Other Historical Reminiscences
By Chip Boyer
Chiko the giant gorilla—how in any way, shape, or form does a gorilla have any connection to Boyer Mortuary? And why is a circus advertising poster the frontispiece of this essay? Well, all my wonderful readers, you won't have to stay on the edge of your seats for much longer—if you ever were. But first, a few other musings before the Chiko story.
Last winter, in going through some old Boyer Funeral Home papers I had saved, I found in my father's, Charles B. Boyer's, handwriting some historical notes about Boyer's. In these notes were listed several of the notable people, etc., whom Boyer's buried during its years in business. (You will soon find out why I use the word etc.) My father's notes form the basis of this year's Christmas booklet—a series of short paragraphs about famous people Boyer's buried. Additional research was necessary, however, because most of the funeral records for these individuals no longer exist. Since I already wrote an extensive paper in 2002 on the Boyer's involvement with the funerals of Dayton's most famous personages, the Wright Brothers and their immediate family, I won't cover their funerals any further here. But because of their fame, the Wright Brothers certainly head the list of notables whom Boyer's buried during its years in business.
As I mentioned in my 1996 genealogy "The William Boyer Family," my predecessor William Boyer arrived and then settled in Dayton sometime around 1820. He came from Maryland, but exactly how, why, and when he arrived here I have never discovered. Yet I do know that by 1825 he was settled and prospering in Dayton as a business man; at least this is my supposition after reading the information revealed in a short newspaper article that was saved by my father, an article written by columnist Marj Heyduck for the "Modem Living" Section of the Dayton Journal Herald. Dated April 1, 1950, the article explains how in 1825 a one John MacFee was hanged before a crowd of 5,000—quite a crowd considering Dayton's population at this time was only 10,000. The article then goes on to detail why Mr. MacFee killed his wife: so he could be with his lover, Hettie. And Heyduck concludes with this aside: "Oh, yes, and William Boyer made his casket and charged $10." The source for Marj Heyduck's article was a one-page information sheet that the eccentric 1950's-era Dayton lawyer and historian E.E. Brownell discovered and then printed up for distribution to anyone interested.
Thus it seems likely that around 1825 the Boyer family began its involvement in the business of death, first as a side business to its main profession as furniture makers, but then, by the time of the Civil War, as a full-time business as morticians, embalmers, and manufacturers of embalming fluid and other funeral-related items. Again, I don't know exactly when and why the change-over from cabinet makers to morticians happened, but it is probably safe to assume that the mortuary business became more lucrative than cabinet making, and so the switch. An advertisement in the Dayton City Directory for 1862-63, lists O.P. Boyer, William's son, as both a cabinet maker and undertaker. And then another advertisement in the Dayton City Directory for 1871 lists O.P. Boyer and brother, Benjamin Boyer, as undertakers and makers of coffins and caskets, with no mention of making furniture. Of course, they may still have made some furniture, but they ceased advertising it, so obviously, without advertising it, furniture-making would have become a smaller factor in their livelihoods. By the 1880's the evolution from cabinet makers to morticians was complete; the Dayton City Directories as well as advertisements of the 1880's mention only death-related services. Thus by the end of the nineteenth century the business was known simply as "O.P Boyer's Sons, Funeral Directors." We're getting closer to Chiko, the giant gorilla, but following my father's notes, I will first briefly mention other notable Daytonians buried by Boyer's.
