The Burial of Thomas Bass
Written and contributed by Ben Feld
The memory of any given incident lingers in our minds in a number of forms; we recall the incident exactly as it happened, or we recall it as we wish it had happened, or certain facts depart from our memories and that recollection, which may have much truth to it, it presents a scenario somewhat different from reality.
Such seems to be the case in the relating of the first death in
Watertown. The general conception of the
incident varies a bit with the teller, most of the facts being drawn from a
recounting published in the Watertown Democrat
According to that account, Bass was an intelligent Englishman of about twenty-six years, with no relatives in this country and well liked by those acquainted with him. Although The Republican does not mention his occupation, there is reason to believe he worked as a cook for Capt. James Rogan. Bass and his two companions lived in a small shanty south of Main Street on the site later occupied by the Vulcan Iron Works. [Bass’ cabin was about where the Senior Center is today}
One cold February night Bass and his companions, Charles Seaton and Ezra Dolliver, procured a gallon of whiskey, besat themselves in front of a roaring fire in their fireplace, and proceeded to warm the inner man with the contents of their jug. The combination of warmth on the inside produced by the fiery spirits and the warmth of the fire on the outside produced the desired state of drowsiness in the men, which prompted Seaton and Dolliver to stretch themselves out on the floor where they fell into a deep sleep.
Bass, however, was supposed to have seated himself on a bench before the hearth, where he became drowsy, and while helpless and insensible, pitched head-first into the flames, and unable to make an effort to get out or call for aid, “nothing was seen of him until the next morning, when he was found dead by his associates -- his limbs and body scorched and mutilated by the fire.”
In response to the fear of the community that stories about this incident may adversely affect the reputation of this new community, Mr. L. A. Cole, that day, walked to Aztalan where he persuaded two men to investigate the incident, so that no blame could be attached to any one in the town. When all the facts had been ascertained, the incident was ruled an accident and Bass was buried in a grave under a large maple tree in the First Ward near where the Brick School House was later constructed. [Believe he was buried in about the middle of S. Third Street, across from Veteran’s park]
Attending the simple funeral ceremony where William Brayton officiated, were Timothy Johnson, Luther A. Cole, John W. Cole, Amasa Hyland, Calvin Boughton, Charles Seaton, Ezra Doliver, Philander Baldwin and Reeve Griswold. Virtually the entire population of the village which, at the time, was yet unnamed officially. There being no saw mills on the Rock River at that time, the coffin was made of planks hastily hewn out of available logs. [Mrs. Timothy Johnson made his shroud]
However, there were those who were not completely satisfied this
death was purely accidental and Mr. Enoch Darling, of Milwaukee, had the body
disinterred. A jury was chosen, the
facts again brought out, and the verdict again rendered as “Accidental death by
falling into the fire.” The body was
again committed to the earth and remained there until it was exposed during the
Some thirty years later, in June, 1889, another version, somewhat different, was given by Mrs. J. A. Chadwick, the daughter of Timothy Johnson. In a letter written to be read at the Old Settlers’ meeting on June 20th, she tells how her father, Timothy Johnson, met her, her mother, and six more children, one only a year old, in Milwaukee about October 12th ,1836. Jane Johnson, the writer of the letter was nine years old at the time and had, she insisted, very clear recollections of what transpired during those early days in what later became known as Watertown.
She recounted how her father, Timothy Johnson, was reluctant to leave the small log hut he had partially finished on his claim near the Rock River. Leaving it for only one night could easily have resulted in losing the property completely. The land, which was, as yet, not “in the market” was always in danger of being taken by the scourges of the frontier, the claim jumpers. Should a settler leave his home for as little as just one night, it was possible for one of those unscrupulous characters to occupy the dwelling and was lawfully within his rights to lay claim to the building and land surrounding it. Claim jumpers were ranked one notch below horse thieves, the most detested frontier characters.
Part of her letter revealed his anxiety:
“I have thought also that he must have felt somewhat anxious to know if he still had a claim to come to, for in those days, “might was right,” and if a claim was left for a night some one may have taken possession of it, or in early days expression, have “jumped it.”
Although he was well aware that three known claim jumpers occupied a shanty in the First Ward, his fears turned out to be groundless. Jane related no troubles in that area. However, she does refer to the death of Thomas Bass and her recollection seems to indicate that his death did not occur quite as reported in The Democrat in 1859.
According to her, Seaton and Dolliver came to the Johnson home during the night requesting help. The men, she said, explained they had been drinking, got to quarrelling and “this man was killed.” Timothy Johnson sent them away saying if the man was already dead there was nothing he could do about it.
The next morning, she said, Johnson and another man went to the cabin where they found “the dead man had been left so near the fire that the flesh was burned nearly off one side.”
Putting together the facts that the men had come for help during the night, her statement that the men said they had been quarrelling and a man was killed, and Timothy Johnson and his companion finding the victim near, not in, the fire, leads one to conclude that this was indeed a murder. But that does not explain why the affair was officially deemed an accident. Was it just to avoid notoriety for the city? Was it just to avoid a lot of legal machinations? Or was Jane Johnson’s (Mrs. J. A. Chadwick’s) unreliable memory at age 62?
