecuting attorney.

The funeral director could afford the best defense money could buy—and it showed. The prosecution sputtered from the very beginning, starting with jury selection. “Many called to the jury box were found to have known Butterworth for many years,” the Times reported.

But witnesses delivered damning testimony. George and Margaret Heidenreich, farmers from Friday Harbor, had lost their son to the flu. They visited the undertaker shortly afterward. Gilbert, they told the court, tried to convince them that the type of casket in the $100 price range was not satisfactory and he tried to up-sell them.

The proceedings lasted more than a week, and in the end, the jury could not reach a decision. There would be a retrial.

“My god!” Gilbert boomed. “Do we have to go through with this all over again?”

The eight months between the first and second trials were not easy on the Butterworth clan. Seventy-two-year-old E. R. had suffered a stroke that kept him homebound. In November most of the family crowded back into the federal courthouse for trial number two. By then Gilbert’s attorney had convinced the court to drop all but two of the charges.

When the verdict was finally read—“Not guilty”—there were cheers, and Gilbert hugged and kissed his (now third) wife Cora. A Times reporter asked for a statement. Gilbert said, “I feel like a million dollars.”

The victory was sweet, but the celebration was short lived. A little over a year later, on January 1, 1921, E. R. died, the result of three strokes. After directing so many funerals, starting with his first out on the plains of Kansas four decades earlier, E. R. was finally the one mourned. The service took place, not at the First Avenue mortuary, but at his home on Queen Anne, overlooking his adopted hometown.

Over time, the name E. R. would slip from the city’s consciousness. Gilbert carried on the business, but changed the name to Butterworth and Sons, and later to simply Butterworth Mortuary.

No one could have known that the life and work of Edgar Ray would eventually be recognized again—and for reasons no one could have imagined at the time. But among the hymns sung at the funeral, one song included the lyrics, “A blessed day is coming, when his glory shall be seen.”

 

WHEN E. R. DIED in 1921, he left his sons and grandsons some $200,000 (the equivalent of $2.5 million today). Gilbert and his brothers used some of that money to open a new mortuary at 300 East Pine Street on Capitol Hill. The new colonial-style building, with a chapel that seated 350 mourners, was even grander than the first. When Gilbert passed in 1936 (like his father, he suffered multiple strokes over the span of years) he bequeathed the business to his sons, including Carol, who in turn handed the keys over to his oldest, Bert.

In the 1980s, Bert’s son—E.R.’s great-great grandson—Bert Jr., became president of the Butterworth business. After 11 years he and his father sold the business to a Louisiana-based corporation that specializes in crematoriums, cemeteries, and mega morgues. The name Butterworth exists in the Seattle funeral industry today, but just barely, as Butterworth Funeral Home–Arthur A. Wright Chapel, on top of Queen Anne Hill.

Trends have radically shifted since the last Butterworth in the business hung up his undertaker’s coat. Elaborate funerals are waning and, according to the Washington State Department of Health, inexpensive incinerations are on the rise. Of the 48,000 people who died in the Evergreen State in 2010, some 34,000 were cremated. Fewer than 12,000 were buried. That’s more than 70 percent cremated, up from only about 40 percent in 1990.

Smart Cremation, based in Redmond, sells a home kit—including a “wooden urn with place for photograph” and an online obituary—for $1,788 plus shipping.

And a mortuary in Ferndale specializes in green funerals. “Everything placed in the ground at the Meadow is nontoxic and biodegradable, allowing it to return naturally to the earth,” its ad copy chirps.

But one tributary in the legacy of E. R. Butterworth and Sons isn’t going away anytime soon. The family remains the centerpiece of the Market Ghost Tour, the guided odyssey through Pike Place started by Mercedes Carrabba in 2004. The daughter of artists, Carrabba, 39, grew up in the market, and heard stories of its specters all her life: the ghost of Chief Sealth’s daughter, whom people claim to see wandering the market’s back staircase; “Jacob,” the ghost of an eight-year-old Spanish flu victim who throws toys at the Merry Tales pet emporium; “Frank,” the polite ghost who directs bar patrons to the restrooms at the Alibi Room.

And then there’s Kells Irish Pub, in the space once occupied by Butterworth’s loading dock and livery service. The bar’s owners have been claiming the building is haunted since the 1980s. Glasses that crash on the floor for no reason. Floating silverware. Women’s voices in supposedly empty parts of the building.

Carrabba and her fellow tour guides always tell patrons the story of serial killer Linda Hazzard and her relationship to the mortuary. Then they lead the group inside.

 

BERT BUTTERWORTH JR., retired and living in the Northgate neighborhood, is willing to talk about his family’s business, even about the less flattering parts of its history. But he wants to set the record straight. It’s not easy being a funeral director. People assume you’re in it for a quick buck. He says that he and his father always erred on the side of the customer—even when it meant losing money—in order to assuage suspicion. He figures that E. R. and Gilbert operated similarly.

One last thing.

You have to go to the special collections department at the University of Washington to find them, but there are two letters from 1928 that anyone who questions the character of E. R. Butterworth and Sons should see.

One letter is from former Seattle mayor (1912–14) George Cotterill. His mother had died more than a year earlier and he’d yet to pay Butterworth Mortuary for the funeral. Responding to a reminder invoice, Cotterill included a check for $53 and wrote: “It has been a matter of great regret to me that it has been delayed so long.”

Gilbert Butterworth, who once stood trial for defrauding military families and whose name shared headlines with a serial killer, wrote back.

“I hope George, that you have not caused yourself undue worry about this matter. It is true we have a large number of outstanding accounts and they are of such amount that it necessitates our borrowing at all times to carry on our business, but we never intend that our friends shall feel crowded or inconvenienced.”

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