Property of a Dead Man: The Coroner’s Auction: 1920

The Country Auction, William Geddes

The Country Auction, William Geddes

A slice-of-death account from a 1920s coroner’s auction.


Coroner Disposes of Pitiful Fragments of Property Left By Unknown


St. Paul, Minn., Feb. 23. The estates of dead men sold for pennies here. Behind a marble table in the county morgue the coroner disposed by auction last week of the pitiful fragments of property left by St. Paul’s unknown dead in 1919.

When relatives or near friends of those whose bodies are brought to the morgue make no claim to their “estates” the law requires public sale.

Some Jazzy Comment.

“This watch,” said the coroner, and held it up, battered, worth $1 once, “stopped when its owner died. It says 10 minutes to 10.”

“Maybe that was his zero hour,” commented a woman in black, “I bid 25 cents.” Then came the razor an old man used to slit his throat. The bidding was high, but the woman in black, confirmed auction fiend, bought it for 76 cents.

There Was a Knife.

“A little rusty,” said the coroner. “I think we found this fellow in the river.” Postcards, bits of cloth, a bottle opener, keys, a locket with a broken back—all the things that meant in their own private way much—maybe all—to someone once, were heaped on the marble slab and pawed over by the woman in black and her rival bidders, then sold by the state for copper and silver.

Discharge Paper Sold.

“Two estates left, announced the “auctioneer,” “I don’t suppose anybody wants this.”

He held up the soiled, blood-stained discharge paper of James Alton, one-time soldier of the land.

“I’ll take that. Here’s a dime,” snapped a bidder with two gold stripes on his sleeve. My American Legion post’ll try to find his folks.”

“And this,” continued the coroner and carried to view a bedraggled Bible, its imitation leather, puffed and swollen by moisture.

“Gimme,” barked the woman in black. “I want that! I bid 15 cents.”

She carried away the Bible that once was Ole Johnson’s. “He gave his heart to God at the Union Gospel Mission, Dec. 2 1914,” was the fading legend on the fly-leaf.

Wilkes-Barre [PA] Times-Leader 23 February 1920: p. 13

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: One is undertain if the woman in black, “confirmed auction fiend” was just a ghoul who could not say no, or if she was a collector of murderabilia, as expanded to include all categories of goods associated with  untimely death.

Mrs Daffodil has noted in the United States press instances of the county coroner and auctioneer posts being held by the same man. This is undoubtedly economical for the county, but perhaps a conflict of interest.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,”where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes.


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