“Whistling” Davis and his corpse child…
UNBURIED FOR YEARS
California Man Keeps the Remains of His Child at Home
LOS ANGELES, CA, June 2, 1895 — For five years past “Whistling” Davis, of Long Beach, has kept the corpse of his dead child in a little coffin in his house at a locality known as “The Willows.” The neighbors have at intervals remonstrated and threatened without avail. He has stubbornly refused to bury the body or permit anyone to have it interred. Lately, the neighbors became excited about the affair and notified the coroner, who will commence an investigation, it being held that there is a law making it illegal to thus retain the body of a deceased human being. Officers of the Humane society went to the beach to arrest the man. On going to his house, they found the little casket containing the body under the porch. They took it in charge and upon opening found in it the little dried skeleton.
The strange tale of S.O. “Whistling” Davis and his corpse child is one of the stranger stories from 1895. The Los Angeles Times described him as an eccentric, married 60-year-old farmer, who stood 6 foot tall. He was also described as “gaunt and bony, bald-headed and white bearded, with vague blue eyes.”
In 1895, Davis lived in Long Beach with his wife, a “picture of rural simplicity,” a small, skeletal corpse, and three living children, two boys and one girl, ages seven to 14. Although he owned 80 acres of “good land” with 20 cows and six horses, he and his family lived in “filth and wretchedness.” Neighbors complained that he was miserly to the point of being criminal.
In fact, Davis’ miserly behavior had gotten him in trouble with the law before. In 1894, after a Horticulture Commission agent notified him that he needed to spray his fruit trees for pests, Smith ran him off with a threat and a shotgun, thus sparking a lawsuit with the Horticulture Commission. On another occasion, Smith tore out a gate in an irrigation ditch so that he could siphon water onto his property. Davis was said to have gotten his nickname, not because he was a good “whistler.” He earned it because he hated other people whistling, and was known to run out of his house onto his porch and fire his pistol in the air and curse at anyone who whistled near his property.
Around 1890, after his youngest child, a two-year old, had developed cholera, Davis and his wife attempted to treat the sick child themselves. Either from “ignorance or a mistake,” they administered an overdose of paregoric (modified opium). Davis then contacted a Wilmington doctor, who recommended that the child’s stomach be pumped. Davis refused to pay for it because the child was too far gone to survive, so the doctor left and the child died.
Following the child’s death, Davis refused to pay for a proper burial in a cemetery, claiming that the cemetery owners charged too much for a burial plot. So he buried his child’s small casket in his potato patch/garden on the corner of his property.
Two years after his child’s death, Davis exhumed the small, tarnished casket and placed it in his cellar. Before long, Davis moved the casket to the front porch, or under it, where neighbors could see it.
In February, 1895, Davis once again ran into trouble after he had kicked his wife’s leg until she could barely walk. Fearing for her life, Mrs. Davis gathered her three children and left the house while Davis had gone to town to purchase liquor. Mrs. Davis and her kids walked to a friend’s house in Green Meadows. Upon her arrival, her friends contacted the Humane Society. Mrs. Davis was then taken to a hospital and treated for her severe bruises.
Humane Society officers visited Davis to arrest him on grounds of insanity, but the officers concluded that he was not insane. “Half of the people of Long Beach maintain that he is,” Officer Wright said, “But I could not discover it in a half-hour’s conversation. There is not ground enough upon which to base any charges. He admits kicking his wife, but says it was accidental.”
Mrs. Davis and her children returned home. When Davis once again left town, this time for a day trip to Los Angeles, neighbors called the Humane Society to complain about the casket. An officer and deputy constable visited the homestead with a search warrant and found the casket, covered in chicken droppings, under the home’s porch. More officers arrived and Mrs. Davis, whom the Times described as “not very bright,” told them that she had always disapproved of the casket being on the porch because it was sacrilegious and indecent, but that her husband had told her that he intended to clean the bones and put them away. She also told authorities that she did not know if her husband had intended to reuse the casket again or not.
When Davis returned home, authorities arrested him for failing to bury his child’s body in a timely manner. On July 7, 1895, Davis made a spectacle of himself by arriving to the courthouse early and sleeping on the corridor floor for an hour or more. Once inside the courtroom, he refused to remove his hat, so a deputy sheriff forcefully yanked it off of his head. Davis then pleaded “Not guilty” and a court date was scheduled.
At the trial, Mr. and Mrs. Davis defended their actions. Davis explained that flooding and local children trying to dig up the casket had caused him to remove his child’s remains from their garden. He told jurors that he stored the small casket in the cellar of his home until winter rainstorms caused the cellar walls to cave in. (NOTE: An earlier newspaper article reported that after the cellar flooded, “the coffin floated” in a pool of water “for some time” until Davis’ “indignant children pulled it out and placed it on the front porch…”) Davis then told the court that he had always intended to bury the casket in a cemetery, but that he was “anxious to keep the remains near him, as he wished them to be buried with himself and his wife in a family vault.”
The jury split 9 to 2, and the Judge put the case on hold. After the child’s remains were properly interred, the case was dismissed.
Davis’ legal battles continued. After lifting a water gate one too many times in 1896, he was convicted of water theft and served time in the County Jail until he plea bargained his freedom in 1899.