excerpt – The Skeleton in Grandpa’s Barn
After a hiatus of nearly five years, the Favorite Readings series is back. This—the fourth volume—is the largest so far, offering eighteen selections. Each article was previously published in the Utah Historical Quarterly and was chosen on the basis of readability, charm, and its contribution to the historical record—qualities that had made it a personal favorite of the managing editor when it was originally published.
As the subtitle suggests, the unifying theme in this volume is youth. We will see young people make their way across the Utah landscape in a variety of situations and circumstances. In some of the articles, they are typical youngsters engaging in frolic and fun; in some they are innocent victims caught up in tragedy and heartbreak; in others they are simply children dealing with life’s vicissitudes—coping, striving, and growing up fast.
The reader will encounter two distinctive types of articles in this volume, intermixed to provide variety. Nine are memoirs and nine are traditional third-person narrative histories. They vary in length from a few pages to full article size. However, in each case they speak to what the social historian Elliott West called “the universal experience” of young people. Regardless of the age or frame of reference of the individual reader, this book will no doubt stimulate a flood of memories and emotions because we were all young once.
And what youngster never escaped that unforgettable moment of feeling embarrassed by something a parent said or did? The opening article, recalling a crushing moment in the life of a sensitive thirteen-year-old, is of that type. What child cannot recall sneaking into a forbidden place, albeit less spectacular than a niche in grandpa’s barn that holds a human skeleton? The final article is of that type. The sixteen articles in between deliver the same level of entertainment.
Many, perhaps most, could have happened almost anywhere in the American West, even elsewhere in America. The second selection is a good example.There a child recalls that horrific day in 1924 when the Castle Gate mine explosion killed 176 men, including her father and grandfather. The third article also has a universal complexion as it analyzes the challenges of juvenile rowdyism and delinquency on the Utah frontier.
But as the fourth article illustrates, some of these stories could have happened only in Utah. Here we see the fear and anxieties of children who faced the trauma of federal marshals raiding their homes for polygamous fathers, and we ponder the stresses imposed upon them by having to engage in that occasional act of deceit or to tell that well-rehearsed lie. Later on we step into the shoes of a girl who could not understand why her mother was left alone so often to run the farm while her father was away on church missions.
The state’s remarkable physical setting also places some of the chapters into a uniquely Utah setting. The haunting story of the gifted Everett Ruess and his mysterious disappearance in the desert is told with perception and insight. From a similar locale, master storyteller Max Robinson vividly recalls the sights, smells, and other sensations of a buggy ride through rural Wayne County in 1924 at age five. The remote nature of Millard County serves to define yet another memoir—that of the wartime experiences of the Uchida family in the Topaz internment camp where children struggled to adjust to wire fences, guard towers, drafty barracks, and poorly equipped schools.
Given the amazing resiliency and optimism of children, it is not surprising that the bulk of these pages ring with the laughter, shouts, and kinetic energy of children being children. They are drawn in wide-eyed wonder to gypsy camps, drop home-made bombs into canyons outside of town, and sled down city streets at exhilarating speeds.One girl describes the familiar faces of people and storefronts as she makes her rounds, donkey-back, through a mining town. Another details the distinctive challenges, torments, hurts, and rewards of straddling cultures in a multiethnic community. We identify with them at every turn. They are us.
Unrepresented in these pages are kings, conquerors, inventors, or other great men and women of history. Rather, this is social history, a genre scholars a few years ago dubbed the New Social History. We read of ordinary people doing ordinary things, with a cumulative effect; the more of these types of articles we read, the keener our understanding of how life really was. In some instances, quantifiable demographic data carry the story; in most, simple anecdotal sources do the job. Each article makes a contribution in its own way.
For those readers who do not particularly care about historiographical classifications but are looking for simple entertainment, joy awaits. What better way to look at Utah’s colorful past that through the simple, honest prism of a child’s eyes?
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The Skeleton in Grandpa’s Barn
Herbert Z. Lund Jr.
As the people of Salt Lake City continue to obliterate the charm of Temple Square with a growing ring of skyscrapers, it is probably inevitable that an office building will be erected near the corner of West Temple and North Temple streets and a skeleton bedded down in old issues of the Improvement Era will be excavated. Explanations will be asked for this rather irregular disposal of human remains and they are hereby given.
The man whose skeletal remains lie in the shadow of Temple Square was a murderer executed April 30, 1912, at Utah State Prison.
He had concealed his true identity and died under the assumed name of J. J. Morris.1 The Lund family spoke of the remains only as the “Skeleton in Grandpa’s Barn,” for it was stored there many years.
My father, Herbert Z. Lund Sr., was the physician on a part-time basis at the Utah State Penitentiary for several years after he started his practice in Salt Lake City. He was very popular with the guards and officers under Warden Arthur Pratt and also with the prisoners. I can attest to this. Occasionally, as a child, I accompanied him on the Sugar House streetcar to the prison. The memories salvaged from young childhood are of high contrast, vivid or nothing. I do remember the ride to the end of the line where the direction of the trolley was switched, the well-kept prison grounds, the complicated mechanism of opening the prison gate, the disciplined hand-on-shoulder movement of the prisoners, our happy reception by the prison personnel, the visits to the prison dairy where we were given cups of cold buttermilk, and most vivid of all, the exchange of jokes and stories between Father and the guards and prisoners.
