Photo of the Week
October 10, 2021

Well....Halloween is just around the corner and something that fits right in, an iron casket.  This casket was found at the mouth of the Chagres River by John F. Thomas and Fred Berest in June 1954.  The photos shown are taken at the Gorgas Hospital Board of Health Laboratory.  My brother found these photos and others while searching through the National Archives website.  When I first saw the photos I thought is was Sir Frances Drake's coffin.  The story goes that Drake carried his casket on board his ship, but this isn't case, but similar in idea.  In 1848, Albert Fisk submitted a patent for his invention or a Air-Tight Coffin of Cast or Raised Metal.

From Burials and Beyond website: 

Fisk’s ‘metallic coffin’ was a remarkably simple invention, intended to aid the death industry and public health in general via the airtight preservation of the dead. Fisk’s mummy-shaped casket was intended to preserve the body in cases of delayed burial, prolonged periods of travel and also to keep all bodily effluence and disease contained within. Considering highly contagious diseases such as cholera were very real threats from poorly maintained burial sites, Fisk’s invention was an attempt at counteracting the ever-growing issue.

From Atlas Obscura: 

The molded coffin, in fitting with elaborate Victorian mourning, was heavily decorated with symbolism like angels, thistles, roses, and on one found in an unmarked grave in Missouri in 2006, oak leaves, acorns, and berries. The coffin itself was shaped like a shrouded corpse, the edges of the draping delicately molded. And at the head was perhaps the most unsettling feature: a little window to view the face of the dead. 

So here a Fisk metallic coffin was found at the mouth of the Chagres River which was heavily visited by many, especially during the California Gold Rush.  Who brought this coffin to Panama, I guess no one will ever know.  Unfortunately I can't find any documentation about this coffin and what the men in the photo below found when they opened it.

It was fortunate that Burials and Beyond website has the last photo down showing a clean example of a Fisk coffin.  The flower embossing on the foot end of the Panama coffin and the clean one look pretty much the same.

I hope someone knows the rest of the story.  I was surprised not to find an article in the Panama Canal Review magazine.  There might be one, but I couldn't find anything in the index.




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