New Hampshire’s First Woman Embalmer and Funeral Director: Minnie (Edwards) Atwood (1854-1904)

Before it became a profession, care of the dead often fell to women. Generally preparation was bathing the body, and readying the newly departed for a wake and burial. In America, that process changed during the Civil War when those who died far from home needed extra time and care to make the journey by train or wagon back to their families.

At the same time various discoveries had been made using arsenic and later formaldehyde for body preservation. Though many families still clung to their traditions and made their own preparations, others opted for the services of “undertakers” and “embalmers.” Most of these early services were performed by men.

The Farmer’s Cabinet newspaper, Amherst NH on 16 October 1862 reported (in part): “Embalming, which is coming into practice of late, is thus performed: “The modern embalmer finds an artery into which he can place the nozzle of an injecting syringe. The artery in the upper part of the arm called the brachial, or the artery in the neck, the carotid, answers the purpose. Into this artery the embalming fluid, consisting of alum, or corrosive sublimate is injected, until it permeates every structure...”

By 1900 the State of New Hampshire was licensing embalmers, especially those who signed documents to transfer people who died from contagious diseases.  The book American Law in the Twentieth Century, by Lawrence Meir Friedman, on page 26 states
A New Hampshire statute, licensing ’embalmers of dead human bodies,’ demanded practical experience, knowledge bout infection and disinfection, and ‘intelligent comprehension of the rudiments of human anatomy.”

I learned of New Hampshire’s first known female embalmer in the book  New Hampshire Women: A collection of Portraits and Biographical Sketches of Portraits and Biographical Sketches of Daughters and Residents of the Granite State; 1895; New Hampshire Publishing Company, on page 111.  Her biography is as follows: “MINNIE EDWARDS ATWOOD unquestionably stands as the representative lady embalmer of New Hampshire, being the first to receive a diploma from the United States School of Embalming under the tuition of Professor A. Renouard, who for many years has been acknowledged as the leading demonstrator of this science. He writes of Mrs. Atwood, “I found her an able, intelligent, and refined lady, of keen perceptions and clear reasoning faculties. For six years she has unflinchingly shared the duties of her husband, William H. Atwood, a progressive funeral director of Lisbon. As a contributor to the undertaking journals she labors for the higher education of the fraternity, believing it is the only means whereby an honorable profession can be established for those engaged in the sacred and important work of caring for the dead; that they should be compelled to prove by examination and registration that they are competent to preserve dead bodies from decay and protect the living from infection; that good moral character, refinement, and culture are as necessary for those who must enter the home under such peculiar and close relations, as for the physician. Also that it is only fitting and proper for a woman to attend the bodies of women and children. In order to make herself a peer of any of the opposite sex in her profession, she matriculated at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Boston for a special course in anatomy. Mrs. Atwood is the only daughter of George Kinsman Edwards and Harriet Kinsman (Howland) Edwards, and was born in East Landaff (now Easton) at the base of Mount Kinsman, a peak of the Franconia Range, which took its name from Nathan Kinsman, her great- grandfather. Here amid the uplifting, soul stirring grandeur of New Hampshire’s natural scenery has this family lived for five generations, until they may perchance have imbibed some of the characteristics of the old granite hills, so dear to the subject of this sketch whose passionate love of nature is intensely developed.

Minnie Edwards Atwood was ahead of her time, and in the 1900 U.S. Census she is listed as “assistant funeral director,” with her husband as director. This shows that she was  actively working in that profession.  Much has changed. It is said that 57% of today’s mortuary science students in the United States are women, many of them first-generation funeral directors.

Minnie Edwards Atwood died in 1904 aged 49.  Could she have been the victim of her own profession? Possibly.  The cause of death on her certificate was Idiopathic (Aplastic) Anemia. Potential causes of that disease include the result of “toxic chemicals used in industry or farming, such as benzene, solvents, or glue vapors.”   I don’t know the specific chemicals that Minnie handled in her work, however they were no doubt the toxic kind.

***ADDITIONAL READING***

Seen the Grim Reaper? In N.H., there’s an app for that

New Hampshire Sawyer Funeral Home: First Female Licensed Funeral Director

===PARTIAL GENEALOGY of Minnie EDWARDS====

1804 newspaper advertisement by Bemsley Edwards of Landaff NH

Bemsley Edwards was b. 3 January 1770 Coventry CT and d. 7 March 1849. Was of Coventry CT when he married 23 January 1793 to Sarah-7 Cushman, daughter of Ephraim Cushman. She was b. 11 Sep 1773 at Coventry CT and d. 15 Feb 1849. He is buried in Kinsman Cemetery, Easton NH. In 1804 he lived in Landaff NH and advertised in the newspaper that he had a horse, Polaski, for stud.
—————————
Children of Bemsley & Sarah (Cushman) Edwards:
1. Bemsley Edwards, b. 16 April 1794 Landaff NH, d. 5 Sep 1796 Landaff NH
2. Sally Edwards, b. 26 April 1796, d. 29 June 1796
3. +Bemsley Edwards, b. 1 April 1799 Landaff, Grafton Co. NH, d. 2 Sep 1841. He married 14 January 1828 in Landaff NH to Eliza Kinsman, daughter of Peter & Mary (Raymond) Kinsman. She was born 25 Feb 1811 in Landaff NH.
4. Stephen Edwards b 20 March 1801
5. Pierpont Edwards, b. 21 April 1803
6. George W. Edwards, b. 21 Oct 1805
7. Sarah Edwards, b 1 Dec 1808

