Our area is home to a lot of interesting history, but perhaps one of the most unusual stories is buried in the historical Mishawaka City Cemetary. There is a man there, buried in 1882, sitting up in his grave. Not only that, but some believe he is buried with some unusual belongings.
The grave sight is large, but unassuming. There is no marker for the 8' by 10' burial site -- just two giant, bland, concrete slabs, worn and cracked by weather.
Underneath those slabs though, is the eternal resting place of William Aldrich...and as some believe, his things.
"To me, he was a very interesting character," says IUSB professor Kevin Gillen, who has done extensive research on Aldrich.
Gillen's research of census records show Aldrich was born in either 1836 or 1837. He moved to Mishawaka with his family when he was a teen. There are no known photographs of him but newspaper clippings from after his death describe what he might have looked like.
"Almost all of them agree he was pretty flashy. He wore diamond cuffs, he wore frock coats -- he was very tall, dark complected with a big mustache," says Gillen.
Gillen says Aldrich was a real estate mogul of sorts. He was a wealthy man who bought and sold property in the area including near Niles, Michigan. He was a horse lover and a gambler.
Later newspaper articles describe Aldrich. According to a 1922 South Bend Tribune article, "Willard was an alleged atheist, a high toned gambler and some allege even worse things. He was a typical "Simon Legree," tall of figure, dark and thin and wore a Prince Albert coat, fancy high colored vest, black bow tie, and large diamond stud, high boots in which he took special pride and wide brimmed hat, altogether an austere personality -- and he could swear like a trooper. Willard would be gone from the city months at a time and return with a fine string of horses and sometimes coaches which he would sell. Just where he secured these no one was ever able to explain. He always had plenty of money but was not known to work."
Gillen believes much of that has been exaggerated over the years.
Still, what we do know about Aldrich, was the peculiar way in which he wanted to be buried.
By midlife, he was suffering from tuberculosis. He came to live with his mother in the early 1880s near what is now Lawrence and Main Street in Mishawaka. Aldrich was dying.
"He initially wanted to be buried in a rocking chair," says Gillen, "my theory is he wanted to emulate life as much as he could in death."
Gillen discovered an article written in Elkhart's Daily Review on September 8th, 1882. It reads, "He is having a large stone vault built in the cemetery at that place, at one end of which his body after death is to be placed in a sitting position in a reclining chair."
That article goes on to say, "In anticipation of the latter event he has had constructed a vault 7x8 feet in size, surrounded by a stone wall eighteen inches thick. He has also had his coffin made, and in such a manner that when placed in it he will be in a sitting position. The vault is to be lined with pictures of horse-races and other sporting representations, and when he has been properly deposited in his sepulchre (sic), it is to be covered with a granite block 8 x 10 feet in size and weighing five tons."
Gillen said other articles from that time indicate Aldrich's strange requests didn't end there. He also wanted to be buried sitting up at a table with all his things with him too: His whiskey, his saddle and boots, tobacco and matches, playing cards and his shot gun.
So he contacted John Feiten, a wellknown undertaker. A special walnut casket was constructed. It had gold handles and a glass front. And most notably, it was in an upright, sitting position.
Aldrich died at midnight on September 7, 1882. He was 42 years old.
Newspaper articles from that time indicate the casket was too large to fit in a hearse. It was either carried or towed to the cemetary. And people came from all over to see it. They had heard about Aldrich's unusual requests.
It is clear, based on articles from the day of his funeral, that he was buried in his specially made casket. What is not clear, 130 years after his death, is whether all his belongings were placed in the grave with him.
"The best understanding, and all the articles agree with this, is that he did want to be buried with all the items. However, at the last minute he abandoned those plans and opted for a specially designed casket instead. However, all the articles do say, the wishes of the deceased were followed to the letter by his friends. So, does that mean, he said to the public, I am not going to be buried with these things because I'm afraid people might try to rob it. And then he said to his friends, sneak it in when nobody's looking," says Gillen, "at the very end, he might have said, don't tell anybody but really burry me with these things."
And Gillen has articles that may prove his theory. In a Sunday Morning Register article from September 10, 1882, the writer says "As stated yesterday it is the intention of those having charge of the ceremony to follow the strange wishes of the deceased to the letter."
"The friends of the deceased will see that his last wishes will be fully complied with at the funeral," reads an article from the South Bend Evening Register on September 9th, 1882.
It's a mystery that is now covered by stone and deteriorated by time -- But still as alive as ever.
Gillen says Aldrich's strange requests and burial have sparked a long oral tradition. Some of the facts have been exaggerated since his death. But, it's a story that still attracts attention.
"We don't have mountains, we don't have an ocean, but we have Willard," says Gillen, "It is interesting that way."
Aldrich had no children and was never married. His other wish was that his mother be buried in the same tomb with him when she died. That wish was never carried out, for unknown reasons.