Text and photos by CLAUDIA JOHNSON
On May 28 a room filled with scientists and historians awaited removal of a heavy lid from a heavy cast iron coffin containing what was believed to be remains of Giles Countian Isaac Newton Mason, a private in the 11th Tennessee Cavalry Battalion, 6th (1st) Tennessee Cavalry Regiment.
Because few cast iron coffins have been examined and because the burial dated to the time of the Civil War, Smithsonian scientists and historians were interested in the intact and sealed metal burial case unearthed when the 19th Century Mason Cemetery was relocated last year. They agreed to help identify the body.
There is some question about where Isaac N. Mason died. A Mason family Bible indicates that he died near Corinth, Miss., on April 18, 1862, just days after the Battle of Shiloh. An old family letter recounted the story that he died as a result of injures in a train wreck near Corinth. In an 1867 Giles County Chancery Court case parties represented to the court that Mason died at his residence in April 1862.
However, it is the story sworn to by his daughter, Margaret, who identified herself as Mollie M. Nelson, when she applied for the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s Southern Cross of Honor on his behalf that local historians believe. Mollie stated in the application that her father died “from the effect of fall from a train near Iuka, Miss., in May of 1862 at hospital in Tuscumbia, Ala.”
Findings of the scientific team that examined the clothing, body and other contents of the cast iron coffin support Mollie Nelson’s claim. Heading up the scientific investigation team was Dr. Douglas Owsley, curator of the National Museum of Natural History. Invited to conduct analysis of Mason’s clothing was Shelly Foote, costume historian of National Museum of American History. Their observations along with analysis by paleopathologist, Dr. Larry Cartmell, a general pathologist who studies diseases in ancient burials, create a profile of Isaac Newton Mason at the time of his death and burial.
When the lid was lifted, inside was a complete skeleton clothed in civilian attire. Foote noted that the black broadcloth frock coat was probably tailor-made, as its collar and lapels that show evidence of quilting curved to fit the shape of the jacket. The back of the coat had a vertical slit that was not part of its construction but was intentionally cut by scissors or a knife.
The coat was single breasted with three buttonholes and an additional buttonhole in one lapel. The second button from the bottom was still attached to the coat. The button was metal-based and thread-covered, matching the three other buttons found in the coffin. There was a slit in the left breast of the coat for a pocket, which had come loose. A seam was present at the coat’s waist with an additional center back-seam and curved seams on either side. Two metal buttons, once thread covered, were present on the back of the coat at the waist seam.
The sleeves of two-part construction were slightly shaped at the elbow. The skirt of the coat measured 18 inches and was designed with a center back vent opening with a turn-over hem and seam on either side of the center back. The coat would have been fully lined, but the lining had deteriorated and was represented by a mass of thread. There was a rectangular hole, 2 inches by 1 3/8 inch, in the right front skirt of the coat near its bottom that had been mended with a finished patch, which was found in the coffin.
Near the neck region of the skeleton was a tie with a band of taffeta. The inside of the band was a woven material, probably black silk. The bow part of the tie was silk with a woven stripe. The tie band, either padded or multi-layered, was pre-formed with the ability to tie additional fabric to it to form the front bow.
Loose masses of thread are present throughout the chest and back region and are believed to represent a deteriorated vest. The threads will be identified by microscopic examination but are tentatively identified as silk.
The man was wearing tailor-made wool trousers. The trousers’ inseam measured 31 inches and waist of 32 inches. The trouser front has a 5-button fly with an additional button at the top of the waistband and a concealed trouser fly. Two gilt-type buttons are present at the top of the posterior waistband, probably for suspender use.
An adjustable enameled buckle with two strips of fabric in place was present at the back of the trousers. The trousers were constructed with a center back seam and a pieced inset on either side of the waist, producing a relatively rectangular fit, and had buttoning side pockets. The seam edges were raw, which was not unusual with broadcloth, Foote said. The left back leg had a small piece of trouser missing from the posterior hem. The hem of the pant leg was adhering to iron oxide accumulation on the side of the coffin and separation of the pant leg from the coffin wall resulted in this small defect in the cloth.
Adjacent to the defect in the posterior bottom portion of the pant leg is a slit that was made with a scissors or knife. The slit runs approximately 2 1/8", but the entire opening/slit combination is 4 3/8" long. The side seam of the right pant leg was intentionally opened almost its entire length, from the hem to approximately crouch level.
In addition to the tailor-made suit, the man was wearing a pair of hand-stitched leather boots. The boots had a very narrow instep with a comparatively high stacked heel with nine lifts. The widest part of the sole was 3 inches and the length of the boot was 10 inches from the end of the heel to the toe tip. The soles of the boots are hand-stitched and are characteristic of a more expensive type of boot. Both boots are missing a piece of leather on the front top of the boot that would have extended to the knee. The flap had been removed, probably by preference of the owner. The toe end was almost square but showed light rounding. The portion of the boot that rests over the toe slants steeply, leaving little room for the toes, characteristic of riding boots during the 1850s and 1860s.
This style of boot was typical for the Civil War period and was used by both Confederate military personnel and civilians, Foote reported, adding that it was not uncommon for soldiers to buy better quality boots and wear them in the field.
Scientists hypothesized that if Mason died in Alabama as his daughter indicated and was transported home, the length of time required for this transfer would have initiated the process of decomposition.
“There is no physical evidence of cause of death visible in the skeleton, although modification in the clothing and the presence of footwear support the man’s death away from home, with some period of time between death and burial,” stated the preliminary Smithsonian report. “The slit in the back of the suit coat would have simplified the process of inserting the arms into the coat and would have also broadened the coat if the body was undergoing initial stages of decomposition (e.g. bloating).”
Foote noted that is unusual to recover men’s shoes or boots in 19th century burials, and alterations in the trousers suggest the body was dressed for burial with the boots already in place.
“The open seam of the right leg of the trouser and the slit in the left leg of the trouser allowed insertion of the booted feet and legs with greater ease,” the report observed. “Putting these boots on the feet of a deceased individual would have been extremely difficult. It is more likely that the individual died with his boots on, and they were not removed.”