Paul Laurence Dunbar
In February of 1906, Boyer Mortuary was called to handle the funeral of the nationally renowned Dayton poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. Because by this time Boyer's was handling the funerals of Dayton's leading citizens, it should come to us as no surprise really that Boyer's was called upon to bury Mr. Dunbar. And yet the cultural traditions of the times did make this somewhat unusual. Paul Laurence Dunbar was a black man, or, as the Dayton papers in 1906 referred to him, a "negro." Given the early twentieth century's rigid racial segregation in America, a white mortician's being called upon for the funeral arrangements of a black person was something very out of the ordinary. I'm surmising that Dunbar's fame was largely responsible for this. The articles in the Dayton papers at the time of Dunbar's death reveal that several of Dayton's leading citizens—all white—were involved with Dunbar's funeral. So it seems likely that they would have been the ones recommending Boyer's to handle the funeral—and probably the ones who paid for it too. Certainly Dayton's white business leaders would have had some experience with Boyer's through their own family members' funerals, and consequently they knew that Boyer's would be able to handle the funeral in the dignified way they felt Dunbar deserved. Paul Laurence Dunbar was a famous literary figure at the time of his death, celebrated by whites and by a small segment of the educated black literary community of early 20th century America. Yet it was primarily the white, early twentieth century literati who promoted him, and it was primarily the literate white population who could afford to buy and did buy his books of poetry and fiction as well as the magazines that featured his poetry and stories. Thus these people wanted the proper ceremonies befitting a famous Daytonian; they wanted the proper show for the local and national press to report on; they wanted Dayton to put its best foot forward in this sad event. Much of this probably also explains, at least partially, Dunbar's place of burial as Woodland Cemetery. At this point in our city's history, Woodland was not the usual place where blacks were buried; they would have been buried in a "negro" cemetery. I got some interesting background on how Dunbar came to be buried in Woodland Cemetery from Herbert Martin, a Dunbar authority and a professor at the University of Dayton. Martin said that the City of Dayton had, in fact, offered to bury Dunbar in Cooper Park, the park behind the Dayton Public Library. However, Dunbar's mother, Matilda, wanted to be buried next to her son when she died, and so she asked if she too could be buried in Cooper Park. The City of Dayton denied her request, wanting just Dunbar buried there, no one else. Thus, probably as a compromise among the City, Dunbar's family, and the business leaders organizing his funeral, Dunbar was buried in Woodland Cemetery—a place of honor for Dayton's famous poet.
John H. Patterson
Next we go forward sixteen years to 1922. John H. Patterson, the world-famous industrialist, founder, and owner of the National Cash Register Company died on a train near Atlantic City, New Jersey. Although the Boyer Mortuary's funeral record for his funeral does not exist anymore, Dayton newspaper articles at the time of his death list O.P. Boyer's Sons as the mortuary handling his funeral. According to the articles, the viewing and then the services were held respectively at the National Cash Register Company's offices on South Main St. and his residence in Oakwood, "Far Hills." Probably Colonel Deeds and the Patterson family decided upon all the details of the viewing and services; Boyer's would have just carried out the plans as requested. He was buried in Woodland Cemetery.
Harold E. Talbott
In 1957, my father and grandfather buried Harold E. Talbott of the old and venerable Talbott family of Dayton. He had been Secretary of the Air Force under President Eisenhower from 1953 to 1955, and because of this he received full military honors with his funeral in Dayton and his burial in Woodland Cemetery. The funeral service in Dayton was relatively small, however, as a large memorial service had previously been held in New York City because of Mr. Talbott's stature and his residence there. And yet the Dayton ceremonies were still very detailed and complicated, involving many notable civilians, politicians, and high-ranking military men from both Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. I'm sure both my father and grandfather did their usual skilled and professional jobs directing all aspects of this funeral.
Robert K. Corwin
The last funeral directed under the Boyer name was for Robert K. Corwin in 1998. The business was by now called Boyer-Miller Funeral Home because of a merger with George Miller Funeral Home after my father's death in 1977. Robert Corwin was a cousin of mine, related through my mother's father. After Corwin's death in 1998 there were no further funerals handled with the Boyer name on them. And shortly thereafter, the George Miller Funeral Home merged with the Schlientz and Moore Funeral Home of Dayton. The Miller name, along with the Boyer name, disappeared from the list of Dayton funeral homes.
