The Outrageous McCloskey Obit
by Lou Bernard
Most of my research is pretty standard. Newspaper articles, obituaries, wills, and deeds all look the same after a while. Most of them don’t vary all that much, but they’re good sources of information. But sometimes, I come across something different. Every once in a while, I come across a document that is truly breathtaking in its outrageousness.
I’ve written before about odd newspaper articles, such as the time a guy lamented for most of a page the fact that nothing was going on in Mill Hall. Or the will of Joseph Parsons, which mostly informed his children that they got nothing because they were losers. These things are fun to read.
You wouldn’t think an obituary would be all the much fun. But, in the case of Jane Ellen McCloskey, you’d be wrong.
Just for the unfamiliar: Obituaries are those little notices you see in the newspapers when someone dies. Traditionally, they’re a great source of information—They give all the details on someone’s life, family, and occupation. I look them up a lot, and most are pretty standard. But the obit of Jane Ellen McCloskey was bizarre enough to be a work of art.
The obit ran in the Clinton Republican on August 23, 1899. It was written by her son, Benjamin McCloskey, who worked for the railroad. He sure as hell wasn’t a professional obituary writer, because this thing managed to run for most of a page and say very little.
It began traditionally enough: “Jane Ellen McCloskey, nee Baird, wife of ex-County Commissioner James A McCloskey, passed peacefully away at 1:30 AM August 17, 1899, at her home in Hyner, aged 72 years, 6 months, and 20 days.”
Then it went on to talk about her early days—Explaining how she was a second-generation settler in the valley, and grew up in a log cabin.
But after that part, it almost immediately took a screaming left turn into weirdness as it began to discuss irrelevancies with unusual intensity. It began with her age, which had been unknown. “She possessed one unusual characteristic—Age, either physically or otherwise, was never acknowledged. Even her own children could rarely surprise her in the use of glasses in reading—such was her sensitive desire to resist the encroachments of years. Indeed, it was only while upon her death bed, that the writer was able to draw from her the long-concealed secrets of her exact age.” In other words, her own son was never sure how old his mother was until she died. (She had, in fact, been born on January 27, 1827.)
And then, it goes on for a long paragraph about her love of flowers: “She was passionately fond of flowers, and cultivated them, winter and summer, with an assiduity only equaled by her success. Even while thought to be dying, when fragrant nasturtiums and sweet peas were brought into the chamber of death, catching the perfume as if by intuition she would brighten up and exclaim,’Oh, aren’t they nice!’”
Also, I’ve never before seen an obit that discusses the person’s flaws. This is a new one on me; normally obits do their best to make the person sound good. But this one, not so much, which is pretty unique.
“She made no claims nor pretentions to saintship. She was simply a woman. She had faults. Who has not? The only faultless specimen of the [long Latin word for human beings that I am editing because I don’t feel like typing it] that has ever trode the green award of earth was assassinated nineteen centuries ago through envy because he was a perfect man. Let him or her who is without sin in this identical respect throw the first stone upon her lamented form.”
Wow. Big words and drama. Though the whole “throw the first stone” thing loses a little something when you consider that, yes, she was going to be basically covered with stones, being dead and all.
The obit goes on like that for the better part of the page, and I’m not going to reproduce it all here. It’s at the Ross Library, if you’re interested. It does mention that she was buried within a few rods of where she was born, and I’m not going to try to figure out what a rod is, either. All I’ll tell you is that she’s buried in the Old Methodist Cemetery, up in Hyner.
And the person who wrote her obit is pretty clearly not the same person who designed her gravestone, because that turned out pretty concise: “McCloskey, Jane Ellen. Wife. Mother.”