On July 16, 1892, the Whitechapel Club cremated the body of Morris Allen Collins on a pyre along the shore of Lake Michigan. Collins willed his body to Chicago’s secretive society. They sang, recited poetry, and made the ashes part of their morbid rites.
The private Whitechapel Club took its name from the London district of Jack the Ripper’s killings. Formed in 1889 by journalists in order to “laugh in the face of death,” they appointed Jack as the honorary president. The all-male ranks grew to include policemen, bankers, doctors, clergymen, magicians, and convicted murderers. They stipulated that, other than journalists, there could only be two members sharing the same profession at a time.
The entryway to the private club was an oak door with stained glass skull and crossbones. It bore the words “I, too, have lived in Arcady,” from Nicolas Poussin’s painting Et in Arcadia ego. Lethal trophies lined the walls: murder evidence like knives and guns, fire engine bits from Chicago’s Great Fire, the bloody shirt of a Native American victim of the Battle of Wounded Knee. Skulls, those popular memento mori, were supplied by Dr. John C. Spray, an asylum superintendent. Chysostom “Tombstone” Thompson, decorator and chaplain of the Whitechapel Club, customized them to make gas lamps by sawing off the tops and fitting glass in the eyes. Prostitutes’ skulls became goblets; the silver-lined cranium of the famous Waterford Jane held a special place of honor. In addition to skull sipping, guests (like Presidents-to-be William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt) were required to carry a sword that a wagon driver used to kill his wife. A noose hung (or is it hanged?) from the ceiling. The coffin-shaped dining table featured brass nails with each member’s name.
Morris Allen Collins, writer for the Labor Enquirer, signed himself in the records as “M.A. Collins, President Suicide Club, Dallas, Texas.” Raised as an orphan and skirting poverty, he was struck by a train in October 1890. After the accident, he suffered from seizures. He attempted to kill himself by overdosing on morphine. On July 8, 1892, he committed suicide with a shot to the head. A note to his friend Honore Joseph Jaxon pledged his body to the Whitechapel Club for cremation. The Club honored his wish.
On July 16, Whitechapel members readied a twenty-by-eighteen-foot pyre in the Indiana dunes. The body was transferred by train to Miller’s Station, then carted it by wagon. Collins’ corpse was fitted with a white robe. At 10:50 pm, the members circled the pyre three times, carrying torches and intoning a dirge. The wood, soaked with flammable pitch, was set ablaze. W.C. Thompson addressed the crowd, which swelled in ranks from inquisitive locals. Dwight Baldwin performed the funeral sermon. Into the night, the harp and zither played Ernst’s Elegy and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry was read.
In death, Collins continued to serve the Whitechapel Club. His ashes were gathered with trowels. The club brought them back to their headquarters. They initiated a tradition for the members to sift their hands through his powdery, cremated remains.