Cynics tend to wax nostalgic, lauding the editorial ethos of foregone years. But don’t be fooled: the cult of celebrity—and a taste for scandalmongering—has always been par for the journalistic course. Walter L. Newberry, a pillar of social advocacy, fell victim to postmortem mudslinging. Published in the New York Times, his widow’s obituary (d. 1885), which is better suited to society pages or the throwaway yarning of modern-day tabloids, dredges up the “secret” of Mr. Newberry’s death seventeen years before. Its title reads, “Buried in a Cask of Rum: The Secret of Walter L. Newberry’s Death and Interment.” Uninformed and unapologetic, its author continues,
To-day is published a story which has caused a sensation among the late millionaire’s friends and acquaintances, as the secret, if truly told, has been perfectly kept up to this time. In November 1867, Mr. Newberry sailed for Havre to join his family, who were in Paris. The friendly intercourse usual among ocean travelers was not at all to his taste. He was always austere and taciturn on shore and he chose to remain so at sea, repelling every offer of friendship or even of acquaintanceship…. In such surroundings, an alien among his own people, Mr. Newberry sickened and died. He escaped the usual burial of those dying at sea by the interference of [a] New-York man… who assured the Captain that the dead man’s relations would meet any expense in keeping the body. A cask of Medford rum that formed part of the cargo was brought into requisition. Mr. Newberry’s body was placed in the cask, and of course was preserved in the alcoholic liquid. [The cask was] carted to [Chicago’s] Graceland Cemetery on a dray. A grave was dug and the cask, still containing Mr. Newberry’s body, was put into it and covered up…. The body of the millionaire still lies in the cask in Graceland Cemetery.
The Chicago Fire of 1871, which destroyed a host of Newberry’s private papers, poses a challenge for the modern biographer. But it is hard to imagine that the Newberry’s founder (a member also of the Chicago Lyceum, Illinois Boards of Health and Education, the Illinois Common School Association, and the Chicago Historical Society) was an out-and-out misanthrope. Nor is it probable that he was interred in spirits. Documentary evidence holds that he was temporarily preserved in a rum-cask, but was later embalmed and buried in a casket. Placing plausibility on the backburner, one cannot help but laugh. The article is an exercise in sitting-room chatter. It rests on the spurious words of an enigmatic “New-York man,” analogous to today’s (dis)reputable “sources.” Still, it makes for an intriguing (or better yet, intoxicating) story.
Though it is routinely discredited, speculation on the requiem by rum has persisted into the twenty-first century. Hold-outs and skeptics are welcome to read The Ideal Library of the Continent (available this fall), a rich-in-detail account of the Newberry’s founding, authored by Newberry Scholar-in-Residence Richard H. Brown.
Submitted by Corinne Zeman, Newberry Communications Intern.