I long have said that if a thing can happen, it has happened in Bristol.
Among those unusual happenings may be told stories of strange and bizarre deaths. One of the strangest is a story of a man who died inside the casket in which he was buried.
Last week, I wrote of C.F. Gauthier and told of his founding of the Bristol Coffin and Casket Company. The story I will tell happened there around 1900 when the company was still located on the corner of Sycamore and Lee, downtown Bristol, Va.
At the time, Mr. Gauthier only had two casket makers at work, but the time came when he needed another employee.
A young man by the name of James A. Crymble had recently arrived in town from Newark, Ohio. He was a cousin to Ellis K. Crymble who for many years was a prominent Bristol citizen and had come here a few years before.
James was a carpenter, and it was told that he had come to Bristol due to a building boom knowing he would have no trouble finding work.
The young man took up residence in the St. Lawrence Hotel that long stood on the northwest corner of Cumberland and Front, across for the Bristol depot. Mr. Gauthier had heard of James and on the recommendation of his cousin, offered him a job at the casket factory.
On the day James came to work, Mr. Gauthier was not present but instructed his two older employees to show James his duties. Now both those men were a bit on the “prankster” side so decided to do a little “hazing.”
As soon as James arrived, he was told that in order to break into such a morbid work, he must first lie in an open casket for 10 minutes.
Then, the lid was to be closed over him for no more than 30 seconds. If he could endure this, he would be considered worthy to build caskets.
Young James played along. A nice cherry casket had been made the day before and put in a windowless side room in back of the work area. In this he did lay the prescribed time.
Then the men, assuring him that it would be opened in 30 seconds, closed and locked the lid over him.
As they had planned, when the 30 seconds was almost up, one of them yelled, “My gosh! The locks have stuck! I can’t get the lid open! What am I going to do!”
Faintly, they heard a yell from within then all was silent. Shortly, they opened the lid. James appeared lifeless. Knowing what trouble would result the two men lifted him from the casket, carried him up near the front door and laid him face down on the floor.
Then, hoping he had just fainted, one of them went running to Dr. H. B. Edmondson whose office was a block or so away at 110 Moore St. (Dr. Edmondson then lived at 221 Johnson in a house that still stands across from Pleasant Hill). The doctor hurried over and found that James A. Crymble was dead.
For the next 40 years, it was believed that the man had died of a heart attack on his first day of work. Actually, he may have indeed died of a heart attack brought on by extreme panic and fright. Mr. Gauthier donated the cherry coffin in which Crymble’s body was sent home for burial in Newark, Ohio.
One of the men who pulled the fatal prank was killed a bit later when hit by a train near the Bristol depot.
The other man became an alcoholic, suffered a complete nervous breakdown, spent several years in the Southwestern State Hospital at Marion, Va., and then came back to Bristol a broken man.
For a few years, he lived in a little shack on Second High Street in Bristol, Tenn. There he died several years before I came to Bristol.
After I began my work in welfare here in September 1953, his widow was one of my first clients. I used to visit her often. She later told me the story I have written here. Her late husband had confessed it all on his deathbed.
Yes, if it has happened, it has happened in Bristol.
As an added note, Mr. James A. Crymble’s cousin, Ellis, never knew that he had died of fright in the closed casket in the Bristol Coffin and Casket Company works. I once read a letter written him from James Crymble’s father telling of the funeral and burial of this poor boy who died in Bristol, Va.
BUD PHILLIPS is a local historian and author. He can be reached at (276) 466-6435. For more about Bristol’s history, visit www.bristolhistoricalassociation.com.