Throughout the entire span of the O.P. Boyer's Sons Co.—from the 1820's until 1998—its business handled a large portion of the funerals for successful and wealthy Daytonians and their families. And as would be expected, all these funerals were for humans! However, in 1894, O.P. Boyer and his embalmer, a one Mr. J.N. Stevens, handled a body like no other before or since. Herein is the tale of Chiko, the giant gorilla. Included on my father's handwritten list of famous people buried by Boyer's is the notation "Chiko—gorilla 1894"—nothing else. When I read this, I was instantly curious: What? How? Why? I called my friend and intrepid researcher Joanne Caffrey and asked her if, along with her ability to find information about family histories, she could locate anything dated around 1894 about this "Chiko." She laughed, but she said she would try. Surprise, surprise—a few days later she called back to say she had something for me and to ask when could I come over to her house. My curiosity still more piqued, I went to her house the next night, fascinated to hear what she had found out. What follows is a combination of information from her research, from information supplied to me by the Circus World Museum Library in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and from circus historian Richard J. Reynolds. According to the Barnum and Bailey Circus route book for the year 1894, on Thursday, July 26, of that year Barnum's set up its tents in Dayton and put on two performances. Mentioned in the route book under the Dayton, Ohio, date is the great loss of their 10-year-old gorilla, Chiko. In the July 27th edition of the Dayton Evening Herald appeared an article about the circus being in town and its performances—and then news of the death of Chiko, one of its star attractions for that season. The second to last paragraph describes what happened to the gorilla's body after its death: "His body was sent to Mr. O.P. Boyer's undertaking establishment, and was there embalmed by Mr. J.N. Stevens, of this city, who is an expert at the art." The article reports that, after the embalming, Chiko's body was shipped by railroad to a museum in New York City for further preparation and eventual public display. If Chiko was actually put on display and whether his carcass still survives today I haven't been able to determine. As researching seems frequently to go, however, one question may go unanswered, but other questions will crop up. Such is the case with Chiko and exactly what type of animal he really was. The librarian at the Circus World Museum, after receiving my initial inquiry, helped me with what information he had in his collection, but he also passed my query on to a Mr. Richard J. Reynolds, a circus historian in Atlanta. Mr. Reynolds had written a paper in 1999 titled "Early Orangs, Chimps, and Gorillas—USA." I believe this paper is yet unpublished, but he sent me a copy, and it from this research that I got the following information. Apparently Chiko was not a gorilla. Even though the Dayton Evening Herald in its 1894 article about Chiko's demise used the word gorilla, Mr. Reynolds writes that at various times and in assorted newspaper articles about the animal's arrival in New York, Chiko was called an orangutan, a black orang, a gorilla, an ape, a chimp, or a large baboon. To add to the confusion about what species Chiko really was, the 1894 circus route book for the Barnum and Bailey Circus described him as a gorilla. Mr. Reynolds concludes in his paper that Chiko was not an ape, gorilla, baboon, or orangutan, but a male chimpanzee. He backs up this conclusion with information he found in newspaper reports on Chiko's arrival in New York from Africa. Even though these articles at various times call Chiko an ape, orangutan, and a gorilla, Mr. Reynolds concludes from the articles' descriptions of Chiko's coloring and behavior that Chiko was a chimpanzee. And I take Mr. Reynold's reasoning as the final word on this subject! For yet still more enlightening information, the circus poster used as the frontispiece for this essay shows not only Chiko, but also another animal called Johanna. Johanna was a female chimpanzee, brought to New York after Chiko and intended as a companion for him. Like Chiko, Johanna too was misidentified by the newspapers.
So there it is. Now you know why this essay is fronted with a Barnum Bailey Circus advertising poster featuring the very same (but misnamed) "Chiko the gorilla." I'd venture to say that not many mortuaries across the United States can claim they have done this kind of work—yet Boyer's can! As I write this, a world and generation apart from my predecessors and the Boyer's funeral business, I get a great sense of pride in the heritage my forebearers have left. Even though their world and the funeral business are now long gone, and though none of the present-day Boyers is in any way involved in the funeral business, the heritage lives on as a part of me and my family. I hope that by bringing some of this heritage to light, others may share in that same sense of pride in what our predecessors accomplished. As is so often said, "Past is Prologue," and in my family's case, this is certainly true. Our predecessors were hardworking, successful people, as is the current extended Boyer Family. So in many ways history does repeat itself. Different occupations, certainly. But the same industriousness.