Father was not only liked but admired. Shortly after his death, almost forty years after he had resigned his job at the prison, a former convict came to see me at my home in Cleveland, Ohio, “just to shake the hand of the eldest son and namesake of Dr. Herbert Lund.” My father had trained this man to be his surgical assistant and anesthetist at the prison and helped him obtain a parole from a life sentence.
I believe it must have been a similar feeling of friendship and respect that led Morris to will his body to my father to be used for the purpose of anatomical dissection after he was sentenced to death. According to my father, Morris cynically chose to be hanged rather than shot because it would incur a greater expense to the State of Utah.
Following the execution, the dissection was carried out, I believe at the old Judge Mercy Hospital,2 and the body was reduced to a skeleton.However, it was not a respectable skeleton because my father never got around to cleaning and bleaching the bones. A story is prevalent in the Lund family that my father and William Willis, the druggist, took the skeleton to the open country near Beck’s Hot Springs and boiled it in sulfur water and lime. To make the story more savvy, it is said that a hobo chanced by and fled in terror at the awful sight. I have doubted this story because the bones as I saw them had not been well cleaned, and through the years it maintained a peculiar rancid odor. However, evidence collected by my brother Paul3 suggests that the story may be true: to explain why the bones were not properly prepared, it is said that Father became acutely ill at the time,presumably from the noxious vapors, and the project was discontinued.4
My father intended eventually to make the skeleton into a fine teaching specimen, but with the burden of a steadily increasing medical practice he never got around to finishing the job. In the meantime he nailed the skeleton up in a wooden box and stored it in the unused hayloft of my grandfather’s barn on West Temple Street.
A skeleton in a barn cannot be kept secret, and the grandchildren of Apostle Anthon H. Lund found sinister excitement in opening the box and contemplating the remains, so the loft was made “off limits” and barricaded. The trap door to the loft was padlocked, but there were other ways to get into it—up the hay chute or through the boarded windows. The routes required considerable skill in climbing and frequently cautious carpenter work, but this only added to the adventure. My brother Richard and I and cousins Alton, John, Robert, and Elmo Lund were mostly involved, but we also conducted guided tours for outsiders. We had an immense respect for the remains of a murderer, and although the bones were handled they were always replaced.
Typically, on our way to break and enter, we would go through Grandpa’s house to the kitchen to help ourselves to gooseberry pie or a bowl of red raspberries. Grandma (Sarah Ann Peterson Lund) kept not only an open house but an open kitchen. It was a large room furnished with chairs and a big square table, and it was stocked with pies, fruits, home-grown berries, cheese, milk, and occasionally, but not officially known by the grandchildren or grandfather, homemade beer. Grandma was fortunate in having most of her immediate family near her in Salt Lake, and this was not only a snack-bar for her six grown sons and stray grandchildren but an arena of wit and conversation, Grandma setting the pace. We ate our pie or berries, and after we got tired of the grownup fun we would leave by way of the back door, ostensibly to play in the barnyard. After completing our ulterior mission,we never returned by the same route because the characteristic odor we exuded would let the folks know we had been in the hayloft. It was best to go directly home to the bathroom and wash up.Washing at the faucet out in the barnyard was usually inadequate.
After Grandpa Lund died in 1921, the skeleton remained in the barn another five or six years, but the grandchildren were growing up and moving away and a certain degree of custodial care was lost. Raids by outsiders were made on the barn. After a raid by children from the nearby Monroe School in which some of the bones were stolen,Grandma decided to have the skeleton buried. I was the natural choice to do this. “Get Zack. He’s going to go to medical school.”
At an arranged time, I met Grandma, who was to supervise the proceedings, and I sensed a note of anticipation, possibly mischief, although this was her usual air. I brought the rather depleted remains down from the hayloft, dug a grave in the seclusion of the barnyard, and laid out the bones in approximate anatomical order. Grandma had a large stack of old LDS Church literature on the back porch, mostly issues of the Improvement Era that she wanted to get rid of, and she asked me to carry these out to the grave. She stood at the head of the grave, opened them, and slowly dropped them in, pausing intermittently to read and comment upon a selected pearl of wisdom or an exhortation to righteousness. She called attention to the benefits the deceased might obtain by perusing the contents of the literature being buried with him—already conveniently opened to some of the best passages—and hoped that by so doing he would improve his chances in the hereafter. After the Improvement Eras were distributed over the remains, I was instructed to shovel the dirt back. The ceremony was brief and simple.
I have been asked exactly where the grave is, but it is hard to say. It is still an open piece of ground. If I could determine where the old barn stood and find the line of the old plank fence along the south side of the barnyard, I could locate it exactly; but these have been gone for many years. A service station encroaches on the grave site from one side and a row of houses looks out upon it from another. It already has lost the peace and dignity of the old barnyard, and in time, I suppose, even this spot of ground will give way to steel and cement.
1. Salt Lake Tribune, May 1, 1912.
2. This was the Judge Memorial School located between 600 and 700 South on Eleventh East until its demolition in the summer of 1966.
3. Personal communication with Paul J. Lund, Salt Lake City.
4. Personal communication with Herbert J. Barnes, Kaysville, Utah.