Identify of beautiful ‘Lady in Red’ remains mystery decades after red-velvet clad body unearthed along river bank
Published 1:53 pm Sunday, February 28, 2021
She was buried along a bank of the Yazoo River near Cruger, preserved by alcohol in a metal and glass coffin. Her red velvet dress, cape and buckled shoes indicated she died in the mid-1800s.
But the identity of the Lady in Red remains a mystery, some 60 years after her body was discovered.
“The unidentified woman was discovered a few days ago in a metal, glass-lined casket in a garden plot on Egypt Plantation and near the home occupied by the J. T. Thomas family,” Jane Biggers wrote in Clarion Ledger on May 2, 1969. “It was discovered by a crew of workmen operating a back hoe while digging a septic tank line.
“Persons viewing the woman, who has been described as in her twenties or thirties, dressed in red velvet, with long brown hair, estimate she has been dead at least 75 years.”
Walter Pitchford, who worked at Odd Fellows Cemetery in nearby Lexington at the time, saw her.
“She was real pretty,” Pitchford said. “Her hair was kind of black looking and long. She was a young lady.”
The lady was a mystery: She was well-dressed. The coffin she was buried in was expensive. The grave was in an area that was not occupied at the estimated time of her death. Who is she, and how did she get there?
“I remember when they found her and people were talking about it,” said Chris Hammett of Lexington. “It was the talk of the town. It’s just a mystery; who she is and where she came from.”
She was reburied in Odd Fellows Cemetery and her grave became a tourist attraction.
“People came from all over,” Pitchford said. “They wanted to know where the Lady in Red was and I’d stop mowing and show them the Lady in Red. Finally, it all died off and they stopped coming.”
Last year, oversight of the cemetery was granted to Lexington Odd Fellows Endowment, which Hammett works with. Since then, she said there has been a renewed interest in the Lady in Red. Her granddaughter, Cam Bonelli of Glencoe, Minnesota, has been digging for clues about the unknown Victorian woman.
“The casket is interesting to me, so I’m trying to trace that back,” Bonelli said. “It’s kind of an anomaly.
“It’s called a Fisk Iron Casket. When people do find these coffins they see the body is preserved perfectly, but once the glass breaks the body deteriorates rapidly.”
The caskets were popular in the mid-1800s and offered several advantages over typical wooden coffins. They allowed the body to be preserved so it could be transported long distances and still be viewed during the funeral. In the event a person died from a highly contagious disease, it allowed viewing of the body without risk it would spread the disease.
However, those features raise more questions than answers. Did she die from disease? Was she even from the area? Bonelli said the only thing that might put her on the trail to those answers would be if she could find where the coffin was purchased, and she’s not very hopeful it will happen.
“Who keeps documents that long?” Bonelli asked. “You’d have to be crazy or just really into Fisk coffins.”
Jim Thomas, part owner of Egypt Plantation and lived in the home located about 20 feet from the grave when she was found, is also looking for clues.
“I researched to find the section where the Lady in Red was found,” Thomas said. “The chain of titles goes back to 1835.
“I haven’t gotten the title work. I’ll have to hire an attorney. I’m considering it. I want to find out who she was. It’s a very big mystery to us.”
For Hammett, the Lady in Red has become more than just a mystery. Her grave has become a place where Hammett goes to talk with her, pray and leave flowers.
“Something has been pulling me to her,” Hammett said. “She was someone’s child, sister — someone’s pain and grief.
“She has no one to speak for her. She has no one to pray over her. She has no one to put flowers on her grave. I don’t want her to ever be forgotten again.”