Whether guilty or innocent, Seaton and Dolliver reportedly became tea-totalers and left the area. Bass was , as before recounted, buried in a rather shallow grave on a site described by the editor of The Democrat in 1859 as:
“…now little removed from the center of the flourishing city we now see. In front is the public square, on one side of which is one of the largest churches in the city, on another one of the finest residences in the State, near by the best school house in our midst, where for years hundreds of children have been unconsciously playing over the unmarked resting place of the first man buried in the city where perhaps most of them were born.”
The First Grave
[Recollection of first grave in Watertown]
The first white man’s grave made within the limits of Watertown was last week broken in upon and destroyed by the march and changes of time, and its almost forgotten tenant, after resting in it nearly twenty two years—heedless of the life and activity surging above him—removed to a spot where his wasting remains will be disturbed no more forever by the intrusions of the living.
We have thought a slight account of this incident, drawn from the vivid recollections of some who were witnesses of the whole scene, might be interesting, not only to those of our readers who will now first learn them, but also to those who have a distinct remembrance of all that happened at that early day in the history of the city whose foundation they were about to commence. And as we give a brief sketch of the first death, curious fancies more than half arise in the mind, and suggest the question who shall record the last one, and when will it be done?
In the spring of 1837, the population of this city did not exceed fifteen, men, women and children all counted. There might have been standing here and there, under the shadows of the dense and majestic wilderness, four rude and hastily built log cabins—not dwellings, for they were supplied with too few of the conveniences and attractions which make a house also a home. These were the only traces then existing of approaching civilization. Indian villages were scattered up and down the river and this whole region—remarkable even then for its beauty, and widely known in the East as the “Lake Country”—was the favorite abode of the Winnebagoes. Among the new comers was Thomas Bass, an intelligent Englishman of about twenty-six years of age. He was a young man without any relatives on this side of the Atlantic, and made quite a favorable impression on those who became acquainted with him after his arrival.
Sometime during the month of February, in 1837, with two other companions, he procured a gallon of whiskey, and became involved in a drinking frolic, in a log hut which stood on ground now occupied by the Vulcan Iron Works. The weather being cool, the merry party kindled a large fire, and after drinking pretty freely, two stretched themselves out on the floor for the night, but Bass is supposed to have seated himself on a bench before the hearth, became drowsy, and while helpless and insensible, pitched head-first into the flames, and unable to make an effort to get out or call for aid, nothing more was seen of him until the next morning, when he was found dead by his associates—his limbs and body scorched and mutilated by the fire.
The accident created considerable excitement and regret, and threw the young community into commotion. Some were afraid that false and exaggerated reports would be circulated abroad to their injury. To prevent this blight on the fair prospects and good name of the settlers, Mr. L. A. Cole, the next day, walked to Aztalan and induced two neighbors—it seems strange now to speak of men living twelve miles away as near neighbors—to come and investigate the case, so that no blame could be attached to any one in the town.
When all the facts had been fully ascertained, nothing remained but to give the unfortunate stranger as decent a burial as circumstances would permit. There being no saw mills on Rock River, boards could not be had, though there was plenty of timber out of which to make them. The next thing was to cut down growing trees and out of the logs hew thick planks for the coffin, which was done.
A retired place, then supposed to be remote from the business part of the unnamed village, was selected for the grave. It was well chosen, being on a slight elevation and under the branches of an unusually large and handsome maple, which grew where the First Ward Brick School House now stands. There he was buried, his funeral being attended by all the inhabitants, Mrs. Timothy Johnson—the only woman then here—did her part on the melancholy work—she making the shroud. The ceremonies on the occasion were simple, the services short. No minister of the Gospel being at hand, William Brayton offered up a prayer.
Those present, as far as can now be remembered, were Timothy Johnson, Luther A. Cole, John W. Cole, Amasa Hyland, Calvin Boughton, Charles Seaton, Ezra Doliver, Philander Baldwin and Reeve Griswold. So ended the first funeral.
About a week afterwards, however, Mr. Enoch Darling, now residing at Jefferson, in this county, came out from Milwaukee to hold a Coroner’s Inquest. The body was disinterred, a jury chosen, the facts again brought out, and the verdict rendered was “accidental death by falling into the fire.”
The body was again committed to the earth and has remained here until, in the progress of improvements, it was exposed a few days ago while grading streets. The out of-the-way spot is now little removed from the center of the flourishing city we now see. In front is the public square, on one side of which is one of the largest churches in the city, on another one of the finest residences in the state [this would be the Buchheit Home], near by the best school house in our midst, where for years hundreds of children have been unconsciously playing over the unmarked resting place of the first man buried in the city where perhaps most of them were born. Mr. L. A. Cole having his attention called to this grave, he applied to Mr. William M. Dennis, the President of the city, who had them taken up, properly coffined, and interred in Oak Hill Cemetery, where they will probably moulder back to dust with being troubled again. Watertown Democrat, 08 11 1859
09 08 Christian Schroeder, for burying Mr. Bass, $5.00. [Common Council] [The body of Thomas Bass, the first death of a settler in Watertown, was exposed in 1859 while grading streets in the area of Veteran’s Park] WD