And the Story of Thomas Holmes, MD
The embalming craze took off when an Army Medical Corps colonel (and close friend of President Lincoln) became the first Union officer to be killed. On May 24, 1861, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth was shot while removing a Confederate flag from the roof of a Virginian hotel. The flag was so large that it could be seen from the White House.
News of the shooting traveled quickly to Washington. Thomas Holmes—later known as the “Father of Modern Embalming—offered his services to Ellsworth’s family, and the captain’s preserved body was taken to the White House, where it lay in state for several days.
Dr. Holmes was given a commission from the Army Medical Corps to embalm the corpses of dead Union officers in order that they might be sent home for burial. Holmes is said to have embalmed as many as 4,000 bodies himself, but he also created a fluid that could be used for embalming and sold it to other physicians for $3 per gallon. (At that time, the chemicals were a mixture of arsenic, zinc and mercuric chlorides, creosote, turpentine and alcohol. Formaldehyde, which soon became the primary ingredient, was not discovered until after the war.)
With the end of the Civil War, the practice of embalming died out for a time since people were likely to die near home and could be buried more quickly. Embalming surgeons became a thing of the past, and when interest in embalming returned again in the 1890s, undertakers began to perform these duties. Companies that wanted to sell embalming fluid sent salesmen around the country to demonstrate the process and provide certificates of training, and the practice grew. (State licensing finally entered the picture in the 1930s.)