First funeral home to use the automobiles in processions and the burial of Harry Houdini make Wm. R. Hamilton Funeral Home unique

The story of the Wm. R. Hamilton Co. Funeral Home has relevance to all of us here in Mount Clemens, as the Hamilton family purchased the Groesbeck Funeral Home at 226 Crocker Blvd. in 1979. This article will chronicle some details of the history of the Groesbeck family, but the beginnings of the tale are routed in Detroit.

Allow yourself to go back to 1855. The Civil War has not yet begun (1861-1865) and a young man named Jessie Farwell comes to Detroit from New Hampshire. Mr. Farwell, a furniture maker by trade with previous experience in the funeral business, establishes himself in partnership with Mr. Marcus Stevens and Mr. Samuel Zug, proprietors of Stevens and Zug Furniture Co. This funeral business lasted only 5 years, at which time the partnership dissolved and in 1863 Mr. Farwell joined forces with a Mr. George Latimer (undertaker) and Mr. Wm. R. Hamilton I (Superintendent of Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit).

The Wm. R. Hamilton Co. Funeral Home was located on Lafayette St. in Detroit in the late 1800’s, and it was from this location that a very notable occasions took place. Hamilton Funeral Home had the privilege to arrange for the first funeral in the United States, or some say the world, to use the automobile in procession. The year was 1910, and a prominent Detroit automotive pioneer by the name of Henry Stevens had died. Before this time, Hamilton Funeral Home used, as did all funeral homes, a team of elegant black steeds to draw the carriages to the funeral and cemetery. As a matter of fact, the hearse team was a particular pride of Wm. R. Hamilton I, as he traveled the world to find just the perfect specimens for his stable. As notable as this was, the family of Mr. Stevens desired the use of the automobile for the funeral. At the time, it was told that Mr. Hamilton had purchased a Grabowski Panel truck and was investigating the use of the automobile for funerals. An agreement was made to use the auto instead of the traditional horse drawn hearse. While the change to automobiles in lieu of horses was regarded by most with skepticism, the rest, as they say, is history, and the modern once again took the place of convention.

The second occasion of note in the history of Hamilton Funeral Home is the handing of the death of Houdini. Mr. Houdini, world famous magician, had arrived in Detroit on October 30th, 1926 to perform at the Garrick Theater. Unfortunately, two days before, on a dare to a college student in Montreal where Mr. Houdini was performing, he was injured with a strong punch to the stomach. This punch apparently damaged Mr. Houdini’s appendix. He persevered, and even with a high temperature and feeling miserable, went on with his show on the Detroit stage. Shortly after his performance, he collapsed in pain and was rushed to Grace Hospital, where he succumbed to a ruptured appendix on Oct 31, 1926 with the final words to his brother “I can not stand the pain”. Upon the death of Mr. Houdini, the Hamilton Funeral Home was called to take care of his remains and prepare him for transport via rail to the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home in New York City for visitation and funeral service.

In 1917, the funeral home moved to what was probably the best known and most fondly remembered location. It sat at the corner of Cass and Alexandrine in what is known today as the Cass Corridor of Detroit. The historical design of the building was highlighted by large double bronze doors adorning the Alexandrine side of the building, with 4 black marble figures depicting the four stages of man decorating over the door. This part of the funeral home was an addition built in 1930, and was a presage of what is now the common practice of visitations and funerals leaving the family home, and taking place in a funeral home. The chapel could seat 300, and was state of the art for its time. It was through this location that so very many notable names in Detroit history passed. Edsel Ford in 1937, Henry Ford I in 1943, and Henry Ford II in 1987. Other families of note were Kresge, Stroh, Dow, Dodge, and more.This chapel closed its doors in 1980, as Detroit itself deteriorated and left the neighborhood in a shambles.

Today, the funeral home has two locations. In 1952 the Hamiltons purchased the Bell Funeral Home in Birmingham, located at the corner of Maple and Elm, and in 1979, purchased the Groesbeck Funeral Home in Mount Clemens.

For more information, visit http://www.williamrhamilton.com/