========== NEXT GENERATION ================

Bemsley Edwards, son of Bemsley & Sarah (Cushman) Edwards, b. 1 April 1799 Landaff, Grafton Co. NH, d. 2 Sep 1841. He married 14 January 1828 in Landaff NH to Eliza Kinsman, daughter of Peter & Mary (Raymond) Kinsman. She was born 25 Feb 1811 in Landaff NH.
—————————–
Children of Bemsley & Eliza (Kinsman) Edwards:
1. Eliza Jane Edwards, b. 3 May 1829, d. 3 march 1832
2. +George Kinsman Edwards, b. 3 January 1831.

Stephen Edwards, son of Bemsley/Bimsley b. abt 1800 Landaff [Easton] NH, died 9 August 1880 Easton NH. He married 12 June 1828 in Landaff NH to Joanna Drury, daughter of Buckminster & Delilah (Applebee) Drury. She was b. 15 March 1807 in Franconia, Grafton Co. NH and d. c1880 NH.
———————
1880 US Census > NH > Grafton >Easton
Clark Edwards self M 40 NH
Sarah F. Edwards wife F 39 NH
Winnie I. Edwards dau F 13 NH
Minot W. Edwards son M 11 NH
Stephen C. Edwards Father M 80 NH
———————
Children of Stephen & Joanna (Drury) Edwards:
1. Clark Edwards, b. 14 May 1839 Easton NH, d. 12 Nov 1902 Sugar Hill, Lisbon NH. Buried Sugar Hill Cemetery, Lisbon NH. Civil War Veteran, Lieut. Co C., 1st NH Regiment July 1864 to June 1865 11 months. He married Sarah F. Winch. Children: George S., Winnie I.
========== NEXT GENERATION ========

Old postcard aerial view of Lisbon NH

George K. Edwards, son of Bemsley & Eliza (Kinsman) Edwards, b 3 January 1831 Easton NH, d 19 May 1891 Woodsville, Grafton Co. NH, town clerk of Haverhill NH ; m. 9 Feb 1853 [not 58] to Harriet Kinsman Howland, daughter of Jeremy & Lois (Hall) Howland. She b 1 Jan 1832 Easton NH, d 13 October 1907 Lisbon NH. She is buried in Grove Hill Cemetery, Lisbon NH. His will probated in 1891 gave his estate except for $20 to his wife until her death, and then designated it would be divided among his two children. His marriage record says his father was Stephen, but the Kinsman-Edwards genealogy shows it was Bemsley.
—————-
Children of George K. & Harriet (Howland) Kinsman:
1. +Minnie E. Edwards, b. 10 Nov 1854 Easton NH
2. Frank S. Edwards, b. 3 June 1871 Landaff NH, died 1944; m1)  30 Dec 1892 in NH to Grace Beede  Carr, dau of John B. & Jennie (Hichins) Carr. He m2d) 31 Jan 1922 in Farmington NH to Una (Davis) McKenney, dau of Boardman & Ella (Keefe) Davis. He was a teacher.  In 1930 he ran a hotel in Camden, Maine.  He is buried in Amesbury Hill Cemetery, Rockport, Knox Co., Maine.

========== NEXT GENERATION ========

Minnie E. Edwards, born 10 November 1854 in East Landaff (now Easton) NH, daughter of George Kinsman & Harriet (Howland) Edwards. She died 23 September 1904 in New Hampton NH, aged 49y. She married 13 November 1872 in Lisbon, Grafton Co. NH to William H. “Willie” Atwood, a funeral director of Lisbon, NH. He was born December 1850 in Landaff NH, son of John C. & Mary Doyle (Simonds) Atwood. He m2d) 14 January 1913 in Framingham MA to Susan P. Brooks, daughter of Edward C. & Hannah M. (Porter) Brooks. He died 12 July 1916 in Kingston General Hospital, Kingston, Frontenac, Ontario, Canada. [death from ancestry tree]
———————
1900 US Census > NH > Grafton > Lisbon
Atwood, William H. Head W M Dec 1850 49 married 28 y NH NH NH Undertaker
Atwood, Minnie E. wife W F Nov 1855 44 married 28 y 0ch 0liv NH NH NH Asst undertaker
Edwards, Harriet K. mother-in-law W F Jan 1832 68 widow 2 ch 2 living NH NH NH
————————–
No children.

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4 Responses to New Hampshire’s First Woman Embalmer and Funeral Director: Minnie (Edwards) Atwood (1854-1904)

  1. Pingback: 2017 New Hampshire and National Women’s History Month | Cow Hampshire

  2. This made me wonder how many women were the driving force behind their husbands’ businesses but did not get the recognition. Kudos to those who furthered their education and got the certification to practice their chosen profession.

  3. Amy says:

    It takes a certain kind of person to do that work. I certainly never could do it! And how sad that she died so young. I bet you are right that the chemicals caused her death.

  4. Nadine says:

    Fascinating!

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