"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, September 21, 2015

Why Billy Hansbrough Failed to Rest in Peace

On May 4, 1905, the "Louisville Courier-Journal" carried a moving obituary notice for an eight-year-old named Billy Hansbrough. It was placed by the two people closest to him, William and Ada Hansbrough. The opening lines read, "Two hearts are grief-stricken, a once happy home is lonely and desolate, for death in its terrible mission entered the home of Mr. and Mrs. Hansbrough Saturday, April 22, at 4:30 o'clock, and took their little ray of sunshine from them."

The column (which included a handsome portrait of the deceased,) paid 124 lines of tribute to the "brown-eyed, sweet-faced" Billy, adding, "The suddenness of Billy's death has left desolation in its path." Billy was "their companion wherever they went, their comfort in sorrow, their little protector in the lonely hours of the night, and as he grew deeper in their lives and hearts, their love for him became dearer."

"Their little child and sunbeam" first showed signs of illness on April 13, when he refused to eat. William and Ada had sat up all night with him, keeping "warm flannels to his little cold body...When morning came he seemed better, and took his usual little walk...and then got up in his chair at the table." However, he still had no appetite. Billy was so perturbed, he ran away from home for three days. William and Ada "made every effort in human power" to find him. Finally, he returned, "so changed from their little bright-eyed darling they could hardly recognize him."

The notice went on to say, "After a loving greeting...he went through all the rooms of his happy home, where his toys and playthings were, then got up on his little bed, and they gave him his rag doll; he was so happy to be home again."

Billy's physician was summoned at once, but nothing could be done. "Neither love, medicine, nor prayers could save that precious life." Finally, after "a pitiful little moan," he "passed away for ever."

The mourning couple held a wake, attended by all the deceased's many friends and loved ones. Then, an undertaker was called in to embalm the little body. A beautiful and expensive casket was ordered. With "trembling hands," the Hansbroughs placed Billy inside the coffin, with "the little doll he loved so well by his side."

The Hansbroughs described the funeral of their beloved in Cave Hill Cemetery. "While a little bird in a tree above them was singing they laid their darling, their Billy, to rest in his little grave in the family graveyard" in a space between those reserved for Ada and William. "As they turned from that little grave they knew it would be their only comfort while they lived" that they would eventually rest in peace forever with him. "I believe his death will kill me," said Mrs. Hansbrough plaintively. "Oh, my baby Billy, if I only had you back for a while."

This was no ordinary family tragedy. The Hansbrough choice of resting place for "their darling" was destined to cause a great deal of legal trouble.

Because, you see, Billy was a dog.

The cemetery's board of directors had allowed this unusual burial on the condition that "no mound or marker" be placed over the grave. However, the Hansbroughs violated this agreement by raising a mound over Billy's resting place. They also talked of putting up a monument. All this was too much for the villain in our little tale: a fellow plot-owner named Henry Hertle. Hertle--obviously not a believer in the "man's best friend" motto--seemed to take it as a personal insult that he should be asked to share cemetery space with a dog. In January 1906 he filed a lawsuit aimed at forcing the Hansbroughs and Cave Hill Cemetery to exhume Billy and bury his remains elsewhere. Hertle's suit accused the Hansbroughs of "keeping and maintaining a nuisance." Cave Hill was a cemetery intended only for the use of "members of the white race." Mr. Hertle huffed that he was "greatly humiliated in thinking that the bodies of those who were near and dear to him lie near the buried dog and in the contemplation that of the probability that when he dies, his body will also be buried beside that of a dog."

Personally, I can think of far worse company--such as, say, the likes of Henry Hertle--but never mind.

Although the lawsuit argued that Cave Hill had violated its own rules by allowing the dog funeral, the defense made the point that the cemetery's charter said nothing specifically forbidding dogs to be buried there. In any case, how does one prove that a decently--and expensively--buried fox terrier constitutes a "nuisance?"

The two sides argued the matter in court for over a year. Finally, in the spring of 1907, the court ruled that Billy should be allowed to continue resting in peace. The judge ruled that plot owners should not be allowed to pick and choose who should be buried in cemeteries. Otherwise, it would prevent the burial of anyone who might be personally objectionable to any other individual. "The injury done here is to the living plaintiff, who expects to be buried in his lot at some future time. It consists in his distress of mind in contemplating his daughter's present burial and his own prospective interment in a lot adjoining that in which Billy lies buried. If this be an injury to person or property, it is too incapable of being measured to invoke action by the court. If the claim of right here asserted be permitted to control it would prevent the burial of any one -- a murderer or a suicide, for instance -- whose grave might be objectionable to neighboring lot owners.

"That matter is in control of the cemetery company. An unburied dog, either alive or dead, may be a nuisance per se, but a dead dog, well buried, as in this case, is not a nuisance per se, and can not become one." In short, if Billy's grave was all right with the cemetery company, it was all right with the judge.

Well, it wasn't all right with Henry Hertle. He filed an appeal. In December 1907, the state court of appeals agreed with his anti-canine spirit and overruled the circuit court's decision. One of the judges wrote, "If the body of a dog may find sepulcher on the lot of its owner in Cave Hill Cemetery, why might not the owner of a horse, or bull, or donkey, also bury his favorite on his therein, if his fancy should take this freakish direction? Where would or could the line be drawn if not at the body of a dog?" The tribunal ordered that Billy must be buried elsewhere.

Unfortunately, I do not know what happened after this. I presume the exhumation was carried out, but history is silent on Billy's ultimate resting place. According to Findagrave.com, Mr. and Mrs. Hansbrough are both interred in Cave Hill.

I'd like to think William or Ada managed to sneak Billy in with them.


  1. It must have been heart-rending to lose a loved one and then have to go through all of this legal nonsense. I too would like to think that Billy is resting with his loved ones.

  2. The complaint said: "Cave Hill was a cemetery intended only for the use of 'members of the white race.'" How do you determine the race of a dog? What would have happened, if his owners had been black? Suppose the dog had spots? I call this, dog racism.

  3. Mr. Henry Hertle needed to get a life....

  4. This blog is fascinating! Poor owners, court is stressful enough without it being for something so mean spirited


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