I knew about Nancy Adams Martin’s unusual burial in Oakdale Cemetery months before my arrival. From a cursory glance her marker doesn’t really stand out from the taller surrounding monuments in the plot. As you can see below the granite is carved to resemble a rustic wooden cross. A photo taken nearly a decade ago from Find a Grave shows a less-weathered version where the name “Nance” and the cut branches are more visible.
What we can’t see from the surface is that deep below the ground Nancy’s body has been seated in a chair entombed in a cask of alcohol since her death on May 25, 1857.
Nancy was twenty-four years old when she set sail with her father (Silas) and brother (John) on a voyage that would require them to be at sea for an extended period of time shipping cargo to and from various ports. A few months into the trip Nancy fell ill and died near Cuba. The Star-News claimed that contaminated water was the source of her mystery ailment.
Nancy’s father and brother didn’t want to commit her body to the sea so they chose to preserve her until they could return to Wilmington. Decomposition would be kept at bay by suspending the remains in an alcohol-filled cask. Unsettled at the idea of Nancy being jostled by the sea, they tied her to a wooden chair and nailed the chair to the bottom of the keg before adding the liquor. Accounts of what type of alcohol vary from only rum being poured over the body to the usage of a wine, whiskey and rum mixture.
According to the cemetery Nancy’s body sailed for only five days back to North Carolina where she and the cask were buried in Oakdale. A special grave of brick was built to hold the unusual “coffin.”
One side of the Martin obelisk contains an inscription for Nancy and her brother John, both noting 1857 death dates. Tragedy struck the family less than four months after Nancy’s demise when John’s ship was swallowed up by a hurricane. Pieces of his vessel were found floating in the water after the storm but John’s body was never recovered.